Teach me: How games' tutorials should improve

Here at Silicon Sasquatch, we all have our own favorite games and series. This should hardly be shocking. One of Tyler’s favorites is Virtua Fighter. I believe he picked it up in the PlayStation 2 era, but no matter, because with the recent release of Virtua Fighter 5 Final Evolution on PSN, he’s roped me in.

The only problem? Despite a long history of playing fighting games, I’ve never really gotten into the Virtua Fighter series, and it has a reputation as being harder than diamonds. Most fighting games have learning curves, but VF’s is legendary. Apparently.

In actuality, though, it’s not nearly that bad. Yes, it’s a different system compared with other contemporary fighting games (the closest comparison I can make is Soul Calibur, which uses four buttons to VF’s three) but there are button inputs and some combos common to all characters. It’s not that difficult to pick up and beat up the AI with; however, the famous Virtua Fighter learning curve comes when you try to master a character and understand strategy.

Virtua Fighter is actually quite progressive in terms of having a robust tutorial mode. The PlayStation 2 release of Virtua Fighter 4 instituted the system also used in VF5:FE, with the option to show how a move is supposed to look and what the control input should be. Being able to see how a move should look is a great tool, especially considering how detailed some of the advanced combos are. The VF style system is also used in most other fighters, and if my memory serves correctly something similar was around back on the Dreamcast release of Soul Calibur.

Tutorials like this are great. But it’s high time tutorials in games take the next step. While these tutorials teach you the pieces, they don’t provide a way to put the puzzle together. In other words: they teach you “how” (how to do X move), but not “why” — strategy, linking move A, B and C together, and more.

This is how games shift and become even better teaching tools. For example, let’s talk about Street Fighter. The special moves used by Street Fighter characters are iconic in gaming: Ryu and Ken’s Hadouken and Shoryuken, Chun-Li’s Spinning Bird Kick, Guile’s Sonic Boom, and more. Currently, fighting game tutorials help teach you how to do those moves — the button combination and how the move looks when done successfully. However, tutorials aren’t so good at teaching you why. Currently, you have to go find out for yourself, whether through trial-and-error or trying to understand advanced guides. But adding wrinkles to tutorials to show when to use moves would be great. It’s simple to say “use a Shoryuken (dragon punch) when somebody jumps at you” and translate that into a tutorial, right? At least it seems like it should be. It’s the logical next step.

Of course, that’s just one example, and this idea of extended tutorials is useful in more than just fighting games. Sports games are ripe for this sort of thing. Much like fighting games, contemporary sports games assume a certain amount of knowledge of the sport and – more importantly – mastery of the controls. This is especially true of football games, which have not just controls and general strategy to master but playbooks as well. Despite the enormous popularity of football in America, few people truly understand how different plays are supposed to work, and how series of plays and combinations of sets are tied together into a playbook and offensive philosophy. Make your head spin? Mine too, and I like to study this sort of thing. While the hardened Madden veteran most likely has a good grasp on keeping those spinning plates afloat (if only through sheer perseverance), it makes a daunting, beginner-unfriendly game even more unfriendly. Back a couple years ago I suggested “don’t start with a football game” if you wanted to try playing sports games, and that’s still true now.

How could this work? For Madden and NCAA, through a practice/training camp mode that pauses the action and shows you what you’re supposed to do and when. This would work for almost every instance in football – showing you where you’re supposed to go and what blocking hole you’re looking for on a running play, highlighting the defenders to watch and the proper read to make on a passing play, or showcasing the difference between defenses and how best to use them. It would turn practice mode into a learning tool, teaching players to be better football players and, potentially, smarter football fans. To their credit, EA Sports is trying to implement this in NCAA Football 13 (by lighting up the button icon over open receivers’ heads in passing plays) but it’s different from pausing during the play and saying, “in this passing play, your first read is the strong safety and which way he goes.”

Games need to move forward and help bring larger audiences in to what can be intimidating sectors of the gaming world. Once upon a time, the basic tutorials and free practice modes we now take for granted were novel and revolutionary; it’s now time to take the next step and let games become even better teaching tools.