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Game UX: Best practices for game tutorial design

Inworld Team
January 25, 2024
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This is the third part of our four-part series on game UX and game onboarding experiences. See the first posts on best practices in video game onboarding and onboarding UI design.

Ensuring video game onboarding is a smooth process is critical to providing players with a truly immersive and enjoyable gaming experience. Getting it right can significantly boost crucial metrics like player acquisition, engagement, satisfaction, and even monetization. 

Game tutorials are a particularly crucial part of the video game onboarding process. However, good game tutorial design can be a challenge. It requires striking a delicate balance between educating players without overwhelming them – and integrating learning seamlessly into gameplay. Players can quickly become frustrated if the game onboarding experience and game tutorial is both too challenging or not challenging enough – leading to disengagement.

In this post, we'll delve into video game tutorial design that’s particularly focused on enhancing the game user experience (game UX) during onboarding. From the intricacies of tutorial user interfaces to the delicate art of introducing game mechanics, we'll touch on best practices for new player experiences that help streamline the game onboarding process. By understanding the nuances of effective tutorial design and its pivotal role in shaping a player's initial interaction with a game, game developers can better create engaging and user-friendly video game onboarding experiences.

Game tutorial types

The way that games approach their tutorial design greatly influences the game UI and game UX choices a game needs to make to effectively introduce players to the game's mechanics and world. 

Different game tutorial design choices also cater to different learning preferences, player engagement levels, skill levels, and learning outcomes. But game developers don’t need to choose just one. The best strategy for many games is to combine a variety of tutorial types to allow players to choose the method of learning that works best for them.  

Textbox tutorials 

Textbox tutorials present information through on-screen text boxes. They're a particularly helpful game tutorial design for conveying complex text instructions or critical lore with straightforward game UX. 

Example: Games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild use textbox tutorials to guide players through its various gameplay mechanics and puzzles.

Pop-up tutorials display quick information prompts that appear dynamically during gameplay. They’re a great game tutorial design for games where there is a lot for a player to learn since they can be used to provide tutorial content more organically and with better game UX over a longer period of game play rather than overwhelming players at the beginning. 

Example: These brief hints or instructions, like those in Portal 2, provide immediate guidance in specific scenarios without disrupting the gameplay flow. 

Playable tutorials 

Playable game tutorials immerse players in interactive learning experiences where they learn how to play the game while completing a mission or quest. Games can streamline the game onboarding experience by integrating playable game tutorials seamlessly into the game's initial stages, allowing players to experiment with controls and mechanics without affecting their official game play. 

Example: Dark Souls integrates a playable tutorial in the opening sequence of the game where players have to navigate through the Undead Asylum to learn basic controls and combat mechanics. 

Replayable tutorials

Replayable game tutorials are great for games that want to ensure casual gamers are still able to enjoy the game – even if they return after taking a long break. Replayable tutorials are great for improving game UX because they allow gamers to choose how much practice they want – rather than forcing players of different skill levels to complete the exact same tutorials. 

Example: Overwatch provides a practice range as part of their onboarding game design where players can experiment with different characters' abilities. 

Invisible game tutorials

Invisible tutorials integrate gameplay instructions subtly into their gameplay mechanics – creating an invisible game onboarding design. You might not even realize that you’re playing the ‘tutorial’ because in every way other than a few subtle hints about how to play the game, you’re just playing. A great strategy for creating invisible tutorials includes incorporating AI NPCs that you can ask questions about the game, lore, and gameplay in a more organic fashion. 

Example: Games like Journey introduce complex gameplay dynamics through environmental cues and subtle visual storytelling without explicitly guiding players.

New player experiences 

New player experiences are a great holistic approach to game tutorials as they combine a number of tutorial elements – from guided introductions via text boxes or prompts to interactive learning via invisible tutorials or playable tutorials. New player experiences ensure a smoother and more engaging onboarding process. 

Example: Games like Fallout 3 are known for curating dynamic new player experiences. The game starts at the moment of their character’s birth. They can then take a quiz to decide what the character’s personality is. Game dynamics and backstory are learned together. 

Game tutorial design best practices 

There are a number of best practices in game tutorial design – but three best practices are particularly critical to great onboarding game design and game UX. 

1. Teach the mechanic in a safe situation

Teaching a game mechanic in a safe environment allows players to understand its functionality without fear of failure. 

For example, In Portal, early levels are designed to teach players how to use the portal gun. These levels are simple and focused on teaching mechanics without immediate threats from enemies, allowing players to experiment and learn. If players feel overwhelmed by trying to both learn a new skill and fight off enemies, they’re likely to get frustrated and not be able to achieve flow. That could lead to bad player retention. 

2. Allow them to use the mechanic in a real situation

After introducing a mechanic in a safe environment and giving players ample time to experiment with it and learn it, it’s important to gradually integrate it into real gameplay scenarios to reinforce learning as part of the game onboarding flow. 

For example, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time introduces Z-targeting in a safe environment, gives players time to learn it and then puts players into situations where they’re required to use it against enemies. The application of the mechanic in a real situation solidifies the learning and ensures that players will be able to complete the action later in the game when they need to. 

3. Combine that mechanic with others

Once players grasp a particular mechanic, intertwine it with other mechanics to show how they interact and create more complex gameplay and powers.

For example, in Street Fighter, after the game tutorial teaches basic moves and combos individually, the game introduces scenarios where players need to combine these moves strategically, showcasing the depth of combat mechanics. This type of learning increases the players’ skill level, ensuring they’ll be able to deploy those mechanics later in the game when they need to.

Successful game tutorial examples

Perhaps the best way to learn how to create a great tutorial that will help with game onboarding is to examine examples of games that showcase iconic (and effective!) game tutorial design. 

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

This game starts with a playable game tutorial that uses iconic characters like Darth Vader to introduce players to the game mechanics. In the tutorial, players assume the role of Darth Vader's secret apprentice, Starkiller. The tutorial serves as an introduction to the game's combat mechanics and Force powers.

Players initially control Vader, learning the basics of lightsaber combat and the Force. As Vader’s apprentice, players continue their training in a simulated environment, facing training droids and learning various Force abilities such as push, grip, and lightning.

The tutorial cleverly uses the iconic character of Darth Vader as an instructor to provide guidance and demonstrate techniques, making the learning process feel integrated into the storyline and like a sneak peak into what Darth Vader is really like. By seamlessly blending storytelling with gameplay, the game’s tutorial teaches players combat moves and Force powers in a way that feels organic to the narrative – and cool! 

What this game tutorial does right:

  • Uses iconic characters
  • Allows you to play as an iconic NPC
  • Makes it seem like part of the story
  • Allows players to master the mechanics in a safe environment 

Genshin Impact mobile 

The game tutorial in Genshin Impact’s mobile game is exceptional due to its unobtrusive approach. The game tutorial serves as an introduction to the game's world, characters, combat mechanics, and elemental system. Players start as the Traveler, a character searching for a lost sibling, and the tutorial begins as the Traveler arrives in the world of Teyvat.

The tutorial then introduces players to combat mechanics, elemental abilities, and exploration. It guides players through basic combat actions, such as attacking, dodging, and using elemental skills. It also introduces the concept of elemental interactions, where different elements combine to create various effects – like using fire to ignite grass or water to douse flames.

The tutorial gradually introduces new mechanics and features, allowing players to explore the game's vast world while learning the intricacies of combat and elemental abilities.

What this game tutorial does right:

  • Makes it part of the story
  • Introduces a number of mechanics and abilities
  • Encourages players to navigate and explore
  • Introduces new concepts and features

Half-Life 2's Invisible Tutorial

Half-Life 2 is often lauded for its invisible tutorial design. Instead of explicit instructions, the game immerses players in its world, gradually introducing mechanics like physics-based puzzles and combat without interrupting the narrative flow. 

Throughout the opening sequence, players control Gordon Freeman, the protagonist, as he navigates City 17 and experiences the game's mechanics organically. Players learn movement by walking around, interacting with objects, and observing the environment. For instance, they understand how to pick up and manipulate objects using the gravity gun, a pivotal mechanic, through the gameplay itself.

The game subtly teaches players how to approach challenges and solve puzzles. It introduces combat scenarios gradually, allowing players to experiment and adapt to the mechanics naturally. The absence of explicit tutorials or on-screen prompts immerses players deeply in the game, fostering a learn-as-you-go experience that seamlessly blends with the narrative and gameplay.

What this game tutorial does right:

  • Immerses player in the world
  • Teaches game mechanics organically
  • Smart UI and UX that doesn’t need explicit on-screen prompts

Add AI NPCs to your game tutorial design 

Game tutorials need to be engaging – so why not add an AI NPC that can answer questions and help guide the player through the world into your game tutorial?

  • Adding AI NPCs into your onboarding sequence provides players with a friend (or an enemy) who can answer their questions. 
  • They allow you to customize your game onboarding design to each player’s needs and skill levels. 
  • It allows players to ‘choose-their-own-onboarding adventure.’ Some players want all the lore and backstory they can get as part of their onboarding – while others just want to get playing. 

Curious about AI NPCs? Check out our case study on how NetEase added AI NPCs to an onboarding character – and sign-up for our Studio today!

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