Sparring Partners: Injustice 2 and Tutorials

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Every medium has works that aren't for everyone and genres which are the curiosity of a select minority, but one thing that happens in video games that doesn't happen in other media is that entire genres considered essential to the medium are left inaccessible to a lot of its audience. In film, producing horror and sci-fi won't make your movies the most popular or line your shelf with awards, but anyone can sit down and watch them, and plenty of movies are made in these categories with a broad viewer base in mind. In interactive entertainment, genres like "MOBA", "RTS", and "fighting games" are a core part of the medium historically and currently but repel audiences that don't have familiarity with them using steep difficulty curves and intricate systems. Only a thin sliver of them are made for anyone outside of the entrenched userbase build up around each class of game. Suggesting that these styles of games should be accessible to more kinds of players is a fast way to get an inbox full of angry naysayers, but after you filter out the alarmists and the gatekeepers, you do find a valid argument for not diluting these titles.

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While I think that lighter RTSs and more open fighting games can provide casual players enriching experiences and that the industry should keep making them, they are not a substitute for their mechanically labyrinthine cousins. Most "easy" fighting games aren't just their more intense counterparts with the dials turned down; the majority lack many of the fundamental dynamics of their peers. A lot of players of these titles don't end up being conscious about recoveries, advantages, or sometimes even combos, which in other experiences are what make you think on your feet and mean that even after hundreds of hours of play, you can still learn something. But I also don't believe that making a game more accessible has to mean watering it down mechanically or that we should see a set-in-stone dichotomy between impenetrable high difficulty titles and casual toys. While you're not going to see everyone with a PC start duking it out in Starcraft or Skullgirls at a professional level, designers of games like these can make their play more accessible without any mechanical reshuffling. Instead of pruning their title down to the basics, they can provide resources and tutorials which allow players to compete beyond the basics, which brings me to Injustice 2.

NetherRealm Studios, the folks behind the Injustice series, needed a small country's worth of players buying their fighting game because they had to justify unfathomable production costs. Unfortunately for them, fighting games generally don't make that kind of bank because the average consumer finds the rulesets opaque and the dedicated fighting game community is very picky. The studio couldn't simplify their game without waving goodbye to a core audience who expected nothing less than a mechanical tour-de-force from the people who brought us Mortal Kombat, but they couldn't overwhelm participants with complexity if they wanted to come out in the black. Having an ensemble of brand name heroes helps drive sales, but there has to be something behind the familiar faces and costumes that players can sink their teeth into. It's possible that other studios working on high-budget competitive games will find themselves between the same rocks and the same hard places in the future. NetherRealm's solution to this prickly problem was to include more extensive guidance in their game for their casual audience. For this studio, extending a helping hand to players still finding their way in the genre was not just broadening the horizons of the average gamer but also financial pragmatism. They were no doubt also encouraged by the fact that anyone investing in a Warner Bros. IP is going to expect hefty returns.

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We can all understand from Injustice 2 why a developer might be motivated to put more explanatory tutorials and guides in their title, but its creators' decisions also demonstrate how to implement such systems, both in where they succeed and where they fail. Speaking as a casual fighting game fan, there is a tremendous gap between the set of concepts that tutorials in this family of games teach us and the set of concepts we need to grasp to compete at a passable level. A common problem is that dialogue boxes and popups relay to us all the categories of actions there are, but not every action within those categories. So we might understand that combos and character-specific moves exist, but not understand which combos and which moves we can perform with each character. Other games teach us the full set of actions available to us but not the contexts we should be using those actions in or how they relate to each other. E.g. I might have a character's full list of attacks memorised but not know that I can cancel out of certain attacks into other attacks or understand that I should use throws to break blocks.

Unintuitively, teaching someone all the actions they are capable of is not the same thing as educating them on them all of the mechanics in play. Ask the people who are most interested in fighting games, and they'll tell you that awareness of frame advantages and dialing in all of a character's moves are fundamental to competition despite players rarely being taught about either in their tutorials. In other areas of gaming, we'd consider this failure to instruct the player about the fundamentals outrageous. Imagine a shoot-'em-up tutorial that doesn't inform the player they can dodge or an action-adventure tutorial that doesn't explain platforming to them. We would consider these ugly holes in the design, and yet the equivalent lessons are frequently missing from fighting games. Thorough tutoring on mechanics may seem overboard when we're used to games giving us an overview of the controls and then removing our leash. However, games with deeper and more extensive mechanics need deeper and more extensive coaching to match. When you don't offer your audience that education, the results show in their experience.

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If you're a newbie fighting game player squaring off against a proficient opponent, you can often feel as though they're able to predict and counter your every move psychically and that they're able to lock you in an endless series of combos until your health bar is chopped down to nothing. Astute players will recognise that that's not the case and that such one-sided matches often come down to the weaker combatant not being aware of the tells that signal coming attacks and the appropriate counter-moves. However, those cues often appear only for milliseconds, and games usually don't teach the player either these tells or how to exploit them. Fighting games are rapid-fire contests of call and response where casual participants are left ignorant of both the calls and the responses; this should be changed.

Already, you might have a couple of objections. You might point out the many games not only get by with a mechanical opacity but satisfy us by giving us little direction out of the gate and letting us work out the mechanics for ourselves. Especially in games with puzzle elements, it's the discovery of our tools and how they work that provides the fun. Think about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or the Zachtronics games if you're having trouble picturing this design style. However, while there may be a kind of fighting game apprentice that finds decoding the foundational mechanics engaging, there is, at the very least, room for a less cryptic type of fighting game: one that stops players from feeling left out of the loop by going out of its way to bring them up to speed. Unlike in a hard puzzle game, explaining how to complete tasks in a fighting game does not rob the player of activities to perform. Even once you know how to play, these titles serve as fierce tests of observation, hand-eye coordination, and manual dexterity that mean that they can take months or years to master. Injustice 2 is a typical example where it's only once you know what you can do within its sandbox that the competition really begins. And while there may be fighting games that benefit from mechanical mystery, that is not the hat most are trying to wear.

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Despite that, you might argue that in-depth tutorials in this or any other fighting game are redundant as there are already libraries of online resources aimed at turning humble scrubs into fireball-hurling savants. However, we shouldn't brand games as accessible and cooperative with audiences just because they contain some form of instruction on how to play them. A game becomes truly accessible by putting as few steps as possible between players and that information. This is why, even though plenty of walkthroughs for point-and-click adventure games exist, designers still include hint systems. You'll also notice that professional educators don't just throw information at their students but also give them practical tasks to confirm that the students understand what they're being taught, to ingrain a stronger memory of the information, and to deepen their understanding of it. A piano teacher would never just rattle off pages of theory and leave; playing the piano is a practical task, and so students are given a practical education. Fighting games are similarly practical and are just as in need of performative lessons on how play works, not just glorified FAQs. If video games are played in-motion then they should be taught in-motion.

Injustice 2 is not the only game that gives players hands-on lessons on advanced mechanics, but it does have some of the most detailed tutorials in the field. As expected, it teaches you about the rudimentary abilities shared between all characters from light and heavy attacks to stage transitions, and the pause menu includes lists of all the moves and combos for the character you're currently controlling. Where it really comes into its own, however, is in tutorials which tackle those hidden mechanical pockets like frame advantage and juggles. These lessons work because they don't consider the mechanics as mostly unrelated parts; they understand that there are dynamics between the mechanics that are essential in the combat, and so they teach you those dynamics.

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During the lessons, the UI displays a diagram of the controller on-screen and the buttons on that diagram light up as you press buttons on your controller. You also have the option to make the game demonstrate any move it asks you to perform during its classes. Those demonstrations include the diagram illuminating to show you the relevant buttons you would press. The need for a visual representation of the inputs may be lost on some people when a game can communicate the required inputs through printing strings of characters on-screen, e.g. Telling the player to press "⇩, ⇨, X". However, fighting games demand that not only do we know which buttons we need to hit but also the timing with which we have to hit them, and only an animated display can encapsulate both. By representing the input to the controller graphically, Injustice 2 also makes it that bit easier to translate the requests of the game into a series of hand movements which is especially useful when it asks us to chain together lengthy combinations of attacks. Again, it's a practical demonstration of a practical task. The closer you can get to replicating the actions you want your audience to take, the easier it is for them to copy those actions.

The tutorial designers also appreciate that the concepts and behaviours we employ in the game are dependent on which character we play, which is one reason why fighting games have multiple characters in the first place: each demands different strategies from us. Injustice 2 includes individual tutorials for every one of these characters that not only have us run through their moves but also sometimes advise tactical approaches for playing them, tell us how to execute their most powerful combos, and teach us when we can cancel out of some of their attacks into others. Telling me that I'm meant to put distance between myself and the opponent when playing Harley Quinn or that Robin is designed to attack at mid-range completely changes how I play these characters and only takes a few seconds.

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Even many of the systems in Injustice 2 which seem coincidental to its tutorialising such as the levelling, gear, and multiverse encourage players to learn characters. The vast majority of solo play is locked up in the game's multiverse mode which challenges its audience to defeat a succession of opponents while offering the biggest bounty of gear they'll find in the game and a king's ransom of XP. Each character under the player's purview has a discrete level and equipment set defining how hard they can hit and how much punishment they can stand up to. In some multiverse gauntlets, opponents' levels are matched to that of the character the player is controlling, while in others, enemies have fixed levels. This means that players have an incentive to play a single character over and over, rocketing them up through the progression system so that they can eventually hold their own against that level 30 Superman. Their motivation to beat these higher level warriors is not just that they are a more powerful foe to topple but also that vanquishing them will earn them more extravagant rewards.

The loot system is slightly biased towards dropping gear that equips to the character you currently have switched-in and in addition to there being a functional incentive to play a character and unlock their equipment, there's also an aesthetic one as new loot means new costumes and fans love their superhero outfits. As players repeatedly level their hero or villain, their understanding of the character, sense of timing for controlling them, and familiarity with their moveset increases. To reduce it to a phrase: progression systems encourage practise. While all players are aware that they can hone their skills over time by playing these characters regularly, the XP and gear systems give them an extra push and provide more noticeable, guaranteed, and tangible forms of reward. For example, a new ring for Green Lantern is a way to improve your game that you can objectively measure the benefits of and that you can reliably expect to receive at some point, whereas it's hard to see how much benefit you would get from practising his Grand Slam combo. What's more, the multiverse generating new planets every several hours makes sure that players stay in the habit of coming back to rehearse.

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Injustice 1 also had an ingenious platform on which to nudge players towards familiarising themselves with characters. The "S.T.A.R. Labs" are a collection of 240 one-off fights with pre-programmed modifiers. Each of these stages has two optional goals and depending on how many you complete, it awards you between one and three stars. Shazam has a mission in which you must defeat Cyborg, not be hit for eight seconds, and never let your super meter reach full; this teaches you about using meter burn attacks which deplete the super meter and are more impactful. Raven has a mission in which you must defeat a sped-up Ares but cannot jump or let him get in a total of fifty hits; this helps you exercise your defensive muscles. These stages could have been more effective teachers if they didn't make many of their restrictions optional and if they tended further towards tests of skill and further away from novelty. However, they often force you to think about how to solve the kinds of combat puzzles you'd face in actual matches, asking you to overcome limitations without giving you exact instructions on how to do so. This confirmed that you knew how to fight and weren't just playing Simon Says with the designers.

S.T.A.R. Labs doesn't reprise its role in Injustice 2 which is slightly unusual because NetherRealm obviously cares about teaching the player and already had a tool to do that fairly well but didn't reuse it. You see the same forgetfulness in other areas of the player education. The more rudimentary and systems-focused tutorials feature that on-screen controller, but the controller diagram is missing from the character tutorials. You'll also find that while the systems-focused tutorials will loop a demo of a move for you so that you can study it, the character tutorials play the demo once and then have the stage reset. You have to keep hitting the button to get a prolonged look at the timing of an action. And while the pause screen has a quick-reference guide for every character's unique moves, it doesn't have advice on the strategy you should use for playing them or feature their most devastating combos, both things which you're taught in character tutorials. Injustice 2 invents various superior methods of helping the player ease into a fighting game, but then compartmentalises them, unable to imagine reusing them outside of the room it first presented them in. This is a little inexplicable when it neither seems to serve the player any benefit nor would have significantly reduced the labour involved in developing the title.

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Injustice 2's tutorials could also do with thinking a little more like the S.T.A.R. Labs did, creating some middle ground for the player between learning actions for the first time and using them quickly and confidently as part of a whole suite of mechanics. While it's easy to consider wakeups or four button combos in the isolated, safety-proofed tutorials, doing this when trying to remember about twenty other mechanics at the same time and reacting within split-second windows is another task entirely. There's no gradual ramp-up from dealing with one mechanic to twenty mechanics that you'd have in another game or any other area of education. This gaping chasm between the game as it's taught and the game as it's played is far from specific to Injustice 2 or even fighting games; this is a widespread issue for complex, high difficulty titles. And even in Injustice 2's character tutorials, you can become overloaded with information, as the game tries to teach you around seven moves back-to-back, having you practise each one exactly once before it assumes you've memorised it permanently. It's this absolute bombardment of instruction in the tutorials and then a drought of instruction outside of them. So what can designers do about this?

Usually, big problems call for big solutions which involve a lot of work, and that's likely the case here. Asking about how games can improve tutorials to let casual players get up to speed with the "real play" may even be the wrong question. Thinking about video games in this way assumes there has to be or should be a dividing line between "tutorial" and "actual game" and not only have I never heard a solid argument for why we should construct games this way, but the games that have dissolved that barrier have generally done better. A lot of designs that help you retain information painlessly use a familiar pattern.

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The designers teach you a new mechanic either by explicitly commanding you to interface with it or by giving very overt hints on how to do so within a sandbox space. They then give you an environment in which you are not implicitly instructed to work with the mechanic again but must do so to achieve your goal. In these environs, it doesn't take much effort to tell how the mechanic figures in as there aren't a lot of moving parts. After a dry run or two interacting with it in a live scenario, the game gives you just enough time to forget about it and then prompts you to interact with it again. The game keeps introducing these prompts at regular intervals, allowing you to rehearse the mechanic, and as you do, you become more aware of how to work with it, and it takes less effort each time. As interfacing with the mechanic becomes second-nature, the game can introduce many more mechanics around it without confusing you and gradually make prompts about it subtler. You can see this a lot in Portal. In the case that the mechanic requires a player input within a certain timeframe, the game will often start with a wide input window and then gradually shorten the time you have to perform the action on each recurring instance. Punishments for failing to grasp a mechanic also generally start off as a tap on the wrist and get progressively more severe over the course of the game.

Notice that this doesn't sound much like playing a fighting game and that a mechanically sparse experience is not what diehard fighting game lovers come to the genre for. For a fighting game to adopt this approach, it would likely have to have a distinct mode in the style of a single-player campaign which steadily increases in mechanical complexity, and in which, just like when playing an instrument, our inputs start off very slow, and we speed up over time. A mode in this style may also need to use more clear visual prompts, and between that and the slowed-down enemies, it may create more work for the animators. It's not hard to figure out why studios have not undertaken this massive project to please a group who is not their core audience. There is another possible solution that could satisfy players of all skill levels, but it would still require many hours in front of screens of code, and it's pretty out there.

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There isn't a school in the world that has concluded that students do better without teachers. We know that people learn best by not just having a stack of learning materials and exercises dumped on their desk but also by having someone who gives them pointers when they demonstrate their knowledge of the subject. Every single person learns in their own way, and so their misunderstandings and weaknesses on any topic or task are going to be unique to them. For this reason, all students need unique feedback on their work, not a one-size-fits-all lesson that fails to address their personal aptitude. Now, I think we can rule out an international league of thousands of fighting game tutors as a solution for Injustice 2, but when we want a video game to fill in for a human being, we do have a solution: artificial intelligence. If AI can be an ally or an enemy then I don't see why it can't also be a coach. The ideal AI professor may not be attainable with modern programming techniques, but as a general goal, I think the concept of a fighting game which inspects your play, tells you your strengths and weaknesses, and gives you tips to improve could be radically beneficial for casual and veteran players alike. The system could even assign you certain tasks to help you practice the actions at which you're shakiest. Injustice 2 already has daily missions that let you unlock more lootboxes; what if those missions were refocused around reinforcing the lagging areas of your performance?

While I've used fighting games as my sounding board here, I'm sure you can see how ideas in this article could also be applied to other highly demanding genres such as strategy games. To summarise, the degree to which games are accessible is not just a product of what their mechanics look like but also how those games convey those mechanics. There's been a lack of progress in the field of player education that would have been considered unacceptable for other facets of games such as graphical fidelity or network technologies, and for some games, welcoming rookie players may be a matter of economic survival.

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In the case of fighting games, tutorials often teach players what actions they can take, but provide them with less instruction on how those actions play off of each other and where to use them. Injustice 2 provides a better methodology, teaching audiences about all the concepts professional competitors think about, as well as giving them guides on how to play specific characters, and more visual demonstrations of relevant actions. However, its designers limit the effectiveness of these techniques by failing to represent them across the whole game, and it still has this wall in its difficulty curve which comes between the advanced tutorials and live play. If fighting games and other competitive multiplayer games are to evolve their player education, having more consistent learning aids, a gradual ramp-up of mechanical complexity, or AI-driven feedback on player performance would be transformatively positive. Thanks for reading.

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