I’ve decided to break up my reflection into two articles. There are two things to consider in why the tutorial and initial user experience for APB was so shocking. The actual failings of the tutorial and why it failed to serve its purpose is of course an obvious talking point, but how did it get to this stage? Was it incompetence, poor design or other reasons. Please bear in mind that it has been a good 6-7 months since I last played APB and longer since I fully explored the tutorial. This is also why I don’t have any screenshots to go along with it.
For this article I’d like to address the failings in the tutorial itself. It essentially comprised of three elements; a tutorial district, tutorial missions and tutorial messages. Right there we have a bit of a fail. Actually calling the entry point in the game and early missions “Tutorial” shows no effort to hide it from the player. To myself and no doubt many other gamers, the word “tutorial” effectively means dull and boring so effectively we’ve immediately said to players “time to switch off your brains… yawnerama coming up!”.
Introducing the tutorial district in my mind was a good solid idea, however just making it another ruleset of the Financial District (one of the two action districts) was such a weak approach. From my experience, most MMOs or otherwise similar games (even if without the driving and shooting) have a level specifically built for the purpose of a learning environment so that the designers can structure a tutorial in a reasonably linear manner. The level in APB was in no way designed to guide new players. After spawning in you were free to run around wherever you wanted. You could jump in a car and drive away from the Contact or perform an action such as accepting the mission being spammed up on screen, which would cancel the current queue of messages to display a new one, missing out on key information.
Unfortunately these messages are one of the main sources of learning within APB, despite it being pretty well known that players just don’t read them. I can fully understand why, hell I do it myself. Reading text is not interesting and rather forced, especially on a new game where you are excited and keen to you know, play the game. You can provide all the useful information there is in a concise and structured manner, but if the player isn’t going to read the messages, what’s the point?
Most messages were triggered by an action, for example entering a car. This meant that until you did a certain action, you weren’t informed about it. We did also create a series of messages triggered by looking at an item but it required several seconds of staring at it and as the subject of the message wasn’t highlighted, it could feel a bit random to hear a message regarding refilling ammo whilst stood idle, perhaps having a quick swig of coffee.
We also had several other conflicting problems with messages. Many people complained that the messages were displayed too quickly to read (especially in non-English languages where text was longer but messages displayed for the same time) and I can fully appreciate the problem. Unless you observed the messages immediately, reading them within the display time would be too difficult. However increasing the time could mean that the five or so messages to describe driving could take nearly a minute to display. Also as new actions could trigger messages, increasing the display time also increases the chances of a chain being interupted for a new action.
Given that your destination is usually at most a 20-30 second drive, increasing the time wouldn’t work. As it was, many people were already frustrated with the display time for messages. It is a no win situation. Increase the time to display and they get in the way more but when your system relies on them, its is imperative that the player sees them. Personally I looked to minimise the amount of messages and also provide a copy of what was said in the chat log. Whilst the latter was possible, the immense complexity of APB meant that I was constantly having requests for new messages.
Another issue was the placement of messages, particularly in UIs. It was quite common for messages to overlap controls on menus and generally just get in the way. From a technical point of view, placement was always a challenge as you don’t want messages popping up all over the place and in APB there was rarely any screen space that was “free”. It didn’t help that the the UI would change constantly, even after message positions had been finalised. Video options were a key example. It was regularly changed so the position of the messages needed altering. Unfortunately after lockdown on the messages, it was altered again meaning that the latest & final position of the tutorial was bang slap over the confirm / cancel buttons. Awesome.
We did have highlights for UI (and also HUD) elements for to indicate where they are when being discussed. It is essential that you do this. I’ve played games that don’t highlight the topic of of the current tutorial message, meaning that I had no idea what they were referring to. Including icons in the message does help, but it still requires the player to locate the item themselves and is no substitute for just pointing it out. Unfortunately in APB they were rather discrete and at times perhaps hard to see. To be honest though, you shouldn’t really need to describe how a UI works or be highlighting every control. Everything should be self-explanatory with further information available that may need clarifying in some form of Help system that can be read at your leisure.
From feedback we were told that many topics weren’t covered in messaging. Having looked through, I was able to confirm that they were present and triggered as expected. However there was still a problem here. Players were obviously not seeing these messages, either through not noticing or being interupted / distracted by something else.
There was set to be a comprehensive “Knowledge Base” that was due to solve most the problems. With pictures, videos and explanations of all key game areas it would provide plenty of information and would link from tutorial messages. I was always dubious as asking a player “Do you want to read more?” whilst they are currently in game is surely going to result in a firm “No” and secondly, I didn’t have faith in the Customer Service team, guys with no experience of the game, producing quality information on how to play.
Sadly I was right on both counts, with the Knowledge Base failing epicly. Articles were weak and many key areas weren’t covered. Despite a key part of the KB being to link up with the tutorial messages and the messages being my area, I had no line of communication to discuss content of up and coming articles. If I requested information it was nearly a month’s turnaround. Just not good enough.
In order to teach the core gameplay, several tutorial missions were used. Whilst some people objected to the concept of using the mission system, personally I felt it could have worked. Many other games successfully use this, however the problem with APB’s tutorial missions was that they were dull. The actual completing actions part of the game wasn’t interested and this is all the tutorial missions focused on. It took about 15 minutes for an experienced player to get through them, so you can double that for people new to the driving and district layout. However you really can’t deny that it taught you how to press ‘f’.
I always argued that one slightly longer missions would be better than several, partly because the mission system had a delay between mission offers and required the player to accept them. This of course is why many people objected to the use of missions within the tutorial. The core idea isn’t a bad one, but the delivery was poor. The player was completing uninteresting solo missions with a system designed to give players a chance to restock their ammo and regoup before the next PvP mission. The ready system did change this, although I can’t recall how this implemented into the tutorial, but it was post launch changes anyway.
Combat was taught via a series of optional opposed missions within the Action District. Unfortunately again it was as dry as they come because solo gameplay in APB was notoriously poor, not a huge issue for me as it was a group based PvP game. However for this to be a player’s first experience just wasn’t good enough.
There was means for them to group up, but they’d be unlikely to get matched and knowing how to do so wasn’t entirely clear. To improve this, when entering the action districts the Social UI, or Groups & Friends menu as it was later called was displayed. Players were advised to join a group, although the options on the initial message confused players. Heck, I regularly clicked the wrong button and I understood the systems.
I think a major mistake here was that the messages advised them people to join a group. “Oh pretty please, we’d really like it if you grouped up… it makes the game oh so much more fun.” Instead the approach should have been “Oi you! Group up now.” Well something along those lines at least. As part of post launch improvements I argued that we should change the presentation of the group finder (yet another name for the same thing -_-). It was very clear they new players, including reviewers, weren’t grouping and as a result experienced the weak solo gameplay.
At the end of the day, the tutorial was a big bag of fail. I’d disagree that APB wasn’t well explained, however instructions and the game itself was never clear. The systems used to teach it are notoriously difficult to get players to engage with and the actual implementation itself was weak as well. In an open world environment it is a challenge to guide players and teach them information when they can perform any action. APB took the route of “here’s how you press ‘f’ and if you do anything else, will tell you more”.
The major problem with APB’s tutorial was that messages were used to instruct the player, but most of these were reactive to your action. There was lack of a structure to guide the player and an insistence on displaying more and more information to the player in response. With the massive quantity of information being passed to the user, it turned into a real mess. Picking out the key pieces of info was a challenge and the player was expected to read and learn far too much from these messages in a short space of time.
It certainly didn’t help that many of the systems themselves were unintuitive and overly complex so not only were the tuturial messages there to provide those important bits of information for new players, but also to cover how some of the backwards things in APB work. Trying to clarify one broken system with another… RIP Realtime Worlds