Chances are, if you’re in game design, you know all of what I’m about to say. If you’re in a Game Design course in a college, you’ve also heard this lecture. But I feel a lot of people don’t know why Super Mario Bros. is so awesome. It’s not because it had a BUTT-TON of levels at the time, not the fact that for many it was the first game they had been exposed to, but for one reason. World 1-1. It’s the best tutorial anyone could possibly make, because of a few key things that I’ll draw together at the end of this piece But in the meantime, let’s act like someone who’s never played a video game before, and let’s take that person’s journey through World 1-1.
Alright, Super Mario Bros.!
1 player game, let’s do this!
Okay, so I have 3 mans. Got it.
Alright, so the controller has a cross with some arrows on the left side, and 2 red buttons on the right, labeled A and B. I guess we should start at the left of the controller. Oh, would you look at that! The man moves the direction that I press! Cool! But it looks like there’s a wall on my left. I can’t seem to go any further that way, so maybe I should go right.
Oh, look! There’s a brown little stubby dude! He walking towards me, maybe he wants to talk?
Hm. Apparently not. He touched me, and I lost a man. So next time, I should avoid the brown stubby things.
Let’s press the other red buttons, see what they do. The B button does nothing, but A… Hey! My man is jumping! Cool!
Alright, so I jumped over the brown-stubby, and what’s this? A yellow square with a question mark on it? If I jump… Interesting. A coin pops out if I hit the bottom of the square. In addition, the number under “MARIO” changed from nothing to 200, and the number next to the coin symbol increased to 1. So getting coins increases 2 different tallies.
The brick squares don’t do anything when I hit the bottom of them, though.
Better hit this question square too. Woah! A mushroom came out of this square. It looks quite a bit different from the brown-stubby, so I’ll let this one touch me.
…And I grew! So, I guess that getting mushrooms makes me bigger.
Aw dang it! I accidentally hit a brown-stubby. But I didn’t die. I only reverted to the smaller version of myself. Then that means that being big gives me 2 hits before I lose a man.
Okay, gotta be caerfulllll! Oh, what? I jumped on top of a brown-stubby, he was squished, and he disappeared. If I jump on the other one, the same things happen. I can dispatch the brown-stubbies if I jump on top of them.
Oh, look, a pit! I bet it leads somewhere… Nope. It doesn’t. And I lost a man.
Alright then, now I can jump on top of the brown-stubby, get the mushroom, jump on those, jump over the pit, and hit this… An oval flower came out of this question square. I better touch it and see what happens.
Hey! I changed colors! Sweet! I wonder if this gives me powers or something. If I press B, then…
I shoot FIREBALLS! Awesome! The flower gave me the ability to shoot fireballs!
And, as expected, the fireballs kill the brown-stubbies. I think I might be getting an idea of how this game’s logic operates.
It also kills the turtle. Oh look, another flower!
2 flowers doesn’t mean that I’m 2x as effective, then. AGAIN?! I got to keep better control over myself. I lost both layers of big me!
Ha ha pit! YOU CAN’T FOOL ME NOW!
I can’t jump over the flag, and I have to progress right, so that only gives me one option. To go past it.
I pulled down the flag, and it looks like I’ve taken control of the castle! And I get a little fanfare to boot. How nice.
I guess I went to the next stage. Well then. The flag must signify the end of a stage.
And that’s where our journey with our new gaming friend ends. This man/woman who was playing had never played a video game before. And yet, by the end of a no more than 5 minute level, he/she had a fairly firm grasp on the rules, behaviors, and logic of the game. With no prompts, no instructions, nothing. And he/she figured out that the basis of the game was jumping and avoiding obstacles. He/she was proficient at what the game revolves around by the end of the tutorial.
World 1-1 should be a shining example of how to accomplish teaching a player the concepts and controls of the game. When making a tutorial level, you should try to keep these questions in mind:
– How can I teach the player using as little prompts as possible?
– How can I teach the player though self-experimentation?
– How can I build a level that adequately explains the concepts of the game through nothing other than the geometry and instance placement?
Of course, those aren’t the be-all end-all questions. What you ask yourself will largely be based on the game itself and the platform it’s on. If you’re building for PC, for instance, it’s really, really hard to not explain which keys to press, when there are 105+ of them. One of the reasons why it was a lot easier for games on the NES to introduce controls was because there were only 8 buttons. There wasn’t much room to be confused. Another advantage for the NES was that because there were so many technical limitations, the game could only be so complex, and so there may have not been that many tough to explain concepts. But nonetheless, it’s still possible to do what Super Mario Bros. did.
The best tutorials are ones that are unobtrusive, integrate well into the game, and are driven by player experimentation. And if you can get that right, you may very well be on your way to a great game.