Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Permia - Duels: The struggle for a good tutorial

Designing a good tutorials for our free-to-play games has proven to be one of the most challenging game design tasks we have faced. When Permia - Duels was first released as PvP-only game, the only tutorial it had was a three page rules summary, that was shown to the player before the first match.

The next step was to create a forced tutorial, which would walk players through the rules with a series of example matches. We expected to see an improved player engagement but the results were a disappointment as described in the The great tutorial mystery - post. Clearly we failed to do very good job with the tutorial.

After that we concentrated on working with Pet Shows and apply the lessons learned for the tutorial there (Tackling the tutorial mystery). Making the tutorial less forced by slicing it into smaller pieces was a clear improvement. Additionally we made some of the game content to unlock while player progresses instead of everything being accessible from the start and added new achievements to reward the player for progressing and giving objectives. Naturally we wanted to bring these elements also to the Duels tutorial. 

After getting back to developing Duels we started the planning of adding a story driven single player campaign to the game. In the process, the old tutorial was thrown away and the tutorial was integrated into the campaign. The PvP game mode is now locked at the beginning, and new players start by playing the campaign. The instructions are given as tips in the first campaign matches, without a forced tutorial. Players start with only a single unit and the first task is to collect a full deck of units by defeating the initial tutorial campaign matches, after which the PvP matches unlock.

While it's impossible to analyze the effects of adding the campaign to the effects of changing the tutorial separately, their combined effect roughly doubled our retention numbers, which was of course a huge success. So clearly we did something right. Regardless, based on the feedback, we still have a lot to do with the tutorial.

Previously players complained about being forced to play the forced tutorial (and rightly so), which felt too much like tutorial. Now some players feel that we are lacking the tutorial completely and they struggle to understand how the game is meant to be played. While being non-intrusive, the tips are also easy to ignore. Even more importantly, many players fail to identify the real depth of the game at the beginning, labeling it too simple or less skill based than it really is. By making the tutorial non-intrusive and as simple as possible, we may have managed to hide the complexity of the game too well. 

Essentially we have two somewhat conflicting objectives: The first encounter with the game should be as easy and welcoming as possible, to prevent frustration for needing to learn many rules at once. On the other hand, the tutorial should convey the feeling of depth to come. A frustrated player will likely quit playing early on as well as a player who does not see enough depth to make it worth investing time into the game.

In order to help the players struggling with the rules, we could add more interactive components to the tutorial: keep the it simple and non-intrusive normally, but when a player seems to be doing poor decision and losing games, the tutorial should become more intrusive and give detailed instructions to improve the situation.

The strategic elements of Duels include the unit development system and the selection of units to the deck. At the beginning it's mostly selecting the most powerful units to the deck, but as the collection grows, the options increase and one should build a deck with units whose numbers work well together. Similarly when upgrading the units, selection of sacrificed units has an effect on the outcome and can be used to direct the process to get desired kind of units. 

On the Tactical side, understanding that it's sometimes better to concentrate on creating a good defensive position or building a trap to allow capturing many units with one move, is sometimes better than simply trying to capture units with every move, separates veteran players from the beginners. Also the starting player shapes the game a lot with the selection of the first unit and it's placement. With a wise placement, one can use a well designed deck with maximum effect. 

These are all aspects of the game, which are not obvious to a new player and not easily communicated through the normal tutorial flow. One possible way to convey the depth at the beginning could be through adding special puzzle missions, where the player is forced to play in an non-straightforward way in order to win. In addition to the tutorial tuning, we could also add new content to the game, which would create the feeling of depth in a more straightforward way, like new unit special abilities and game modes. Again with these we need to be careful not to introduce them too rapidly to overwhelm a new player, but fast enough that he will not get bored.