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
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