Recently, I have been training my dog, and I realized how this often translates to teaching a player how to play your game.
My dog Winston, the 7 year old Shepard-Husky cross, and I have been doing some training the past few weeks. But, not just that normal “sit, stay, heel, do my taxes” sort of thing, but I have been teaching him concepts. This started after I saw a video of crows using water displacement to get at treats.
This reminded me of my dog, and his own personal mental prowess and incompetence.
Winston is sometimes a clever dog, being able to quickly associate one action with another and respond appropriately. Teaching him to do stuff like sit and lie down was very simple. However, Winston seemed to be absolutely confounded by the concept of a container.
We had gotten him a rolly-ball-with-treats-inside, and he quickly learned to push the ball and wait for treats. That was it. I was frustrated at the design of the ball, because it rewarded an incomplete understanding of 3D space. All you had to do was push it around.
So, in the past few weeks, I have been training Winston to understand the concept of containers. First, I used a clear plastic food storage container and covered the treat. All he had to do was push it over to get the treat. So far, so good, but he knew how to push things and make food appear. So, I placed the container on the carpet, with the fibers preventing him from simply pushing the container. This part was the most challenging, as Winston is a very simple dog. But, I was able to not only instill in him the ability to pick a container, but the “look” command, which will prove invaluable in future lessons.
Using the look command, I was able to move onto a clear squeeze bottle. His normal tactic of pushing/picking it up would help, as he would need to turn it a specific way to get at the food. Winston got understandably frustrated as his attempts at pushing and picking it up proved to be futile, but I was able to show him how to manipulate the bottle in a way to remove the object.
Recently, I was able to get him to do two seemingly unrelated activities in order to get the treat. In order to remove the covering of the treat, another obstacle must be removed first. This was a watershed moment because I only had to show him how I put the treat inside for him to work it out on his own. The best thing was when he made a mistake, he analyzed the situation, then corrected his behaviour by himself.
But, how does this long-winded tale translate to games? Well, if you’ve ever played a game with a tutorial level, then you know how teaching is an important part in gaming. But, just like with dogs, there are two very different ways of teaching the player how to play your game.
The first method is the most common, and I like to call that tutorializing. You simply tell the player “Do this” and then the player follows. This is sometimes useful for the more granular aspects of a game, like with many strategy games. In Civilization games, you often need to be told explicitly how to operate the menus and set up formal agreements with other players. Nearly anything that doesn’t make sense in the game, like menus, needs to be tutorialized.
But, too much tutorializing can also be bad. Think back to any strategy game where the first game you play has the computer all but doing the actions for you. Any sort of straying from the preset script is met with quick and harsh rebuttal. A couple of Fire Emblem games do this, which is especially weird considering their overall simplicity.
This is analogous to teaching a dog how to sit, or teaching a pet bird how to say a word. The subject doesn’t necessarily know the concepts and meanings as to why they are doing the thing, they just use associative learning to know that “when they say ‘sit’, I perform an action”.
Training is a much more difficult and a longer process whereby you teach the mechanics of the game without explicitly telling the player what to do. The best example I can think of is Portal. The first few levels have no form of freedom, but the last three quarters of the game are all teaching you really damn advanced concepts. Try to explain “flinging” to someone who has never played the game, without using the phrase “speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.” On the upside, you can use the base mechanics to fundamentally understand the problems and puzzles coming up.
But, often this can leave the player in the dark on many hidden mechanics. Fighting games are notorious for this, as are games like Pokemon. In the days of the Internet it’s not so bad, but try learning what EVs are in Pokemon, or what animation cancelling is in Super Street Fighter. They are relatively easy to explain (fight fast Pokemon to get more fast, and certain moves can be used before the previous move is finished) but they are almost impossible to organically show to a player.
This is most comparative to how I’ve been teaching Winston. He now understands the basic concept of a box, and how there can be a thing inside the box. He can now use that knowledge outside of the situations that it was taught to him, and that is something we should strive for when teaching the player.