Tutorials – Instructing the User

While building the tutorial level for SpringFling, I started thinking about how different games choose to teach the user the basic mechanics of a game. I’m not talking about a beginning cutscene that sets up the backstory or character development, but the presentation of the controls and navigation through the game world. Some games choose to present the user with a linear sequence of static screens that present text instructions, possibly with visual diagrams to assist in comprehension. This seems all well and good but if one thing’s for sure, it’s that users rarely read text that is presented to them, especially if it stands in the way of completing a goal or getting to the ‘interesting’ part of something. Users end up skimming or blindly skipping through instructions, with a higher chance of doing so if the instructions last for more than three pages. Also, some instructions go so far past the Powerpoint 8×8 rule (8 bullets per slide, 8 words per bullet) that a wall of text is thrown at the user, forcing them to bear through the reading or skip ahead and hope they don’t get stuck.

For this reason I chose to do things a bit differently for the tutorial level of SpringFling. The plan is to create an interactive tutorial where the player never loses input control and is presented with both snippets of information (tips) and direct instruction (tasks). For example, the first step will be to instruct the user how to move their finger on the screen to compress the spring and aim in the proper direction to land in a certain designated destination. The level will then allow the player to try as many times as necessary to complete this task and upon completion, display positive feedback of the task completion and move onto the next task. This can be easily accomplished by using trigger volumes to detect the spring’s location and whether the user has completed the task. This interactive tutorial idea isn’t exactly new but especially on the iPhone, I’ve seen far too many games present game mechanics in a less than optimal way or in no way at all.

One other requirement is to be able to revisit the instructions or tutorial at any time without having to restart your game progress completely. Keeping this in mind, the tutorial level in SpringFling will be easily available from the level select menu in case the player wishes to run through it a second time to refresh their memory or remember how to, for example, apply jetpack boost to the player. The tutorial will be exitable at all times and quick to complete for someone well versed in the game, but with enough depth to properly show a beginner player how to navigate the game properly.

I’m always interested by games that present information in the game world without having to use a UI element or HUD element to display the information. An example of this is Rolando’s unique ‘hey finger’ method of addressing the user, without completely breaking the fourth wall and staying in character. You Have To Burn The Rope also displays its hilariously obvious game information on the ground and walls as you walk through the initial stages of the game. Many other games use the signpost method of showing information, although that usually triggers a UI popup to properly display the text without losing legibility by presenting it solely on a 3d sign. Edge for the iPhone also uses the very intuitive method of showing a phantom cube playing out a looping action to show the player the intended path or move to complete. It seems that in-game tutorials have really picked up in the recent past as developers realize the multitude of options that are available from interactively educating the player. (Thanks to Josh Dick for helping to come up with these examples.)

Mike Minotti seems to disagree with all of this. In a blogpost entitled I Hate Tutorials, Mike talks about why he dislikes many aspects of tutorials. He makes some valid points that ‘expert’ players are sometimes treated condescendingly in tutorials, but to say that all tutorials should be skipped because he ‘can figure out any control scheme in no time’ doesn’t mean that the rest of us wouldn’t like to progress through an intelligent well-made tutorial that quickly gets across the main ideas without boring or overworking the player with unneeded drills. He goes on to say “Whatever you do, don’t make me go through a tutorial level”. I agree that gamers have been burned in the past with some tutorials that take up too much of the players time or catering to the less experienced player but a viable solution would be to make the system adapt to how well you are completing the goals. This should keep players of all levels happy and what I plan on doing for the iPhone game.

What do you think about in-game tutorials and instructions? Should they be banned and burned at the stake? Should they be optional, manditory, adaptive, linear, static, or filled with silly hats? Voice your opinion.


SpringFling – Menus and Updates

Here’s the menu I’ve come up with for SpringFling. I’m using simple planes and lerps to do all of the animation. The spring’s eye movement and sun movement is all programmatic. I initially tried animating nodes in Maya but the performance hit was a bit too much for the iPhone.

As you can see from the credits screen, my good friends Josh and Brad will be composing *custom* music for the entire game! This should really add to the professionalism and quality of the overall product.

In addition, you can see that player progress is being properly tracked, as seen by the locking status in the level select menu. This is accomplished through the PlayerPrefs functionality in Unity. They make it extremely simple to save data to the phone/computer by using the following code:

//Once a level has been completed, store the level
PlayerPrefs.SetInt("Level", 2);

//Retrieve the current level

Anywho, check out the video of the menu system in action. Any suggestions?

And of course the Quicktime version: Menu video

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Great games – Silly designs

It’s no secret I’m a big fan of developers who take a chance with unorthodox designs. This brings me to my latest infatuation with Popcap’s Plants vs. Zombies. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve only played a couple of hours of the game so far but I’ve also been watching my roommate play (and beat) the entire game over my shoulder for the past few weeks. The high concept is simple – Tower defense with flowers on defense and zombies on the offense. If you’ve never heard of the game, it sounds like it either suffers from a bad Japanese to English translation or it’s plain old crazy. It turns out it’s the latter and it also happens to be great fun. Addicting gameplay, great character design, and lots of replay value through minigames make this a unique departure from classic tower defense games. But seriously, take a look at the wall-nut, I dare you not to laugh.

Why is it that controlling a clumsy minotaur in a china shop while trying to retrieve tea cups for customers is so addicting? It’s not just me, as you can see from Blurst.com’s rising popularity. With games like Raptor Copter, Jetpack Brontosaurus, Off-Road Velociraptor Safari, and Minotaur China shop, the names and pitches are some of the strangest out there.

There’s something inherently juvenile about hearing high concepts that are extremely tongue in cheek or even outright based on a pun. (SpringFling anyone?) Frequently through college, game development class assignments were to write a GDD or develop a game idea of some sort. Every time, one or more groups would come up with an idea purely based on the fact that it could get a laugh. With a reckless disregard or forethought of basic elements of gameplay, balance, playability, the team would go forward with a silly idea. Most if not all of these failed before getting too far from the starting gate. Maybe it’s due to a lack of preparation or commitment but it seems both Popcap and Flashbang Studios are heavily invested in their silly ideas and can really pull off a quality game.

Blurst also has an inventive monetization scheme, but that’s the subject for another post. I forsee much more popularity in the future for them, provided the ingenuity and experimental gameplay remains with each new release. I have to say, I was a bit disappointed by Flashbang’s departure from crazy with Paper Moon, so hopefully we’ll get some more creativity/weirdness from Flashbang in the future. Possibly more prehistoric creatures as protagonists? I won’t complain.

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