It’s an age-old question, but really…are tutorials all that important to a successful game or franchise?
I can understand why tutorials can be agonized over repeatedly – whether you are a new studio or just pushing out an inventive new IP, players need to know how they play your game. If you have this radical new way of controlling your troops in a third-person shooter or a massively intricate and weighty combat style that requires delicate and precise timing in your new game, you want players to be able to both understand and experience your systems. Equally, if you’re a long-running franchise and you change a few major features or switch up the control scheme a little, people need to know. But can’t we at least be interesting about it? Or I’d rather just learn myself.
As much as it’s more or less classic cliche to defer to Dark Souls or another of From Software’s seminal titles to discuss the importance (or lack of importance) when it comes to a tutorial discussion, I’m going to do it anyway. The entire ‘Souls’ franchise is notorious for having relatively poor tutorials, introducing players to the hard-as-nails gameplay through a trial by fire. Naturally, the hardcorest of the fans will become outraged at any critique of their beloved franchise – “THE LACK OF TUTORIAL IS A PART OF THE EXPERIENCE!”
I’m certainly inclined to agree – I’m also a fan of From’s work, and the self-discovery that their empty tutorial levels certainly add to the terribly bleak atmosphere of the ravaged worlds they’ve created. Heck, the team behind Dark Souls II wanted to make it more accessible to players but still wanted to maintain the difficulty, and look how that ended up… It ended up as an okay game, just not on the level of the first.
I think so many of us forget the amount of times we used to play games without even looking at the controls. Generally, the control sticks move your camera and character, trigger buttons fire, X will pick stuff up or swap loadouts and so on. Personally, I think tutorials are becoming washed up because controls are becoming standard and ideas are less likely to be experimented with.
The point being here is, yes, a tutorial might be important to making a game good, but how many games do you know these days that explicitly spell out what they want you to do? Most games will at least attempt to gloss over their tutorials by thinly veiling them with some narrative exposition or something. Outside of say, Call of Duty, no one has been creating a traditional tutorial level for several years. Frankly, I think tutorials aren’t important because they aren’t relevant anymore – to get the players invested but still teach them how to play you need to spin the gameplay in another direction.
No one noticed that the opening levels with Franklin in Grand Theft Auto V were tutorials. When you were chasing down Lamar across Los Santos in boosted sports cars or getting wrapped up in his gang warfare and shooting your way out, were you complaining about the little tool-tips and hints peppering the screen? What about the opening heist up in North Yankton where you learn about swapping between the three protagonists on the fly? Or how the heists will likely play out? Although they were teaching you how to play, they were spun as good missions not just “tutorial fodder.” If they’re well disguised, you can get around the fact that 99% of tutorials are boring as heck.
Ultimately I think the main thing we have to do with tutorials is not try and perfect them and make them super engaging because they simply don’t need to be – if you make sure your game and narrative are interesting enough, people can put up with the occasional dodgy mission or explanation of “ooh, Y swaps your weapon, don’tcha know!”