Don't Spook the Newbies: Unveiling 5 Proven Game Onboarding Techniques

The Acagamic Tip Tuesday #53

A cute little ghost scaring their friend. A cute little ghost scaring their friend

In today’s newsletter issue, I’ll guide you through the process of creating effective onboarding for your game. Understanding the art of onboarding is crucial if you want to attract and keep players, make sure they enjoy your game, and, in the end, make your game a success. By learning this skill, you can expect to see improved player retention rates and overall satisfaction with your game. Unfortunately, many game designers don’t realize how important onboarding is or start working on it too late in the development process (i.e., when they are close to shipping the game), which makes onboarding an afterthought. Instead, you should have an onboarding plan during pre-production or when game production begins. With the following five-step plan, based on what I heard Celia Hodent, an industry expert who worked on Fortnite, explain in a recent interview, you can avoid these problems and give your players a great experience when they first start playing your game.

Onboarding is the process by which new players learn how to play a game, and it should be designed so that learning how to play the game comes naturally and intuitively. Players can easily learn how to use the different mechanics, rules, and systems of a game in a good onboarding system without feeling confused or overwhelmed. You want to give players the space to learn how the game works in a more thought-out and effective manner rather than simply stumbling through trial-and-error attempts at figuring out what they need to do. With the right onboarding practices in place, game designers can make sure that their games are easy to use and give new users a fun way to learn.

Five Steps to Creating an Onboarding Plan

1. Identify what players need to learn

A crucial component of making a good onboarding plan is making a list of all the things players need to know to enjoy the game. This list should include both simple and complicated ideas that are essential to playing the game. These ideas should range from basic control commands like how to move and attack to more complicated ideas like how to change your character’s appearance or understand the different types of money. If any of these core parts are left out of the onboarding process, new players may get frustrated and leave your game before they’ve had a chance to fully experience it.

For example, in one of my favourite games, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the onboarding process starts with simple ideas, like showing players how to move, jump, and attack using a mix of tutorial messages and prompts that change based on the situation. As players move through the first area, called the Great Plateau, they learn how to do more complicated things, like climb, glide, and use the Sheikah Slate to do things like freeze water or move metal objects.

Also, the game teaches players how to craft and cook, so they can make items and dishes that have different benefits. Players also learn about the different kinds of money in the game, like Rupees and Mon, which can be used to buy things or open up certain parts of the game.

Another great example is Hollow Knight, where the onboarding process starts with simple things like teaching players how to move, jump, and attack. These instructions are given through a mix of environmental clues and few tutorial prompts. As players go deeper into Hallownest, they learn about more complicated mechanics like the ability to wall-jump, dash, and use soul energy to heal or cast strong spells.

“Hollow Knight” teaches players about its currency system, Geo, which is used to buy items, unlock abilities, and access new areas in addition to combat and platforming. The game also has a unique charm system that lets players equip different charms that give them new abilities or improve the ones they already have. The onboarding process helps players figure out how these systems work by letting them explore and try things out.

2. Classify concepts based on difficulty and importance

When putting ideas into groups based on how hard or important they are, we must consider the game as a whole. Identify which aspects of the game will be relatively easy for players to master and those that may require more effort or thought. For example, basic control schemes should be made as simple as possible so that players can learn them quickly. Also, we must determine which aspects of the game are most essential to the overall experience. New players should pay close attention to these sections because they are likely required to progress or complete levels. Once you have figured out which ideas belong in each category based on how hard they are and how crucial they are to the game, put the ones that need the most work at the top of the list so that your team can make an effective onboarding process.

A good example of this concept being applied is the game Celeste, which is a challenging platformer that focuses on guiding the main character, Madeline, up a mountain while overcoming various obstacles. The game’s designers have done a good job of putting ideas into groups based on how hard and complicated they are. This makes it easy for players to learn the basics and introduces them to more complicated systems as the game goes on. In the early levels, for example, players learn basic skills like jumping, dashing, and climbing, which are needed to get around the platforming obstacles in the game. These controls are made to be easy to use, so players can learn them quickly and feel like they’ve accomplished something.

As players move through Celeste, the game’s mechanics and obstacles become more complicated, like moving platforms, spikes, and wind currents. Although these features are harder to overcome, they are crucial to the overall experience and difficulty of the game.

3. Plan when to teach each concept

When introducing game elements and ideas to players, designers need to be careful about how much information they give out at once. Players can get confused and frustrated if they are given too much information or are taught all the concepts at once. For successful onboarding and a smoother learning curve, designers should plan when each new idea will be introduced in the game. This allows players time to gradually become familiar with new elements as they progress through the game, rather than overloading them from the start. Spacing out these introductions also helps keep engagement high by providing something new but not overwhelming each time a player returns.

A game that does this pacing of teaching new concepts really well is Portal. With a series of increasingly difficult test chambers, Portal introduces players to the game’s central gameplay mechanic—creating interconnected portals to traverse levels. Each chamber is designed to teach players a certain concept or ability, allowing them to practice and master it before going on to the next level. This stepwise method supports players in gradually comprehending the game’s mechanics, reducing confusion and frustration.

Moreover, the game’s tempo is intended to retain engagement by carefully combining the introduction of new concepts with periods of respite and humour throughout the game’s story. This method allows players to absorb new information, experiment with the mechanics, and remain engaged without becoming overloaded.

4. Focus on the “why” rather than the “what”

Rather than simply listing what players need to know, onboarding becomes more meaningful for the player if you focus on why players should pay attention and learn certain concepts. Creating interesting situations for players to learn from can help them feel emotionally invested in learning how the game works. This connection helps them stay engaged with a game longer and makes it easier to remember what they learned. Also, this kind of well-thought-out design encourages players to try out new strategies in the game as they learn how the different parts work together. When done right, this type of onboarding can be a great way to keep players around and build long-term relationships between players and developers.

A game that does this really well is Jonathan Blow’s The Witness. In “The Witness,” players end up on a strange, deserted island with mysterious buildings and puzzle panels. Instead of giving explicit tutorials or hand-holding, the game invites players to understand its fundamentals through exploring the environment, observing patterns, and playing with the challenges. This strategy lets players figure out the rules and logic of the game on their own, which piques their interest and gets them emotionally involved in the learning process.

As the game goes on, players will face puzzles that get harder and require a deep understanding of the different systems they have already learned. The Witness keeps players engaged and motivated to continue learning by concentrating on the WHY—the inherent desire to unravel the island’s mysteries—rather than merely stating WHAT they must know. This well-thought-out design not only creates a memorable gaming experience but also promotes a long-term bond between players and the game itself. The game sticks with you.

5. Monitor player experience and adjust as needed

To make sure players have a good onboarding experience, you should keep an eye on their experience and make changes as needed. Keep track of what works with the game, such as which tutorials they found helpful or if certain elements were confusing. If something isn’t working, it may be beneficial to make adjustments to increase understanding and overall satisfaction with the game. This could mean adding more detailed instructions or making the whole tutorial process more interactive. Additionally, provide feedback loops so that players can share their thoughts on how well they understood the game after completing onboarding tasks. This will let you keep improving your onboarding strategy for new players, making sure that everyone who uses your game design for the first time has a fun and successful start.

An example of how this process was applied is how Klei Entertainment developed Don’t Starve. In the summer of 2012, the shipped a free beta version on the Chrome web store to gather feedback from players and improve the game as much as possible before giving players access to an expanded paid version, essentially, an opt-in, closed beta testing period where they collected player feedback and data. They found that the majority of new players were struggling with the game’s initial difficulty and lack of guidance. As a result, the team decided to improve the onboarding process by introducing more tutorials, making sure the players had a better understanding of the game mechanics.

Klei Entertainment emphasized the importance of maintaining an open dialogue with their community, both during and after the game’s launch. They actively monitored player feedback on forums and social media, making adjustments to the game based on the concerns and suggestions of their audience.

In conclusion, creating an effective onboarding plan is essential for ensuring that new players have an enjoyable and engaging experience with your game. So, what you should implement going forward is: Start working on an onboarding plan during pre-production or early production stages. Then, identify and prioritize game elements based on their difficulty and importance. Keep in mind to space out the introduction of game concepts to prevent cognitive player overload. Focus on creating meaningful situations that explain why players should care about learning certain concepts. And finally, continuously monitor player experience and adjust onboarding strategies as needed. I hope by following my examples, you can craft an onboarding experience that not only teaches players necessary game mechanics but also keeps them emotionally invested and eager to continue playing. As you develop your own onboarding plan, consider these insights and strive to create a memorable, engaging experience that will leave players hungry for more.

Lennart Nacke, PhD
Lennart Nacke, PhD

Hey there, I am a Professor and the Research Director of the HCI Games Group at the University of Waterloo in Canada. I am a world-leading expert on what makes games engaging and how we can use them to improve products, systems, and services. My research is widely discussed and recognized by the New Yorker, Forbes, MIT Technology Review, CTV News, New Scientist, The Daily Mail, PC Gamer Magazine, and elsewhere. I have edited a textbook on Games User Research and authored hundreds of academic articles in gamification, user experience research, human-computer interaction, and game design.