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Stick 'helicopters' in the title of your game, and it's likely that players will have at least some idea of what to expect. The rest will make jokes about songs from the 80s. Nevertheless, we want all kinds of players to engage with the 'experience' of helicopters; unfortunately, that might involve crashing into the ground. A lot.
There's just no getting past it: helicopters can be hideously complex machines, about which the vast majority of people know very little. They're also an absolute pleasure to master, and have an enormous variety of practical applications in real life. Tutorials, then, are incredibly important.
Potentially, tutorials are a player's first ever engagement with a helicopter, and - if we're not careful - it might also be their last. Ours have been designed with two things in mind. Firstly, there's a lot to learn about helicopters and how to interact with them; secondly, the learning itself can be an engaging process, where a player will first experience numerous things about helicopters.
Experienced designer, Jiří Wainar, has worked exclusively on these tutorials throughout the project, and below you can find out a little more information about some of our design decisions, processes and goals, and check out a brand new video of the 'start up' tutorial!
Aside from a quick-start guide, all of our tutorials are voice-led, task-driven, step-by-step guides to various important aspects of helicopters. Everything from pre-flight checks to recovering from catastrophic engine failure. Voicing our tutorials raises a few of issues; chiefly, the volume and complexity of information to present.
Our focus-group testing, directed by QA lead, Lukáš Haládik, helped to reveal some risks. Some players felt the support of a 'real' instructor added a lot to the experience; others weren't comfortable processing instructions at the same time as keeping the bird airborne. To mitigate this, we made a couple of design decisions.
Firstly, we shifted a lot of the more in-depth information (like basic principles of flight-dynamics) to the start of the tutorial, in skippable info-pages. The player can choose to consult these before firing up the bird. They're an interesting read, but, we know (and have to accept) that some players will just want to get right into the action! Secondly, we handed control over the volume of information to the player. Before each tutorial you're asked to pick the level of support you think you'll need, selecting from 'as much as possible' to 'none at all', and a range of steps in between.
In order to validate some of the lessons taught in the game, we sought the help of real-life helicopter pilot and instructor Michael Miller. He assisted us in prioritizing the topics, providing research materials and confirming the texts we wrote. Any mistakes or inaccuracies left in the procedures, however, are all our own (particularly the pronunciation of pitot tube - my bad)! Of course, it goes without saying that this is a helicopter game. The theory presented in the game shouldn't be applied to real-life helicopters, and a licensed instructor should be contacted instead!
We knew that some tutorials might need a few cracks of the whip to complete. First time around, the instructor might give you two or three pieces of information: the task, and some supplemental sentences explaining why we're doing whatever it is that we've been asked. Once you've managed to face-plant the chopper into terra firma (it happens), you're able to repeat the specific stage, but this time the instructor will just outline the basic task. It's a tough job trying to balance the cognitive load on the player and - at the same time - give an engaging, rich lesson, but we feel that by empowering the player, we can better cater for a broader range of skills and preferences.
Placing tutorials directly within the structure of the story is something that we considered carefully. Forcing an experienced player to repeat the basics can be frustrating; yet, we also didn't want our tutorials to be a completely separate entity. They're a very effective method of delivering elements of the 'helicopter experience'. Our new structure of 'mission' progression has enabled greater flexibility. This has given us ways to compromise and, hopefully, mitigate the risks associated with either including or excluding tutorials from the main arc of our simple narrative. Again, we hope this puts us in a better position to cater for a broader range of player.
Rather than a linear progression - the kind we've had in all our previous campaigns - advancement in Take On is driven by player-agency, via the 'heliport'. It's a gameplay 'hub' of sorts. Following each contract, players may choose a number of different contracts to take on next. This means that - right from the start - you can elect to jump straight into a contract, or take a few refresher lessons if you prefer. Once you feel like you're getting the hang of it, you can seamlessly start a proper contract; while, if you're coming up short, you might go back to the drawing board, training up on a particular skill, like sling-loading, for example.
When you access tutorials via the Career Mode, you'll find some short interactions with Howard Maddox, your veteran instructor. He'll tell you a little more about your father, Harry Larkin, and what Larkin Aviation is all about. However, we knew that it would also be important to let players just jump straight into tutorials too, so you can also directly access the training lessons from the main menu (where you can get educated sans narrative!). In this way, we're again aiming to empower the player, and remove as many obstacles from his path as possible.
People are stubborn creatures. That's just something we've had to accept. Offer a whole boat-load of tutorials with a bow on, and they'll still jump right in at the deep end! We know this because we do the exact same ourselves. We're gamers, and we can be kind of arrogant. It's also our game - we'll play it as we like, damnit! As developers, it's our job to enable players, to provide a guiding hand where it's appropriate, to adapt. Like The Borg. Another way we can assimilate our weak minded foe adapt to a range of player-proficiencies, is by gradually providing more and more complexity within the main arc of the Career Mode.
Starting out, you might fly from A to B; after that, gameplay where you have to fly a little more precisely. Perhaps conditions then become more challenging so - flying A to B - you're tasked with executing a pinnacle landing, or ensuring that your flight is smooth for some important clients. Maybe the wind is likely to pick up a little, and so on. But what if you already know all this? How do we mitigate the risk of patronising our player? Once again, the flexibility of progression lends a hand here.
Optional, more complicated scenarios can be undertaken from a relatively early stage and, by the time you're half way through, you can take on as many side-contracts as you like, with a whole range of challenging gameplay, from sling-load operations to search and rescue and much more besides. Although there's a simple narrative thread driving things forward, we hope players can form their own story and experiences. Perhaps we'll find the time to talk about that another time.
Teaching anything to anyone is invariably a tough job. People have different levels of ability; they like to learn in different ways, some learn faster than others, and so on. By taking steps towards empowering the player, we hope to be able to engage with the broadest base possible. By taking measures like focus-group testing, we seek to validate our design goals.
The goal is usability and delivering a big fat slice of heli-experience to the player, and helping him to digest it. Like a tasty helicopter pie. Mmm.