Thoughts on Game Design: Terraria & Tutorials

The first time I played Terraria, I shut it off in frustration after about 5 minutes.

The second time I booted up the game, I played it for over 10 hours straight.

Why such a big discrepancy? In a single word: tutorials.

Chop, chop, chop

For those unfamiliar with the game, Terraria is best described as an RPG/Platformer that takes place in a randomly generated game world where you are able to manipulate the various resources and elements you find into useful tools, weapons and armour. It’s similar in a lot of ways to Minecraft, but in 2D and with the addition of more fantasy RPG elements such as hidden treasure, magic spells and boss monsters.

When I played the game for the first time, I went into it almost completely blind. Beyond watching the game trailer and reading some reviews online, I picked up the game primarily based on the recommendations of my good friend. I booted it up on Steam and generated my first world and character.

After being dropped into the world with nothing but a trusty mining pick and axe, I set off to explore my brand new world. Wandering around the starting area I ran into the game’s first friendly NPC – the Guide. Talking to the Guide resulted in a few friendly pieces of advice about the game world and things that the player can do. Among his first hints was the suggestion to create a Workbench in order to create a greater variety of items.

Good idea, Mr. Guide! Um, how do I do that exactly?

Unfortunately, talking to the Guide is a pretty random experience from what I could tell. His advice seems to be fairly generic, and there isn’t any way to go back and re-read previous hints, so you better hope you’re paying attention the first time. (Note: The newly released 1.0.5 patch has apparently addressed this issue a bit with more specific hints from the Guide based on what item the player is currently holding).

Okay, so after cleverly deducing that Workbenches tend to be made out of wood, I figured it would be a worthwhile first step to try to cut down some trees in the nearby vicinity. Doing so proved to be pretty straightforward – I selected the axe from the hot bar and clicked on a tree until it shattered into bundles of wood that could be collected.

After a minute of pressing various buttons, I eventually brought up my crafting screen and inventory. Sure enough, there was an option to create a Workbench. Clicking the Workbench functioned as expected and converted some wood into a Workbench item that was then placed in my inventory.

So now I had a Workbench in my inventory, but it didn’t seem to unlock any new crafting recipes immediately. After accidentally creating a couple more superfluous Workbenches in my efforts to figure out how to use it, I decided to try placing one in the world.

With my inventory open, I clicked the Workbench to select it (represented visually by my character holding it in his hands) and then clicked beside my character to place it, just like in every other RPG I’ve played with an inventory system. Or so I naively thought.

Although doing this would drop the Workbench, whenever I walked up to it, it would immediately get picked back up and placed back in my inventory. After trying and failing multiple times to place and use the Workbench, I eventually just gave up and quit the game in frustration.***

After posting about my frustrations with the game on Twitter, my friend (who originally turned me on to the game in the first place) convinced me to play the game multiplayer with him. Although I was pretty frustrated with the game’s clunky UI at that point, I figured if I’d already spent the money on it, I might as well give it another fair shake.

Within ten minutes of logging in and being shown the ropes by my friend, I was hooked. Just having that veteran presence explaining the basics was enough to turn the game from an incredibly frustrating experience into a supremely enjoyable ten-hour gaming session between the two of us. By the end of the night, we had fought two bosses and whenever my character ran around he was followed by a wicked motion blur.

Zoom zoom!

But even after “getting” the game and really enjoying it for what it is, I still reflect back on that initial frustrating experience with the game with some regret. Although I respect and acknowledge that one of the major draws of open-world games like Terraria and Minecraft is the process of discovery, should it really come at the cost of alienating new players? Having to rely entirely on external websites or other players just for simple instructions on how to do even the most basic of actions in the game just seems like incredibly unfriendly game design to me.

As much respect as I have for what these small-team open-world games have accomplished in the indie game space recently, I sincerely hope that this doesn’t become a new trend in the industry. Even though your game may be about exploring and surviving in a harsh and unforgiving world, that shouldn’t have to extend to your initial user experience as well.

*** The correct solution to this problem is to place the Workbench into a space on the hot bar, close the inventory screen, select the Workbench from the hot bar, and then click to place it in the game world. Even understanding this process now, I still think it’s an incredibly clunky design that is not only unintuitive (why do I need to close the inventory screen first?), but it also runs counter to the functionality of other RPGs where the hot bar just functions like a shortcut to popular items in the inventory or spell book.


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