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Indepth: Tutorial & training design for competitive games

19 Apr

This week’s indepth article is brought to you by recent developments in the Moba scene with Dota creating a new tutorial system and League revamping theirs. As LoLCG might suggest, I’m quite interested in that style of game, but I’ve also followed competitive gaming of all sorts for quite some time. These games are pushing the conception of videogames as a legitimate arena for competition forward and, as Esports begins to find traction, it’s time to question assumptions videogame designers have made for decades about how to go about that.

In this article I’m going to go over a particular method competitive games use to foster and develop their player communities. I’ll look at how game designers can learn and improve upon these models to create competitive games that foster even more passionate players and fans than they do already. Then I’m going to look at four paragons of the genres of competitive game. League of Legends, Streetfighter, Tribes and Starcraft. I’ll look at the positives and negatives of how these games have approached training their players and the impact those decisions may have had on the games overall. Finally, I’ll bring it together and propose a set of guidelines for designing successful training and tutorial elements for such games, which can be summarised in these goals:

they must be rewarding in their own right

they must clearly communicate context

they must provide a safe environment

they must isolate and identify particular skills

they must support perpetual skill development

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Introduction: Something or other about Tennis.

Amongst my library of design proverbs, I’ve found one coming up more than most recently. ‘You don’t learn to play tennis by playing tennis’. I hope I don’t need to draw you a diagram. It’s one of the most lauded properties of videogames that they decrease the need for dedicated training and development. One learns by playing, seamlessly, without even realizing it. As I discussed in my analysis of Portal 2, this capability can be intoxicating for designers, so much so that they miss exactly what it is they’re doing.

Analogue games- more specifically, real-time analogue games with a high mechanical skill component- don’t successfully induct new players or fans by getting them to play even a limited version of the full game. Instead, players are more often introduced by participating in drills or mini-games which isolate and clarify particular mechanical components of the whole. These aspects are then given context and brought together in parts and finally in full, but more limited exercises remain a constant part of training.

I remember, when I was a kid, going to tennis camp. First you got to play with a racquet, then you got to mess around hitting balls against a wall. Over several days you’d move to trying to hit the ball into the other side of a court underhand, trying to hit it back when someone else hit it across (or rallying balls from a ball machine), playing volley games, little best of three rallies and finally moving onto serving and replying to serving, all the time drilling positioning, how to hold your racquet and so on. Just like in videogames, rewards provided a carrot to keep you interested, though unlike videogames these prizes usually went only to the top performers.

There are two important things to learn from here. First is that tennis camp had no illusions about what it was. When you went to tennis camp, you didn’t play tennis (well, much) you LEARNED to play tennis. This doesn’t mean you didn’t play games, they just weren’t tennis, and you knew the purpose of these games were to teach you skills to help you play tennis, which acted as another level of reward for success. Second, the formal reward mechanism used (prizes for the top performers) is antithetical to the best aspects of videogame design- all players deserve rewards for challenging themselves and overcoming their limits. It’s true that in these camp games everyone got a reward- they learned to be better tennis players- but that wasn’t much consolation when Timmy McBuffwrists was scoffing down half a bucket of M&Ms. This is something videogames have shown they CAN do better. In non-competitive games, the reward is most often advancement of the narrative or player capabilities, but in competitive games this often isn’t a great thing to offer. Players want to be become better at the full game, show them they are and that is going to be reward enough for many.

Tennis camp, I’d argue, is a tutorial on how to play tennis. Because of the skills tennis requires, the tutorial can’t just teach you the concepts and allow you to apply them at your own pace (which you can do with a mechanical skill and time insensitive game like Chess). It must actively develop the skills to a minimum level suitable for playing the game itself. To do so, it must isolate and train these skills to a level where their value to the game can be demonstrated to the player in a hands-on way. It’s all well and good telling a player when to apply a smash, but they’re never going to get it until they can actually smash and get a feel for when it’s practical.

Videogame tutorials, on the other hand, remain as kind of interactive rulebooks or introductions to concepts, without really giving players this hands on training. A token gate will often be provided (You shoot things with your left mouse button. Do you know where your left mouse button is? Oh good, proceed), but it’s rarely designed carefully enough to actually test whether a player has grasped a concept (ok, so I got out of that stupid tutorial thing, I’m not exactly sure how…) and this is often most pronounced for the intricate mechanical challenges of competitive videogames. So much so, in fact, that historically videogame designers have left tutoring to their communities, rather than trying to make good tutorials or training aids, they pay them lip-service and hope desperately that some internet personality will go viral with a series of learn to play videos or guides or develop some mods to help others train. Sometimes they get so fed up with the whole paradigm of minimalist tutorials they produce something like this (skip to around 5 mins):

Which, while hilarious, is even more intended for people who are already educated consumers. The problem with this approach is it relies on a very, very slow trickle of players joining, because the normal channels through which people are introduced to new, fun videogame experiences (the games media, forums etc) won’t work- you can’t just drop into the game cold and get the intended experience. It’s a sort of a catch 22 thing. You only get introduced to learning how to play the game if you’re already a member of the community of people who already play, or at least on the fringes of it. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in the fighting game community and, up until a huge community effort over 2011-12, the Starcraft community.

This is a serious problem for developers, who want to get as many people playing as possible. That problem is doubled for developers aiming for an Esport presence, as not only do you need a vibrant player community, but an even larger spectator community as well. Player count and fresh blood matter and without a good way of reaching out to them and helping them into the community, competitive games stagnate and slowly become ever more inaccessible.

In order to reach out to truly new players and introduce them to the joy of competition, competitive videogames need to embrace the lessons that can be learned from sport camps. Provide the tools for your players to break down the game and train efficiently. Reward them for that training. Help them understand the game in the same way the best players do, so a conversation can exist between them. These are the objectives of tutorials and training for competitive games, so let’s see how it’s been done so far.

Game analysis

1: Streetfighter (Streetfighter IV)

Introduction:

Street fighter IV features no formal tutorial (the basic controls and goals are covered in the manual), only two modes aimed at helping players develop their skills. Challenge mode gates players through a series of increasingly complex combos, with the goal of showing them the particular capabilities of a given character. Training mode drops players in a sandbox fight where they can adjust the properties of their opponent to test their own skills and devise their own challenges.

What it does well:

Unlike many competitive games, Street Fighter IV recognizes the need for a space in which players can train at their own pace and isolate specific aspects to train formally. The training level’s grid gives players the tools to practice footsies and spacing. The challenge levels attempt to introduce players to the particular capabilities of each character. It even has a rudimentary reward mechanism through unlocking stages a completion meter.

What it does badly:

Pretty much everything else. The training and challenge levels are more intended for players who are already committed to learning the game to a high level and have studied how to do so through online guides accessible, more or less, only to people already deep into the fighting game community. The game makes no attempt to explain necessary skills or help new players reach the point where they are competent at them, other than providing the sandbox area mentioned so they can practice in an undirected way without having Zangief constantly trying to piledrive them. It doesn’t explain where various skills might be valuable, nor what they’re called by the player community (oh, of course that un-named combination of twenty motions ten deep in challenge mode is referred to as an Ultra-FADC. How silly of me not to know that)

There’s no attempt to reward players for engaging in learning activities and training their skills (other than being able to go from ‘helpless cripple’ difficulty to ‘clumsy infant’ difficulty, a tremendous boost to their self esteem). There’s no attempt to teach players concepts that get flung around like misogynist jokes in the FGC. Want to learn how to cancel your dragon punch into a mixup tech bait? Don’t ask here… The game doesn’t even tell you how to block.

The result:

The amount of independent effort required to even learn how to throw a fireball unless you’re already familiar with fighting games is staggering. Given how much more complex real PVP Street Fighter is, it’s no wonder that the game remains a cult phenomenon, mostly spread by people being individually tutored by their friends. Some might argue that mashing buttons is perfectly cool and enjoyable, which is true, but it’s also an example of terrible design. If 95% of your audience is going to just fondle their controller like an awkward teen virgin, why on earth bother spending huge amounts of time and money creating a level of balance and pixel perfect execution that is perhaps the most demanding of all the Esport genres? Would it not be worth the comparatively minimal effort of designing some good in-game introductions to these capabilities that would show novice players the delight that comes from exploiting all this work you’ve been putting in. I certainly think so. Apparently Capcom disagrees.

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2: Tribes (Tribes Ascend)

Introduction:

Much like Street Fighter, Tribes has a cultish, ultra-high skilled community and markets itself as a highly competitive, spectacular game. Ascend features a very limited tutorial set which introduces players to the two most basic principles in the game- skiing (how to go faster) and inheritance (why you never, ever hit anything, you noob). There’s a free-roam mode where you can spawn into an empty map and access all weapons, even ones you haven’t bought, but like SF, no attempt is made to explain their use and functionalities to the player. Finally, post release some basic target practice modes were added, but in a very tacked on style.

(Skip to 18 mins)

What it does well:

Tribes sells itself as a high skill, high complexity game. It certainly takes balls to advertise yourself as ‘the hardest game’. While this is debatable, the rhetoric is clear: this is a competitive game, no questions asked. I actually had the pleasure of interviewing the project lead on the game and, when I asked him about easing in newer players with some fun sub-games that might help them master skiing, his response was in the vein of ‘we want people to play a shooter, not a racing game. Interesting idea, but we probably won’t do it any time soon’. I can respect that… sort of. Ascend does use community language throughout the game in such a way that it’s usually easy to interpret, lessening the conceptual burden for spectators or novices trying it out for the first time, but these occurrences are achieved more through luck and referential humor than deliberate design. The addition of some basic training maps post release has given players somewhere to go, but they’re incredibly rudimentary, lacking in direction and give the player no rewards, so the only incentive to try them is getting your ass handed to you against other people.

What it does badly:

Unfortunately, what Tribes: Ascend wants to be is a game that is amazing once you spend maybe 30 hours learning to walk and shoot at the same time. You can play Tribes like a regular shooter, running around on the ground, but it will feel terrible. The whole game is balanced around the assumption that players have mastered some fairly impressive technical skills.

Like Street Fighter, no concession is made to the rookie. If you want to become a Tribes player, you’ll do it sweating blood and tears. For people who enjoy that, or have enough shooter experience to be able to get the feel of it intuitively, great. So, like 10% of your potential audience. Whoopie.

In particular, being able to even achieve lasting damage in the game is somewhat dependent on mastering the aim of some particularly finicky weapons. You have a low ammo count, so amongst newer players it’s not uncommon for two people to run each other entirely out of ammo because neither can actually hit the other reliably enough to stop their halo-style health regeneration kicking in. This is possibly the most frustrating thing I’ve ever experienced in any shooter game and the fact that, at least originally, there was no place you could go and practice against moving targets that mimicked the target profile of another player at all was more than a little awful. Due to negative feedback, the target practice mode was added , if only to save both you and some other guy the anguish that is trying to bite someone strolling across the map with your flag to death because you spent enough ammunition to level a small city block trying to hit his buddy wearing the scifi equivalent of a loincloth and rollerskates. Yet the tacked on style and lack of direction mean that such a training mode is once again only really suited to advanced players, not the ones who really need to train.

This is further exacerbated by the fact that Tribes in its standard format is a teamwork heavy game. Players have serious roles to play that involve things other than shooting at the closest bad guy. There’s no attempt made to explain these necessities and how they’re handled to players, which leads to Moba-level raging when new players do what is completely natural and fly around shooting at people while veterans rip their hair out in frustration. There are tools to communicate what to do, but without the context provided by training, they fall flat for new players. So the typical competitive-rookie divide grows sharper and players are turned away.

The result:

Tribes: Ascend is pretty clearly a failed experiment. It’s not an unsalvagable one and if HiRez persist for a few more years, I think it will resurrect once the level of archived content reaches a critical level that lets people buy into the game without needing the developer’s assistance. But will the servers still be up by then? Who knows.

I think it’s no exaggeration to say that Tribes Ascend has performed poorly specifically because the developers neglected providing sufficient well designed training and tutorial content in the game. Tribes is perhaps one of the most innovative and engaging shooter genres, one that remains more or less unique in terms of its core mechanical concept (high speed player movement combined with low speed weapon projectiles). Like many games, it spiked high on launch, but without the ability to train and grow in a structured environment, the player-base quickly waned and now we’re left with a community similar to the one that tribes has had traditionally. Small, closed, high skilled and insular.

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3) League of Legends:

League of Legends has made inroads into improving player experience and play quality, but has it achieved anything in that regard when it comes to helping players learn the game? Perhaps. Perhaps not. The game has yet another very rudimentary, if well executed, tutorial that covers the basic control system and objectives of the game. Like many popular games, the developers seem content to leave players to manage their own training through custom games and other ad-hoc solutions however. League does provide a very well integrated VS-AI mode that gives players legitimate rewards comparable to playing against other people (for a limited time) and so is more enticing than similar play in Street Fighter or Tribes.

What it does well:

League of Legends goes out of its way to be welcoming to new players and reward them for engaging with the game. For new players, playing vs AI is weighted similarly to playing against humans, which helps reduce ladder anxiety for players unfamiliar with competitive gaming. Champion rotations and the F2P economy stagger the weight of information a player has to take on and social mechanics designed to encourage players to be welcoming and supportive help mitigate some of tensions and apprehensions of diving into an unstructured learning environment.

What it does badly:

Despite my good feeling towards Riot, however, in terms of content explicitly designed to help players develop competency and/or mastery, League is still just as flawed in terms of design as Street Fighter or Tribes. If I’m going to point at those games as having terrible implementations, League must be tarred with the same brush. No matter how much you try and paint cute happy faces on it, learning to become a competent League of Legends player on one’s own, or even in most company, is still like toileting with sandpaper.

Given the tremendous weight of community knowledge that players must absorb, a new player to a Moba is orders of magnitude below the capabilities of even a sub-50% hack like me. Mobas take for granted a control scheme that many people have serious difficulty adapting to (inverted keyboard-mouse control where the mouse controls movement and the keyboard controls actions and interactions, whereas in almost every genre but RTS and its mechanical variants the opposite is the case- RTS being one of the most niche genres of videogame in terms of raw player count). Alongside this a player must juggle incredibly complex contextual decisions and situational awareness while performing mechanical operations that can be tricky for even veteran keyboard jockeys.

Like many other competitive games, League gives nowhere for the player to isolate and refine these skills, let alone somewhere which is catered to with League’s otherwise industry-leading player engagement strategies. The result is that, despite its intense popularity, League is still beyond the reach of many who might otherwise be fans if their introduction to the genre was better structured.

The result:

League’s huge playerbase, vibrant and creative community and intense dedication to communication and involvement masks a lot of the flaws the game holds. The sheer weight of external guides and information as well as Riot’s policy of adopting player jargon to give new entrants a handhold to pull themselves into the scene means players are more often able to get the things they need to learn down and, more importantly, why they need to learn them. Where it falls down is providing them the space to do so.

So I have still borne witness to far more people flaming out on League than getting hooked. It was particularly strange to see the infographic proudly claiming, among other epic statistics, that over 90% of league players were male. This despite the fact that, overall, the videogaming market is half female(Pg3) and a majority of those women play on PC. While I imagine those statistics come as a surprise to some, to those it doesn’t this infographic was something like saying ‘hey look at how successfully we’ve failed to reach the majority demographic in this market space!’.

While there might be other reasons, I think that the average western woman is more inclined to learn a game at her own pace without the pressure of competition and with the ability to structure and control the experience. Honestly, I think the average guy is too, but men tend to be more willing to adapt to and pressured into a PVP grinding mindset in the presence of their peers, or take out their frustrations through mindless soloqueing. Perhaps if League introduced content to help new players learn the game at their own pace without someone looking over their shoulder telling them what to do (while frequently being wrong) there might be more ladies willing to take the plunge.

For all its strengths, League still has a lot to learn

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4: Starcraft (Starcraft II)

Starcraft is an interesting beast. In some senses it demonstrates best practice for competitive game tutorial/training design. Any way you look at it, the single player campaign is clearly aimed at steadily introducing players to new units and their intended purpose bit by bit. Starcraft also features a challenge mode which trains players on core concepts like multitasking, base building and so on.

Yet, despite the claims of developers that a greater percentage of people are cutting their teeth than ever before, Starcraft still remains a game where only a tiny percentage of buyers are willing to engage in the competitive play that turned a well-received but otherwise unremarkable RTS into one of the most important videogames of the millenium.

What it does well:

Of all the games explored here, Starcraft tries the hardest to introduce players to the concepts and techniques required to play the game in isolated, carefully constructed settings with their own ludic value. The design is still ambiguous in the sense that while learning a particular skill or capability is emphasised, you can usually get by without it: there’s no gating to ensure players have picked up the desired concepts. Starcraft is also the only game of the four to provide a true, focused training mode that isolates core gameplay dynamics, gives them a space for practice and identifies them formally to the player.

What it does badly:

Unfortunately these designs, while commendable, are still not particularly effective. Blizzard’s need to make a singleplayer that is open and enjoyable for freeform play detracts from its value as training for competition, not to mention the fact that units in the singleplayer are often significantly different from their multiplayer incarnations.

The challenge modes aren’t really integrated into the whole game experience that well. They’re not signposted, beyond achievements there’s no real reward for doing them and more importantly the concepts expressed have undergone ‘Blizzardation’. Blizzard seems to shy away from using the same terminology as their community. So ‘defending a rush strat’ becomes ‘defending an early attack’. I mean, who’s ever gone up against a ‘zerg early attack’? This may seem like pedantry, but it creates a cognitive dissonance between players training in the official challenges and the competitive community. Rather than being introduced and involved with the community directly from the game, players must undergo the same linguistic trials as if they were entering the fighting game community. As we talked about in the tennis analogy, it’s important players understand that training is training FOR something. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fun, and it does mean that the skills developed are more likely to be successfully transferred.

Secondly, the challenges cap out very low. Not only can you fudge them by quicksave abuse to just get the achievements, but even not doing so getting the highest tier of the challenge isn’t particularly difficult even for a novice RTS player. An important property of analogue training is that there’s a lot more potential for skill development- since some level of competition is usually involved (often indirect a-la videogame high scores), the ‘top tier’ of the challenge is constantly rising as the skills of the training group increase. Blizzards challenges help players train to a basic level, but don’t help them really push each skill beyond their limits again and again and again in isolation, which has proven the best way of developing a player’s competitive potential for time immemorial.

The result:

Competitive Starcraft remains a game that the average player struggles to get into. A lot of games which feature dual singleplayer and multiplayer experiences have this problem- people tend to buy the game for one or the other. If you get Starcraft for the singleplayer, you’ll generally consider your experience complete if you finish that and then do nothing else but play custom maps or get challenge achievements, which in terms of the competitive side of the game is missing the point entirely.

So there still remains a gap between multiplayer and singleplayer Starcraft. Furthermore, because the challenges are solid introductions to very basic concepts, but do not scale in such a way players can focus on developing their skills to work towards the capabilities of a multiplayer veteran, there is no safe space for players to practice such development in a directed fashion. Like many competitive games the only options are to play free-form games against AI which require the player to internally isolate skills they want to practice. This means they need to understand which particular skills need practicing and why, something the game doesn’t do a great job of conveying.

As a result, very few people who own the game play competitive Starcraft. Anxiety and a feeling of being overwhelmed from going into open play holds many back and frustration with slow progress and continually making the same mistakes creates a high dropout rate. Once again, real efforts by the developer to open up the game to new blood are far more clumsy than they should be given the care put into the rest of the game.

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What we can learn:

Let’s just pause to remember that we’re talking about a very specific thing here: tutorials and training players to be capable players of a competitive game. We must assume a baseline of skill to be considered capable– I’m not capable of playing tennis if I serve a game of double faults more than 50% of the time, or even if I do so around 30-40% of the time. I’m not capable of playing soccer if I can’t pass a ball accurately to an unguarded teammate. The same sorts of baseline skills can be argued for the competitive games above- executing a bread and butter combo reliably, hit a guy with enough reliability that you can actually kill them before you run out of ammo, get a few last hits per minute, macro an army that can beat an easy AI. Without these skills- which actually are quite difficult to achieve for non-gamers- a player cannot experience the intended basic flow of gameplay the designers expect them to and are consequently excluded absolutely from the intended play experience.

The absolute minimum baseline of these tutorials/training should be to reliably get a new player with no assumed knowledge or outside assistance whatsoever to this level of ‘capability’. Achieving this objective would allow a game to develop a new audience independent of the efforts of its own community. The more popular a game is and the larger its existing community, the less absolutely essential this is (as in League), but for games with tiny, insular or non-existent communities, it is crucial (as in Tribes). Even for games with large communities, such design might allow new demographics to be reached and brought into the community more successfully (as with women in League of Legends)

Here are what I would say are the crucial design goals of such an endeavour:

  1. It must be rewarding in its own right

The most important value of any videogame design is that any activity the designer desires the player to undertake must be rewarding, either through engagement or some kind of external reward. Activities which have lower engagement necessitate a larger external reward and vice versa, though that’s not to say you can’t make an activity both engaging and rewarding.

So training or tutorials must be fun in and of their own right. If they’re not, a player needs to already have the desire to be a competitive player to endure them, something we want to avoid- this training should help show people why they would enjoy competitive play, not the other way around.

  1. It must clearly communicate context

Tutorials and training must communicate their purpose in the larger scheme of things clearly and in language that is in common use amongst the existing player community. It’s no use creating a masterful minigame in which people are trained to do X perfectly if they don’t realize that X is a feature of the larger game, or they do, but can’t recognize when and when not to apply their skills. This often means stepping outside the fourth wall and talking frankly to the player, which may on the surface break immersion and engagement. What this fails to recognize is that learning a game is an immersive experience, on a level up from the narrative setup used to draw the player along. You may break their immersion in the story, but you won’t break their immersion in the game.

  1. It must provide a controlled environment

Training is something that a player must have control over. As I discussed in my article on Portal 2, the tutorial’s function is to provide a safe, contained environment for skill development away from the wild world of emergent challenges. Tutorials should emphasize a player’s development and ability to proceed at their own pace. Training should be able to be smoothly stopped, restarted, made easier or harder. Rewards provide incentive for players not normally inclined to push themselves to do so. Every attempt should be made to ensure a player has the flexibility to control their own development.

  1. It must isolate and identify particular skills

The purpose of tutorials and training is to give a player the chance to focus on understanding and developing a skill or skillset in isolation. This is a far more efficient and rewarding way of developing skills than simply participating in the full, formal game. Training and tutorial systems should carefully identify and break down skills required for gameplay and present them in such a way that their relevance to the main game is understood, but that the tutorial environment gives the player the freedom to focus on them one by one or in smaller combinations, without the pressure of being in an environment that taxes other skills as well.

  1. It must support endless development

Perhaps the most important quality of competitive training is the ability to scale with the player’s skills. Training should always be capable of raising or lowering the bar, as it were. It’s not as if this is a foreign concept to videogame design: it’s the core idea that popularised the first videogames at the dawn of the medium. A single, simple mechanical exercise that grows in difficulty until eventually the player can’t keep up. Victory is not in absolutes, but in beating a personal best. Thus, every round can provide a new victory and every player can find their own limits and test them constantly.

_________________________________________

So those are my thoughts. As with all my indepth articles, this is a springboard for future discussion and design practice. I’d like to talk about the community designed micro and macro maps in starcraft, how League might go about integrating training modes with their reward models and so on, but I think you’ve probably all had enough for one day XD.

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