We in­ves­ti­gate the grow­ing trend of leav­ing out tu­to­ri­als in favour of let­ting play­ers find their own way

Why de­vel­op­ers are in­creas­ingly choos­ing to leave play­ers in the dark – and how those play­ers are work­ing to­gether to light the way

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY BEN MAXWELL

Squeeze L2 just as an en­emy in Blood­borne raises its arm to attack and the Quick­sil­ver Bul­let you fire has a chance of stag­ger­ing them. Fol­low that up with a light attack while stand­ing close enough and you’ll pull off a dev­as­tat­ing Vis­ceral Attack, which also knocks nearby enemies back and ren­ders you in­vul­ner­a­ble dur­ing the an­i­ma­tion. It’s a twist on Dark Souls’ parry-and-ri­poste sys­tem that per­fectly en­cap­su­lates

Blood­borne’s more ag­gres­sive de­sign, which en­cour­ages play­ers to take risks, but it’s not de­scribed by any of the game’s tu­to­rial notes.

Blood­borne’s back­stab ma­noeu­vre is sim­i­larly enig­matic: sneak within strik­ing dis­tance of your quarry, charge a strong attack and then, af­ter the en­emy has dropped to its knee, fol­low through with a light attack again to in­flict colos­sal amounts of dam­age. We’ve come to ex­pect games in the Souls se­ries to with­hold in­for­ma­tion from us, and Blood­borne, while not of­fi­cially part of that lin­eage, is no dif­fer­ent. But From-Soft­ware’s mis­chie­vously se­lec­tive di­vul­gence of me­chan­ics that may of­fer a size­able ad­van­tage to play­ers is part of a grow­ing trend among de­vel­op­ers.

More of­ten than not, this de­sign ethic goes hand-in-hand with a par­tic­u­lar breed of games built on a sin­gu­lar vi­sion. Think Re­so­gun, Su­per

Time Force or, of course, Minecraft: all games that re­serve their high-level me­chan­ics for the most ded­i­cated and cu­ri­ous (or, at least, any­one pre­pared to skim-read a wiki). But it is the Souls se­ries and Blood­borne that are most read­ily and fre­quently as­so­ci­ated with hid­den depths, and the rip­ples of their in­flu­ence have had a pro­found ef­fect on the way de­sign­ers think about their games, some­times in the most un­likely of ways. Even Need For Speed: Ri­vals adopted a Souls- es­que ap­proach to XP.

“I think you’re slightly ex­ag­ger­at­ing the in­flu­ence of my work, though,” says From-Soft­ware pres­i­dent Hide­taka Miyazaki, who di­rected Dark Souls and Blood­borne. “If such a trend re­ally is emerg­ing, I’d have to say it’s be­cause work­ing to com­pre­hend some­thing – and then com­pre­hend­ing it – is just plain fun. In a way it’s a very per­sonal me­chanic, I think, one which de­rives a unique and spe­cial mean­ing from or­di­nary in-game ac­tions.

“You see the same thing in boardgames, of which I am an avid player. You can read the rule­book and un­der­stand the game that way, or you can jump in and learn the ropes as you go. Though ei­ther poses a high hur­dle to sur­mount, both are fun in their own right.

“I sup­pose it’s like play­ing Diplo­macy and, af­ter hav­ing grasped the rules, even­tu­ally find­ing strate­gies pop up in your head ev­ery time you lay eyes on a [blank] map.”

The boardgame anal­ogy is an ap­pro­pri­ate one. Like videogame de­sign­ers, boardgame cre­ators are in­creas­ingly try­ing to min­imise the time it takes to go from open­ing the box to play­ing the game, their man­u­als shrink­ing, and high-level strate­gies of­ten go­ing un­men­tioned. But a cru­cial dif­fer­ence be­tween the two is that very few boardgames can de­lib­er­ately leave the player to fig­ure out how to move the pieces.

“This is the same log­i­cal frame­work pow­er­ing ideas such as dif­fi­culty level and sense of ful­fil­ment,” Miyazaki says. “To feel ful­filled, you must first have a goal that needs ful­fill­ing. At the same time, it must ac­tu­ally be pos­si­ble to ful­fil said goal – the over­ar­ch­ing idea at hand needs to be some­thing that is com­pre­hen­si­ble. I think I’m bound to catch a bit of flak about that last bit. It’s hard to gauge where that sweet spot ac­tu­ally is, you know? Of­ten, I hear my ideas are more in­com­pre­hen­si­ble than not. So I guess I’ve got a lot of homework to do.”

Or per­haps not, since there are plenty of peo­ple al­ready do­ing it on Miyazaki’s be­half. Wiki com­mu­ni­ties have long gath­ered around com­plex games to de­ci­pher them, but few are as ded­i­cated to the cause as those that grav­i­tate to From-Soft­ware’s out­put. One of the most

suc­cess­ful and com­pre­hen­sive of th­ese fan­cu­rated sites is Fex­tral­ife.

“Back in 2008, when De­mon’s Souls first launched, Ja­panese fans were lost as to what to do, or where to go in the game world,” Fex­tral­ife owner and head ad­min Fex­e­lea, who prefers to be known by her fo­rum user­name, re­calls. “Re­views were harsh, and Sony ini­tially de­cided not to go for in­ter­na­tional re­lease. The stub­born among us de­cided not to give up, and started record­ing our find­ings on the Live­door-hosted Ja­panese wiki.

“Slowly but surely, we cre­ated a re­source that took a dif­fi­cult and mys­tery-shrouded game and doc­u­mented the whole damned thing. I find my­self seven years later with an ac­ci­den­tal mission: that any gamer can feel wel­come in the RPG they want to try, and they feel there’s a com­mu­nity there for them with ideas, sup­port and sim­ple or in-depth ex­pla­na­tions for com­pli­cated or ob­scure con­cepts. In short, the ac­ces­si­ble hard­core game can hap­pen; it’s served as an ob­scure master­piece with a side of wiki.”

A less gen­er­ous in­ter­pre­ta­tion of this sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship could be that wiki con­trib­u­tors are plug­ging a gap where a de­vel­oper failed to fully com­mu­ni­cate the in­tri­ca­cies of its game, but Fex­e­lea cer­tainly doesn’t see it like that.

“Peo­ple still dis­cuss the sym­bol­ogy of the orig­i­nal Twin Peaks TV se­ries, or the story arc of Lost,” she says. “Some old-school RPG devo­tees ar­gue about the end of Phan­tasy Star II. None of that means there has been a nar­ra­tive gap in those fran­chises. I think From en­joys the com­mu­nity ral­ly­ing around dis­cov­ery and in­ter­pre­ta­tion. For this rea­son, they hint at se­crets and in­clude se­cre­tive items such as the Yhar­nam Stone or Ring Of Be­trothal. They also en­joy red her­rings and send­ing fans on wild goose chases – [as with] Miyazaki’s Dark Souls Pen­dant com­ment. [Miyazaki es­sen­tially pranked play­ers by say­ing that the arte­fact was in some way im­por­tant when, in fact, it was use­less.] There are no gaps. This was meant for us to in­ter­pret, and that’s what we en­joy!”

Miyazaki him­self is sim­i­larly en­thused: “Not in my wildest dreams did I think to­day’s pas­sion­ate com­mu­nity would come into be­ing while De­mon’s Souls was in devel­op­ment – most of us were wor­ried whether or not play­ers would se­ri­ously take to the game, and De­mon’s Souls spark­ing such a won­der­ful fan pres­ence has been a source of great per­sonal joy. I don’t make games un­der the as­sump­tion that the same light­ning will strike [ev­ery time], but I al­ways har­bour the hope that my cre­ations have enough depth to war­rant such de­bate, shar­ing, and com­mu­nity en­joy­ment. In a sense, in­fus­ing games with that kind of po­ten­tial for top­i­cal­ity helps bring about a type of col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween de­vel­oper and end-user. As a game cre­ator, I find that idea sim­ply en­thralling.”

The De­mon’s Souls team might have been un­sure of the game’s ap­peal, but a happy side ef­fect of this un­com­pro­mis­ing ap­proach to de­sign is that it brings peo­ple to­gether over your game. From a PR per­spec­tive, it’s an ideal sit­u­a­tion, and one em­braced by both Sony and

Lords Of The Fallen stu­dio CI Games, which in­vited Fex­e­lea to see their games at E3, ahead of re­lease. We’d still wa­ger that a pro­por­tion of sales from word of mouth end in non­plussed re­turns as play­ers more used to Un­charted clat­ter into, say, Blood­borne’s un­for­giv­ing open­ing few hours. But per­haps just as many will find so­lace in wikis such as Fex­tral­ife and YouTu­bers in­clud­ing Michael Sa­muels, who makes Souls and Blood­borne- re­lated videos for his chan­nel, VaatiVidya.

“I think the dif­fi­culty and am­bi­gu­ity is ex­actly what draws most peo­ple on­line,” Sa­muels tells us. “Once you search for help, it’s very easy to stum­ble upon the huge on­line pres­ence the game has. I sup­pose I see what I do as a ‘ser­vice’ role. With VaatiVidya, I want to cre­ate con­tent that is sup­ple­men­tary to the Souls/Blood­borne ex­pe­ri­ence, and many view­ers com­ment that my videos have helped them un­der­stand and en­gage with the games, and that’s some­thing I want to keep build­ing upon. When a game like this re­leases, the com­mu­nity unites in a hunt to dis­cover all the se­crets. It’s great to be a part of that.”

“Most peo­ple will learn the ‘feel’ of the me­chan­ics and go with the flow,” Fex­e­lea says. “A few, how­ever, will take on the task of un­veil­ing spe­cific frame data for par­ry­ing, and sin­gle out the best weapon for the task, for ex­am­ple. Oth­ers will work out stamina re­gen­er­a­tion per­cent­ages based on com­plex math and video cap­tures with frame-by-frame com­par­isons. Still oth­ers will spend hours com­pil­ing a spread­sheet of all pos­si­ble scal­ing data to add a cal­cu­la­tor to the wiki. This drive to help oth­ers and un­der­stand how things work, which is gen­er­ated by the com­mu­nity, is very en­joy­able to me – it makes all the hard work worth it.”

The abil­ity of com­mu­ni­ties to un­lock and pro­mote the po­ten­tial of cer­tain games – which, with­out guid­ance, many play­ers might miss – is some­thing Fron­tier De­vel­op­ments CEO and Elite co-cre­ator David Braben sees as a hugely im­por­tant part of the mod­ern land­scape. And some­times, even the de­vel­oper is sur­prised by what th­ese in­trepid play­ers dis­cover. “If you look at a game like

Minecraft, and the vast amount of com­mu­nity sup­port it has, it’s got a life of its own now,” he says. “I think it’s re­ally nice to be part of that, to see a com­mu­nity build­ing. For me, watch­ing all th­ese peo­ple’s [ Elite] YouTube videos about, say, fly­ing with Flight As­sist off, which ac­tu­ally is some­thing play­ers use rel­a­tively lit­tle, is as­ton­ish­ing. I can’t do half the things I’ve seen done in those videos! They’re re­ally good. It’s re­ally nice to see mech­a­nisms [we’ve de­signed] com­bined and used in ways we hadn’t ex­pected. The beauty of YouTube and the whole com­mu­nity is it shows peo­ple what is pos­si­ble.”

The rise of Early Ac­cess – a model used by Elite: Danger­ous – is cer­tainly an­other con­tribut­ing fac­tor in this shift to­wards scanter tu­to­ri­al­i­sa­tion. Play­ers jump on­board in the game’s for­ma­tive stages, long be­fore the fi­nal me­chan­ics and struc­ture are locked down, and that catal­y­ses – or ar­guably ne­ces­si­tates – the same kind of wiki and YouTube com­mu­ni­ties that From­Soft­ware’s out­put in­spires. But out­side the worlds de­fined by the search for souls and Blood Echoes, there is less propen­sity to as­sume that de­sign am­bi­gu­ity is in­ten­tional. This was high­lighted dur­ing the launch of Elite:

Danger­ous when a large swathe of play­ers strug­gled to un­der­stand the game’s dock­ing pro­ce­dure – de­spite, iron­i­cally, Fron­tier De­vel­op­ments mak­ing an ex­haus­tive man­ual avail­able on­line – un­aware that the land­ing pads would only ac­cept craft that were ori­ented in the cor­rect di­rec­tion.

“That’s some­thing I’m in two minds about – we should prob­a­bly have changed it,” Braben says. “I don’t know, we could have just put in an ex­tra thing that turns your ship 180 de­grees when you come in to land. It’s nice do­ing it your­self, but I think th­ese are things we may add. And you sud­denly think [af­ter the game is re­leased], ‘Oh, I did mean to think about whether we should do that.’”

Be­fore re­lease, there’s an­other very prac­ti­cal rea­son for leav­ing tu­to­ri­als out, as famed Garry’s

Mod and Rust cre­ator, and Fa­cepunch Stu­dios founder,

Garry New­man high­lights: with so much in flux, it would re­quire a huge amount of re­sources to keep things up to date. Even doc­u­men­ta­tion or tu­to­ri­als cre­ated just a month ago might al­ready be ob­so­lete. Of course, the close re­la­tion­ship be­tween de­vel­oper and play­ers dur­ing Early Ac­cess fur­ther re­duces the need to ex­plain me­chan­ics, since that dis­cus­sion takes place in real time as a ti­tle evolves. Ev­ery­one who’s bought into the process is well-versed in how to play the game by the time it’s ready for a re­lease, and since that col­lec­tive might num­ber in the tens of thou­sands, there’s re­duced in­cen­tive for de­vel­op­ers to spend more time and money on build­ing in-depth tu­to­ri­als.

“There’s a lot of use­ful in­for­ma­tion on the web that the com­mu­nity pro­vides,” New­man says. “And be­cause [ Rust] is mul­ti­player, there’s al­ways a bunch of peo­ple to ask if you don’t un­der­stand some­thing. But more than that, I think peo­ple like the en­joy­ment of dis­cov­er­ing stuff for them­selves. There’s a sense that be­cause no one has doc­u­men­ta­tion, we’re all on the same level, so any­thing you dis­cover your­self puts you ahead of them.”

Braben is sim­i­larly grate­ful for the com­mu­nity sup­port Elite: Danger­ous has gar­nered, but notes that it’s rarely pos­si­ble to please ev­ery­one: “I’m maybe not com­pletely rep­re­sen­ta­tive, but I love work­ing things out for my­self. We’ve put tu­to­ri­als in for all the im­por­tant stuff and, like you say, there is a man­ual – and we know a lot of peo­ple have looked at it, be­cause they’ve been point­ing out ty­pos. We’re learn­ing as well, but [ Elite:

Danger­ous] is quite a com­pli­cated game. And one of the things that I said right at the start, which may or may not be the right thing, is that I don’t like games where there is a bar­rage of tu­to­ri­als and you find the en­joy­ment is sucked out of your first three or four hours of game­play be­cause you’ve got to go through it all.

“Elite: Danger­ous is the sort of game where you don’t feel com­pletely led by the nose, not one where you’re told to press A to con­tinue and there’s a piece of dia­logue – that re­ally is over the top. Now maybe we’ve taken off the train­ing wheels too quickly for some peo­ple, and I think there is def­i­nitely a sug­ges­tion of that, but it’s a ques­tion of how we can tweak that with­out up­set­ting the ap­ple cart of peo­ple who ac­tu­ally want to be able to plunge in.”

But even the most fo­cused play­ers can stum­ble. Sa­muels ad­mits that af­ter plough­ing thou­sands of hours into the Souls games, he still doesn’t fully un­der­stand the in­tri­ca­cies of

De­mon’s Souls’ World Ten­dency me­chanic – which in­flu­ences dif­fi­culty and the events that can take place in each world – the ef­fects of which you might be un­aware of even af­ter sev­eral playthroughs. And it’s not just Fron­tier that frets about this kind of po­ten­tially ex­ces­sive am­bi­gu­ity. A por­tion of Fex­tral­ife’s con­trib­u­tors are de­vel­op­ers, some anony­mously leak­ing in­for­ma­tion, oth­ers ap­proach­ing the wiki di­rectly. CI Games, for in­stance, re­alised that play­ers didn’t un­der­stand the runes on Harkyn’s face in Lords Of The Fallen, and straight up told Fex­e­lea what they meant.

At the op­po­site end of the spec­trum is the kind of over­bear­ing tu­to­rial that still blights so many games. There’s an un­der­stand­able logic be­hind talk­ing play­ers through ev­ery as­pect of the con­trol scheme and not as­sum­ing that ev­ery­one who tries your FPS will in­stinc­tively know that scope is bound to the left trig­ger or that the right stick con­trols the cam­era. But that doesn’t make it feel any less pa­tro­n­is­ing for play­ers who’ve slogged through the same stac­cato tu­to­rial level dozens of times be­fore.

“Con­ven­tional game de­sign wis­dom tells us to treat the player like they’ve never played a game be­fore, to give them a gen­tle learn­ing curve, and to give them three chances to learn ev­ery game me­chanic,” New­man says. “And that’s great if the player hasn’t ever played a game be­fore. But if you’re like me and you’ve been gam­ing for 25 years, when a char­ac­ter is ex­plain­ing to you how to walk and duck, you’re prob­a­bly go­ing to be bunny-hop­ping all over their heads. It’s like hav­ing to sit through a 20-minute lec­ture on how to keep your eyes open, and how the peo­ple are just pre­tend­ing to die ev­ery time you go to watch a movie.”

“Per­son­ally, I’ve never played a game that frus­trated me be­cause of a lack of tu­to­ri­als,”

Re­so­gun lead pro­gram­mer Harry Krueger tells us. “If the game is good and I find it en­gag­ing, I’ll con­tinue play­ing it un­til I learn the con­trols and me­chan­ics. On the other hand, I’ve of­ten stopped play­ing games be­cause they were hold­ing my hand too much. ‘Pa­tro­n­is­ing’ is def­i­nitely the right word here: I don’t want a game to treat me like I’m stupid.”

The com­pet­i­tive na­ture of the in­dus­try, he adds, makes many de­vel­op­ers ner­vous that if a player doesn’t ‘get’ a game, they’ll bounce off it and move on to some­thing else. But rather than help es­tab­lish a strong con­nec­tion be­tween player and game, Krueger be­lieves tu­to­ri­als more of­ten prove detri­men­tal to that re­la­tion­ship by de­lay­ing their progress to the meat of game­play

– though he’s keen to stress that se­ries such as Zelda and Metroid show how learn­ing how to play needn’t mean a de­lay in play­ing at all. House­mar­que’s in­tense shooter Re­so­gun dis­penses with a tu­to­rial en­tirely but, like

Blood­borne, it con­ceals un­ex­plained me­chan­ics that are es­sen­tial to mas­ter if you in­tend to mix it with the best play­ers in the world.

“With Re­so­gun, the idea was al­ways to cre­ate a game that was easy to pick up and hard to mas­ter,” Krueger says. “The ba­sic con­trols of the game are im­pos­si­ble to miss: you can just jump in and en­joy the core ‘shoot, sur­vive and blow stuff up’ game­play in sec­onds. We in­cluded some fairly ad­vanced scor­ing tech­niques, but didn’t go into too much de­tail ex­plain­ing them [be­cause] we wanted to al­low ad­vanced play­ers to fig­ure them out them­selves. This avoided un­nec­es­sary dis­trac­tions for the av­er­age play­ers, while also giv­ing an aura of mys­tery and pro­vid­ing ad­vanced play­ers with the joy of dis­cov­ery.”

As Braben, Miyazaki and Krueger all at­test, that jour­ney of dis­cov­ery is one shared by de­vel­op­ers as de­sign­ers es­tab­lish just how hard play­ers are pre­pared to work for an even­tual pay­off. Se­crets have long been part of gam­ing’s de­sign lex­i­con, of course, but plac­ing the re­spon­si­bil­ity of teas­ing out game me­chan­ics firmly in the hands of play­ers is a much more re­cent trend, and an in­creas­ingly fash­ion­able one. It’s a mat­ter of faith.

“I think de­vel­op­ers are start­ing to trust play­ers a bit more,” Krueger says. “We’re giv­ing them more re­spect, since they’ve proven re­peat­edly that they’re ca­pa­ble of fig­ur­ing things out them­selves.”

This swell of re­spect for play­ers’ ca­pac­ity to learn with­out over­bear­ing di­rec­tion was demon­strated by the an­nounce­ment of Si­lent

Hills at last year’s E3, the re­veal it­self hid­den deep within the ap­par­ently in­de­ci­pher­able me­an­der­ings of PT, of­fered up as a demo for a firstper­son hor­ror game that tran­spired to be en­tirely fic­tional. It’s an ex­treme ex­am­ple – we’ve com­pleted the demo three times, but still don’t have a full un­der­stand­ing of the ac­tions that led to our suc­cess – but when a pub­lisher trusts the an­nounce­ment of a new en­try in such a ma­jor se­ries to the tenac­ity of play­ers, it’s clear that it’s un­likely to be a pass­ing fad.

“The au­di­ence is al­ways ma­tur­ing,” New­man says, “and I can’t imag­ine any sce­nario where we’re go­ing to get more tu­to­ri­als and more train­ing mis­sions. There was a time when games would tell you that you could look around with the mouse; nowa­days that seems like a ridicu­lous thing to con­sider the per­son play­ing your game wouldn’t know.”

There’s also less risk on de­vel­op­ers’ be­halves – even the most deeply buried com­po­nent of a game is un­likely to go undis­cov­ered for long in the In­ter­net age. “The days of Nin­tendo Power are long gone, and now all an­swers can be found at the end of a Google search, some­thing any gamer can do,” Fex­e­lea says. “I think this eases the fears of de­vel­op­ers that things will go un­no­ticed in their games, and al­lows for a bit more mys­tery in games again. In a way, this is a re­turn to the roots of the game in­dus­try, but now ex­tended In­ter­net com­mu­ni­ties like ours help peo­ple connect. That’s dif­fer­ent, but also ex­cit­ing, since it pro­motes ex­plo­ration-driven worlds.”

There are many dif­fer­ent en­gines driv­ing the cur­rent trend to­wards slimmed-down tu­to­ri­als, then, and even though hold­ing play­ers’ hands can be detri­men­tal, the benefits of in­clud­ing a tu­to­rial must be con­sid­ered on a caseby-case ba­sis. Just be­cause Dark

Souls gets away with ob­scur­ing key el­e­ments doesn’t mean Bay­o­netta would be im­proved by re­mov­ing the moves list from its in­ter­ac­tive load­ing screens. But there is much to be gained by trust­ing your play­ers with more dif­fi­cult fare than just an obe­di­ent run through a se­ries of rigidly placed hoops.

Per­haps it’s best en­cap­su­lated by Miyazaki’s rea­son­ing. “When I was young, I liked to read,” he ex­plains. “Not just fan­tasy, mind you – all sorts of stuff. There were very few il­lus­tra­tions to go by, and the dic­tion was gen­er­ally quite dense for a young boy. So, I ended up piec­ing things to­gether con­tex­tu­ally, fill­ing any gaps with my imag­i­na­tion. One could say, as a true read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, this leaves much to be de­sired, but I found it very fun and en­rich­ing. Af­ter all, the re­sult­ing nar­ra­tive was some­thing I per­son­ally owned. My game cre­ation ethos has been greatly in­flu­enced by the sto­ry­book ad­ven­tures of my younger, for­ma­tive years.”

From­Soft­ware pres­i­dent and Blood­borne direc­tor Hide­taka Miyazaki

Michael Sa­muels is the cre­ator and host of VaatiVidya, a YouTube chan­nel fo­cused on From­Soft­ware’s Souls se­ries and Blood­borne

Elite co-cre­ator and Fron­tier De­vel­op­ments CEO David Braben

TOP Over­drive is key to huge scores in Re­so­gun, but you’ll need to time it right to max­imise re­ward.

ABOVE House­mar­que’s Harry Krueger, Re­so­gun’s lead pro­gram­mer

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