Game Development Reference
16.4 Concise Copy and Instructions
Instructions are the most important words a casual game writer is going to write.
Instructions are the player's first hint into understanding the game. If they're hard to
understand, you've made the game a less enjoyable experience—at worst, a frustrat-
ing, impossible one.
Writing the instructions themselves is much like writing the story. Analyze and
distill all the possible player actions and figure out what the common denomina-
tors are. Arrange them in a list that makes sense. Follow the list yourself and see
if you've missed anything. It seems easy, but there's often confusion added by de-
velopers who don't take an analytical eye to their own game controls. Mistakes are
usually made to the extremes: either too little information is given or far, far too
Minimalism is a good route to take when writing instructions. A picture of the
up arrow key, accompanied by the word “Jump” is as clear as it can get. But have
you told the player everything he needs to know to navigate the game world? Here is
where you really need to pay attention to the game itself. It's a sad fact of the casual
gaming world that often game design oversights get fixed in the instructions. There's
an item that will give the character the super power he needs to get over that really tall
wall, but he doesn't know that the huge springs floating over there are good things.
To him they look like hazards. The player will inevitably discover this through trial
and error, but it could be a good idea to include this little tidbit of information on
the instructions screen. Be careful here of including too much; take a hard look
at your game, watch new people play it, and see what needs to be explained. Also
remember that if they're stuck, players will often turn to the instructions to see what
they're doing wrong, even if they skipped them entirely the first time. Your words
could be the deciding factor in whether the player decides to keep playing or leave in
Writing too much is even worse. Let's say your game is a complex online simula-
tion that will revolutionize the casual game space forever. So you need tons and tons
of text outlining every operational control, right? No. Trust me, there is nothing
that will lose a casual player faster than multiple screens filled with text before they've
even started playing the game. Try to outline the basic controls up front, the bare
minimum, and prompt hints throughout the early levels. This is where bad game
design can be costly; if the player has to use every single control of a complex control
scheme right away, you're going to lose a lot of players simply because it's difficult
to learn anything that fast, especially if it was only presented to them in the abstract
before they even started playing.
Good design should ramp the complexity, and a good writer should ramp up
control hints with it. It can be a good idea as well to include a more complete legend
of buttons and moves that will be accessible from the game as an aid, but that should
be mainly for players who saw the hints but have forgotten, or didn't get it in the first
place. That legend would be quickly forgotten if shown up front.