Okay I think we've all be there. You'll be playing a game and it won't stop trying to teach you how to play. You've been playing a series of a game for the past 5 years but they can't help but to give you unskippable cut-scenes how to use that power up or defeat that enemy.
On the contrary, I feel like we've all been on the other end of the spectrum where the game essentially throws you out to the wolves. That RPG that sends you out into battle with almost no understanding of how to survive and acts like you should know exactly what to do.
I've often thought: where's the balance? In the 8 and 16 bit days there were sizable manuals to help you along, but without one you could be left just wondering around trying to figure out what you were supposed to do. Sure most games were simple enough, there were only a handful of buttons and actions that a character could take, but some of those NES games could be dauntingly complex.
When I was a kid I picked up a game called Overlord (NES). From the best I could tell it was some kind of strategy game where you managed resources and sent out ships. It looked really cool from the box and the premise was cool, but I never did figure out how to play. It was just too complex with no real way of understanding what I was supposed to do.
Another shining example of this was Nightshade (NES). It's a detective game where you must explore your environment to solve puzzles and thwart crime. There was also some basic fighting mechanics involved. It was daunting to say the least (you start out tied to a chair next to a ticking bomb) but at least it gave you some clues how to proceed. The brilliant part of the game was that it gave you multiple solutions to a problem; a trial and error sort of setup. This to me equated to complexity with a smart design.
But as games moved on from just trying to get a basic premise across to coming pretty close to simulating an experience, things just got more complicated. Shadowrun (SNES) offered an experience with those kinds of ideas. You start out dead in a morgue only to wake up and (understandably) scare the hell out of the morticians. The game never tells you to pick up everything you can, actually it doesn't tell you that you can pick up items at all. You are just expected to find that out. It does later tell you that you need a weapon, but never how to use it. Same problem with conversations. Fast forward to 2013 when Shadowrun Returns comes out and it has the same kinds of mechanics but does a much better job of easing you into things. It's just a better design.
Many modern games still seem to struggle with this, but it seems like it's the opposite problem. Take one of the more notorious examples: Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword. The game starts in a painfully slow fashion. Granted, the controls are pretty nontraditional, but even so, it's about 2+ hours in before the first dungeon. Even with a game of that scope where you expect a slower introduction, a lot of people lose interest quickly. They never actually discover what the developers intended just because they were reluctant to let you spread your wings.
Metroid Prime is a fantastic example of doing it right. You come to investigate a distress beacon on a ship. The cut-scene is brief, you get out there and it gives you your controls and slowly introduces elements into the game. The pace of the mission picks up along with the story and tension until you face the boss. After you defeat it, you have to escape the ship before it explodes. In the process of escaping you run into Ridley and lose all of your equipment. The rest of the game is spent getting back all of your lost equipment and finding more. Hence you build on top of the knowledge you have. Line upon line, precept upon precept, so the player is never under or overwhelmed.
That is what I call an overture. An overture is supposed to be an introduction to a set of music. It sets the tone and pace for the rest of the work, basically it gives you an idea what to expect. A readers digest version if you will. Nintendo has been implementing this technique for years.
While that works well for an adventure game other genres have used other techniques. Tony Hawkís Pro Skater 3 had an optional tutorial mode, you just had to select it in the menu. Even though I had played previous games I felt like I could benefit from learning the game from the ground up. It turned out to be very beneficial, 20 minutes in the training mode made me a substantially better player.
Gears of War 2 took a similar approach, an optional tutorial. You could choose to train Carmine and get some collectables and achievements for your trouble, or just skip it. On a second playthough thereís literally no reason to do it again. Seamless introduction.
Some bad modern examples include Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. I spent about 2 hours trying to figure out what to do. Thereís no tutorial, no real guidance, you are thrown out to the wolves. You are given some basic equipment to start, but youíll also find different types of weapons in your house. Which one is the best choice? Who knows? Iím sure thereís an awesome game underneath all those layers of inaccessibility but Iíll be damned if I can find it. †
Another bad example is Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown. This is the real deal, a hardcore 3D fighter that requires a lot of practice and patience to learn. I know Sega wanted to get their flagship fighting series out to the masses by releasing it as a $15 download but they stripped out the quest mode. Only the training and a handful of missions are given in order to make you a kung fu master. And itís not even like other fighters where you can learn the basic techniques and know a few fighters, each fighter feels vastly different. I would be impressed if anyone was able to get into the series with such little instruction.
My point is to this blog is developers need to find a seamless way to bring players into their world. The fact is the most important hour of any game is the first. In a world where quality games of any genre can he had for cheap, itís far too easy for gamers to look elsewhere to find something they want. Why would they create a massive world with hundreds of things to do, only to put it behind an inaccessible wall? It does a disservice to the community, it does a disservice to the developers. I canít help but feel if the proper attention was given to the introduction, more games would be followed through to the end.