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Matt Miller: Tutorials

Column By Matthew Miller on May 28, 2013

Ask any veteran MMO player what the most important thing a new MMO can do to make them a lifelong customer and I am willing to bet that the answer of “a good tutorial” is far from the top of the list. It’s a “one and done” thing for most of you, you play it once, learn the controls, then play the proper game, likely never going back and giving the tutorial a second glance. A lot of work, care, and attention goes into creating the tutorial, not just for MMOs, but for most games you play, and a lot of time that work is largely ignored by the fans of the game.

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Fortunately, there are people who do not ignore the tutorial, and those are the marketing guys who view a tutorial as their best chance to make a lasting impression. With City of Heroes Freedom, we worked very closely with the marketing team to make sure that the tutorial not only was educating the player, but also showing off the features of the game that we could, prove to a potential life-long customer that this game was worth their time. As a free-to-play game, the tutorial is also a demo, and a useful one at that. For CoH we measured metrics of “at what point did players simply stop playing the tutorial?” This is known as dropoff.

Dropoff is inevitable in a tutorial. The reasons may not be exactly clear either, which can lead to a lot of arguments between developers and marketing. “What are you doing in the first minute that is causing this staggering amount of players to stop playing?” The answer was probably not the developer’s fault, there could have been a multitude of reasons: the game doesn’t run well on their machine, the graphics are not what they were expecting, they were expecting a different game experience than the MMO was presenting in the outset, etc.

We were able to get good data from the dropoff as well. In City of Heroes Freedom, we put a simple “jump over this chasm” task as the second thing you did, after learning how to move. We suspected this was going to be a problem point ever since we demoed the game at San Diego ComicCon, and watched player after player fail to make the leap and fall to the bottom of the chasm and not work their way out of it. And even though we improved it significantly, it was still a problem upon release.

Then there is the story. As a developer you want to make sure that the story being told in your tutorial sets the stage for the rest of the game, but you must realize that you are also teaching the core concepts of the game at this point. Just because the story should dictate that the final fight of the tutorial use a completely different method of combat than everything the player has been taught to this point, doesn’t mean it should. In this case you would really break the flow at this point to take the time to educate the player on how to do the new combat, all for the sake of story. Not worth it.

You also need to teach as much as possible, while simultaneously teaching as little as possible. It’s a balancing act. You want to ensure the player knows how to play your game, while at the same time you don’t want the tutorial to feel like a lecture where you should be taking notes because you never know what’s going to be “on the test”. (The test in this case being the rest of your game experience). The best way we do this is to have a LOT of people play the tutorial, and gather all the data. If more than two people are scratching their head at a certain point, then we know we need to go in and improve it.

An excellent remedy to this is to expand your tutorial into the actual game itself. If you have a vital concept that the player is going to need to know eventually, don’t throw a pop-up that doesn’t have anything to do with anything they are doing at the moment. Wait until they actually encounter that for the first time in play, and then teach them how to do it. For Going Rogue, we established a specific 20 level story arc to teach you advanced concepts in the game for new players to get a better feel.

Veteran players are a good, and terrible, source for feedback on new tutorials. They are great in elaborating that the tutorial is doing its job as a marketing tool: does it show off the features of the game in a positive light? Then again they are terrible for actually realizing if the tutorial is giving them useful information that a new player needs to play. The game controls and mechanics are second nature to them, so they might not even notice that the tutorial fails to teach the player how to perform a basic attack, for instance.

So there are my thoughts on Tutorials, and in specifics those in MMOs. What MMO Tutorial do you feel hit the nail on the head in terms of teaching, story, and showing off what the game can do? Which tutorial missed the mark, and what could they have done to make it better? I’d also be interested in knowing if you ever quit a game during the tutorial and why? What prompted the decision then and there that the game just wasn’t for you?


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Matt Miller
In this bi-weekly column, Matt "Formerly Known as Positron" Miller of City of Heroes fame seeks to clue MMO gamers in on the minds of developers, their decisions, and what it's like to craft these massive games.
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