A game’s tutorial represents the very opening moments of a game, and, in addition to being the moment where players have to learn the basic mechanics of the game, it also represents one of the best moments to immerse the player within the game’s narrative and create the beginnings of a cohesive world. Therefore, when I was asked to take over the responsibility of redesigning and implementing the game’s tutorial, I happily jumped on the opportunity.
However, before I’d have the opportunity to start telling a story within the tutorial space, and introduce the player to Io and the rest of Protocol Aurora’s world, I had to build a strong tutorial first.
There are three main things that the player needs to learn to successfully play Protocol Aurora when the game begins. These three things are basic movement (walking and dodging), amp deploy (ranged and local), and combat (enemy behavior and how to fire weapons). The tutorial is responsible for concisely delivering this information in a manner that the player can both understand and find engaging.
This requires determining the order in which information is delivered, we don’t want to try and teach the player to run (or in this case dodge) before they can walk, but also setting up the time between the delivery of each piece of information, so that parts that go well together happen in rapid succession, the player has a chance to try more difficult maneuvers a couple times if they wish, and that the time between the delivery of new information isn’t so long that the player starts to disengage from the story, or has to walk past material they have already completed.
Order was quite quick and easy to determine. The first thing players have to learn is how to walk Io around, since they can’t accomplish anything in the game without being able to move their avatar. This is most logically followed by local amp deploy, since the player now has the ability to walk to where they want to place the amp. After that comes ranged amp deploy, followed almost immediately by dodge. In its current iteration, dodge’s abilities are most clearly demonstrated when the player deploys the amp to a location they cannot walk to, therefore it must be placed after the player learns ranged deploy.
Finally, the player needs to learn basic weapon behavior, and can then use that weapon behavior on a new enemy. After they successfully defeat an enemy, they will be allowed to leave the tutorial space and confront the rest of the game.
What was unfortunately much more difficult was coming up with a proper pacing for how to deliver this information. The tutorial space is historically the only place in the game that takes place indoors. After Io leaves the bunker where it starts the game, the rest of its adventure takes place outside. The reason this makes the pacing tricky is because it means I need to make this interior space as small as I can, to make sure there are a limited number of unique assets that will need to be created for it, and reuse as much space as possible. However, in order to make sure the player is learning the skills they need to know, I had to insert a number of different skill walls within this space.
A skill wall is a point or marker in a game that the player absolutely cannot pass without demonstrating a certain measure of skill. In level design, it means the player will not be able to access a new part of the map without demonstrating that they know how to successfully perform a mechanic to a required level of proficiency. Skill walls are most commonly used when the player has first been taught a new mechanic, so that the developer can make sure they aren’t heading further into the game unable to perform the skill they were supposedly just taught.
For this reason, tutorials almost always have a number of skill walls within them. Some are obvious, like the fact that the player cannot open the main door out of the tutorial until they defeat the enemy. Some are more subtle, such as the ranged amp deploy, which doesn’t punish the player for making a mistake, but doesn’t allow them to get across the gap until they execute the move successfully, either.
However, when skill walls are added into a small tutorial level, where space regularly needs to be reused, it poses an unexpected game flow problem. The easiest way to reuse a space is to use the space above or right next to a path that has already been created. The problem is, this invariably requires the player to loop back to somewhere they have already been. If that somewhere they are looping back to happens to be behind one of the skill walls that was put in, that’s a problem. While it will not greatly impede the player’s ability to progress, it is a blocker that doesn’t need to be there. The player has already exhibited their mastery of this ability, since they were able to cross the skill wall once before. There is no need for me to test them on that skill again, and doing so would only end up frustrating the player.
The easiest solution to get around this is to lengthen some of the corridors in the tutorial. This gives the rooms required for teaching the player the certain mechanics an adequate amount of space, without having to overlap a completed skill wall.
However, this solution presents a different problem: Players now have to traverse “useless” space. If the corridor was extended, players now have to take the time to cross that extra space. While this is better than having the player re-cross a skill gate, it is far from desirable for maintaining good pacing. Extra space that players have to cross simply artificially inflates the length of gameplay, without offering any meaningful content.
Maintaining a good pacing in a small tutorial space therefore requires a careful balance of figuring out how big a space needs to be to successfully deliver it’s content, where each piece of content should be located, how should the player be blocked from progressing until they have demonstrated some level of mastery, and how much and which space it is acceptable for the player to re-cover while looping through the tutorial, all the while making sure that the content is well conveyed, that the environment is engaging, and that the space can be used for other purposes beyond teaching the player systems.
Like maybe narrative.