My brother’s favorite board game is Mage Knight, a spectacularly intricate Vlaada Chvatil creation. I think it took him three hours to teach me, and he’s good at teaching board games. (If you want to learn Agricola in five minutes, I refer you to my brother.)
My sister-in-law enjoys board games, but she has limited patience with learning them. Her standard rule is that she has to be playing within five minutes of setting up the game. My brother’s an amazing teacher, but I suspect they’ve never played Mage Knight together.
For every person like my brother, there are many more like my sister-in-law, and the ratio is even farther skewed in the digital world.
Players hate tutorials.
But before you can play a game, you have to understand how to play.
The perfect tutorial
The perfect tutorial doesn’t look like a tutorial, or a manual, or a help file. It looks like you’re already playing the game.
Three graphical games that excel at this:
In all cases, the tutorials are seamlessly integrated with gameplay. (In particular, Portal can be described as one giant tutorial.)
All three are well worth playing if you’re studying tutorial design. Some related resources:
- Plants vs. Zombies: Check out George Fan’s insightful GDC talk “How I Got My Mom to Play Through Plants Vs. Zombies”.
- Portal: Play with the developer commentary on, or view the extracted developer commentary on YouTube. (For context, it’s best if you’ve already played Portal.)
- Dragon Box Algebra 5+: I don’t have a developer resource for this one, but you can watch the first few levels in this YouTube video series. In particular, notice how rarely the tutorial uses text. This is important for their audience, as a 5-year-old’s reading comprehension may vary greatly, and it has the side benefit of reducing localization costs.
…isn’t necessary in choice-based IF
Why are so many game authors using Twine? In part, it’s because Twine makes game creation easy, but it’s also because Twine games are easy to play. Instead of teaching a new interface, Twine relies on a well-understood interface (the hyperlink). It’s still possible to make a mechanically confusing Twine game, but authors have to go out of their way to do so.
For the most part, Twine games don’t need a tutorial.
…and is extremely difficult in parser IF
Among some parser IF veterans, there’s a common misunderstanding that parser game mechanics are easy to learn. I regret to say it isn’t so. The learning curve for parser IF isn’t Dwarf Fortress steep (official motto: “Losing is fun!”), but it’s pretty steep.
The parser game illusion is one of infinite choice. But in practice, the options available to the player are tightly circumscribed by convention, by the game engine, and by authorial choice.
Furthermore, it isn’t enough for the player to know what to do next. The player also has to phrase it in one of the limited ways that the parser can process.
> examine bucket
> get bucket
> what does the bucket look like
> I want to take the bucket
> what am I supposed to do now
This is not intuitive. As a result, most parser games self-select for an audience that already knows how to play parser games. And as a result of the audience self-selection, the majority of games are written for an audience that already understands parser games. It’s an ongoing cycle.
This problem hasn’t gone unexamined. In particular, Emily Short, Aaron Reed, and Andrew Plotkin have spent significant time on the problem of making parser IF accessible to new players.
- Bronze, by Emily Short
- Floatpoint, by Emily Short
- The Dreamhold, by Andrew Plotkin
- Hadean Lands, by Andrew Plotkin
- Blue Lacuna, by Aaron Reed
Key external documentation for new players:
- The IF-for-beginners card (conveniently printable!) by Andrew Plotkin
- A Beginner’s Guide to Interactive Fiction, by Stephen Granade and Emily Short
There are also several Inform 7 extensions aimed at helping new players, most notably Player Experience Upgrade by Aaron Reed (partially outdated in the current version of Inform 7) and Basic Help Menu by Emily Short (built into Inform 7 as of the latest version).
Can we do better?
Interactive fiction has a huge audience right now. Many members of that audience are willing to pay for games, and the mainstream games press is paying an unusual amount of attention. Examples include not only various Twine games, but also 80 Days, Lifeline, Fallen London, and everything from Choice of Games, among many other examples.
If parser IF is going to find a larger audience, now is the time. Hadean Lands (recently Greenlit on Steam!) proves that it’s possible to create commercially viable parser games, but it’s not reasonable to expect one game to drive a renaissance.
What’s the next step to increasing the parser IF audience size? Flattening the learning curve.
Consider it a design challenge. Can you create something as seamless as the Portal tutorial? Can you improve on the Bronze tutorial, or the Dreamhold tutorial? Can you design – reinvent! – a parser tutorial that’s more intuitive, less obvious, more streamlined, and more fun?
Honestly, I don’t know if it can be done. I have incredible respect for the three authors above, and there’s a certain temptation to say “if that’s what they produced, then nothing better is possible.”
But if none of us try, then none of us will succeed. And then this opportunity will pass us collectively by.
I’m going to give it some thought. I hope you will too.