Players learn how to play Borderlands through a well constructed initial user path with new controls and actions slowly fed through to the player.
I am a big fan of this approach. Rather than providing the players with a substantial amount of information, they are drip fed it through the first hour or so of playing. Through carefully designed quests, level design and of course progression you can ensure that the player learns at a reasonable rate whilst still being immersed in the game. Borderlands is particularly effective at this approach.
During a rather splendid intro video you meet the four playable characters and get to take your pick. Once into the game a “Claptrap” (robots that often help you out / need saving) gives you a HUD device, which then loads the HUD into the game. Obviously this doesn’t require the CPU time to load but the process of displaying it on screen shows you what everything does. When it informs you that it is loading the health bar, then displays it on the HUD, you know where it is. This is a clever little idea and does an excellent job of explaining what the purpose of each HUD element is for. I do however have one criticism. During this time you are locked down, ie spamming Esc to skip. This should perhaps be skippable as I imagine that 90%+ of experienced FPS players would have understood everything from a first glance.
The player then follows the claptrap, encountering enemies where they must learn combat and climbing under/over fences to try out the jump and crouch controls. It is all very simple but nonetheless gives a solid opportunity to learn and the player does not feel dettached from the game, stuck in a tutorial. The claptrap gives verbal instructions to the player with subtitles for those who like having something to read. Learning to crouch and jump is taught by placing certain obstacles in the way. Context is given as you follow the Claptrap through the run down area and it forces the player to use the controls without causing disruption to the flow of the game. Gameplay instructions, for example how to shoot, are provided via large popup messages. These take up a lot of screen space and have an opaque background, however they are to the side so they aren’t too obstrusive. They could however have been much smaller.
Additionally some instructions were given via modal popups. This of course paused the game and took the user out of the action. There was no effort to time these messages so that they did not interfere with your game, meaning they appeared right in the middle of combat and interupted speech. Disrupting the flow of audio dialog and the story is poor practice but forcibly taking the player’s focus saway whilst in the middle of gameplay is a top ranking games design sin as far as I’m concerned. It is a real shame as the start was very positive and I felt as though my tutorial research may have found a winner here but modal messages in a FPS is just atrocious.
Once through the initial combat stage you are introduced to quests. Initially they are vary simply involving finding objects but soon you encounter a range of activities. Over time new weapons are provided (including grenades) and skills unlocked. This means that initially the player is only expected to know the basics and can build up their knowledge, rather than try to learn it all at once. Effectively the tutorial and learning experience has been built into the game’s progression. Later you quests that require you to equip yourself with grenades and skills are explained after a few rounds of standard combat as they aren’t unlocked until Level 5. Even after the first boss fight there are still new things to learn, such as vehicles. There really is a steady development to the game.
Having played many games that try to teach everything in one go, this was a very welcome approach. There are two major benefits from what I can see. First is that the learning is broken up into more manageable chunks. Rather than forcing constant scenarios on the player, it is a slower process and allows them to become more comfortable with the game. Learning about the recoil, damage indicators, hit boxes and the power of weapons is essential to a successful start in the game and Borderlands facilitates this quite well. If a game rushes the player then they may struggle when the difficulty starts to increase causing them to become frustrated and stop playing.
The second is that it aids the plot development. When a game starts with a boot camp style tutorial followed by missions there is a clear difference to the player, first you are playing the boring ol’ tutorial then soon you are playing a mission. However Borderlands uses the approach where these two are interlinked. They are learning on the go, picking up the story, getting into the action and at the same time being told how to play the game. This is a much more seemless approach with the player able to straight experience the gameplay and plot without having to break to learn bits and bobs. Naturally not all games could use it, particularly when there are clearly unique and defined missions (eg a military shooter).
In all I think that the structure of the Borderlands tutorial is absolutely fantastic, especially for a FPS/RPG hybrid title. However it is let down by, and I find it shocking to write this, modal message boxes displayed mid combat. Oh deary, deary me.