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Recent Developments – Tutorial Teachings

Feb 22, 2016

Hello fellow gamers and HEX fans,

I’m Jared Saramago, Campaign and Systems Designer on the HEX R&D team. This is my first design article for HEX, so please allow me to begin by giving you a quick summary of who I am and the role that I play on the team.

I’m quickly approaching my 1 year anniversary of beginning to work on HEX. Like many of you, I’m very passionate about games, and have been playing competitive TCGs for well over a decade. I’ve worked in the video game industry for the last 8 years on various online-multiplayer and role-playing titles, and I’m happy to be applying much of that previous experience and industry knowledge towards helping create the campaign mode for Chronicles of Entrath. You have likely already seen some of my work in the launch of the campaign, but as Ben, Cory, and others, have already said, there is still lots of good stuff coming!

Recently I had the opportunity to help design the new Tutorial experience that was introduced alongside Campaign mode in the last major update. Today, I’d like to share with you our internal goals for the tutorial revamp and give you a behind-the-scenes peek at the design process and principles used to help achieve those objectives.

Note: For anyone who wants to check out the revamped tutorial experience, you can access it at any time from the main menu by clicking on the ‘Learn Hex’ button.

HIGH PRIORITY GOALS AND CHALLENGES

Creating a game tutorial is something that may seem fairly straightforward at first glance, but it can actually be a rather involved and difficult task. For a digital game like HEX, we don’t know exactly who the individual person is that is trying to learn the game. We don’t know how much they already know about TCGs (or even video games in general), and we can’t be sure how they might interpret the concepts being presented on their screen. This makes it very important to have clear intuitive examples and instructions that can be understood similarly by a wide audience of players.

We identified a few major goals for the tutorial revamp that had to be carefully balanced: First, we knew that we wanted it to be entertaining and have a storyline that would be interesting enough to keep players engaged in the content. Second, we knew that we wanted the tutorial to be as short and sweet as possible, allowing players to get to the other core parts of the game. Lastly, we still needed to explain as many key features as possible in order for a player to successfully play a match. In the end, I feel like we found a good mix of story, teaching moments, and brevity, but I would love to hear your feedback in the discussion forums (link at the bottom of the article) if you’d like to share your thoughts!

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BREAKING UP THE INFORMATION

With a game as intricate and deep as HEX, there is a large overall volume of information that must be conveyed to a new player for them to fully understand the game’s mechanics. The previous tutorial was trying to present all of this information very quickly within a single match, which could lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed and confused. There wasn’t enough time to process each bit of information before the next topic was being introduced.

Our solution to this dilemma was to divide the related gameplay topics into smaller sections and introduce them one at a time, revealing the major mechanics over several stages. With this approach, each lesson can be ordered to build upon the foundation of knowledge from the previous lesson. This allows a player to process the game in more manageable chunks.

Once we got a bit of tech that allowed us to split a single tutorial match into a series of smaller sequences, (huge thanks to our awesome engineering team!) we began to lay out a plan for how best to divide and order each subset of tutorial topics.

If you closely observe the order of topics in the new tutorial, you will likely notice that you no longer immediately draw a hand of cards, as you did in the previous tutorial. Instead, the lesson begins by explaining the objective of the game; the conditions for winning and losing. It then moves on to illustrating the actions that can be taken to achieve a win – attacking with troops. After that is a description of how to put troops into play in order to then attack, and so on. By having the lessons ordered in this way, you should already have some understanding of how cards work by the time you see your first full hand of cards.

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We wanted to make sure that all visual elements were only appearing on the screen when those things would be relevant and explained. This might sound like common sense, but it meant making a lot of other custom modifications to the match UI; hiding certain features, such as the Phase Wheel and the Charge Power button, until those topics are explained later on.

Another notable advantage to introducing the game in segments is that it allows the player to reinforce their understanding of a topic by repeating an action with less explicit guidance. Constructive psychological theory contends that people tend to learn better by examining their own actions, rather than through reading or observing. Therefore, repeating the same essential activity over the course of several lessons, (for example, playing resources or attacking with troops,) means you are more likely to retain that knowledge when you advance onward.

NOT JUST “HOW,” BUT “WHY”

Something that we tried to incorporate into the new tutorial was a bit of insight into the strategic decision making process that is essential to succeeding in HEX. We don’t want players to only understand how to do something, (listing out the mouse and keyboard controls is easy enough,) we also want them to start thinking about when and why they should do something. For example, don’t just blindly attack into your opponent every turn. Instead, look at things from their perspective and consider how they might choose to block your troops or otherwise react to your moves. This type of thinking is not necessarily intuitive to someone who is playing a TCG for the first time, so we tried to highlight this approach in the later lessons. (Click on the image below to see an example.)

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By the final lesson, you are eventually allowed full control to make all the decisions and must prevail on your own accord. This gradual exposure to strategy and decision making helps people ease into the process of playing a ‘real’ match, where there is no tutorial narrator to hold your hand.

A MORE IMMERSIVE TUTORIAL

The final major objective we had for improving the tutorial experience was to integrate it more directly into the overarching narrative of the Chronicles of Entrath. We wanted to instantly immerse new players in the story and lore of Entrath, starting with their very first match. To accomplish this, we began by storyboarding a rough outline of a tutorial storyline. The important features of this story were that it began with a direct conflict, creating an immediate sense of tension and excitement, and that it had some element of intrigue that hinted at the curious nature of this fantasy world.

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To accomplish these goals, we decided on a story that would feature the necrotic. For the unfamiliar, the necrotic might seem like your classic undead-villain trope, but by highlighting certain aspects of their character we try to show that a deeper and more nuanced fiction exists below the surface, just waiting to be explored. By following along with the dialog, you might begin to understand the necrotic’s perspective of reusing ‘discarded’ bodies for a higher purpose – even though they might employ a disgusting maggot or two to get what they want. Just like in the campaign, you can slowly begin to understand a little more about the world and its inhabitants by carefully following the dialog between matches.

We decided to wrap up the tutorial narrative with an event that is directly connected to the start of the Campaign storyline, so that anyone who proceeds directly into that mode enjoys a seamless story transition. We handed the rough script over to our friendly ‘Loregoyle’ Michael Kirchhoff, who polished up any of the rough story details, and wrote in all of the interesting dialog sequences that we use to bridge the transitions between lessons.

CONCLUSION

I hope you enjoyed this quick look into the world of designing the tutorial. As you can see, it was a lot more involved than you maybe might have guessed. But we are always happy to put in the effort, especially if it means we get to share the game we all love with even more of you! I’d also like to quickly thank Dan Clark, Chance Wees, Mike Kirchhoff, and everyone else that contributed to the development of this feature. You guys rock!
Until next time, friends.

– Jared

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