Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Don't Forget the Instructions

Block Village

When you are working on a game, it is easy to lose track of the knowledge you have about how your game works - knowledge that may not be obvious to other people.

When playtesting and reviewing XBLIG games, it is amazing how often I find myself in a situation where I am confused about what to do, or miss an important aspect of gameplay. I've also certainly been guilty of putting others in the same situation with my games, but I'm trying to be better about that.

Here are a few thoughts on the subject of game instructions:
  • You need instructions! It doesn't matter how simple you think your game is, you need to explicitly tell people how to play otherwise you will lose some of them. A confused player probably won't buy your game.
  • Don't assume people will read them. Just because you have instructions squirreled away in your options menu doesn't mean that people will read them. Instructions are boring - people will skip them. Providing gameplay information in the context of the actual gameplay itself is the best way to ensure the player will actually see it. In Kung Fu FIGHT!, I display in-game control hints in the early stages and I also display gameplay tips when the player dies.
  • Keep it simple. The best way to get people to read your instructions is to keep things concise and straightforward. Ten pages chock full of instructions will put people off. If your game really is that complicated, try to introduce concepts gradually and explain them when they become relevant.
  • Playtest makes perfect. As the person who knows everything there is to know about your game, you are the absolute worst person to judge which aspects of gameplay are obvious and which are not - you need to have other people play it. Kung Fu FIGHT! has been a clear example of this for me. People testing the game got frustrated because they didn't understand that certain actions were possible. The game difficulty level is plenty hard enough without confusion adding to it. Playtest feedback has allowed me to identify confusing situations and ensure that the player gets the information they need.
You really need to give your game instructions the attention they deserve. While it isn't the most sexy or fun aspect of game design, it is too much important to overlook.


    1. You know, this is a common topic among indie developers. Especially XBLIG, where you have such a short timespan to get the attention of your audience. If they can't figure out how to play, then...good luck.

      This is a drawback to the enforced trial period, as it doesn't encourage the player to discover the controls. In some cases, the controls may be great.

      Personally, I'd rather the game not teach me how to play it. If, I'm unsure about an action or how it works, I'd rather consult the manual. That's the problem right? No manuals.

      I'm wondering if Mario 64 had any ingame tutorials, I can't recall.. The controls may have been daunting at one point, but no one complained - or at least I didn't.

      In anycase, it looks like your on the right track.


    2. Yep, manuals are definitely a thing of the past and in-game hand-holding is now pretty much a necessity regardless of the platform.

      I have mixed feelings about the the trial period. On the one hand it is limiting, but on the other hand it is certainly necessary to aggressively limit the trial experience - particularly at the $1 price point.