I was relatively strict with myself in the most recent Steam sale; grabbing only a couple of things that had been on my wishlist for a while. One of these was Pixel Piracy. I’d been watching it in development and I’m a sucker for pirates and cuteness and so on. I got about five minutes in and the ‘tutorial’ pretty much consisted of dropping me into the same scenario as a more seasoned player, with a few added pop-up tips. It didn’t really introduce me to the core gameplay experience I would have for the remainder of the game. Rather, I started at a shop and was met with several walls of text and dialog boxes. Oh no, I thought. The Curse of the Steam Early-Access Strategy Game hath struck again. I am such a fool.

p1And so after about 20 minutes of muddling about some dialogue screens which made heavy reference to statistics I had yet to learn the meaning of, I had quit that cute little pirate game with no experience of what it was actually like to play it.

No-one expects a game to pop out into early-access fully formed. But accessibility is a pretty worthy goal, and perhaps worth front-loading a little bit more. Sometimes a game can be structured in such a way that just dumping a player in the environment and letting them trial-and-error it out can work. Minecraft is an example of this. But Minecraft gives you contextual tips as you go along, and doesn’t daunt new players with massive scary menus. Sometimes, teaching isn’t so much about what you tell people, but what you hide from them in the earlier stages, to prevent information overload. Pixel Piracy gave me a little tutorial on how to move around and grapple hook etc. but then dumped a lot of info on me that I just wasn’t ready for, certainly not in the hour-or-so I had set aside to play. In more general tech language, PP is, as it stands, a UX nightmare.

p2Another early-access sim I had similar problems with was Prison Architect. I’ve put a lot of hours into this game, and I do love it, but I still feel that it would have benefited from frontloading the teaching aspect of it a little more. One of the problems here may be that developers prioritise the most vocal feedback-givers in their communities – often  self-professed hardc0r3 gamers – whose desires don’t best represent the needs of the much larger majority of a game’s potential player-base. The most vocal early players may be the sort of people who take particular enjoyment in figuring stuff out on their own – building wikis etc. – and may even shy away from admitting when a game is inaccessible (making them potential enemies of better UX!). For these games to be as successful as they should be, dev need to listen to the sort of people who start threads asking for better tutorials, and less to the sort of people who make excuses.

There’s an interesting discussion about the need for a better tutorial in PA on Steam, with one perspective being that the game is still in development, so building a tutorial would be like aiming at a ‘moving target’. While I respect this, I think we need to take a better look at exactly what ‘tutorial’ has meant, historically, in the context of sim games. There are a few of these building-and-management games out there that feel like loveletters to old Bullfrog games like Theme Park/Hospital and Dungeon Keeper. Although nearly all successful games are built around a model of gradually teaching a player to use tools that were previously unavailable, I would say the delivery of this teaching part was a vital part of the Bullfrog secret sauce that aspiring Bullfrog imitators need to play closer attention to when thinking about how much to show players in early access.

p4in the Dungeon Keeper games, players begin with a limited range of potential buildings and unit types. Rather than requiring one long, dense tutorial, the game is segmented out into levels. What I’m suggesting here is that a well-realized sim or strategy game doesn’t need much of a tutorial because the campaign is designed well enough to teach players as they go. Again, this is a pretty standard good design practice across genres but the issue is particular pronounced in sim and strategy games which can become dauntingly heavy in terms of on-screen info.

Each level of Dungeon Keeper unlocks a number of new buildings and units (perhaps only one in some cases) and effectively teaches the player to use them. The same is true for the campaign modes in RTSs like Command and Conquer or WarCraft and StarCraft games. What we tend to ‘get’ in an early-access strategy or sim game on steam is just the final ‘sandbox’ mode from one of these titles, without the incremental learning provided by a campaign. While this may be what hardcore early players say they want, it’s not what the rest of the potential player-base needs. An added irony is that DK came with a physical manual large enough to use as a car-jack, even though it was well-designed enough not to need one.

Maybe I’m asking too much, but in cases like Prison Architect this just seems like a need to gate more content off earlier on to avoid overwhelming. I don’t just mean ‘grey it out until you have the prerequisite on the tech tree’; make players complete a small prison with only a handful of the buildings first. You can still give access to the sandbox for the hardcore ‘work-it-out-myself’ people. But a well-structured campaign and a funny/charismatic advisory figure shouldn’t be seen as some sort of end-polish or ‘juice’; they’re a vital part of some of the most seminal examples within the genre. I acknowledge that you have to build in all the features you want before you start designing a campaign, but I’m also concerned that the wants of the vocal early-players (just let me arse about in a sandbox and update my wiki) might end up stunting some of these games, preventing them becoming brilliant.