Theory: Provide Guidance during Organic Tutorials

As a game designer—and an avid game player as well—I love what I call “organic tutorials:” games that allow players to learn how to play by exploring in a safe space. However, I’ve found that the appeal of this sort of tutorial is not universal; some players find them confusing and frustrating. It’s important, therefore, to inject enough guidance into the organic mold to bring those players up to speed.

Many games use organic tutorials, but the first example I ran into—and, I feel, still one of the best examples period—is the first level of Flower. In Flower the player controls a gust of wind. The goal is to use the wind to collect flower petals. Collecting certain petals makes things happen—say, a wind turbine starts turning. Eventually the player achieves all the goals and moves on to the next level.

The trick is that the game doesn’t explicitly state that the player should collect petals, or that certain petals are special, or that finding all the special flowers causes the player to progress. Players figure those things out through observation and experiment. Even learning to move is a process of exploration: the game gives only brief and fragmentary guidance as to how the controls work.

I played Flower’s first level, which is effectively an extended organic tutorial, and was astonished. No, more than that: I was moved. It was such a pure, marvelous experience. I couldn’t wait to share it with others.

So, I handed the controller to a scientist. This is someone with experience programming supercomputers. Technology is a part of this person’s day-to-day life and work.

The scientist found Flower completely mystifying.

I’ve had that experience several times since, with Flower and with other games that use organic tutorials. The problem in every case is that while the technology is fine—the person is always conversant with the keyboard or controller—the approach an organic tutorial requires is completely alien. Most people have always learned games by getting step-by-step instructions, from a manual or another player or the game itself, before they begin. Dropped into a game without those instructions, their instinct is not to explore. It is to wait.

On reflection, that’s a completely predictable response. I approached Flower with the idea that I was going to see what the game was about. That’s a very game designer way to think about what was happening. People who engage with games in a different way will expect to know what the goals are and what tools are at hand to achieve them before they begin. By not providing those tools, organic tutorials send the signal that it is not yet time to start playing!

To be clear, players who don’t respond positively to organic tutorials are not bad at games. We’ve known for years that different classroom students learn best in different ways. None of those ways are necessarily better, and in the same way no approach to learning games is better. The question is, acknowledging that some players will learn effectively from an organic tutorial and others won’t, how does one get the immersive experience of an organic tutorial without leaving lots of players in the cold?

The key is to give just enough information to put players on the intended course. Even brief, minimal instructions are enough to signal that the player should start doing things. Once the player is over that initial hurdle, learning-through-exploration can kick in.

An excellent recent example can be found in Elegy for a Dead World. Elegy begins with the player floating in space. There’s a star field in the background, but otherwise there’s no clear statement as to what the player should be doing.

If the player likes organic tutorials, he or she might start pushing the arrow keys. Doing that will move the player around, and eventually one of the game’s “portals”—windows to the dead worlds in question—will come into view. Hitting the enter key (a natural enough way to try to interact) will bring up a menu of story options, and off the player goes.

If the player is uncertain how to proceed and waits for a few seconds, a message appears at the bottom of the screen indicating that the arrows or WASD keys can be used to move. Once the player reaches a portal, waiting will generate a prompt that the enter key will open the portal.

That’s all Elegy does, but it’s enough. Players who like exploring can do so without nudges that they might resent. Players who hold off until the instructions have been read will get enough information to proceed. Everyone ends up playing the game.

Good organic tutorials are interesting, get players involved right away, introduce concepts in a measured fashion, and allow players to learn at their own pace. However, they’re not for everyone any more than just studying from a textbook or just doing hands-on projects is best for every student. Teachers know that mixing approaches helps students learn; mixing some instruction into an organic tutorial will have the same effect for players.

Recent Innovative Board Games?

Elegy for a Dead World is a fascinating game, one that mixes creative writing with some fundamentals of CRPG play. It’s challenging, not in the game sense of “it’s hard to get to the ending” but in the artistic sense of making one think. By doing something completely different from what most video games do it engaged a part of my brain that I don’t expect video games to interact with.

It also made me reflect on how long it’s been since I played a board game with that kind of power. Over the past year or so I’ve played many excellent board games, but none since Concept have pushed the boundaries of my thinking about how board games work and what they can do.

Are these games out there, and I’ve just missed them? If you have suggestions leave them in the comments, or drop me a line at @lawofgamedesign. The weirder the better!