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Best practices for video game onboarding

Inworld Team
January 23, 2024
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Game UX: Best practices for video game onboarding 2024

This is the first part of our four part series on game UX and onboarding experiences that improve player retention.

When it comes to video game onboarding, player retention is king. But, according to Gameanalytics, many game developers are underperforming when it comes to their onboarding experiences. The popular gaming analytics firm found that on average top-performing titles have a Day 1 retention rate of 40%, 15% for Day 7 and 6.5% for Day 28. But they also found that some genres had Day 28 retention rates of just 1.5%.  

To improve player retention, game designers have to balance providing gamers with intriguing and fun gameplay immediately while still teaching gamers how to actually play the game by helping them learn the game mechanics, narratives, and controls. For that reason, video game onboarding UX can’t feature game tutorials that are too ‘educational’ or they will bore the player. But game designers also can’t send the player off on a new player experience that’s too challenging or a sizable percentage of players will get frustrated and give up. 

So, how can game devs improve their onboarding game UX design and boost player retention? Game designers have a variety of onboarding game design tactics and tools to choose from including game tutorials, new player experiences, game UX design strategies, video game UI strategies, and more. From embracing narrative elements to make the onboarding process more meaningful to carefully introducing mechanics, we'll walk you through best practices in crafting an onboarding experience that not only educates but hooks players. 

Goals of video game onboarding UX flows

During the onboarding experience, players need to learn how to effectively navigate the game world. Here are the main learning goals in any video game onboarding flow.

Narrative context

Understanding the narrative context enriches a player’s gaming experience by contextualizing their actions within the game world in a way that makes them meaningful. Including the narrative context in onboarding gets players excited for the journey they’re about to embark on. They’re not just running around fighting orcs – they might be doing it to free the land from an evil curse or to rescue a princess. 

Key Characters

Introducing key characters during game onboarding – either directly or via references from other NPCs – is critical in order to acquaint players with NPCs that are likely to matter in the game’s storyline. That said, you don’t necessarily want to introduce players to every key NPC during the onboarding experience. Choosing one to three key characters to feature, however, can help them foster emotional connections that will keep them coming back for the next playthrough. It also can help them better understand in-game relationships.  

Player motivations and goals

In video game onboarding, clarifying the player’s motivations and goals provides players with a compass to help them better understand how to navigate the game's narrative and challenges. When players understand their character's motivations, whether it's seeking revenge, saving the world, or creating a new world, they feel a deeper connection to their in-game actions. This connection instills a sense of purpose and direction, compelling players to engage more deeply with the storyline, invest emotionally in their character's journey, and remain focused on achieving their objectives within the game's world.

Game controls

Good onboarding game design involves familiarizing players with game controls that are critical for seamless gameplay. Developing mastery of the controls ensures players can interact effortlessly with the game's mechanics, allowing them to navigate the game world and execute actions fluently. By establishing a firm grasp of the game controls from the outset, players can focus more on the challenges, strategies, and enjoyment the game offers.

Core gameplay and progression loops

Educating players about the core gameplay loop and progression mechanics during game tutorials, new player experiences, or game onboarding ensures they understand how to advance. By familiarizing players with recurring patterns of action and the pathways to advancement, this guides players’ actions and decisions towards incremental improvement – and ensures a more rewarding gameplay experience. 

Game UX: Best practices for video game onboarding

Crafting an exceptional game onboarding experience requires a delicate balance of guidance and engagement. In this section, we'll explore key best practices in onboarding game design that will help immerse players seamlessly into game worlds – without frustrating or boring them.

Reduce friction 

Minimizing friction in the onboarding process is pivotal for player retention. When players encounter hurdles or complexity early on, they may disengage. Reducing friction in the game onboarding experience streamlines the learning curve. 

  • Simplify tutorials or introductory sequences and instead offer bite-sized, interactive guidance rather than inundating players with too much information. 
  • Implement intuitive controls and video game UI elements to ensure accessibility and clarity, allowing players to navigate the game seamlessly.
  • Provide context-sensitive help or tooltips that offer assistance at the point of need, minimizing interruptions while players explore and learn within the game world.

Example: Among Us is a prime example of a smooth game onboarding experience through a concise tutorial that introduces core mechanics seamlessly. By simplifying the learning curve and guiding players through fundamental tasks in an easily digestible manner, it ensures that players swiftly grasp the game's mechanics and continue playing.

Focus on intuitive video game UI

A well-designed user interface serves as a silent guide, helping players comprehend, not just the game world, but how to maneuver within it. Creating an intuitive video game UI for the onboarding experience involves ensuring clarity, simplicity, and guidance. 

  • Use recognizable symbols, clear labeling, and a logical layout to ensure players easily comprehend navigation and actions. 
  • Leverage tooltips or contextual hints strategically during onboarding to guide players through interactions and offer visual cues or prompts that help in understanding game mechanics.
  • Allow for customization or adaptability within the video game UI so that players can adjust settings or elements according to their preferences to enhance the overall accessibility and user-friendliness of the game

Example: League of Legends employs an intuitive video game UI that not only presents crucial information seamlessly, but also integrates tooltips and visual cues during onboarding. This helps players understand character abilities and objectives and enhances their learning experience.

Consider an AI NPC onboarding character

One of the best ways to learn is to ask for help when you need it. By integrating an AI NPC onboarding character in your onboarding game design, you can use a relatable and supportive character that guides or just accompanies players through tutorials and initial challenges. 

  • Allow players to ask questions about objects within the world or seek guidance so you can provide players help at crucial learning points without interrupting the player's immersion. 
  • Connect AI NPCs to the game state to allow them to answer questions about what something is in the world.
  • Use AI NPCs to warn players of upcoming obstacles that they need to address. 

Example: Cygnus Enterprises uses PEA, an AI NPC companion character. Players can ask PEA what something is or give her a voice command to help during the game onboarding flow or throughout the game.

Make world building intuitive with game UX design

Crafting a visually coherent world aids player comprehension. This helps to guide players naturally through learning moments in video game onboarding without explicitly stating instructions.

  • Include visual cues and design choices that facilitate player understanding like arrows showing players which way to go or characters that proactively approach the player to talk to them. 
  • Ensure consistency in visual elements to convey meaning – for example, distinctive designs for enemies and allies help in recognizing friend or foe. 
  • Use environmental cues or scenarios that subtly teach players about the game world mechanics, level design, or interactive elements.

Example: In The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, intuitive design and environmental cues help players learn to navigate and strategize within the game world without explicit guidance.

Start in medias res

‘In media res’ means in the middle of the story. This approach stimulates player interest and motivates them to explore further. Starting video game onboarding in medias res reduces the urge to frontload information, allowing players to learn organically through contextualized experiences. This more effectively keeps gamers’ interest.

  • Allows players to experience the core essence of the game by introducing key mechanics or narrative elements organically within the context of the ongoing action. 
  • Plunge players into engaging and immediate gameplay scenarios in order to capture their attention and curiosity right from the start.

Example: Games like The Last of Us introduce players to the narrative during intense sequences, igniting their curiosity and emotional investment from the outset.

Understand your players 

Understanding players involves aligning game onboarding with player preferences and expectations. 

  • Conduct player research or gather feedback to discover what aspects of the game world or genre resonate most with your audience. 
  • Tailor the video game onboarding process to these preferences, integrating elements that players love about the game into the process. That could involve offering players freedom to explore, putting more emphasis on narrative depth, or highlighting specific gameplay mechanics depending on your players' preferences. 

Example: An RPG like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is great at catering to player autonomy – something players love about Skyrim games. Its game onboarding subtly introduces players to the vast open world and grants them freedom in exploration, catering to the genre's appeal for open-ended adventures. 

Adapt to player diversity

Embracing player diversity involves accommodating various skill levels, accessibility needs, and gaming experiences. 

  • Incorporate adjustable difficulty settings or accessibility features that allow players to tailor the onboarding experience to their abilities or preferences. 
  • Provide optional tutorials or guidance that players can engage with based on their familiarity with gaming, ensuring that the game onboarding UX can adapt to a wide spectrum of players.

Example: Games like Celeste offer accessibility features that allow players to tailor the game’s difficulty. By incorporating options for different abilities or preferences, developers ensure that the onboarding process adapts to a wide array of players, enhancing inclusivity and engagement.

Fit game onboarding flows to game genres

Tailoring onboarding flows to match specific game genres involves emphasizing core genre mechanics and pacing. Aligning game onboarding design with the genre's essence ensures that players grasp fundamental gameplay elements, setting the stage for a great gaming experience within their preferred genre.

  • In strategy games, for example, the onboarding game UX should introduce players gradually to complex systems and strategic decision-making through guided tutorials that mirror the game's depth. 
  • For action-oriented games, onboarding game UX should focus on immediate engagement by swiftly introducing players to core mechanics and combat, allowing them to experience the adrenaline rush associated with the genre's fast-paced gameplay. 

Example: In a strategy game like Civilization VI, the onboarding process introduces players gradually to the game's mechanics and complex systems. It eases players into strategic decision-making, offering a guided experience essential for the genre's depth and intricacy. In contrast, in action-oriented games like Doom Eternal, a rapid and action-driven onboarding experience primes players for high-paced gameplay by focusing on reflexes and combat mechanics.

Practice progressive onboarding

Progressive onboarding is a vital strategy in game UX design to avoid overwhelming players with excessive information upfront. 

  • Start by introducing essential game mechanics and controls in manageable segments. 
  • Then, gradually introduce combat mechanics, resource gathering, and crafting as players progress through additional stages. 
  • Implement a layered approach where players continuously acquire new skills or knowledge as they explore the game world, allowing them to build upon their existing understanding without overwhelming them with too much information at once.

Example: Games like Stardew Valley introduce farming mechanics initially and progressively introduce more complex farming, crafting, and relationship mechanics as players settle into the game.

Add invisible tutorials

Invisible tutorials integrate learning seamlessly into gameplay without explicitly highlighting the teaching process. 

  • Use environmental cues or level design elements to guide players subtly by using things like the level layout and enemy encounters as a silent tutorial for combat mechanics and environmental hazards. 
  • Integrate mechanics into the narrative progression so players naturally learn essential mechanics such as stealth and crafting while progressing through the story, ensuring that learning feels organic and inherent to the overall experience. 
  • Offer contextual prompts or visual cues that subtly guide players toward understanding without explicitly stating instructions. 

Example: Portal 2 is a prime example of great game tutorial design as it seamlessly blends tutorial elements into the level design. This allows players to learn about the mechanics of portal creation and manipulation through intuitive level progression. 

Center usability

Usability in video game onboarding ensures that players can navigate and understand the game without unnecessary complications. To prioritize usability in onboarding flows, prioritize game UX design that has intuitive and accessible interfaces that align with player expectations. 

  • Ensure clarity in visual and auditory cues to help with navigation and comprehension. 
  • Make sure to also incorporate user testing and feedback loops to refine and optimize the onboarding process continually. Iterative improvements are key for improving your onboarding experience over time. 
  • Providing customizable options, such as control mapping further enhances usability, catering to diverse player needs.

Example: Super Mario Odyssey provides intuitive controls that align with players' expectations, simplifying movement and action inputs to enhance usability while maintaining depth.

Introduce the core game loop early

Introducing the core game loop early in your onboarding game design is a great way to ensure players learn key tasks from the start. This fosters engagement and understanding of the core mechanics right away.

  • Emphasize interactive tutorials or guided experiences that directly immerse players in core gameplay elements. 
  • Provide immediate opportunities for players to experiment and experience the loop while allowing them to explore and engage further.

Example: Introducing the core game loop early, as seen in Slay the Spire, ensures players understand the pattern of gameplay. By exposing players to the deck-building and combat mechanics from the outset, the game hooks players with its strategic depth and encourages them to explore and improve their strategies throughout the game.

Get creative

Onboarding experiences can be truly unique experiences. You can even create unique storylines or missions just for the onboarding flow. 

  • Add innovative and memorable elements that engage players from the onset or unique storytelling methods that will better hook players. 
  • Consider using unconventional or unexpected game mechanics that blend seamlessly with onboarding. 

Example: You can also introduce familiar characters or settings creatively, as done in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, where the player gets to play part of the onboarding experience as Darth Vader.

Gamify it to keep players motivated

Gamifying onboarding with quests or tasks maintains player motivation and is effective at player retention. You can even provide achievements or rewards for accomplishing certain key tasks. 

  • Incorporate interactive challenges or quests that align with learning objectives. 
  • Implement a progression system or rewards for completing onboarding milestones. 
  • Leverage engaging mechanics, such as collecting items or engaging in specific interactions, offering incentives or narrative progression, motivating players to explore and learn within the game world.

Example: Mass Effect 2 incentivizes dialogue interactions and decision-making during onboarding, shaping the narrative while teaching players about the game's branching choices and consequences.

Don’t punish early

Avoid punishing players excessively in the early stages, as that can easily make players frustrated and discouraged while they’re still learning how to play your game. That’s a sure path to bad player retention.

  • Ensure a gentle introduction by gradually introducing challenges and complexity. 
  • Provide lots of guidance and assistance without penalizing mistakes so you can allow players to familiarize themselves with mechanics naturally. 
  • Consider implementing progressive tutorials that adapt based on player performance, enabling a smoother learning curve and reducing the risk of early frustration.
  • Offer clear feedback and hints to steer players in the right direction.

Example: Games like Celeste offer forgiving early levels and gradually ramp up difficulty, allowing players to acclimate to mechanics before introducing tougher challenges. That improves player retention.

Anticipate confusion

Everyone gets confused sometimes. New players get confused a lot and confusion negatively affects player retention.

  • Integrate contextual hints or tooltips that trigger when players encounter complex mechanics or unfamiliar elements. 
  • Provide clear and concise explanations through visual cues, text prompts, or optional tutorials, ensuring accessibility without overwhelming the player. 
  • Incorporate a Help system or a dedicated knowledge base accessible during gameplay, offering players a resource to refer back to whenever they encounter confusion or need further clarification. This can be in the form of an AI NPC who can answer questions.
  • Design interactive scenarios or guided experiences that allow players to revisit and practice challenging mechanics, reinforcing their understanding and alleviating potential confusion.

Example: Games like Undertale integrate elements that anticipate confusion by incorporating humorous and intuitive designs that allow players to re-engage with certain scenarios without undue punishment.

User test it

No game dev perfectly understands their users. That’s why user testing exists. The more you test your game, the better you can predict player retention. 

  • Before launching a game, conduct usability testing with diverse groups of players to gather feedback on the learning curve and clarity of tutorials. 
  • Use the player feedback sessions, surveys, or beta testing phases to identify potential pain points or areas of confusion within the onboarding process, allowing for continual refinement and enhancement before the game's full release. 
  • Keep working on iterative improvements after you launch based on user insights and observations. For example, you can integrate analytics tools to track player behavior during onboarding. This ensures you can make data-driven adjustments and optimizations to improve the overall onboarding experience.

Example: Among Us continuously refines its onboarding by incorporating player feedback, ensuring a smoother learning experience through iterative improvements and adjustments to tutorial elements. That helps improve player retention. 

Allow players to skip it

Just like some players hate cut scenes, there is a sizable group of players that hate tutorials. Forcing them to sit through tutorials might affect your player retention. 

  • Offer an opt-out option at the start of the game or within tutorial sections, granting experienced or returning players the choice to bypass introductory content. 
  • Or, better yet, consider incorporating a ‘quick start’ mode.

Example: Games like Baldur’s Gate offer the option to bypass tutorials, enabling players to delve directly into the game world without interruptions. This can boost player retention.

Don’t forget about reboarding

Not everyone plays a game straight through over a short period of time. Sometimes life gets in the way. 

  • Make sure that players who are returning to your game after a bit of time away have reboarding opportunities. 
  • Integrate accessible resources within the game, such as an in-game guide, tutorial repository, or contextual help menus that players can revisit at any point. 

Example: World of Warcraft incorporates in-game guides and tutorials accessible at any time, enabling players to refresh their memory on mechanics or learn new features after periods of absence.

Give login rewards

Getting your players to login regularly – either when they first start playing your game on or ongoingly – is one great way to incentivize players to onboard more effectively, become familiar with your game faster, and get hooked. 

  • Give players rewards like new items, in-game rewards, or experience cards
  • Create a login calendar with daily game rewards and a reward after fulfilling each daily login. 

Example: Call of Duty: Mobile gives players guns and experience cards if they log in for seven days straight. This ensures they keep coming back. 

Improve player retention by incorporating AI NPCs 

Consider upgrading your game onboarding with AI NPCs. They can solve both the challenge of initiating the player into your game while making that process engaging and customizable to each players’ needs and skill level. 

Research we conducted with 1,000 gamers also showed that they’re excited to interact with AI NPCs. 

  • 99% felt AI NPCs would enhance gameplay 
  • 78% felt like they would spend more time playing
  • 79% would be more likely to buy a game

Curious about AI NPCs? Check out our Case Studies to see how they've been used in games -- and sign up for our Studio today!

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