Tutorials are the least exciting part of most video games. So how do you help players learn the basics without boring them, or even worse, pushing them away from the game completely?
TURNING TUTORIALS INTO ADVENTURES
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s Great Plateau is a wonderful example of how creating a limited version of the full experience can teach people how to play without feeling like a tutorial or homework. That opening area lets players learn what they’ll need to know when exploring Hyrule, while sticking to the basics in terms of enemy difficulty and item selection. It’s not a tutorial in the way I’m used to them; it’s more of an area with lowered stakes that allows me to practice the skills I’ll need throughout the game.
I’ve recently poured dozens of hours into Dragon Quest Builders 2, and I just realized that it approaches its tutorial in a similar way. I didn’t even recognize this strategy at first, as I spent so long making friends with lovely non-playable characters and bringing a desolate island back to life.
Yet all that hard but enjoyable work was actually a clever, and lengthy, tutorial that felt more like its own adventure.
My character begins the game aboard a ship helmed by several monsters. Instead of fighting my way free, my plucky hero befriends them and takes on small tasks around the ship that teach me the basics of picking up and placing blocks, which is the most important mechanic of the game.
Everything in Builders is block-based, so it’s great that I get to learn how to manipulate my environment in a small area in which I can’t really mess up. The enemy ship is the perfect sandbox, as it leaves very little room for error. The worst thing that can happen is placing an easily movable block in the wrong spot, causing a temporary annoyance.
The ship crashes after I master all there is to know about moving boxes, and I wake up alone in a place called the Isle of Awakening. I assumed the game would start off properly from here, but it was just the beginning of another, much longer and more robust tutorial.
I quickly learn that the Isle of Awakening is severely lacking the resources I need to stay alive, so I must travel to a neighboring island, called Furrowfield, to gather what I need. I thought it would be a short trip to pick up a few seeds and some gardening tools so I could make food in my new home, but Furrowfield became my only focus for days. I learned new skills, battled a few bosses, and even discovered some secrets. I had forgotten about the Isle of Awakening by the time I turned a small plot of land on Furrowfield into a full-fledged farm.
I was on an island with its own lore and personality, so it was easy for me to think I wasn’t in a tutorial area anymore. But as soon as I had done everything possible in that environment, and helped the folks living there to the best of my abilities, I was reminded by one of my companions that I needed to return to the Isle of Awakening. Reviving that island was my actual goal. I had just become so wrapped up in Furrowfield that I had forgotten the reason I was there in the first place.
There’s so much I could now do on the Isle of Awakening based on what I learned in Furrowfield that it felt like I was returning to another blank slate. My lengthy trip abroad served two purposes: to give me what I need to start reviving my island, and to cultivate new skills in a low-risk, but interesting, environment. That process is so enjoyable that I never grow restless waiting to return to the “main” game. The design separated the tutorial from the rest of my experience in theory, but in practice it just felt like I was learning what I need to know while playing at my own place.
Thankfully, many of the residents I met in Furrowfield follow me back to the Isle of Awakening. Together, we can put all the knowledge we gained to literally change the face of my new home. My crew and I set off to terraform the land, carving out a huge river that empties into a lake. This gargantuan task now feels like child’s play after tackling the challenges of Furrowfield.
With that “tutorial” area now behind me, I’ve just begun reworking the landscape of my new home. While I spent hours taking part in Dragon Quest Builders 2’s story in Furrowfield, it was nothing more than a test kitchen. The real challenge is the Isle of Awakening. At this point, I’m no longer a novice farmhand, but rather a master of the elements. I can spawn fields of grass and forests at will. I can dig tunnels and form new rivers at my leisure. All of this is thanks to how Furrowfield made learning all these skills a pleasure, not painful.
Much like Breath of the Wild’s Great Plateau, I was able to tackle the open world of Isle of Awakening with bundles of confidence and creativity the moment I left my training grounds. I never felt like I had to grind through the tedious parts of the game to get through the good stuff. It had all been the good stuff.
Being able to have an entirely separate space removed from the rest of the game in some way lets those areas breathe and serve their purpose without rushing or holding back the player — especially if those areas have their own sense of place and challenges to overcome.
I can’t leave the Great Plateau in Breath of the Wild until I get the paraglider, which is one of the last tasks I can accomplish there. I can’t leave Furrowfield until I’ve successfully brought that area back to life. Being stuck in these starting areas isn’t limiting, but rather it lets me figure out what there is to learn there to its fullest extent.
Finishing these smaller adventures lets me unlock the rest of the game at a pace that feels natural and satisfying, and it gives me the skills I need to finish the game with both confidence and creativity. This isn’t the only way to handle tutorials well, but it’s one of my favorites.