Made me think of a couple of things...
Thing #1: When should I start adding my tutorial/onboarding?
There's always the temptation to start testing this early. Especially in the Free to Play space there is huge concern over immediate drop-off. This can be due to player confusion, lack of perceived differentiation, lack of clear aspiration, technical issues, etc.
So the usual solution is to carefully map each click or tap for the first few minutes (or longer!) of the first time user experience.
Aside from this not being very fun (not just to me, but to many people I've watched play games) this works at cross purposes of shipping a fun, polished game play experience. Why?
- First, you end up spending too much time testing and fixing and re-testing the tutorial. Time that could be better spent working on, well, making the core game play more accessible, engaging, and fun!
- Second, you end up with a herky-jerky and often non-playful method of explaining the game to a player who just wants to... wait for it... play the game! But, but... the player might not understand X, or might not complete the core loop, or might not get to the key aspirational moment that hooks him/her and compels a return session.
The thing is, it's much better to focus on making the game more approachable, usable, and fun WITHOUT having to resort to a tutorial. This means testing the experience WITHOUT a tutorial. Yeah, it means that the player might stare at a game screen and not be able to do anything or figure out what the game is about. But this is likely more a problem of how the game board and game shell are set up for a first time player, how controls are mapped, and how feedback is provided to teach players what they can and cannot do.
Set micro goals for yourself. What should players be able to do in the first 10 seconds (tell what kind of game it is, start mashing around and learning controls), minute (come up with some kind of goal to achieve), 5 minutes (make some progress and start "getting" the game), and 10 minutes (feel some accomplishment and be interested in playing on or returning for a second session).
Players will FAIL at each step of the way. And at each step you will need to tweak the game board, game pieces, controls, feedback, challenge, etc. to get the player to progress further.
And you know what? Depending on the kind of game it is you'll likely need to add a few prompts here and there. Maybe a small handful distributed across 10 minutes of play instead of 30 scripted clicks in the first minute or two.
It takes a deft hand at running the usability sessions (need to guide, but not lead, the player to find out how best to fix the game to make it more usable) and the willingness to iterate on core features.
But it makes for a much better onboarding experience.
Thing #2: Game usability lab exercise: Board games!
The Penny Arcade comic also made me reflect on an exercise I've tried a couple of times with students. I break them into small groups and give them a wide range of German-style board games (like Cartagena, Schotten-Totten, Qwirkle, etc). I give them NO instructions (or German-only instructions if I'm feeling mean).
Then I tell them to figure out how to play the game.
It's amazing how far players get in some games, and how much they struggle in others. Sure, a main determinant is how complex the games are. But it's amazing how well (or poorly) game pieces and board can teach game play.
If the core game, itself, is usable then players need to spend less time reading the instructions and can spend more time snacking, drinking, and playing.
Settlers of Catan provides a great example of onboarding with its "Quick Start" variant. The board is set up in a balanced fashion in terms of resources and player starting villages. All players are well poised to harvest wood and brick to start, so they can engage with key features (road building!) right away.
Imagine how little fun it would be for a first time player to place an opening village on an Ore/Robber vertex? So, don't let it happen!
I borrowed heavily from the Quick Start mode when I designed the onboarding for Catan! (the XBLA version). And I think we were fairly successful at bringing Catan to a new batch of players.