Designing the Tutorial

Over the last couple of months I’ve been working on my individual subject treatment on the topic of designing tutorial levels. Now that I’ve completed my research and wrote the paper, I feel like a tutorial expert!  💪 💪 💪

Here’s a quick summary of what I learned:

Goals of a Tutorial

The first goal of a tutorial is obvious: teaching the player how to play the game – but there are a couple of other less obvious goals as well. The tutorial should sell the gameplay to the player, get them excited about the game and into the mindset of how to play the game in an enjoyable way. The tutorial should be a solid and entertaining first experience of the game. This is likely the first part of the game they will play, so the tutorial should be engaging for players and make a good first impression. When designing a tutorial, it is important to make design decisions not only to teach the player but to entertain them as well.

Design Strategies & Methods

  • Utilize a separate tutorial space
  • Break gameplay into lessons
  • Teach gradually through experience
  • Organize lessons into a narrative
  • Drive the lessons home

What to Avoid

  • Interrupting gameplay – pop ups, walls of text, etc.
  • Controller schemes
  • Giving incorrect control prompts
  • Taking mechanics away

With this knowledge under my belt, it was time to design the tutorial level for Disco Is Dead!

Breaking Gameplay into Lessons

First, I broke the fundamental gameplay mechanics into teachable lessons. Core concepts that the players should be familiar with before finishing the tutorial level:

  • Basic enemies and directions (down, left and right) – how to defeat enemies
  • Health – where the health bar is and its purpose, what happens when it reaches 0
  • Range – where the range to slap enemies is
  • Stamina/Burnout – where the stamina indicator is, what it means, what happens when it’s empty
  • Shield enemy – how to defeat it, which direction to slap in
  • Buddy bar and buddy mode – how to fill the bar, how to activate buddy mode, how gameplay changes during buddy mode and why it is useful

Teach Gradually Through Experience

Next, I sequenced the lessons gradually throughout the level, so the player could learn gradually through experience:

  1. Incoming slow basic enemy for Player 1. The announcer will draw attention to it.
  2. When the thug reaches the slap range, the announcer instructs the player that it can be defeated in this range by slapping in the direction indicated by the icon atop the enemy’s head.
  3. Now let Player 2 try by spawning the same slow, basic enemy down their lane.
  4. Each player gets an opportunity to test all 3 directions with staggered, slow enemies.
  5. Announcer draws attention to the health & stamina bars.
  6. Practice with basic enemies.
  7. Teach players the new shield enemy and icon – it can be defeated by slapping in any direction with a certain number of hits.
  8. Practice against basic and shield enemies.
  9. Introduce buddy bar. The announcer tells players to fill it up to unleash their special move!
  10. Practice against more basic and shield enemies to fill up buddy bar.
  11. A large horde of enemies slowly approaches! The game pauses and instructions to activate buddy mode appear.
  12. Players must activate buddy mode.
  13. Finish off the level in buddy mode, easily clearing large sequences of enemies.

Organizing Lessons into a Narrative

The lessons are organized to form a narrative with a context relevant to the buddy cop genre. The tutorial is set in an abandoned warehouse where the buddy cops discover an illegal drug operation to bust. They must defeat enemy thugs and reach the kingpin to bring their operation to the ground!

Driving the Lessons Home

Finally, to drive the lessons home, players skills are put to the test throughout the level. Players should demonstrate mastery of skills through practicing the following:

  • Defeating basic, big and shield enemies – sequences will get faster, include more enemies presenting a greater challenge as the level progresses
  • Repetition of enemy sequences – sequences will repeat for players to practice
  • Activating buddy mode – players cannot finish the tutorial until buddy mode is activated

Implementing these concepts into the level required creating a separate system that darkens the screen and slows down the gameplay. I wanted to avoid using pop-ups that interrupt gameplay, and instead slow down gameplay so the players can learn without feeling like they are in danger. Our narrative designer did an excellent job creating dialogue for our announcer to teach the players and enhance immersion in the arcade experience.



Currently, our tutorial is still in its early stages and there’s always room for improvement. I’m still planning on making some changes to how the player is being taught in the upcoming final weeks of development.

Designing the Tutorial

Level Design: Making Waves

As far as level design for Disco Is Dead!, thus far I designed each level to have three waves and two moments, which I discussed in the last post. I visualized the level flow using a beat map:Level 2 Disco Club.pngAlthough this was a great start to developing our levels, the waves of oncoming enemies were being randomly generated. As level designer, I could choose which enemies appeared in each wave, but I had no control over how the actual wave would play out – it was all left up to random chance in what sequence they would appear. Our initial reason for this choice was that we wanted the game to be replayable and unpredictable. We didn’t want players to think it was too easy or boring playing with prebuilt waves of enemies.

Our coders went as far as to allow me to pick which enemy would initiate the wave, as a way to teach players a new enemy, but this was the extent of design power I had over each wave. Since this is the core gameplay of Disco Is Dead! we felt like this needed to be addressed – how could such an important piece of our game be left up to chance?

During the critique of our alpha build, our professors also took note of the ‘drumming’ motion simulated by our controllers, and the similarity to rhythm games like DDR and Guitar Hero. What if these games left their entire gameplay up to random chance? It wouldn’t be nearly as fun to play. Disco Is Dead! is lacking patterns that feel natural to perform in rhythm, as well as missing opportunities for two players to work in synchronization, or alternate beats.

It would likely take me months to code in planned sequences of enemies, since my C# skills are… a little rusty. I could design the enemy sequences on paper and have our programmers insert them into the game, but this would be an inefficient use of their time. So instead, they built me a system to use in Unity so I can easily design and test enemy sequences and insert them into each level. (Seriously, how amazing are our programmers?! They’re the best. 🏆)

So here’s what this system looks like: UnityTool.png

I can create a wave, choose its length, choose whether its sequenced or random (but who wants random? Psssh.), insert enemy types that will appear in the wave, and finally, insert enemy sequences that I can create using another system.

Aaaand here’s what that looks like:UnitySequence.png

This one here is “Projectile Finale” – that is, it puts emphasis on the projectile enemies, and since it occurs in the final part of level 2, wave 3, it’s like a grand finale that challenges the players skill against projectile enemies.

With this tool I can add any enemy I want into the sequence, choose which player they will attack, and how long it will take for them to spawn. Then all I have to do is hit play and test out my new wave! This system is great because I can create a whole bunch of modular sequences and insert them throughout each wave, like puzzle pieces that make up a finished wave.

Here’s what “Projectile Finale” looks like all finished. It’s pretty awesome.


Notice how it’s designed so the players alternate the projectile attacks, then work together to smash the zombie ball backwards and squash the final approaching zombies. I think this moment will make players feel quite confident and powerful, but we’ll see when I do some playtesting later.

Finally, the last piece that was missing from this design tool was the ability to choose the direction required to smack away each enemy. I noticed this most when I was making enemy sequences that were identical for both players. The enemies that would spawn would be the same, but they would be generated with random arrows – so it wouldn’t quite as in-sync as I originally hoped. But of course our coders made this a new feature! I can choose which input will be required to defeat the enemy, so now our players can be fully in-sync! ….Uh, in theory. There are a few bugs. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ It’s a work in progress.

Coming up next I’ll be putting most of my attention to our tutorial level. Because teaching players is important! I’ve started off by creating simple enemy sequences that slowly introduce the player to defeating enemies. Next, we have to teach them how to build & activate buddy mode to unleash their full potential! Stay tuned for future updates.

Level Design: Making Waves

Designing Arcade Runner Moments

Disco Is Dead! combines arcade runner gameplay with comic book style narrative cutscenes. After beginning development on both the arcade runner and cutscenes, we stumbled upon a unique design problem: these two modes felt very separate and we were worried that they would not feel cohesive to players. It may seem that the narrative is an afterthought to tie the gameplay together, so we want to alleviate this so it becomes apparent that players can see that narrative is at the heart of Disco Is Dead!.

Narrative cutscenes and arcade gameplay:

Although the arcade gameplay is coming along nicely and is testing very positively among players, beyond the disco setting and zombie enemies, it didn’t feel like the buddy cop narrative was being conveyed through gameplay itself, which is something we are striving to achieve. We don’t want all the narrative elements to be explained through cutscenes, which some players may find boring. We also really want to convey the cooperative nature of the game, as a reflection of the special relationship between the two main characters, Reggie and Kenny.

In order to solve this issue we decided to break up the arcade runner action with narrative “moments” within each level. Each level would have two or three of these brief, interactive cut-in sequences that could impact the narrative in some way. As level designer, it was my job to work with the narrative team to determine the best direction for each moment.

We brainstormed quick actions that could take place in each level of our game: an alleyway, warehouse and disco club. These “moments” were to be designed that they were quick, interactive and impacted the narrative in some way. We discovered that these moments quickly evolved into minigames, which introduced a new way for players to interact with the controller. This was a great development, since some players felt that after a while, constantly slapping zombies in the arcade runner became a bit monotonous. As it stands, these moments are integrated into the level to break up the flow in between waves of enemies.

Players also expressed desire for power-ups within the game which would add an extra dynamic to our game, and make it more interesting to play in general. After struggling with ways to incorporate power-ups into the game, it made sense to reward players with power-ups after a successful moment has been completed.

Some moments also add a competitive element to the game – something we’ve wished to add in to counter the cooperative nature of the game, as well as relate back to the traditional buddy cop model, where the two cops aren’t always on the same page.

Overall, these narrative moments solved a bunch of design challenges!

  • Integrates story back into the arcade runner
  • Incorporates power-ups into gameplay
  • Breaks up the waves of enemies
  • Created new ways for players to interact with the controllers
  • Added a competitive element to the game

Visually, moments are linked to objects that will scroll down the lane and can be slapped by either player when it enters the slap zone to be interacted with. When hit, the moment will have cut-in panels that fly onto the screen, similar to the cutscenes, but quicker and more interactive.

Since our current focus is on level two (the disco club), we refined and implemented two moments to break up the three waves of enemies within the level. These moments are: a zombie ball enemy that is introduced, and a drinking contest where players slap the controllers as fast as they can to see who can drink more. The winner is awarded a power-up for the upcoming wave.

The first moment, the zombie ball, introduces a new enemy that when defeated can be rolled backwards to crush any upcoming zombies in this lane. Since this was such a huge enemy it felt appropriate to introduce it during one of the moments so players could fully understand its significance. It also alludes to, and teaches the player, the necessary skills to be able to defeat the mini boss of level 2: the Disconomicon. Following the moment, it recurs as a regular enemy spawning at regular intervals. Introducing this enemy as a moment allows the player with enough time to understand how to defeat it.

The second moment, the drinking game, pits Reggie and Kenny against each other to see who can drink the most. Players really seem to enjoy this section of the game – since they can just go crazy and smack the controller as fast as they can, and are rewarded with a power-up for winning … and bragging rights. We will strive to have more moments like these in the future levels to bring the competitive spirit to our cooperative game.

Designing Arcade Runner Moments

Playtest, Playtest, Playtest

Our Very First Playtesting Session


A few weeks ago we were able to get some preliminary playtesting done with a couple of early prototypes to test out our mechanics and perspective options before making some important final decisions. We had the players use the keyboard to defeat enemies, since our Makey Makey has still not arrived to be used with our physical controller.


(above) One of our prototypes, the button-combo style mode, where players must press the arrow keys above the enemies’ heads to defeat them when they are in range.

During this playtesting session, we aimed to find answers to following questions:

  1. Which interaction is more rewarding?
    1. Button-combination style – similar to Dance Dance Revolution
    2. Or Direction-based style – similar to the original Disco Is Dead!
  2. Does the combo mode work well?
  3. Which perspective works best?

The results led us to the following conclusions:

  • There was a strong preference to input indicators over enemy heads. The directional mode was not as clear because players were unsure how to interact with the enemies.
  • Allow difficulty to ramp up or have different settings – more hits in harder modes.
  • Reaction times need balancing.
  • Combo mode needs to be juicier when it is available for activation – many players didn’t even notice the option to activate it.
  • Reconsider advantages of combo mode
    • Few players saw the advantage to activating this mode if it only seemed to speed up the enemies.
  • Boring to watch. We want this game to draw in crowds at game showcases and our prototypes weren’t very engaging to an audience. Needs more juiciness, and of course, art! Nobody likes cubes.

Following this feedback, our team has begun development on the first build of our game!

Playtesting @ GameDevDrinks


This week we had the honor of showing an early build of our game at GameDevDrinks‘ Demo Night at the Pheasant Plucker in Hamilton. We got tons of great feedback from developers and designers! We had two stations set up each equipped with Xbox controllers to accommodate two players at a time.

There’s me on the right furiously taking notes while I observe our playtesters 😉

Pasted image at 2016_10_21 03_14 PM.png

We implemented some early art assets and UI into the first build to better convey the theme of our game to players. Additionally, we were trying out various types of combo modes, as well as testing some new speed mechanics and enemy types.

Overall, our game received great reception from players, most people loved the originality of the disco theme combined with zombies.

  • The concept of a slappable head controller excited everyone that we mentioned it to, one player even saying “Ohhh that’d actually be really cool! That’d be awesome! I can’t think of a game that’s done that before.” This kind of positive feedback is exactly the encouragement we need to get our controller built when our Makey Makey arrives.
  • Music is so important! Since we were in a fairly noisy environment, most players couldn’t hear the music playing in our game. Many players asked us if we were going to have an awesome soundtrack to fit in with our disco game. We’re looking into licensing some of Fhernando‘s tracks.
  • UI is unclear. Players still weren’t noticing the combo mode, even with the updated UI, since players’ attention is focused on the lower half of the screen where enemies are spawning. Our UI designer is reworking the UI to accomodate this.
  • Enemy types are unclear. We introduced two new enemies in this build – the garbage can shield zombie and a zombie that switches between lanes. When initially introduced to these zombies, most players were not sure how to defeat them. Enemy types are definitely something we’ll have to teach the player in the tutorial.
  • Controls were unclear. We had the players using the joystick on the Xbox Controllers to defeat enemies. Some players wished to use the D-pad for faster reaction times – which is something we hadn’t considered implementing in this build. Either way, this won’t be as much of an issue when we finally develop our slappable head controller.
  • Push our aesthetics further. Many players loved our disco theme, and wanted us to push this over the top, with brighter colors and more glittery, funky goodness.
  • Level variety is a must! Many players enjoyed the level we had to show, but didn’t want to play again if it was just the same level.
  • Drawing in curious eyes. Our game had several people standing and observing gameplay – which is encouraging to see even with an early build! We want our game to draw in crowds so this was great to see even with minimal art and juiciness.

Stay tuned for further development!

Playtest, Playtest, Playtest

Tutorial Levels Annotated Bibliography

As Level Designer for Disco Is Dead, I want to ensure that I can create the best tutorial possible for teaching players not only our game, but also our controller. For my individual treatment plan I will be doing research into tutorial levels. Here are some useful sources I’ve already taken a look at:

Berbece, Nicolae. “This Is a Talk About Tutorials, Press “A” to Skip.” GDC Vault. Those Awesome Guys, Aug. 2016. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.

This GDC talk outlines poor examples of tutorials in the gaming industry, such as commonly used features such as walls of texts, annoying pop-ups and controller schemes. Nicolae Berbece encourages teaching the player through experiences rather than demonstration. He also discusses particular considerations for tutorials in VR games due its intuitive nature.


Jones-Rodway, Neil, and Aldric Sun. “Teaching Players: Tutorial and Opening Mission Design for COMPANY OF HEROES.” GDC Vault. Relic Entertainment, 2008. Web. 13 Oct. 2016. (Slides)

Jones-Rodway, Neil, and Aldric Sun. “Teaching Players: Tutorial and Opening Mission Design for COMPANY OF HEROES.” GDC Vault. Relic Entertainment, 2008. Web. 13 Oct. 2016. (Audio)

This GDC Talk by Neil Jones-Rodway and Aldric Sun of Relic Entertainment talks about the design process for the tutorial and opening mission for Company of Heroes. Their process includes breaking the game down into teachable concepts and methods, and designing a tutorial to convey those concepts to the player, followed by an opening mission that reiterates the same concepts within the actual game. Their presentation also outlines development tips – including not leaving the tutorial to the last minute, and allocating the same amount of care and attention to it as the rest of the game.


Ray, Sheri Graner. “Tutorials: Learning To Play.” Gamasutra. N.p., 06 Oct. 2010. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.

This article discusses why game tutorials are hated by most players and looks at ways to design tutorials that will satisfy a broader audience more effectively. She outlines the three primary learning styles: visual, aural and kinetic and the lesser discussed knowledge acquisition styles – explorative acquisition and modeling acquisition. Ray discusses how most tutorials have been designed for explorative learners, using World of Warcraft as an example. The secret to developing tutorials that accommodates both types of users is incorporating “skip” buttons – so the explorative player can move on, while the modeling player can take their time to learn without taking risks.

Tutorial Levels Annotated Bibliography

Disco Is Dead!: Design Targets

Hello! This is my first post as Level Designer and Quality Assurance Lead for Hird Floop – my capstone group for the 2016/17 semester at Sheridan College. The Hird Floop team has welcomed me as their sixth member to reprise the 1st place Summer Sprint Week hit arcade game – “Disco Is Dead!“. Our goal is to create a game that will demonstrate each team member’s strengths, acting as a valuable portfolio piece, as well as drawing attention at various game showcase events as our debut into the gaming industry.

The original Disco Is Dead! prototype was developed in four days for an arcade cabinet. Two players assumed the roles of Mike and Mark – disco divas in a nightclub trying to survive hordes of zombies. Their only defense: slapping.

The game was very well received by players – and now we have the opportunity to revisit this concept to create a vertical slice of a full game – expanded with mechanics and narrative over the course of 8 months.

Although I was not a member of the team during development of Disco Is Dead!, I am eager to contribute my level design expertise to translate the themes of the original fast-paced slapping arcade experience to a sidescrolling PC narrative.

Gameplay and Narrative: Bridging the Gap

One of my biggest challenges as Level Designer will be to unify the gameplay and narrative elements of our game. Since the characters and setting of the original Disco Is Dead! were such a huge hit, we saw potential to further develop a narrative in our game to present the player with slapping scenarios and interactive cutscenes that result in a branching narrative with multiple endings. With half of Hird Floop’s members passionate about designing narrative for games, this was a no-brainer.

Since we are striving for fast-paced, reflex-based slapping gameplay, my biggest concern is breaking the flow of the game with sluggish cutscenes as the narrative is being told. Working closely with our Narrative Director, Nuha Alkadi, we have decided the narrative will be told through short, interactive cutscenes. One of our earliest discussions of bringing back Disco Is Dead! joked about an impatient player being able to slap an NPC at any time as a “skip dialogue” button, resulting in a skipped narrative, but ultimately allowing the player to decide how they wish to experience the game.

One of our narrative references is The Stanley Parable – a first person exploration game offering players seemingly infinite choices to expose various pieces of the narrative. The replayability, non-linear branching narrative choices and comedic feel to this game keeps it frequently coming up in discussions as a reference. However, the gameplay (walking around and interaction with the environment) acts in parallel to the narrative, told through a narrator as the game is being played.

On the other hand, we have gameplay references – games such as reflex-based rhythm games such as Dance Dance Revolution and simple, single-mechanic games such as One Finger Death Punch. Many of these fast-paced reflex games do not include narrative elements – which is something we strive to deliver in our game.

Although their games land closer to the narrative side, we also took note of many of Telltale Game’s titles, featuring interactive cutscenes with choices that lead to branching narrative paths. We noticed that quicktime events like these could effectively tell a story while maintaining the flow of the game. The cutscenes in our game will be designed to have slappable objects and characters to keep players on their toes while the cutscene unfolds – designed to be as fast-paced and engaging as the gameplay itself to keep the player in the state of flow.

We will likely introduce a slap interrupt icon and audio cue during a cutscene that indicates when the player can interact with the story and potentially change their narrative path, similar to morality interrupts introduced in Mass Effect 3.

However, since the game is inherently for two players (because of the dual buddy cop protagonists), we realized that we may encounter issues when one player wants to slap and the other doesn’t. To remedy this, I plan to design a “Slap Off” competitive mode between the two players to make decisions when they make conflicting choices. This was also the fan favourite mode of the original game which shouldn’t be forgotten. This mode would pit the two characters against each other in a slap war, and the player that slaps the most (button-mashing to be clear, not real slapping. ouch.) would win and be able to make the decision. We also discussed the possibilities for having different outcomes based on which player initiates the slap interrupt. For example, we were toying with the scenario of our two protagonists going in for a kiss – and one or both players can stop this from happening with a slap (or… let it happen 😉 ).

In addition to my role as Level Designer, I am also Hird Floop’s Quality Assurance Lead, which means I’ll be responsible for majority of our playtesting. This works quite well with my role as Level Designer, since I’ll be able to finely tune the levels based on player response, as well as relay feedback to the narrative team if any of the slapping scenarios are unclear.

Stay tuned for further developments of Disco Is Dead!

Disco Is Dead!: Design Targets