The Place of Tutorials in Video Games

For further reading on tutorials, check out The Escapist, and Game Design Guild.

Where do tutorials belong?
In the manual? On the back of the game box? The website? Under a heading labeled “help” or “new player?”
Quite often I see players complaining that tutorials are “carrying” new players, that tutorials are “taking the fun and adventure out of the game.” I’m not sure I can agree. There are some games, like Mortal Online and Darkfall, which have barely any instructions. Developer aid is spotty at best. These worlds are figure-it-out-as-you-go.
A recent post at Tobold’s place made me think about judging games that don’t have adequate tutorial/help systems. There isn’t much distinction made between a game that has decent help for beginners and a game that doesn’t. For a player trying to tell if they want to play the game, it simply boils down to this:
With help:
“I played through all the quests and at level 10 there were more quests. I didn’t like (insert one: how sequential the quests were/the AFK-autoattack combat/the art style/kill-loot-kill-loot-kill-loot-DING-kill-loot-kill…) so I’m going to quit playing.”
Without help:
“I ran around town for 5 minutes because the only thing I could figure out what to do was WASD. A wolf attacked me so I double clicked him, I even right clicked his health bar to choose attack but it wasn’t an option. Then I spent thirty seconds dead and had to choose a resurrection which weakened my character. Then some goblin archers ambushed me and I died. I need to figure out how to become their allies because a player in really good armor ran right by them without being attacked. They must have given him the good armor. I waited 45 seconds to resurrect and then died again while running away. I must have done something to piss off those goblins. I had 60 seconds to spend dead. I just logged off and uninstalled the game.”
The difference here isn’t the decision of the player to continue playing the game; it’s the thought process the player goes through in reaching that decision.
If they have help, they can quickly identify the direction the developers want them to go and decide if that’s what they want to do with their time.
Tutorials also set the minimum bar for player expectations. If a tutorial teaches a player how to target allies and cast healing spells, then it’s reasonable to expect players to be able to cast a heal once in a while. A player who doesn’t is either very forgetful, slacking, or just below the skill threshold for the game.
If they don’t have help – if there’s no description of a class and its abilities before you roll it, if abilities didn’t have tooltips, if potions didn’t tell you how many HP they would heal – you will end up with mid to high level characters who have no idea what their doing. A level 10 might be using a level 1 potion and wondering why it doesn’t keep him alive. A paladin might not know he can use holy bolt to heal allies instead of damaging enemies. They wouldn’t know what they’re doing wrong! They might start assuming that all the bad things that happen to them are just part of the game.
Even if a player knows what they’re doing is wrong and that it shouldn’t happen, they wouldn’t know how to fix it without trial-and-error or researching possibly wrong or outdated advice on a 3rd party site, and that’s a terrible time investment. It brings the question, “how many hours should I have to work at a game before I can start having fun?” or even worse: “How much should I have to research before even downloading the game client?”
Of course, much of this is solved by starting the game very simply and easily, then linearly increasing difficulty up to the “end-game.” You could offer a lot of help to the low levels but gently remove the training wheels one at a time as you introduce a player to new concepts. Three bosses in a dungeon might all have fire puddles you should move out of, but the first boss would be forgiving and give a warning to the spot he’s going to drop it on, the second boss’s fire is instant would only deal moderate damage and could be negated through resistance, and the final boss  would have a stacking debuff that increased all future fire damage.
This way, instead of a new fight being, “I have to do what I already can, + X + Y + Z” it becomes, “I have to do what I already can, + X,” then “What I already can + Y,” then “what I already can + Z.”
There has to be something wrong with this line of thinking though. If it’s really such an attractive system, why isn’t anyone doing it?