Video Game Analysis: Tutor Me, Mini Mix!


Editor’s note: The following blog was written by a NordicGameBits.com Opinion-blogger. The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the individual writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of NordicGameBits or the other writers and authors of the community. 

Apologies for missing the announced blog post between the holidays and the Gregorian New Year – I came down with a nasty bout of illness that I needed to recover from.

Last time I promised that we would be getting into some detailed video game analysis examples of how we can use the narrativity-based model, we’ve been kicking around.

(Remember, it originally looked like this:

 

Source: http://www.darkshire.net/jhkim/rpg/theory/narrative/paradigms.html

Source: http://www.darkshire.net/jhkim/rpg/theory/narrative/paradigms.html

And we re-formulate it like this:

A message is conceived by a developer, who attempts to express this by placing formal elements into a game. This game is then filtered through a discourse and an interpretative act and becomes a perceived message in the mind of the player.)

We’re going to take a look at one particular example today, namely the tutorial mode of the iOS/Android game Mini Mix Mayhem! by Chris Burt-Brown.

 

MiniMixMenu

(both images from the game are screenshots taken by me)

 

On tutorials and teaching

Tutorials are one of the most crucial instances of developers wanting to control the message that they express to players, which lies at the root of why so many tutorials are so bad.

Being a teacher, I can relate to the idea that we instinctively think that the best way to make sure that a message gets across is to state it directly. This is the reason why many teachers default to text-heavy slides, lectures or – in a pinch – heavily guided discussion as their main teaching method. (I certainly have this instinct myself, as you can no doubt guess from the verbose nature of these blog entries.) It is seen as safe to assume that this covers our back as communicators, and I believe the same feeling is at the core of the boring, straightforward tutorials of many games.

However, as many teachers know and quite a bit of research shows, this method of communicating may seem safe, but actually often hinders retention. This means that if you want to teach your player how to play the game and have her or him remember this intimately when facing your devilishly constructed later challenges, you need to structure your tutorial differently.

The research in this area is vast, but in the field of game design it is probably sufficient to quote Raph Koster: “Basically, all games are edutainment.” He says this because he sees games in a specific way: “Games are puzzles – they are about cognition, and learning to analyze patterns. When you’re playing a game, you’ll only play it until you master the pattern. Once you’ve mastered it, the game becomes boring.” What this means is that playing a game actually is an exercise in figuring out how to play the game. It also means a ton of other stuff, but for our purposes here that’s enough.

This means that ideally, the player should be able to learn how to play the game by playing the game.

 

Mini Mix Mayhem – a teaching game

So these are two different approaches to designing tutorials. I have chosen Mini Mix Mayhem for analysis, because it exemplifies both.

As you can see above, there are several ways to play Mini Mix Mayhem, but essentially the game’s objectives remain the same: play a series of simple, timed minigames simultaneously presented on the touch screen. The first time you start up the game, and as an option to choose later, you can play a tutorial mode that teaches you the basics of the minigame and the principle of switching between the minigames. This is the first screen of the tutorial mode:

MiniMixSpace

 

Here we see a range of formal elements. In the upper left corner, we have a pause button. We understand this because of the discourse surrounding it. Below, we have four screens – indicated as screens by their shape and the static in the unused two. Below the unused screens, we have on the left a bit of text, a pictogram and some arrows; on the right a graphic interface with several rows of coloured shapes at the top and a white and red shape below with a background picture indicating space.

The text and pictogram screen is quite straightforward. The language is clear and the use of a clearly denoted “press” graphic at the finger of the pictogram takes care of non-readers, while the arrows efficiently indicate that the instruction relates to the nearby screen on the right.

The right side screen, meanwhile, is drawing heavily on discourse. An obvious reference to the 1981 game Space Invaders – a classic in the medium – the objective of playing as a spaceship shooting the invading aliens. Since the game is on a touch platform, it is safe to assume that the player will want to press the screen and see what happens.

 

Two tutorials – no waiting!

Either of the screens thus function as a tutorial. Through the clever use of formal elements that draw heavily of the discourse surrounding the medium of games and the input method of the platform, the right hand screen is effectively a learn-while-you-play tutorial in and of itself.

Why have the straight text tutorial message too, then?

It might be that the developer does not trust the discourse that the formal elements of the game draw on to effectively ensure that the conceived message is identical to the perceived message. I think that this is highly unlikely, though, since the formal elements are so confidently chosen.

Another possible interpretation is that the text is meant as a parody. Exactly because the straight forward tutorial text is so often chosen as the easy way out, the juxtaposition of this method with the arguably more accomplished tutorial craft of the game on the right can easily be seen as a knowing wink at the audience.

Finally, it may simply be because of the nature of the gameplay in Mini Mix Mayhem. When simultaneous minigames are playing, it can become quite intense to try and get them all right. Establishing some of the minigames through more than one type of instruction – both text-based and game-based tutorial – may make these particular minigames safe havens of quick reaction in the heat of a running game. This is essential as you know if you’ve played the game. Here’s a let’s play that illustrates it, but do try it at home:

I hope this has illustrated one way that we can use our model to think about design decisions and arrive at some qualified reasons for making them.

Please join me next week for a few thoughts on how we can think about level design with this model in mind.

Authors
Mikkel Lodahl

I’m an associate professor at the Dania Academy of Higher Education in Grenaa, Denmark. We offer two AP level educations focused on game development, one for programmers and one for designers. I teach a flurry of different analytical disciplines, and I will be blogging about various forms of analysis from gameplay and narrative analysis of games to marketing analysis and even occasionally object oriented analysis in relation to game development. My focus is on making analysis a practical skill. I hope to produce insights and lessons for use in further design, rather than analysing for pure fun and knowledge – though that certainly also has its place. Oh, and a warning: I have a weird background for games – philosophy and the study of religion – which may bleed through from time to time. I will try to blog at least once a week – always on Thursdays, occasionally also on Mondays.

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