I recently ran across a mobile game called Blek. It’s a paid app so I avoided it stupidly until I saw it show up on a few “Top 10” lists across the internet. So I paid my 99 cents and jumped in.
The game didn’t really seem like much: the opening screen was just a black circle and a smaller blue circle with a hand drawing a half-circle shape. Weird. No instructions, no menus, no flashy splash logo. So I touched the circles, but still nothing.
Finally, after “clicking” around the screen, I swiped my finger and the game opened up. The sketchy black line I had drawn multiplied over and over again, bouncing off the wall and, fortunately, colliding with the blue circle. That was it, tutorial over.
“It’s not one person’s job to figure out how to make tutorials engaging and satisfying.”
As I got over the initial shock of there being no real introduction to the game (or at least, no introduction in the tutorial-heavy sense that we’re used to today), I realized that I really loved how the game taught me its mechanics.
Even though this was an extremely simple example of what I’m talking about, it reminded me of a video I had once seen of someone describing how the opening stage of Mega Man X was brilliant because it forced you to learn the game as you played without someone/something telling you how to use the controls or how the mechanics worked.
One part in particular stuck out to me and that was when you have to defeat the first mini-boss, causing the ground to collapse beneath you. You’re then forced to figure out how to get out of a pit using nothing but the buttons on your SNES controller: no ropes, no ladders, nothing obvious to let you know how to get out.
Ten-year-old me would have probably spent a good half-hour figuring what to do here. I would have known that it wasn’t like the game wanted me to avoid falling down the pit, but it really isn’t obvious how to get out. In the linked video, the person playing obviously already knew that you have to wall-jump to get out, but to a newbie that wouldn’t have been too clear, making learning the mechanics of the game all the more satisfying when you actually figure them out.
Even though I can’t find the video that described why this stage was so awesome (link me if you can find it!), I distinctly remember the comments section being full of “yeah, well how could we do this in a 3D FPS?” Despite there being no response from the author, I still think there is an answer to that question: you just do it.
“You have to engage with the game if you want the game to engage you.”
What I mean is that it’s not one person’s job to figure out how to make tutorials engaging and satisfying. It’s the job of every developer to think about how to avoid having the player groan when they see the UI in a new game flash “press X to jump”. Yes. We know. We’ve tried every button by this point. We knew X was jump like twelve minutes ago.
In a way, games like Blek do a good job of respecting the player. Even though it’s a mobile game (and one that did quite well on the app store charts for a while), it doesn’t expect you to be an attention-deficient zombie. You have to engage with the game if you want the game to engage you, if that makes sense. And, in turn, that give-and-take of engagement will make for a more satisfying all-around experience.