Interview: Soren Johnson on Tutorials

sorenjohnson.jpgSoren Johnson has made a career developing interfaces between humans and computers (the focus of his Masters in CS from Stanford), but not in the way you might first think: he makes games. Co-designer of the computer strategy game Civilization 3 and lead designer of best-in-series Civilization 4, Soren is currently helping put the finishing touches as a designer/programmer on the upcoming Spore.

You can read more of Soren's thoughts on human-computer interaction and games—like why Harry Potter's Quidditch would be an awful game—at his blog, Designer-Notes.

Joel: Games and gadgets both use polished interfaces to complex systems. Why then are tutorials common in games, but rare in consumer electronics, when they share a similar use profile: repeating complex actions to extract a response.

I suspect there is a perception that having to learn how to use a gadget indicates the design is poor. When building a game, is there a point where the need for a tutorial indicates unwieldy complexity in a design? Are tutorials a necessary evil?

Soren: I am a bit surprised that tutorials within games are more standard than within other electronic products because game tutorials have the additional limitation that they should be fun. If you buy an MP3 player, you are going to want to use it—you aren't questioning whether you actually enjoy listening to music or not. With a game, however, you are constantly evaluating if the game is worth the time you are investing in it. An overly dull tutorial (or, even worse, an overly challenging one) can cause the player to quit before he or she even gets to the "real" game.

In general, the best solution is to teach the player the game as they go along. The player's most important experience is the game's first 15-30 minutes; this is where you either hook the player or lose them, so having them sit down for what is essentially a training video can be really dangerous. On the other hand, game genres have developed certain standards that are almost completely lost on new players. With Civilization 4, a brand new gamer needs to learn the concept of a "turn" in order to play, and our tutorial was aimed at these players as, yes, sort of a necessary evil.

Once people understand turns and left/right-clicking (or are not afraid to just experiment), we orient the design to make sure that the first play-through would be fun, without any game mechanic stumbling blocks. The AI, for example, will not declare war on the human at the first difficulty level. Further, every time you are given a choice in Civ 4—what you want to research, what building you want to construct, where to move your workers, where to found a city, etc.—we always provide the player with a couple good recommendations. They can follow our suggestions as long as they still feel like they are learning the game. It's important to take a comprehensive approach to the player's first experience.

Joel: The "I just want this thing to work" factor does seem to be a limiting one in gadgetry, which may be why the companies try to avoid a tutorial process altogether. In fact, the most prominent example that springs to mind is the Microsoft Office "Clippy," which attempted to provide context-sensitive assistance, but was almost universally reviled.But presuming an on-first-startup question like "Have you used X-Brand Y-Product before?" dialog, it still seems that a tutorial process could be valuable to most users. (I can't tell you how many people end up not knowing how to take advantage of even basic functionality in their gadgets. It's often not even that they don't know how to use a feature; it's that they don't even know that feature exists!)

How would you personally approach the addition of a tutorial to a device without getting in the way of an impatient user?

Soren: Tutorials don't exist in a vacuum. To me, the key is making sure that we offer the tutorial to the user at the right time. Tutorials should not be a series of lessons you have to sit through before the device "unlocks"—the user will probably just jump through the instructions as quickly as possible, retaining little of the useful info. When a user get a new device, presumably there are a couple obvious things that he or she wants to try out right away. These options should get interface priority so that it is almost impossible to miss them. ("Shuffle all songs" would be an obvious one for MP3 players.) The tutorial themselves should unlock slowly as the user explores the device looking for the advanced functionality. Designers should remember that the user can only learn so much per session - think of the tutorials as a slow drip where you are just as concerned with the 20th time the device gets used as you are with the first.

One tutorial method devices could learn from the game world is "load screen tips", which appear a lot in modern games. For Civ 4, we compiled a list of about 100 interface tips and strategy hints (such as "Double clicking on a stack of units will group them together") and presented them during our loading screens. This method was a great way to teach the players advanced functionality that they were not ready to digest when they first started the game.

Joel: So what's the best real world example of tutorial you've ever come across?

Soren: I've seen lots of good tutorials, but I'm finding it hard to think of great ones. Making a great tutorial may be the hardest part of the developments process; it's certainly the part I find the hardest. I would like to mention one interesting thing that Prince of Persia: Sands of Time did which served as a tutorial even though it didn't feel like one. Between levels, you would see a black-and-white dream sequence which showed some of the moves you needed to make to pass the upcoming area. The visuals were not specific enough that it spoiled the puzzles, but they did introduce you to the advanced moves you would need so that you were better prepared for a new challenge. I had never done a wall run before, but when I saw one during the dream sequence, I immediately became aware that there was a new skill I should master in order to pass the next level. The game still took the time to teach me the literal button presses needed to do a wall run, but the dream sequence did a great job of making me want to learn this new move because I saw the context for it. Finding a way to show off cool features to encourage learning is a great idea—Google seems to be doing this as well with their product video demos for Street View and whatnot.

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