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Jon Shafer on Lowering the Gates

The essay below is from Jon Shafer. Jon’s Wiki page says he was, “lead designer and principal programmer of the video game Civilization V at Firaxis Games.”

Yeah, yeah whatever. Show off.

Jon’s also a friend of mine. He plays in our Out of the Park Baseball league as owner/GM of the up and coming Caledonia Geckos. (Hey he named them…) His blog, Jon Shafer on Design should be a regular haunt for strategy fans, or just game fans in general. He asked me to post the essay below, in full, here at No High Scores, which I’m more than happy to do. It’s a great read.

The essay is about how to lower the point of entry for strategy games — making them more accessible early on. One thing Jon says that is spot in this:

More players quit a game in the first hour than the rest of playtime combined.

So consider this our first “guest” column here at No High Scores. It’s a good one.


Something I recently spoke about at PAX East was my number one hope for the future of strategy games: reducing the barrier to entry. There are several ways this can be done – without sacrificing a game’s depth or complexity. I’ll discuss a few in detail, namely: good tutorials, good user interface and good demos.

Tutorials have long been one of my biggest pet peeves. The ones you find in most games are terrible and the reasons why are obvious: they’re no fun to work on, there’s no glory in making a really kick-ass tutorial, and they’re really hard to get right. However, a good tutorial is extremely important, and well worth the required grunt work.

While the underlying purpose of a tutorial is to teach new players the rules of the game, this should really be secondary to another goal – being fun. The whole reason people play games is to enjoy them (duh) and their first impression will go a long way in shaping their future experience. If you have to spend a large chunk of time grinding through something boring in order to get to the good part – why bother? There are other games and forms of entertainment which don’t force you to pay this ‘time tax’.

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Some might argue that it’s impossible to make a tutorial fun, but that’s absolutely false. How you ask? The answer is simple: by making the tutorial a priority and actually designing it to be fun. If all you do is haphazardly throw information at the player and don’t bother to incorporate actual gameplay, of course the tutorial is going to be as much fun as watching paint dry. The best tutorials always provide an experience very close to the core game. If your game is about combat, let the player have some say in how to attack the enemy, instead of providing a list of precise, inflexible instructions noting exactly what to click in what order. (Most) people are told what to do every day from 9 to 5 (or so) – they don’t also want to be told what to do in their free time.

Forcing the player to perform a series of actions where there’s no room for creativity or engagement is the worst possible introduction. Don’t lose sight of the fact that the reason why games as an entertainment medium are popular is because they give the user control over what’s going on. Also remember that the tutorial is someone’s first experience with the game. More players quit a game in the first hour than the rest of playtime combined. The first experience needs to be the part of the game which stands out and shines. Unfortunately, the opposite is often the case.

A good way to pace the amount of information a player must digest is to embed your tutorial in the core game experience, instead of having all of the instruction take place in a separate tutorial mode. The player jumps right into a game and is provided information about the different elements of the game as they become relevant. A good example from Civ 5 is that every time a new type of resource is discovered by the player, one of the advisors pops up and explains what it does. We didn’t bother teaching the player what iron or other strategic resources were good for until it actually mattered.

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Some might argue that you need to know the whole context of the game in order to make informed decisions, and this is true to some extent. However, the reality is that most players just aren’t going to be able to keep everything in their head and apply all of that information the first time they play a game. It takes time and experience to build up to an understanding of deep strategy, and to get to that point players have to feel comfortable at every stage along the way. The end goal is to have as many people enjoying your game as possible, and throwing everything out at the very beginning undermines this in a major way.

Some players still desire the safety net of a formalized tutorial, so it’s wise to also ‘package’ all of the in-game help into a custom-tailored scenario which ensures the player runs into all of the learning moments in the order the designer prefers. This is the approach taken in both Civ 5 and Stardock’s upcoming game Fallen Enchantress.

The big downside to this approach is that… well… it’s a lot of work. It can be hard to ignore the allure of needing to spend only a couple days whipping together a few screens of text, but don’t forget the important point from above: the tutorial is the entry point for a large percentage of players, and as a developer you need it to be one of the best parts of the game. Do you want first-time players talking with their friends about your cool game, or just the few screens of text that you only spent a fraction of the total effort on? Or worse, talking about how the idea seemed neat but they just couldn’t figure out what was going on?

Outside of a full-on tutorial system, an easy way to ease players into a game is simply to nudge them in a direction at the start. “Hey, there’s this quest you should probably go on, and we’ll give you step-by-step instructions on how to complete it, but if you want to do something completely different that’s cool too.” Players want freedom, but most also want at least a little structure and positive reinforcement, and throwing out a few optional goals is the best way to make everyone happy.

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A game’s interface (UI) also has a huge role to play in bringing new players into the fold. The most important interface items should have the most weight on the screen. Size matters (at least with UI) and the more prominent something is the more likely a player is to pay attention to it. Organize logical groupings of UI controls in a single area, and section them off from unrelated ones. Make sure buttons look like buttons, and that it’s obvious that everything you can’t click on is to be ignored. For good reason, artists like to play up style but always remember the most important part of a user interface is the usability. You don’t want players to feel like they’re fighting the game in order to perform actions or get the information they want. I’ll have more to say on the topic of UI in a future article.

The last thing I’ll talk about is demos. I’ll sum it up this way: demos are great, and every game should put one out before it’s available on store shelves (digital and otherwise). If you’ve made an awesome game then you want people playing it and talking about it. Someone is a lot more likely to try out a game that’s free than one that’s 30 or 60 dollars (just ask any free to play developer). Going free-to-play is a big leap and definitely not right for every project, but every game benefits from a demo. This is especially true for strategy games, where demos are by far the best tool in a marketer’s arsenal. There’s a big difference between seeing a few screenshots and actually getting to play and find out first-hand what all the fuss is about. Like a good tutorial or UI, a demo takes quite a bit of work and is usually not the most exciting development task, but they all can make a huge difference in a game’s visibility, player enjoyment and ultimate success.

Bill Abner

Bill has been writing about games for the past 16 years for such outlets as Computer Games Magazine, GameSpy, The Escapist, GameShark, and Crispy Gamer. He will continue to do so until his wife tells him to get a real job.

13 thoughts to “Jon Shafer on Lowering the Gates”

  1. That’s just good game development and is applicable to any genre. It’s also an interesting look into how a developer thinks.

    So thanks for this article hopefully you can get more guest pieces of this nature on here.

    1. You are absolutely correct in saying that this is true regardless of genre. What I will add is that strategy games require more tutorial than most genres, yet generally have worse tutorials than most.

      I’ll throw Europa Universalis 3 out there. It is a great game, but it has a TON of moving parts in the design. The tutorial is a series of ‘wall of text’ style groups that are exclusive to certain aspects of the game. Sure it covers many of the types of interactions you do, but it provides little context for the how or why behind them.

      My first game I jumped in as Norway, and was completely lost. I couldn’t do much, had almost no income, and no political power. I didn’t understand why, and the game did little to help me there. I eventually figured out why (Personal Union under Denmark) but the tutorial had done absolutely nothing to nudge me towards this information.

      I’m not trying to slam Paradox here, merely giving a fresh example to my mind. Strategy games have many interlocking systems, and most strategy tutorials have little indication on how those systems interact with each other. A shooter or platformer can probably get away with a crap tutorial. Most people can intuit that gun+bullets+trigger= makes stuff dead, or how to jump over a gap. Strategy games cannot afford to be so lax.

      1. I thought the same about Crusader Kings II. I don’t play strategy games so I picked the tutorial mode to see what was up. I didn’t learn a damn thing. Paradox seems to assume you know how to play there games.

        1. It’s funny how everyone thinks about Paradox’ games on this topic. I did too. At the same time it’s kind of neat that even after months of playing there’ll be something in their design that you still haven’t found out about. Getting to grips with their games is like cutting your way through a jungle with a machete.

          1. As I noted in the article itself, it really just comes down to what the priorities of the dev team are. Making a good tutorial isn’t easy by any means, but it’s a whole lot easier than making, say, an ENTIRE GAME that’s good. Nearly every project has finite resources and the folks at the top have to decide what matters. A tutorial is rarely anywhere but at the bottom of that list.

            Obviously, I really think this is a huge missed opportunity. Some games could reach a much larger audience if they just put more effort into teaching players what’s going on. I think we did a pretty good job with Civ 5 but there’s a lot more I’d like to do (stay tuned!).

            – Jon

          2. Civ V is pretty good at easing new players in. That said that is in large part to the overall structure of the game. Civ is all about escalating complexity. With one settler and one scout your initial choices are limited. By the end of the game you might be managing dozens if units across half a map, interacting with many systems, but that is long after you’ve had time to absorb info.

            That’s not to diminish your work. Civ V really did a quite good job of introducing systems and letting a player learn them before adding another. It’s just that the tutorial is built into the game experience. That wouldn’t work for a grand strategy title, like EU 3, where you are exposed to the full complexity from the start. And those are the games that need it most.

          3. True, some games are much harder to teach than others. However, designers still have the ability to gradually introduce mechanics to the player. Unless you pick the biggest kingdom at its most insane period in history, there will still be several systems which aren’t IMMEDIATELY relevant. Sure, you can change some political stuff at the very beginning, but there’s really no NEED to. The per-screen help in CK2 is a good start down this road, but obviously there’s still work to be done.

            – Jon

      2. This article is spot on and you brought up the game that popped right in my head as I was reading it: Europa Universalis 3. I read about this game and looked into it and thought it would be a game I really would enjoy. I got it for some ridiculously low price on sale with all the expansions for it so I can’t complain too much, but the game currently sits on my hard drive and has been untouched for months after my first experience with the game. The tutorial sucked and I didn’t feel like spending hours on the game’s Wiki page and/or forums to try and figure out how and why I was supposed to be doing things in the game.

        On the flip side I’ll throw out Frozen Synapse which had a great tutorial. Maybe it’s not a fair comparison because Frozen Synapse is nowhere near as deep as EU3 as far as the amount of things a player can do, but the fact is that FS got players in, showed them what to do while giving some helpful advice, and got you into the game with a good understanding of how things work. I still sucked at it at first…and probably still do, but it isn’t because I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing in the game.

        Excellent essay and spot on.

  2. With a lot of game journalism we have people writing about game design issues, but they are never anywhere near game development, and then along comes Jon Shafer and he writes a piece and then goes on to develop a game that actually does what he just wrote… nice one.
    Seriously, Civvy was fantastically easy to get into from what some gamer friends, who haven’t played a Civ before, have told me. The UI was most excellent.
    I think we should also take from this that, rather than reducing the depth of the mechanics, we should make the game easier to understand. Obtuse mechanics aren’t necessarily obtuse; it might simply be that they are badly communicated, right?

  3. I had a hard time getting into Civ IV because the tutorial didn’t explain everything I needed to know. All of a sudden I had to weight hundreds of turns for things to complete and I didn’t know why. Had the same problem with Shogun Total War 2. Lots and lots of information, feeling like you are doing it wrong. Positive feedback is definitely important in strategy games. And maybe some extra tips that are relevant to what you did or how you could have done it differently. Because I’m definitely one of those people that quits after an hour.

  4. Agree with a lot of the points you made, but I’ve got to say that the UI in CIV V is abysmal. The amount of important information completely hidden behind reams of different menus is infuriating, and the location of certain buttons just doesn’t make sense – like why is the fortify button in a hidden cluster of buttons? It’s one of the most used buttons in the game.

    Also, having 20+ notifications pop-up along the side of the screen isn’t exactly intuitive either. Notifications had a place in purpose in CIV IV, in that they designated resources – only this wasn’t even necessary, as resources easily stood out on the world map. You pretty much need to clutter up your map with resource notification icons in CIV V just to be able to see where they are, as everything more or less just blends together.

    Sorry for the ranting, but some of this just seems incredibly obvious, and while I’m sure the streamlined final product that is CIV V brought in a bunch of new players, I wouldn’t be surprised if it alienated a whole lot more. It’ll be interesting to see what the veteran fan response is to Firaxis’ new expansion.

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