You have spawned in the biggest game ever: life.
You spawned probably in some clinic, all covered up in blood and slime, and ready to play. But you knew nothing. Your XP level was 0, zip, nada. And you jumped in the game because you had no other choice. The first few months were basically spent learning how to eat, breathe, cry. You gained XP when you cried your first time, you got XP when you realized that by crying you could get things done. You got XP the first time you sat on your own, stoop up, walked, talked, went to school, made friends, went to college, graduated, got your first job, got your first boyfriend or girlfriend... you get the idea.
By now you probably are a very experienced player, having been playing for years, you've leveled up and learned more than the basics, although there is still more to learn. But, how did you do it? How on earth could you find it in you to learn all this without noticing that you were learning it? This all happened because life has a very well designed First Time User Experience.
First Time User What?
Life is a big, big game with a pretty neat First Time User Experience. You went through many tutorials, without even knowing you were going through them. Listening to other people speak, by instance, was your tutorial for learning how to speak.
Every game a player plays feels at first like being born in that game, weather it's Tic Tac Toe, or Assasin's Creed, a player is born once he spawns in the game, and now he needs to understand the game world that the Designer carefully crafted for him in order to keep playing. This is one of the crucial moments in Gameplay, a player can just walk away if the learning pace is too tedious, or too fast, or too slow, or he can just keep playing if what the Designer shows him keeps him busy.
The First Time User Experience is every event generated by the interaction between the game and the player in which the player is getting over the initial friction of the unknown. He learns the basics, he knows what your game is about, and he gets ready for more lessons during gameplay.
There are many techniques one can use to design a First Time User Experience that is just about the right length, just about the right amount of information and just about invisible. Sylvester Tynan, in his book: "Designing Games: A Guide to Engineering Experiences" says that the best First Time User Experience is invisible, the player doesn't even know that he's learning how to play. and yet he is!
Just like your average Joe starts his life by sitting up, then crawling, then walking and finally running, your average player goes through learn and master stages throughout the complete game experience. A game is as deep as the amount of learning a player can take from it.
When I first started playing chess, I was faced with the biggest challenge of all: Learning how to move each piece. Upon mastering the piece-moving phase, I wanted to learn how each piece could eat other pieces. After that I passed onto playing games with my dad, understanding the concept of check mate, crowning, initial piece set up, and being crushed each and every single time. But there came the day when my dad was no match for me and I needed to seek other people to play against, that is when I enrolled on a Chess Club (like all the cool kids at the time, of course), and I learned about tactics, strategies, game endings, general mating configuration, openings, and so on.
To this day, I'm still learning chess, there's always new problems, new games, new openings, new oponents, and I've been in the final mastering and polishing phase for the last ten years of my life, and I will be in this learning stage during the rest of it, because chess is a limitlessly deep game, you can always get better and you can always learn.
On the other hand, when I was a small child I started to play Tic Tac Toe, first I understood the game rules, then I played with my sister and after I found a consistent pattern to beat her, she found a consistent pattern to draw the game every time. After this, I tried playing with many other people but the outcome was still the same: draw, draw, draw. The game could give us no more, we could no longer learn from it. Tic Tac Toe is a shallow game because the amount of lessons one can take from it have a very short lifespan.
Each game has its very own Learnin Stages, the deeper the game is, the more learning stages it has, our job is to know which learning stages do we want the player to learn at which moment in the game and to provide them with the correct mechanisms for learning them. You don't want to give away all your secrets in the First Time User Experience, but you do want to give enough information to keep the player interested.
The First User Un-Experience
It is common for some games to throw a manual in the player's face. In the elden days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and played 8 bit console games, these games came with a manual, but they player could either choose to read it, or ignore it and play, most players didn't have the option to play the game right away after buying it, so, out of pure excitement, they would read the manual, however when comfronted with the possibility of actually playing the game, they would toss the manual aside and start playing.
This leads us to a very valuable lesson that some people often forget: Players like to play. They don't like to read before they play, they don't like to have to listen to infinite instructions, they just want to play, and the best way to teach a player how to play is by letting them play.
So if a player has limited time to play a game, and when opening the game he finds a written manual onscreen that he can't skip, the normal reaction would be to trade games for one that he already likes and knows how to play, and stop playing your game.
Having said this, some times tutorials in the form of manuals are inevitable, specially for games like RPGs, for instance Final Fantasy VIII had a written tutorial, and it is a very beloved and successful game. So, was I lying to you? How did they manage? Here's a few tips to throw in the Designer's mind if he is considering an instruction manual for the player's First Time User Experience.
- Always give your player a skip button. This is most convenient, it will suit both your impatient player and your patient one, let the impatient go ahead and skip the instructions and bang his character's head on the game walls if he wishes while pressing all the buttons and learning.
- Always leave the manual with the basics accessible somewhere. If you make your manual skippable, leave it accesible somewhere else so that your player can go back and read it if he finds himself lost.
- Don't overdo it. Don't provide more explanation than necessary, you can add funny and/or narrative tints to your manuals (this often works), but don't make your player read the character's mother in law's sister's story if it is not relevant to how to make a punch combo when teaching your player said combo.
- Know your timing. Introduce your manual when the narrative, or the mechanics allow it, don't throw it all there in the beginning unless you want your player to skip it all with a heavy headache. If you are making a game that has many weapons introduced over time, provide each weapon's usability description when each weapon appears. A good example of this is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, they provide a one paragraph explanation on how to use each item when each item is found.
- Know your player. I can't stress this point enough: know your player. If you are aiming at a casual mobile target, those guys who play for bus fun, don't make them read extensive tutorial, but if you are aiming for a more hard core target of RPG gamers, maybe they have the patience to go through it all.
First Time User Mario-Experience
I like to call the immersive playable-only First Time User Experience, the Mario Experience. think about it, when the player first plays Super Mario Bros, he faces himself in front of a pretty simple controler, with just a few buttons, he can easily understand what the button A and the d-pad do in seconds. He starts the level within sight of a Question Block and an enemy, a Goomba. The game is timed so that when Mario jumps to hit the box, he falls down and kills Goomba, popping an item out of the box. This is all pretty standard, but it seems intentional. The Designer is actually teaching the player how to play:
- Hitting the shiny question block is logical, so the player intuitively knows that something will happen when that block is hit. He hits the first one, gets a coin, and goes on to hit the second one. The player learns that by jumping, he can hit shiny blocks and things will come out of them.
- Upon jumping to hit that second Question Block he can learn that the enemies die when jumped on, or that Mario dies when hit by enemies. This is because the game is timed so that when Mario hits the second block, the Goomba will be waiting for the sweet kiss of death at Mario's feet.
- If Mario successfully jumps over poor Goomba, the player will realize what the mushroom that popped out of the interrogation block does, because the mushroom will hit a wall and get back to him!
Simply put: this is brilliant.
Just by playing, the player knows all he needs to know in the first 15 seconds of gameplay. It's true that most games today are not as straighforward as Mario and have many more controls, but the core mechanics are ussually simple, and normally you don't want to know your player to know everything in the tutorial or first time user experience.
Leaving some mistery to be discovered later on means leaving the player with the possibility to be surprised, and that usually is a good thing. For instance, in Mario, they don't tell you what the flower does, they don't say that you will have to beat bowser in the castle by passing below him just in the right moment, they don't say that you can run faster by pressing B, they don't say that you can jump ahead and skip levels, or that you can find more lives out of thin air. The game is deeper than the player thought it would be during the first five minutes, and that is all right.
Is there another option? Of course there is: The third way
Just like about everything in life, your First Time User Experience can be gray, you don't need to be completely black or completely white. You can both have a playable First Time User Experience and show manuals where you think the player may need an extra hand.
A smartly executed First Time User Experience that combines both manuals and gameplay to teach the basics is The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo again! These guys are really very good at doing First Time User Experiences, so I'd suggest studying their games for a starting point).
In The Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time, the payer is not prompted a pop up manual for absolutely everything, the player learns how to walk on his own, how to auto jump on his own, how to break vases on his own, ... if he wishes, he can talk to strangers and read watever they tell him, these things more often than not contain instruction for mechanics, and whenever Link has a new shiny weapon, a short manual will pop up to tell you how to use it (with different color words with the most important information for those who don't like reading. In the screen there are also very helpful icons shaped and colored like the game controller buttons that will prompt the player to press these buttons by having onscreen text of what they do under special circumstances.
So basically what they do is:
- Leave the obvious mechanics (like walking) and the cool surprises (like breaking vases) to the player for discovery.
- Give the player an option to learn the more coplex mechanics (like Z targetting, or automatic jumping) by talking to strangers.
- Give the player short manuals with the core weapon mecanics (which appear when each weapon is unlocked).
- Use a button icon in the right moments for the player to press, so that he can figure out what this does.
Wrapping it up
- A player has to learn the basics of a game when he first spawns in that game, if the pacing is too fast he may feel overwhelmed and quit, if the pacing is too slow, he may feel bored and quit.
- A game is as deep as the lessons it can offer.
- Don't give all the information away, give just the basics for the player to discover.
- Use a manual booklet approach just if necessary, and don't overdo it.
- Players like to play, so teach them by playing if you can, think about the First Time User Mario-Experience.
- You can always combine a playable approach with a manual booklet approach if what you have to teach is more complex.