Plants vs. Zombies creator trusts in good tutorials

At the Game Developers Conference, Plants vs. Zombies creator George Fan revealed a key ingredient in the recipe that made the tower defense game such a mainstream success.

"If the tutorial hadn’t been done well … then the other elements of the game wouldn’t have mattered in getting someone like my mom to play through," he said on Friday.

Fan shared ten tips for a formidable tutorial. He stressed the importance of invisibly building the tutorial into gameplay so that gamers won't get bored before the action even begins.

"Now we can seamlessly blend the tutorial in the game, so why don't we?" he said. "We should teach players without them ever even realizing they're being taught."

Fan encouraged giving the players an active role in the learning process rather than forcing them to scroll through verbose text. A hands-on approach is best, he said. Creators shouldn't lump the whole tutorial in one spot, either. Players should learn as they progress and develop interest in the game itself. For example, in Plants vs. Zombies, it takes 10 levels before players find out about the game's currency.

Sometimes, Fan added, less is more. In other words, developers don't need to beat players over the head with an idea. "Once they see the results of their action, that's often all it takes for them to understand that action." This technique works for how much text appears on a single screen, too. Fan advised no more than eight words at once.

Distracting the player should also be avoided—like pausing or interrupting gameplay to give instructions when players are already occupied with a task. "Whenever I display a message in the middle of a game, I try to express it in a passive manner so the player doesn’t have to stop what they're doing," Fan said.

The creator recommended using "adaptive messaging," as well, which passes out hints to struggling players but stays silent when players are succeeding. "We need to give players the chance to feel smart if they're already doing the right thing."

Additionally, Fan explained his rationale for the way plants and zombies are designed. He chose to make each character visually reflect its function. "Peashooter" plants, for example, have a giant mouth so they can easily shoot projectiles. This concept applies to other aspects of the game, too, said Fan.

"Take your games and apply these lessons, and you can make your game as easy to play as Plants vs. Zombies was."