More than 20 years later, I still remember how great reading that book felt. I was propelled into the game, learning about its systems and strategies, discovering screens of foggy maps and world wonders. It made me love the game before I had even played it! Since then I've played all Civilization games that came out — including Humankind, the unofficial 7th episode — and loved all of them. Would I have had the same connection to these games had I not read the manual? Impossible to tell. Would I have read that book had I not been trapped in a car with the game box on my laps? Definitely not! Even the developers of the game knew that nobody was reading those texts:

A quote from the Civilization III manual
“The authors and developers of computer games know too well that most players never read the manual.”

Here's me now, 20-something years later, having made a game of my own and needing to teach it to potential players… Should I write a full-blown game manual, hoping that a little 13-years old will read it on a parking lot?

Heck no! Ain't nobody got time for that!

Let's make a tutorial instead

Dawnmaker has been built almost like a board game, in the sense that it has complex rules that you have to learn before you can play. Physical board game players are used to that: someone has to go through the rules before they can explain them to the rest of their players group. But video games are a different beast, and we've long moved away from reading… well, almost anything at all, really, and certainly not rules. You can't put each player into a car on a parking lot with nothing else to do other than reading the rules of your game. If you were to present the video game player with a rules book, in today's world of abundance, they would just move on to the next game in their unending backlog.

Teaching a game is thus incredibly difficult: it has to have as little text as possible, it has to be fun and rewarding, and it has to hook the player so that, by the end of the teaching phase, they still want to play the actual game.

It's with all those things in mind that I started building Dawnmaker's tutorial. I set two main rules in place: first, use as little words as possible, and second, make the player learn while doing. The first iteration of the tutorial was very terse: you only had a small goal written at the top of the screen, and almost no explanations whatsoever about what you were to do, or why. It turns out, that didn't work too well. Players were lost, especially when it came to the most complex actions or features of the game. Past a certain point in the tutorial, almost all of the players stopped reading the objectives at the top of the screen. And finally, they were also lacking a sense of purpose.

So for all my good intents, I had to revise my approach and write more words. The second iteration, which is now live in the game and demo, has a lot of small tooltips that pop up around the screen as the interface shows itself. I've tried to load information as slowly as possible, giving the player only what they need at a given moment. I think I approximately quadrupled the number of words in the tutorial, but such is the reality of teaching a complex game.

The other big change I made was to give the player a better sense of progression in the tutorial. The objectives now stay visible in a box on the left-hand side of the screen. They have little animations and sounds that reward the player when they complete a task. Seeing that list grow shows how the player has progressed and is also rewarding by itself.

Teaching the game doesn't only happen in the tutorial though, but also on the various signs and feedback we put around the game. Here's an example: during the tutorial, new players did not understand what was happening with the new building choice that was presented. The solution to this was not to explain with words what those buildings where, but to show a feedback. Now, whenever you gain a new building, you see that same building popping up in the center of the board, then moving towards the buildings roster. It's a double win: they understand that the building goes somewhere, they see where, and they are inclined to check that place and see what it is. I guess one feedback is worth a thousand words?

This version of the tutorial is still far from perfect. But it is the first thing players interact with, and thus it is a piece of the game that really has to shine. We'll keep collecting feedback from new players, and use that to polish the tutorial until, like Eclairium, it shines bright.

BTW: unlike Eclairium, diamonds do not shine, they simply reflect light. Rihanna has been lying to us all.

Next event: Geektouch in Lyon

If you're in Lyon or close to it, come and meet us at the Geektouch / Japan Touch festival in Eurexpo on May 4th and 5th! We'll have a stand on the Indie Game Lab space (lot A87). You will of course get to play with the latest version of Dawnmaker. We hope to see you there!

This piece was initially sent out to the readers of our newsletter. Wanna join in on the fun? Head out to Dawnmaker's presentation page and fill the form. You'll receive regular stories about how we're making this game, the latest news of its development, as well as an exclusive access to Dawnmaker's alpha version!

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