Tutorial Tutorial

You’ve been slaving away in Coy Coypu’s QA dungeon for years when you hear, through the grapevine, that a promotion is finally heading your way. Big cheeses Balthazar and Brenda summon you to the award-lined conference room to outline their offer. A place on the writing or level design teams for Pistol Cove, the studio’s upcoming game about fishing, smuggling, and wrecking in 18th Century Cornwall, is what you’re hoping for. Your heart sinks like a newly sown crop of tubs when B & B begin steering the conversation in the direction of tutorials.

This week’s column is devoted to one of the most thankless yet important tasks in game creation – instruction. Nowadays, when games sometimes have just two hours in which to impress, the ability to educate expeditiously and entertainingly has never been more valuable. The tutorials that, in a perfect world, welcome us, tantalise us, and equip us for what is to come, can be the difference between a long, happy relationship and a swift, grumpy refund, and yet many titles still make a frightful hash of showing newcomers the ropes.

Having spent a significant portion of the past seven days literally learning the ropes (I thought it was about time I finally got to grips with the excellent* eSail) it’s hardly surprising my mind has turned to tuition.

* Apart from the scenery and the choice of yachts

Awash with tutorials but not wholly reliant on them, eSail is almost the perfect pedagogue. It breaks very few of THC’s highly subjective…

— Golden Rules of Game Instruction —

1. Provide tuition for those who need it

I really shouldn’t need to point out that offering tutorial missions, help screens, and dynamic guidance (see 6 & 7) is, especially in THC’s bailiwick, always a good idea, but recent releases such as Combat Mission Cold War suggest that the blindingly obvious isn’t blindingly obvious to all. Not only does CMCW greet novices the way Schürzen greets bazooka rockets, a hopeful/desperate scroll through the battles list reveals nothing resembling a play primer. The only training aid Battlefront provides is a fat manual devoid of ‘New to Combat Mission?’ type sections.

2. Don’t make me plough through PDFs while playing your tutorials

If I’d wanted to spend the evening reading I’d be denting the sofa right now with an actual book in my fist, not sitting at a desk staring at a text-clogged screen, impatient for ersatz warfare. Want me to scout that crossroads with my armoured car, lay a smoke screen behind the church with my mortars, or assault that brickworks with my paratroopers? Tell me without dragging my eyeballs away from the battlefield, please.

3. Videos should be a last resort or a supplementary resource only

Assuming they are succinct and clear, vids are probably preferable to pdf-reliant tuition, but nobody really wants to spend their first half-hour with a new purchase sitting on their hands in a soporific screening room. Tactile learning is more effective than visual/auditory learning. If your training method doesn’t involve mouse and keyboard, it’s sub-optimal.

4. Don’t be afraid of insulting my intelligence

eSail’s one shortcoming as a tutor is its failure to fully explain fundamental concepts such as points of sail (Sailaway is better in this respect). It blithely recommends the player goes elsewhere for their primary education. With dozens of hours of virtual yachting under my belt I still find close-hauled sailing faintly miraculous… I’m still not entirely sure why my craft has two sails rather than one or three. Yes, I could answer these questions outside of the sim, but I’d much prefer to learn in situ.

5. Talk to me

Every eSail tutorial instruction is spoken as well as slapped on the screen. What might seem like a frivolous indulgence on the part of the dev, is actually pretty transformative. Having info piped directly into your lugholes frees up mince pies for monitoring sails and surroundings, and gives lessons pleasing naturalism.

Sadly, the sim that used audible instructors most extensively and effectively is no longer available.

6. Don’t stop assisting me when the tutorials end

I’ve learnt almost as much from watching eSail’s disembodied hands at works, as I have from attending the sim’s interactive lessons. The game’s sole wave cleaver has a crew of three, counting the player. The two invisible-except-for-their-hands AI sailors will, if asked to, undertake all aspects of sail management. When I’m not sure what to do with my jib or what angle my mainsail should be at, I simply pass the relevant lines to Port Arthur and Starboard Stan* and observe what happens next.

* Not their official monikers

Just as convenient and capable, the helpers in Sailaway are totally incorporeal. Realising perhaps that this makes them less useful as teachers, Orbcreation provides text summaries of everything they do. Combined, eSail’s hands and Sailaway’s AI commentary, would constitute a near-perfect sailing sensei.

7. Tutorials aren’t the only way

Diesel Railcar Simulator, a strong candidate for my favourite rail sim, daringly dispenses with traditional tutorials, relying instead on a toggleable system of dynamic instruction smart enough to work with any route, service, and form of motive power. Activate the ‘key helper’ in the options menu (I can’t remember if it’s on by default) and the sim displays a constant stream of input cues at the bottom of the screen. At times the flow of messages – Press S to close throttle… Press C to apply brake… Press D to lap brake… – can be a tad torrential, but do what is asked and you can’t fail to get from A to B. After an hour or three of rote responses, you’ll probably find you no longer need the prompts.

Combine the key helper with the activate-at-any-time autodriver and, for all intents and purposes, you hand control over to an old-hand happy to provide a running commentary.

8. Don’t overwhelm

Graviteam Tactics: Mius-Front boasts eight tutorials. It probably needs three or four times that number to be truly scrutable. The extra lessons would cover potentially confusing tactical stuff such as artillery use and help illuminate the title’s inspired secret weapon – the turn-based operational layer.

Right now said battle spawner is covered by a single tutorial that delivers information as mercilessly and mechanically as an MG 42 delivers lead.

9. Emulated training is often endearing training

I reckon there’s no better preface to a combat flight sim career than a slew of sorties in a period-appropriate trainer. I understand why machines like Harvards, Tiger Moths, and Jungmanns are so rare in WW2 flight games (economics and genre conservatism) but that doesn’t stop me yearning for a sea-change.

10. Dispense with the kid gloves on occasion

While a string of defeats may demoralise new players, a tutorial sequence crammed with cakewalks risks sending them to sleep. Graviteam Tactics: Mius-Front is a flawed educator, but I like the way it gives foes a fighting chance in some of its training engagements.

Byzantine Games, the maker of fine turn-based fare such as Field of Glory II and Sengoku Jidai, are another outfit not afraid of testing mettle early. The first tutorial in FoG2 takes the form of a low-headcount clash between Romans and Ancient Britons. The player controls the Brits and is guaranteed a gripping baptism of ire.

11. Humour and edification aren’t chalk and cheese

Slipping laughs into a serious sim or wargame requires a deft touch. As training may be just about the only phase of play where a dash of levity is possible, the abundance of po-faced tutorials in our corner of gameland grieves me. Personally, I like my tutors wry, sarcastic, even mischievous at times.

12. ((Your golden rule here))

Think this list needs an extra entry or two? If I’ve failed to cover your tutorial-related pet peeve, or neglected a sim or wargame with an exceptionally novel or successful approach to tuition, make me aware of the omission via a comment or email, and your words, fully credited, of course, could end up here.

12a. Communicate clearly and regularly during tutorials

As readers Colonel_K and cederic observe, tutors that look on silently while mistakes are made, or fail to point out that a defeat was the inevitable consequence of a mission script, are sure to put backs up. That disconcerting “Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing?” feeling is common during Graviteam Tactics tutorials because instruction flows often dry up early in proceedings.

12b. Don’t make me scour the manual or the options menu for key help

There’s a section of my manual shelf devoted to home-made crib sheets – pieces of card covered in hand-written key lists and condensed play tips. As reader Jer Stryker notes, there was a time when simmers didn’t have to make their own handy reference material; thoughtful devs and publishers did it for them.

12c. Tutorials should tempt

“Entice me to play the game. I’m not a teenager anymore with only a few games to spend my time with.” (HaraldC)

12d. Don’t dawdle

“If your whole game is a tutorial, you are doing it wrong.” (g948ng)

12e. Provide fishing lines not fish

“The most important part of any tutorial is not to make the player memorise every goddamn button. The goal is to teach them where they can get the information they are looking for during play.” (g948ng)



  1. As a creative director, what are the two tasks i hate designing more than anything else…

    Tutorials & GUI.

  2. 12) Always give feedback that a player has done what was expected of them when things take an unanticipated turn

    When the dev is prepping the player to be aware of the occasional bad outcome, don’t make the player feel they’re at fault somehow, reassure them that they’ve been following the tutorial steps correctly and that this was part of the dev’s instructional journey.

    I most recently experienced this in a spygame demo that Tim mentioned in an A-Z; I forget the name but it was set in post-war Europe. It was a sort of mini-game where you’re putting a tail on an enemy – you do the moves to find where he’s made his dead-drop or whatever, but then your final available move is to occupy the same node as the enemy. Next thing you know, your operative has been beaten up, the enemy escaped and your boss is tearing strips off you.

    • A certain game I played recently didn’t do this. I followed the badly written tutorial to the letter and got utterly annihilated by the opposition.

      Posting on the game’s discussion forums where I’d gone wrong the developer replied telling me that I shouldn’t expect to always win.

      Well thanks, you condescending clown, I’ve been playing games longer than you’ve been alive. I know I’m going to lose, frequently. Even in a tutorial. But don’t waste my time teaching me how to fail. I can do that more than adequately myself. Teach me how to win, and if your tutorial is intended to be lost, give it context and make me feel I’ve had a positive experience anyway.

    • Does anyone know the name of this “spy game”?
      I’m designing an espionage themed board game set during the Cold War, so, curious to find out more, thanks.

      • Ashland Dossier, and it was on Demo Disc 2 (rather than in an A to Z).

        The premise was that you’re a Nazi-hunter, so it might be more espionage/surveillance than spy-game, at least at the start.

  3. Those keyboard overlays that used to come with every Microprose game were invaluable. A printable/tablet-able quick reference guide is something I don’t see too often anymore.

  4. Thanks for the info on eSail. I’ve toyed with some of these sims before as I’m interested in learning to sail – but too lazy to do it in real life.

    I’ve wishlisted that in Steam to remind me about it in the new year.

  5. I’m a real life sailor and I actually struggled to get a perfect trim on the main sail at first in Sailaway, and the tips given are quite good. It’s actually an excellent learning tool! I haven’t tried eSail yet, but I should.

    Also, I’m very glad to see Hidden and Dangerous 2 on rule 11! I love this game, and a serious successor is long overdue.

  6. Put if not your best then at least a good foot forward. Entice me to play the game. I’m not a teenager anymore with only a few games to spend my time with.

    Take FoG2. Much of the beauty of the game lies in planning for, influencing, and managing chaos. This should be a major part of the tutorial imo.

  7. Tutorials… interesting topic. I find joy in learning a new game, experimenting. It doesn’t really bother me when I don’t understand how things work, I find it stimulating. And if the game is good, digging up information, how-to’s, is part of the enjoyment. For exampel, I find it quite cool to discover new aspects to Graviteam after 10 years study of those games. Not everyone feels the same way, obviously. From a business perspective, tutorials seem to be par for the course if your game contains a certain level of complexity (and what is a ‘certain’ level..?) 🙂

  8. I get the impression that the tutorial in CM Cold War is aimed at those who’ve played earlier titles, so is effectively conversion training and very challenging in itself. I think the designers got a little carried away with authenticity as they set it in an actual training ground rather than something custom made for familiarisation with the engine. For beginners the tutorials in CM Black Sea and Shock Force 2 are much more educational, as they take a player from basic movement and actions up to putting together an assault. But for those who have that behind them, the new tutorial is an excellent intro to the CW title.

  9. Golden Rule 12a
    “If your whole game is a tutorial, you are doing it wrong.”

    A common sin of RTS titles in times of yore, but pervasive even today. You do not need a whole campaign scenario to teach you that :lights units: go fast and another one preaching, that :artillery: is meant to stay back. And by the time all units have thusly been introduced the game was usually over.
    I understand this was part of a tradition that intended to train people for multiplayer, but having training wheels forced on you until the very end not only felt condescending, it also discouraged experimenting with your tools and learning anything. You only needed the new thing after all. Instead provide a problem, provide a couple of tools and provide help if the player picks up one of them.

    Golden rule 12b
    “Training must resemble the real thing.”

    A tutorial in a turn based game in which the AI is fozen in time on its turn, is not helpful. If the game is heavily reliant on a morale system, don´t deactivate it during the tutorial. If your tutorial skips over the hard parts of the game, which is mostly done for the sake of having a slim, railroaded tutorial, then it does not teach the player anything worthwhile.

    Golden rule 12b
    “Cross references.”

    The most important part of any tutorial is no to make the player memorize every goddamn button. The goal is to teach them where they can get the information they are looking for during play.
    If your game has unit stats, have them in a window they can keep open while still looking at the main screen. If units or equipment has special rules make the list accessible from the unit itself, from its stat window and from the menu. If special rules trigger in a specific phase of the turn, make the turn order accessible from a place near the “end turn” button, from the units tab and from the special rule lis as well.
    Extra points if opening your windows doesn´t interrupt play, if they can be resized and pushed around on the main screen. The roller coaster or transport tycoon games do it right.
    Also a log. A log is important. If a player doesn´t understand why X just happened, they should have the option to look it up again. And yes, have cross references even in the log. Especially in the log, actually.

    • Golden rule 12d
      “Click button with left mouse button.”

      “Choose units with left mouse button, give them an order with the right mouse button” See? That was easy. One sentence. Done.
      Do. Not. Make. Me. Click. The. Mouse. Button. just so the tutorial can go on. A part of me dies every time you make me. In fact I used the very same mouse button to start your stupid game.

  10. Id be interested in an article on the various sailing games (the more simulator type ones). I did a lot of sailaway, which is/was very good. Will take a look at eSail.

Comments are closed.