Monday, June 20, 2011

Press "?" to skip

To immediately digress from the topic not yet conceived, one of my favorite console series of games is the Final Fantasy series. Fitting easily on any "top five" video game list I could conceive would be the tenth iteration in the series, one that justified (in my mind) the purchase of a whole new console to play it on. Final Fantasy 11 came and went, as it was a MMO-aligned offering (and I don't "do those," out of some measure of fear for lack of self-control or some measure of self-control, depending on whether I feel particularly pessimistic or optimistic at any given time). Final Fantasy 12 arrived at a time in my life when I was otherwise distracted with school and knew better than to involve myself in something particularly time-consuming.

It was with anticipation, then, that I looked at Final Fantasy XIII - I knew that the series would remain enjoyable, because I know that it is in myself to enjoy the kind of "interactive storybook" these games are dually admired and admonished for being. That game lived up to its promise, for me. Others found it lacking, and it's not incredibly difficult to see why, no matter what my personal assessment of the game. The chief complaint was the feeling of participating in an over-long "tutorial" sequence wherein the player is gradually introduced to game concepts over the first several hours of the game.

This is perhaps an exaggeration of the actual in-game experience, but the core issue is one of the feeling of loss of player agency, which is a topic addressed well in Ernest Adams's "The Designer's Notebook: Eight Ways To Make a Bad Tutorial" at Gamasutra.

The gist of the article is made clear in its title - it's a list of common mistakes in implementing tutorial sections in games. The article is not necessarily corrective or constructive (and the author acknowledges that), but what it does do well is presenting a list of errors that will be familiar to anyone who feels he's sat through a poor tutorial segment. The "eight ways" are varied, but all share the core concept of making the player feel impotent (or unimportant, in the case of the "patronize/humiliate the player" error) in his play through of a game - the loss of agency.

Since little is offered in terms of corrective advice, it's hard to analyze that particular section, but what does pop up in the few times advice is offered shares a theme of maintaining positivity and offering the player choice, which should seem a natural means of increasing the feeling of agency. What is immediately apparent, though, is that most or all of these errors should be able to be spotted with just a tiny bit of naive, black-box testing.

The prevalence (at least to the degree that most of those familiar with video games will also feel familiar with these errors) of these mistakes in tutorials speaks to an issue - where's the testing? In many cases, it seems like development teams may simply undervalue the input of the true naive observer.

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