I’m not emerging from hiding. This is based on some old draft notes that I had and a post from Tobold about the ESO tutorial stirred up some ideas.
The question emerged, how does one create a starting experience that is representative of the later game-play. Traditionally games start simple and add complexity later. Jumping straight into a fully detailed world with no guidance can be confusing, and that will prevent some people from playing further. That is why the tutorial exists. It provides a quick (or sometimes not so quick), run-through of the game mechanics, often twinned with some sort of narrative to introduce you to the game-world. As a simplified system it works nicely. It also introduces the idea that more mechanics will be added over time as a reward for your progress.
There is fairly large problem with gameplay tutorials. If the game finishes great, but starts with just the bare-bones gameplay there is a great risk that the introduction stage will be the only thing that a prospective player ever sees. Tests and review are rarely based on anything more than the first hour or so of gameplay and that is a deliberately dumbed down version of the end-game. Sometimes the tutorial doesn’t play in a way that is remotely similar to later gameplay. Then people who like the end-game give up before they see it, and those that like the intro stop when everything changes. The first hour is the most important because that is where the attention is grabbed. An unrepresentative tutorial creates an unbalanced opinion on the rest of the game.
The gradual increase of complexity also gives rise to the phenomenon of people saying that the game gets better after level x so you have to grind through those levels before judging it. Shouldn’t the whole experience be fun? I don’t want to do 10 hours of boring grind before I get to see fun.
There are some games I have played recently that use a tutorial yet still give you a glimpse of what things might be light at higher levels.
Cardhunter throws you into combat with a group of high level cards and characters against a powerful foe that you completely blast apart. Dragonage 2 has a similar start, throwing you into the game with a high powered character that blows away the opposition (and introduces one spell every couple of seconds to stop yourself getting overwhelmed with all the new stuff). Both of them give you a taste of future power through their framing narrative. One is explicitly about a game and stated that you’ve jumped ahead towards the end. The other uses the an unreliable narrator he exaggerates the story until he is told to dial it down to more realistic levels. What they have in common is that they give you a short taste of power. They open the door to end-game and say “This is what I am about.” They let players form a more accurate impression of whether or not they will like this game while also allowing for the traditional tutorial introduction to play-style and world-building.
The quick power boost at the start to show you what the future holds is nothing new. Go back 30 years and Mario has stars that give you a short burst of invincibility and let you run through a level with fewer worries (and telling you this is what the game is always like if you get really good at it).
I think somewhere out there games have become so complex that they need to be scaled back for new players, but in doing so we have been left with incomplete games through the learning experience. Is it still possible to create a tutorial that accurately recreates late-game experiences? If not then it becomes hugely important that the game allows for frequent short bursts of power both as a reward to the player and to allow them to get a feel of the “true game” at an early stage.