Levelling Up Onboarding: Creating Seamless Player Experiences in Game UX

Corey Hobson
9 min readSep 15, 2023

In the landscape of video game design, the first impressions matter immensely. With a plethora of games vying for players’ attention, onboarding has emerged as a crucial touchpoint. Crafting an impeccable, intuitive, and engaging onboarding experience is akin to laying a strong foundation for your in-game universe. This article dives deep into the strategies behind designing an immersive onboarding that marries tutorials with exploration.

Introduction

When gamers boot up a new game, they’re stepping into a novel world. They’re curious and enthusiastic, but often unfamiliar with the rules governing this realm. An effective onboarding experience can bridge this knowledge gap, making players feel at home, while a misstep can drive them away. But how do you strike that perfect balance between guiding and allowing exploration? Let’s decode this.

The Art of Gentle Guidance: Intuitive Design

Games have evolved from the days of long, text-based tutorials. Today, the most memorable gaming experiences are those that allow players to naturally immerse themselves in the universe.

Interactive Elements

  • Context: Visual or auditory cues can be powerful tools in guiding a player’s attention. For instance, in “The Last of Us Part II,” subtle lighting guides players through dimly lit areas, making exploration feel organic rather than choreographed.
  • Implementation: Using elements such as light, movement, or even NPCs (non-player characters) can guide players to points of interest. An NPC walking towards a specific location or a flickering light in a dark room can act as a gentle nudge, inviting players to explore further.
Last of Us Part II playing with light to indicate direction

Feedback

  • Context: Feedback is essential in making players feel connected to the game world. Whether it’s the rumble of a controller when hit, the shimmer of a collectible, or a musical chime when solving a puzzle, these cues help players understand their actions’ outcomes.
  • Implementation: In “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice,” every successful parry is met with a distinct sound and visual effect, letting players know they’ve timed their defense perfectly.

Consistency

  • Context: In an ever-evolving game world, keeping certain elements consistent ensures that players don’t feel overwhelmed.
  • Implementation: In the “Assassin’s Creed” series, the basic parkour controls have remained fairly consistent, even though the games span different eras and settings. This consistency lets returning players feel at home, even in an unfamiliar environment.
Assassins Creed Odyssey Controls

Marrying Tutorials with Exploration

Handing players a manual is passé. Integrating tutorials with the game’s progression ensures that players are engaged and learn by doing.

Story-driven Tutorials:

  • Context: When the learning process is interwoven with the game’s narrative, players are more likely to be invested.
  • Implementation: In “Red Dead Redemption 2,” the early missions serve as tutorials, teaching players about hunting, horseback riding, and combat, all while progressing the story.

Opt-in Tutorials

  • Context: Recognizing the diverse skill levels of your player base is crucial. Not every player needs to know the basics.
  • Implementation: Games like “Dark Souls” offer cryptic messages as hints, allowing experienced players to breeze past them while giving newcomers a chance to understand the mechanics.

Sandbox Modes

  • Context: Giving players a safe space to test out mechanics without any consequences can be both fun and educational.
  • Implementation: “Fortnite’s” Creative mode is a testament to this, where players can build, experiment, and play without the pressure of a Battle Royale match.
Fortnite Creative Mode

Making Learning a Rewarding Experience

Gaming isn’t merely about mastering controls or defeating adversaries; it’s a journey of exploration, growth, and achievements. By marrying learning with rewards, designers can turn potentially tedious tutorials into captivating gameplay experiences.

Progression Rewards

  • Context: As players evolve in their understanding of a game, they should feel that their progress is being acknowledged. Progression rewards offer an affirmation of their mastery and provide a sense of achievement.
  • Implementation: In “Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order,” as players learn and master new Force abilities, they not only expand their combat repertoire but also gain access to previously inaccessible areas, intertwining progression with exploration and rewards.

Achievements

  • Context: Beyond in-game power-ups or tools, digital achievements or trophies cater to the gamer’s pride. They offer a nod to the player’s dedication, turning even minor milestones into memorable events.
  • Implementation: “Celeste” is a challenging platformer that offers strawberries as collectibles throughout its levels. While these strawberries don’t directly benefit the player, collecting them is a badge of honor, symbolizing the player’s skill and persistence.

Layered Learning:

  • Context: Not every game mechanic needs to be introduced immediately. Introducing elements in layers allows players to master one skill before adding another layer of complexity.
  • Implementation: In “Monster Hunter World,” players start with basic hunting tools. As they progress, they are introduced to more complex gadgets and environmental interactions, ensuring players don’t feel overwhelmed and are rewarded with new techniques over time.

Feedback through Narratives:

  • Context: Who said that feedback needs to be just visual or auditory? Weaving it into the game’s narrative can be a rewarding experience.
  • Implementation: In games like “Firewatch,” player decisions and interactions are frequently acknowledged and reflected in dialogues and story progression. When a player learns and adapts to the game’s mechanics and choices, the story evolves accordingly, providing narrative rewards.
Firewatch Dialogue options

Scaling Complexity Gradually

Introducing game mechanics and complexities over time serves a dual purpose: it ensures newcomers aren’t overwhelmed, and it keeps experienced players consistently engaged and intrigued. As game narratives unfold, so too should the layers of gameplay.

Pace Control

  • Context: Every player has a different speed at which they’re comfortable learning and adapting. Games need to strike a balance so that players never feel the pace is either sluggish or overwhelming.
  • Implementation: “Stardew Valley” begins with the simple tasks of clearing land and planting basic crops. As the days progress, players are introduced to animal husbandry, fishing, mining, and more. This steady increase in gameplay dimensions allows players to master one skill before being introduced to another.
Stardew Valley Day 1: becoming familiar with the tools

Skill Layering:

  • Context: Instead of overloading players with numerous mechanics at once, games can introduce one skill and, once mastered, layer additional mechanics on top.
  • Implementation: In the “Super Mario” series, especially entries like “Super Mario Odyssey,” Mario starts with basic movements. As players progress, they encounter environments where they must combine multiple skills — like a long jump followed by a hat throw — to overcome challenges.

Environmental Progression:

  • Context: The game environment itself can be a tool to scale complexity. By gradually changing the environment, players are nudged to use and master new skills.
  • Implementation: “Hollow Knight” does this masterfully. The initial areas are simpler with fewer hazards, but as players delve deeper, they need to adapt to new mechanics and enemy patterns tailored to the environment.
Hollow Knight Level Design

Adaptive Difficulty:

  • Context: An advanced approach to scaling complexity is to have the game adapt its difficulty based on the player’s performance.
  • Implementation: Titles like “Resident Evil 4” employ a dynamic difficulty adjustment, subtly changing enemy patterns and resources based on how well the player is doing. This ensures that players are always facing a challenge tailored to their skill level.

By understanding and implementing gradual complexity scaling, game designers can ensure that players remain engaged, challenged, and, most importantly, enjoying the journey from start to finish. A well-paced game can appeal to both novices and veterans alike, ensuring broad appeal and longevity.

Feedback Loops and User-Centered Design

In an age where gamers are more connected and vocal than ever, tapping into their feedback can be transformative. An effective feedback loop ensures that games evolve based on player insights, making them more immersive and user-friendly. Furthermore, a design that places the user at the core can significantly enhance player retention and satisfaction.

Continuous Engagement

  • Context: It’s one thing to release a game and another to nurture it post-launch. Continual engagement with your community helps in understanding their needs and grievances.
  • Implementation: Games like “Overwatch” have a rich history of developer updates, community forums, and PTR (Public Test Region) to test and refine changes based on player feedback.

Adaptive Game Mechanics

  • Context: Players love when a game responds to their play style. Adaptive mechanics that evolve based on user interactions can create a personalized gaming experience.
  • Implementation: In “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt,” one of my personal favorites, the game world and the NPCs react differently based on player choices, making decisions feel impactful and acknowledging the player’s agency.
The Witcher 3’s well discussed romance options

Real-time Feedback

  • Context: Providing players with immediate responses to their actions can make gameplay more intuitive and gratifying.
  • Implementation: Games like “Beat Saber” use real-time feedback brilliantly. When players slice a block correctly, there’s a distinctive sound and visual effect, reinforcing the right moves.

Community Integration

  • Context: Modern games often integrate community feedback directly within the game, turning players from passive consumers to active contributors.
  • Implementation: “Minecraft” is a classic example where community-created mods, skins, and structures are regularly integrated into the official game, acknowledging and valuing player contributions.

Iterative Development

  • Context: Post-launch, games can continue to evolve, not just through additional content but by refining existing mechanics based on player insights.
  • Implementation: “No Man’s Sky” witnessed a significant transformation post-launch. Based on extensive player feedback, the developers released multiple updates that vastly improved and expanded on the original mechanics and content.

Feedback loops and a user-centered design approach are not just strategies; they’re commitments to the player community. By valuing player input and iterating accordingly, game developers can foster loyalty, improve game quality, and ensure that the gaming experience is continually refined to meet and exceed player expectations.

The Balance Between Show and Tell

Every game designer faces a fundamental challenge: How do you convey necessary information to players without overwhelming them or disrupting the narrative flow? Striking the right balance between showing (demonstrating through visuals or gameplay) and telling (explaining through text or voice-over) is crucial for an intuitive and immersive gaming experience.

Demonstration Over Dictation:

  • Context: Players often learn best by doing. Demonstrative sequences, where players actively participate, can be more engaging and memorable than passive explanations.
  • Implementation: In games like “Breath of the Wild,” players learn advanced mechanics, such as paragliding, not through lengthy tutorials, but by actively using them in controlled environments.
Breath of the Wild paragliding

Environmental Storytelling

  • Context: Sometimes, the game environment itself can tell a story, negating the need for verbose explanations.
  • Implementation: “Dark Souls” series uses environmental clues — like the placement of items, enemy locations, or even architectural designs — to provide lore and hint at what’s to come. Instead of direct exposition, players piece together the narrative through observation.

Minimalistic UI

  • Context: Overloading the player with HUD (Heads-Up Display) elements can be daunting. A minimalistic UI can convey the necessary information without overwhelming the player.
  • Implementation: “Dead Space” brilliantly integrates its UI within the game world. Health is displayed on the protagonist’s spine, and ammo count appears directly on the weapons, maintaining immersion by eliminating the need for a traditional HUD.
Dead Space’s brilliant UI

Interactive Narratives

  • Context: Encouraging players to actively interact with the narrative elements, instead of being mere spectators, enhances engagement.
  • Implementation: “Detroit: Become Human” employs this by making narrative exposition an interactive experience. Players make choices in dialogues, influencing story progression and outcomes.

Use of NPCs

  • Context: Non-player characters can be more than just quest givers; they can be tools for organic exposition.
  • Implementation: In “Red Dead Redemption 2,” NPCs provide contextual information, stories, and lore as players interact with or overhear them. This feels more organic than pausing gameplay for explanatory cutscenes.

Finding the equilibrium between showing and telling is an art. Game designers must understand their audience, recognizing when to provide information actively and when to let players discover organically. This balance ensures a seamless, immersive experience where players feel both guided and free to explore.

Final Thoughts

Game onboarding isn’t about spoon-feeding every tidbit. It’s about fostering an environment where players feel empowered to explore, understand, and master the game’s universe. The recent success stories in the gaming world have been those that seamlessly integrate tutorials with exploration, making the learning process an enjoyable journey rather than a tedious chore.

As you craft your game’s onboarding experience, always prioritize the player’s perspective. After all, in the world of game UX, the player is the true protagonist.

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Corey Hobson

UX design Lead @ Motorsport Games | I write about UX design, Game UX, UX strategy, and leadership with ADHD. https://www.linkedin.com/in/corey-hobson/