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  • Bruno Freitas

Ease of use. How can we make games more intuitive?

My first game on Steam wasn’t a big commercial success, it actually sold one thousand copies in six months, and more than half of it was in a bundle. There’s a lot of reasons behind this, specially on the marketing side of things, but in one aspect Duo was done right: anyone could learn how to play it in seconds. In this post I will write about how I achieved this ease of use and how it can be applied in your project.

1. School sucks

Winston Churchill once said “I love learning, but hate being taught” and this is almost an universal truth. Our brains are hardwired to enjoy learning, actually Raph Koster even said in his book a Theory of Fun for Game Design “Fun is just another word for learning”, so it’s safe to assume that your player wants to learn how to play your game. The problem is with the “hate being taught” part, people only like to being taught if they are actively searching for it, for example if you are reading an article about a new 3D modelling technique, and not when you want to shoot aliens on their face. So as a game designer it’s your duty to teach your player without letting him know it.

The easiest way to achieve this is by doing your tutorial through your level design. If you force your player to perform a specific action in order to advance in your game you can assure that he will need to learn this action. The challenge here is to create your level in a way that guide your player toward the realization of this action, without telling him directly what he needs to do, exactly as Super Mario does using the negative space on the screen to make you walk to the right side. Actually the entire level 1-1 of Super Mario Bros can give a great class about teaching the player through level design as you can see in this amazing video done by Extra Credits:

In Duo you can clearly see this approach at the first two levels of the game:

The first level is simple and doesn't really have a puzzle, it allows the player to experiment with the controls and understand how to move the characters. The great majority of players will die on their first try, but the level restarts fast and allows the player to try again. The fact that this level is so simple that the player doesn't lose any valuable progress greatly diminishes his frustration. At the end of this level I know that the player will have learned a lot of things such as:

  • The characters movement - both characters will move at the same time;

  • The win condition - The level is built in a way that both characters will arrive next to each other, but the player won’t win until the characters face each other;

  • The basic controls of the game - The level has only one correct path where the player will have used all basic commands to reach i

I also can assume that the player learned the lose condition since most players die at their first try. If the player didn’t die, it’s because he understood that falling is not a good thing and avoided that move.


Duo’s First Level

The second level is also simple since the main objective here is to teach the player how to use walls to desynchronize characters movement. Because not all of Duo's puzzles are symmetric, the player needs to move a character into a wall, so only the character that has it’s path free will walk, this way the player can control the position of the characters in differents ways to find the puzzle’s solution.

This level is also simple and fast, so the punishment for making a mistake is very small. This gives the player the secure space that he needs to experiment with the wall mechanics. The level layout is made in a way that the player also understand that a wall can’t be between the characters to achieve victory.


Duo’s second Level

Some people can say that teaching this mechanics to the player without any text is only possible because Duo is a game with very simple controls and core mechanics. I beg to disagree and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will show you guys why.

In Breath of the Wild there’s a “body temperature” mechanic and there are a lot of factors that can change Link’s temperature, from the climate to the weapon that he has equipped. If the character body temperature gets too cold or too hot it will start to take damage and eventually die.

The game tells the player about this mechanic only one time in a small tooltip, but reinforces it through the gameplay several times. In one of the first missions of the game, you have to go through a snowy area and when you get there Link will start shaking and rubbing his hands in his arms, his temperature gauge will get blue and will start to to blink to get the player’s attention. If the player doesn't take action and do something to revert this condition the character will start to take damage, and this will put the player in a alert status, this will make him access the menu and when he does it he will see a bigger picture of link shaking with cold shivers.

This happens at the beginning of the game so if the player tries to walk through the snow without being properly equipped and end up dying nothing valuable will be lost, allowing the user to rapidly be back to where he was.

Image of Link cold shivering at the menu.

2. Nobody really reads

I don’t really know if there’s a study about how much people read while playing games, but I think we can assume it’s even less. Not only because mostly people don’t like to spend too much time reading but also because when people go play, they expect to play the game and not read it (unless they are playing some visual novel or maybe a jrpg, but you get it). The important thing here is to understand that you can’t be sure that people will read what you will write, so never put crucial information in text form or if you really need to use text try to make it minimal.

There’s a famous quote from Don Norman, writer of the classic Design of Everyday Things that goes like this “Any time you see signs or labels added to a device, it is an indication of bad design: a simple lock should not require instructions”. This is also true for games, if you need a label to tell your player how to perform basic actions such as jumping, opening his inventory or doing any other basic functions, it’s an indication of bad design and you should put more thought on it. So keep your labels to your over complex or innovative mechanics.

If there’s important information that your team can’t find a way to explain without resorting to long texts, a last resource would be to use your item store. The store is one of the only moments that you can almost guarantee that your player will read every description to use his limited resource (money) in the best way possible.

Here I can show two mistakes I made while developing Duo. There’s two non-core mechanics that I tried to teach the player through text. How to move the camera and how to undo moves. In both cases most of the players did one of two things happen:

  1. The player didn’t read the text and just played the game as if the mechanic didn’t even exist.

  2. The player read and understand how the mechanic works, just to forget about it after two levels and never use it again.

The mistake here was not only teach the player using text and not reinforcing it through gameplay, but also not giving enough highlight to the text.


3. Almost never spoon feed

Spoon feeding is the act of give out information in an overly obvious, even patronizing manner. It’s really common in the game industry for developers to underestimate theirs players and tell them exactly what they should do. This happens many times because the developers fear that a player will get frustrated if they don’t know what to do and stop playing their game. While this is true, it’s necessary to find a balance between what you should explicitly tell your player, and what you should let him explore and find out alone. This is important because spoon feeding the wrong information WILL make your players feel dumb, and if they are experienced may even make them feel insulted. It also diminishes the intrinsic motivation of the player since he won’t feel that he accomplished something if the developers are telling him exactly what to do. A good test to know what to spoon feed and what not is to take out of your game all of your spoon feeding feedbacks and test it. This way you will be able to see what your players can learn by themselves and what is not clear enough. It’s ok to spoon feed your players once in awhile, because some mechanics may be to innovative for them, but finding the right information to give them is the key here.

In Duo there’s almost no spoon feeding, with the exception of the two mechanics previously mentioned that corroborates to with what I said here about spoon feeding being a bad idea.

4. Give your player time

Scott Rogers said in his book Level Up that “in the best games, players are always learning new moves, gaining new gear, experiencing new gameplay, and constantly learning”. This is not a coincidence, Koster also said that the fun of games comes from the learning, so when a player understand and dominates every mechanic the game becomes tedious. When you introduce mechanics in a gradual way, not only you give your player more time to experience and learn with them, you also make that he will take more time to become bored. So it’s important that the game mechanics be taught as they are inserted in your gameplay.

More complex mechanics should be taught later in the game, the objective here is to make that when your player needs to learn mechanics that need much text to be explained, he already invested enough time not to give up on your game. For example in the game Plants vs Zombie, the shop is only introduced after 20 levels. Teaching mechanics through the game course also improves the player retention and skill gains, in addition to distributing the cognitive load, not overloading the user.

The game Portal does this very well, it’s basically a tutorial on how to beat it, but it does it in such a splendid way that the user doesn't notice that he’s just on a great tutorial. This happens because each challenge of Portal teaches the player something new about the game and that should be used in the next levels. I also tried to do it on Duo, during the game the user will learn new mechanics and approaches, always giving him time to understand and experiment, the boundaries of each one.


5. Affordances

Affordances are visual clues that an object gives to the user of how it should be operated. This is a very important topic because elements with well constructed affordances will make your player understand how to use it in seconds, making the entire system more intuitive. Affordances help to lower the textual load needed and diminishes the cognitive load of the player. Affordances also can be used in a contrary way to surprise your player. An example of objects with good affordances are the Overwatch characters. Only looking at them you can say a lot about their personality and play style.

In Duo affordances are used in the entire system. When I developed the characters as a representation of a couple and put them separated in the map was a subtle way to indicate the objective of the game; making that the characters get together again. This was even brought up on a play test session when a player told me that only looking at a screenshot of the game, the objective to reunite the couple was obvious.


Overwatch characters

6. Conclusion

I hope that this article helps you guys understand the importance of teaching your players and create more intuitive games. If you have any doubt you can contact me at brunosly@gmail.com also leave your comments here so we can discuss this topic further.

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©2018 by Bruno Freitas.