December 26, 2008

An easy tutorial can ruin your difficulty curve

I've been playing the new Prince of Persia, and it's a huge success in many ways: The visual style is beautiful, the level design is amazing, the puzzles are just challenging enough, the death penalty is perfect, the characters are likeable. I even like hitting the interact button on the princess over and over, just to hear the little bits of banter between her and the prince.

The combat, though, is becoming really frustrating. At first, I thought it was just bad combat design. But now there are videos on youtube of people stringing together great combos, while every fight is taking me ten minutes or longer to whittle down their health:

After seeing this, I realized that there's a good system there, the problem is that I just don't understand how to use it. I never learned how to use the counter system properly, but now I'm 2/3 through the game, where that knowledge seems to be required to advance.

Require understanding of mechanics early

I played the tutorial at the beginning of the game, but I don't think it ever required me to specifically counter an attack, or if it did it let me squeak by with just countering one attack by luck.

In a game that's about countering and stringing together combos, the tutorial should have specifically required me to counter 5 attacks in a row before continuing, and to build up a long combo against an easy enemy.

Because the tutorial and first few bosses let me win without playing well, I find myself completely stuck in the endgame, without the necessary skills to succeed, and no way to learn them in a safe environment.

Mechanics can be too hard; tutorials can't

Don't be afraid to require players to master each isolated element of your game early on. It's important to require a player to learn the basic mechanics of your game, under controlled circumstances, before completing the tutorial. If a player can't counter 5 times in a row against an enemy that's not a threat, then you'll just find out right away that the gameplay mechanic is simply too hard.

You may encounter some players who just hate a particular game mechanic and no longer want to play your game, but it's much better for them to find that out now than 12 hours in.

Your game can be very difficult, but that difficulty should come from complex interactions between mechanics, not from an individual mechanic itself. Think of playing guitar: A music teacher will never let a student learn how to play a chord before that student has learned how to hold their instrument correctly. Good technique isn't necessary at all to play a very slow song with only one chord, but you don't want to wait to learn good technique until you're playing more difficult music and you've already developed lots of bad habits.

Make tutorials skippable, but replayable

For players who are masters at a game genre or replaying the game, it's important to let people skip the tutorial. Just make sure they can come back to it at any time, if they realize they're in over their head. Maybe even have the game watch for signs of a confused player, and remind them that they can revisit the tutorial. If your game is really slick, you can actually pepper in some easy teaching enemies and some tutorial text into the next fight, just to remind the player of the skills that they're missing.

It's certainly fine to make a gameplay element harder and harder as the game progresses, such as requiring quicker reflexes to counter or string combos together. But don't think you're doing your players any favors by "saving" them from learning the basic techniques that you'll later be requiring to move forward in the game.

Tutorials don't need to be early

If you really can't bring yourself to make the initial tutorial for your game a little more comprehensive, shake up your assumptions about when tutorials have to take place. People assume they need to only happen at the beginning of a game, but they can be placed wherever they give the player maximum benefit and minimal intimidation.

If blocking and countering don't become important until later in the game, then don't worry about teaching it in the first five minutes. But when you do decide to teach it, make sure players are actually required to learn it properly before you let them continue!


Eolirin said...

I recently repurchased (and replayed) Psychonauts (it was two bucks on Steam, and the convenience of being able to download it whenever I need to rather than hunt for discs was well worth it) and while it is a delightful game, it falls prey to something somewhat similar to this in it's final stage.

While there isn't much in the way of explicit tutorial, many of the early levels effectively act to smoothly train the skills you'll be using for the rest of the game. Then you get to the last set of stages and you end up being thrown into timed sequences where new tasks are introduced and you have small margins for making mistakes with them. It doesn't punish you too severely for this, but you are forced to repeat either the entire sequence or part of the sequence every time you slip up while trying to master those new permutations.

On reflection, none of the tasks are actually that hard, it's primarily the combination of time pressure and lack of experience with what's being required that does it. Having gone through it once, it would be relatively easy to do so again, and while the potential for failure would be higher than the rest of the game, which is pretty easy over all, there's nothing there that's controller smashingly hard.

Fortunately, it was one of only two flaws in an otherwise brilliant game (the poison gas releasing rats being a much more minor nuisance, but still an incredibly frustrating enemy design)

Mike Darga said...

Yeah, I never finished the last level of that game either.

Eolirin said...

You really should go back and try to beat it then, at some point anyway. Things are crazy busy for you right now I'm sure. Congrats on launch by the way. :)

I'm also really impressed by how well the game has aged. It still looks really good for something that came out in 2005. Some of the levels are actually a lot more visually arresting than recent games even. I think there's an article about ageless aesthetic in there somewhere, honestly. :)

Mike Darga said...

Yeah, there's really something to be said for strong art direction like that. WoW, Psychonauts, Beyond Good and Evil, Windwaker, these games all still look pretty great.

TF2 isn't very old yet, but it's going to look great for years and years to come.

David said...

Batman Arkham Asylum had the same thing. I could beat guys fairly easily, but I wasn't able to pull together huge combos.

If the tutorial would have went into more detail of how to pull off the moves I'm sure I would have picked it up much better.

As it was though, I didn't care to put in the effort and deal with the frustrations. I still beat the game though...

Simon Strange said...

Unfortunately, the somewhat clever design of the combat system made it impossible to teach these sort of combos early on.

PoP is all about gaining 4 magical abilities - which allow you to interact with the magical wallplates scattered around the levels. But each ability ALSO allows you to use a new button in your combos.

The game prides itself on being non-linear, so you can gain these 4 abilities in any order. But this means that any given combo might not be available until nearly the end of the game. Countering was one of these abilities - you didn't always have it.

So a better way to describe this frustration might be this: the game tries to dole out rewards across its entirety, but some of those rewards require new training, which the system itself makes impractical. So instead of explicit learning, the game tries to leverage convention. This means that people familiar with lots of other games will stumble upon these features, but many/most players will not.

Of course, these features are not really required to win the game - except in the case of the rock-monster boss, who requires some countering the second time you fight him.

The bosses actually get harder and harder the more abilities you have earned, so defeating the rock boss ASAP is the best way to smooth out the difficulty curve. It's totally unreasonable for players to know this - I'm just explaining how the system works, not defending it.

Mike Darga said...

Wow, thanks for explaining that, I had no idea what was actually going on.

Did they have a new tutorial when you'd unlocked a new move? I can't remember.