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The Trouble with Tutorials

Erik Kersting
Prison Architect, Introversion Software, 2014

The trouble with game tutorials is that you can't live with 'em and and you can't live without 'em.

Aren't Steam sales great? With so many great new games to play, it can be hard to choose which games to play first. Early in the sale, I picked up two games that caught my eye months ago, Game Dev Tycoon and Prison Architect. The former because of the infamy of its pirated version and the latter because building a prison sounded like fun and the game has gotten good buzz. Yet, my experience in beginning to play these two games could not have been more different.

The first of the two I played was Game Dev Tycoon, a quaint simulation of running a gaming business. Starting the game I decided to skip the tutorial, which I often do when given the option. This did not affect my gameplay in the slightest. I immediately figured out the basics and was already making successful games, critically and financially. I quickly sunk many hours into the game, creating vital new series like the mystery-adventure games Sarah's Killer, Sarah's Killers and Sarah, The Killer?, which had critics and fans raving for more.

I attribute the enjoyment I had playing Game Dev Tycoon to the easy and intuitive nature of the gameplay and the quirky video game history recap that it provides. I gifted the game to my brother-in-law, who also sank a ton of hours into it, confirming my suspicion that it was an addictive game. At no point while playing the game was I confused about what was going on or what I should be doing. While a tutorial was available, I had no need for it as my natural “intellect” and the game's pace made it easy to pick up and play.

This was not the case when I started playing Prison Architect a day or two later. I hopped into the game excited to play and test my skills at containing a group of bloodthirsty and violent prisoners bent on escaping. But I almost immediately became confused as to what to do, as the game gives the player just an open field and a ticking clock (counting down to when the first prisoners arrive). I'm a savvy gamer, and I've played enough Sim City to just jump in, so I started putting walls up and planning out my prison. Much to my chagrin. I was absolutely terrible at it.

By the time that my prisoners showed up, I barely had any rooms in my prison, I was out of money, and I had nowhere for my prisoners to go. One by one, they escaped, and I decided to restart. After many playthroughs and through much trial and error, I was able to start making a prison where I could hold and feed my prisoners, but I was still running out of money incredibly fast. I was never able to build a cell block without going bankrupt. This turned the game into a very frustrating experience and made me never able to sit down and play Prison Architect for more than 30 minutes at a time.

Finally I found the “Grants” tab, hidden within the game's menus, and realized that without grants, which often double or triple one's bank account, the game is virtually unplayable. This had never been pointed out to me, the player, and was so hidden within the game's menus that I did not find it until three hours into playing. Luckily, I'm thickheaded, or I may have given up long before figuring this out. Because there was no tutorial explaining grants to me, I basically wandered around the game blind for three hours

This same problem has continually occurred for my wife, who is now much farther in the game than I am, as she unlocks new programs that often don't work as intended. She usually has to google the problem to figure out some small piece of the system that was never explained to her, the player. I don't think that either of us are especially dumb, but rather that the game is just unintuitive and lacks a robust tutorial or even a hint system to guide the player along while playing.

The real humor in the situation is that Prison Architect is (in my humble opinion) a significantly better and deeper game than Game Dev Tycoon, which while fun, doesn't have much replay value and grows stale rather quickly. The player is given way more free reign and afforded tons of creativity in Prison Architect, but it all comes across as unintuitive and unenjoyable because the game is so confusing to play. This is directly due to the lack of tutorial within the game.

The situation surely puts game developers in an awkward position. Most players, like I did with Game Dev Tycoon, will often just skip or hate the tutorial, especially when they are playing a sequel or a genre that they are familiar with, but it seems like it is often the games without tutorials, like Prison Architect, that suffer deeply without them. It is worth noting that Prison Architect is in alpha and that may be the reason that there is no tutorial for the game, but still, it is on the market and many players are picking the game up, and they shouldn't be left without a tutorial when they desperately need one.

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