The importance of instructional design
Posted by Voyages in Eternity [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on Sat, 20 Oct 2007 11:55:12 +0000

I’ve actually written about this before (here), but a few recent events have me furiously wanting to get up on this particular soapbox again, so…

A couple years back, I took some classes in a game development program with the intent of trying to get a better feel for the graphics and animation side of the equation: 20 years of programming for banks, newspaper publishers, and retailers doesn’t offer much insight into modeling or animating a 3D image, I’ve discovered.

Anyway, this particular curriculum had a seemingly incongruous course stuck into the 3rd or 4th quarter of the program: Instructional Design.  Oh, heavens, the level of complaining from my fellow students… you would have had to heard it to believe it.  I’m not entirely certain, but I believe 3 people left the program entirely simply due to this class (”this is the last straw” type of reasoning in mind, I imagine).  “What does this have to do with making games?”

Now, I enjoyed the class, and have found it highly relevant going forward.  Here’s why.

Impetus

I’ve had occasion to just briefly dip my toes into 3 betas (1 open, 2 closed) over the past few weeks… either a friend wanted me to take a look, or I received an invite by email, so I’ve felt a little obligated to make time despite a bunch of other distractions.  And all-in-all, it’s been kind of like the old joke… I’ve got good news, and bad news.

The good news?  All three of these games appear to be taking at least baby steps in new directions.  There’s been some creative thinking!  Woot!

The bad news?  Good luck figuring out how the h-e-double-hockey-sticks these creative new systems actually work, cause they sure ain’t telling you.  Instead, they are still trying to get by on the old tried-and-true “just dump them in the world and throw them into combat… they’ll figure it out eventually”.

Here’s a hint, guys… throwing your kid into the pool to teach him how to swim  in short order works (sorta) because if he doesn’t figure it out, he drowns.  If your players don’t figure out how to play your game in short order, on the other hand… you starve as they go and play (and pay for) something else. 

See the difference?

Details

I wish I could go into some solid details, but the best examples are all under NDA.  In one case in particular, I can vaguely see where they are trying to go… and I think it has some potential (of course, it’s reminiscent of systems in my dream design, so take that with a grain of salt). 

It’s potential that many people, I fear, will never really see because they are not currently training new players in how to play their game.  People will get frustrated, will feel confused and powerless right off the bat, and will leave the game and never look back as a result.  My hope is that this has already been recognized as an area needing massive improvement (it is in beta, after all), and that someone is assigned to fixing this right this moment…

The really irritating part?  All of these games have had the usual core pop ups… you know, telling you to use W to move forward, A to turn left, D to turn right… interface training, essentially, a level of instruction that I recognize as necessary, but frankly feels condescending after a while.  Then we get to interactions with game mechanics involving underlying systems that _haven’t_ been seen a thousand times before… and cue the crickets.

Now, on a personal level, I have no problem with this.  I actually kind of enjoy puzzling out the rules and systems, as long as I have the time to give it.

Unfortunately, most people don’t enjoy it.

Conclusion

Not the most satisfying rant since I couldn’t get into specific cases and remedies, but it will serve for the moment.  Yes, it’s important to get people into the game quickly… but you also need to teach them how to play.  Imagine having someone plop all the pieces of Axis and Allies, or a Magic: The Gathering deck down in front of you, minus any instructions or foreknowledge, and telling you “Have Fun!”  These games do that regularly, and under far less workable circumstances to boot.

It’s not that I don’t understand root causes for skipping this particular item… my own little model GMUD is about one good weekend of coding away from releasing a tiny dungeon to run around in, if I ignore the need to teach potential guinea pigs  players how all these newfangled little bits and pieces I’ve thrown in interact.  I’m not going to post it without doing that additional work… I have to at least try to come up with some basic guidance on some of this stuff…

… but I really want to.




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