Tips for UX and Tutorial Design for Games

Some things to consider when designing tutorials and UX for games.

min read

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Games are the perfect User Experience

This features tips when thinking about Game UX (User Experience) design and building tutorials.

First, as a generalist let me tell you, all things in life have a goal. Games are no different. Games are so compelling because their goals are often so clear.

The best way to learn is by games, and your body is built for games – it’s no accident humans and animals default to play when young. We know this, that’s why gamification is such a hot topic because we know games are successful.

“Like stimulants, video gaming can increase gray matter in the brain,” says Dr. Manos. “Gray matter provides interconnectivity and allows parts of your brain to communicate with other parts of your brain and advance your self-perception.” (see more at Are Video Games Good for You and Your Brain?)

They can improve your relationships, give you a statistically significant advantage over others in problem-solving skills (if you play Portal 2 for example), and do so much for you, I could make this massive list but I’ll save that for a different day.

Anyway. Games are the ultimate UX.

Good games have flow states – only with good UX mind you

The whole point of UX is to get you into a flow state. To make the application, tool, device, website, game, etc, easy. Not just easy, but thoughtless. This makes your goals so natural to continuously reach for.

Games are all about goals, and being successful at these goals can be hard- bad feedback, bad communication, bad controls, bad interface, bad experiences, so many things can mess up an experience so let me help you out.

Here are a few tips for improving your game tutorials’ UX…

And yes general good design principles are a factor.

Why do Tutorials Fail?

Tutorials are a way to guide players, and as a player’s skill level increases, tutorials should be there to help nudge the player toward the right way(s) to succeed. Some may mistake tutorials as only being needed on a first-level or first playthrough, but good design can sprinkle tutorials throughout the experience this is called ‘invisible tutorials’. There is a beautifully written blog post that covers this pretty well here.

There are many good examples of good and bad tutorials…

But how do you go about creating good tutorials? Look at what is missing first.

5 ways tutorials may fail and how to fix them:

  1. Not understanding or addressing all audience member’s needs
  2. Frontloading too much info
  3. Missing key info and assuming they will figure it out
  4. Unclear goals or feedback
  5. Not showing a tutorial at the right time (too early, too late)
Not Understanding Or Addressing All Audience Members

Ever played a game and felt like “Yes I already know this, please let me skip this??”


Or maybe you forgot a part of the tutorial and want to refresh?


Good tutorials think about different players.

There are 3 ways to address this problem depending on game style, audience focus, or particular use cases. This can of course be combined in different ways or formats.

  1. Make the tutorial optional – Be it a special menu option (after playing once), skip by button press, or by using some advanced skill to skip the tutorial, try to allow for different options for players.
  2. Log the tutorial – In many games, you can go back and check out the rules in some sort of log or manual (can also be audio or video too). This is generally useful for complicated games but should really only be used after an introduction to the material.
  3. Create an area for practice – This can be good for training skills, trying out the tutorial/level again, or for experimenting, this can be a lobby, a special dungeon, a special situation or zone, or some starter island, there are lots of ways to work with this.

When should you choose these options is complicated, but you should understand the difference between an advanced user and a frustrated user.

Some interesting questions for that would be:

Does the player understand what they need to do? Can they complete this task? How long did it take them? Why do they have that speed? Should they improve their speed? Do they need more knowledge or skill? Are they trying to skip? Why do they wander around? Are they looking for more info? Do they want to complete the goal?

In my own experience when interviewing and running play tests, sometimes new players might just want to wander around or skip the preset goal because that is easier than completing the goal or just plain more interesting than the preset goal. You can either make the goal more direct/clear or more interesting (be it pressure, limitations, or rewards) depending on what the goal is.

Advanced players will want to move on (or if they think they are advanced) and will try to skip as much as possible. You can have them prove their skillset to advance, for users that think they are advanced but quickly realize aren’t at the right skill set you can try and redirect them by improving the goal incentives and optionally reintroduce the concept in a different format (easier said than done).

Frontloading too much Info

It’s easy to put up a picture of controls, a pile of text, or go through a seemingly endless amount of steps but players need time to practice and understand the context.

3 ways to help avoid frontloading:

  1. Break down the concepts – Based on Millar’s Law, players can only keep 7 +/-2 items in their working memory. So 5 to 9 things, it’s better to focus on the lower number for now so what are 5 key concepts you want them to remember?
  2. You remember best what you haven’t finished. Based on the Zeigarnik Effect you remember the last thing you needed to do. So if you rapidly complete a series of steps don’t expect it all to stick! Show progress towards the goal, completing a task multiple times (even better in different ways) takes advantage of this effect. And can make you feel good. Foreshadowing events and leaving some things locked until later uses this effect.
  3. Honestly just go through and apply most UXLaws when it comes to breaking down info. That is what it’s there for, to help you remember and process info.
Missing Key Info

Ever looking up a guide on how to do something in a game? Maybe you missed it, maybe you skipped it, or maybe you just are frustrated.

What do you do? Well, google how to do the thing of course.

Sometimes there are ways we may be able to address this in a game, if we think a player was able to skip a section or use a skill and solve a puzzle in an unusual way we may not be able to gauge their skill level well.

Something we can do if we are unsure if the player is missing information is try to present it in different formats, this can be through gameplay, world design, quests, dialogue, and other formats (maybe character design – does that character look like a bomb??)

Say open world games, sometimes players might not have certain skills or knowledge about a place or ability, by trying to introduce it in multiple formats you increase the chances of the player understanding how to approach the problem. Or you can have multiple ways to actually solve said problem if you are unsure if they have a particular tool or skill etc.

So in a nutshell if you are unsure if your players are missing information:

  1. Present the information in a different format – world design, dialogue, character design, etc
  2. Allow multiple ways to get past/through a section
  3. Introduce the idea multiple times with slight variations
Unclear Goals or Feedback

You know with UXLaws how to improve presenting info. That does solve most issues, but sometimes you want to hide info for a sense of discovery, and/or perhaps you want players to choose their own goals. What is the best way to do this?

Games can direct players to different goals, subgoals, or personal goals in a variety of ways. That can be accomplished with:

  1. Limitations, force a player to go in a particular direction – this can be a chase scene, mini-game, or all sorts of ways can force a player towards an end goal due to time limits, physical constraints, stat changes, etc.
  2. Give them invisible options by controlling their line of sight, like BOTW has players see far-off goalposts with many ways to get there with distractions along the way, to help players self-direct their own goals
  3. Feedback of course should be right away, but sometimes you give players an element of mystery on what the feedback means to force players towards new goals, this can be a longer-term payoff for the curious.
Tutorial Timing & Pacing

When is a good time to explain something?

  1. Right before you need it
  2. Right after you really need it

How do you know when to do what? Well, that depends on what type of tone you are trying to set.

Sometimes in games, you will see sections leaving you wondering why they are there, leaving a bit of a mystery, discovering the solution makes those areas all the more exciting, can you recall what UX principle this is? When in doubt, it may be helpful to be a tad on the late side.

The “joy of discovery” is one of the fundamental joys of play itself. Not just the joy of discovering secrets within the game, but also the joy of uncovering the creator’s vision. It’s that “Aha!” moment where it all makes sense, and behind the world the player can feel the touch of another creative mind.

In order for it to be truly joyful, however, it must remain hidden from plain view—not carved as commandments into stone tablets but revealed, piece by piece, through the player’s exploration of the game’s rules.”

Derek Yu, Spelunky

Beginner tutorials though often can be overwhelming with info so keep the frontloading idea in mind and consider pacing. Give the player what they need to know, but just enough to survive, you can always reward them with additional info if they seek it.

Also, consider adjusting the pacing when they struggle in a particular area, some games might lower enemy hp, adjust the amount they need to complete, or offer settings to adjust the difficulty – making the game harder if they complete it faster or easier if they fail after a set amount of time.


In UX there are the terms happy paths, golden paths, and sad paths so consider different paths the user might go on.

  • A happy path might be a clearing in the forest with some dirt road directing the player to key points of interest.
  • A golden path might be a path with some hidden weapons in the nooks and crannies the player stumbles on thinking it’s by accident and is delighted to discover some weapon with a new cool mechanic like fire!
  • A sad path is the user not seeing a path at all and ending up at a massive enemy that chases them down, kills them, and causes them to lose rare items before they have a chance to learn how to escape – frustrating the player. Even worse is if they get stuck there and have to restart much further away or can’t restart at all.

If a player fails to see the happy path, or decides not to take it, was the design inadequate?

Jacob Medel (Check out his article on paths)

Using good UX and user testing you can test what path players use the most often and iterate it to improve pathing and pacing. User testing can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. I’ll include a few general tips here but games in particular are more complicated than other tech such as a website so sometimes they can be harder to test.

Tips on User Testing
  1. Figure out the goal of your testing before you start – Are you looking for particular problems or a broad test case? Are you testing particular audience members (children vs adults)? Do you have a set time frame for the test to finish or is it open-ended?
  2. Choose your testing type or mixture – interview, screen recording, eye tracking, bug testing, survey, etc
  3. Consider the location of the testing – office vs at a game convention ~ how would this affect results?
  4. When watching someone play it can be good to let them play uninterpreted sometimes (so they play without your influence) but sometimes you need to ask questions to understand what they are thinking (What do think this object is? Can you describe what is on this menu? etc)
  5. For audience members not used to controls or devices (I’ve had to teach kids how to use a mouse and keyboard before or which way is left or right) try to allow extra time for the audience to be comfortable and able to understand how the system works.


There is so much more I could cover, but for now, let me summarize a few key ideas.

5 things that can make a game have a bad tutorial: Not Addressing Audience Needs, Frontloading too much info, Missing key info, unclear goals or feedback, bad timing/pacing

Solutions: give players control over tutorial difficulty, create bite-sized tutorials + allow for reference and practice, repeat info in different formats, use limitations and curiosity to direct players towards the goals, and finally use pathing that challenges players to adjust the difficulty to match their pace

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Ashley Hooper