Progressive Disclosure, Onboarding and Soulslike-Games: Team Ninja vs Fromsoftware

Progressive disclosure is the UX principle whereby we only reveal to the user the functionality they need to get up and running with our digital product. We display the key functions to them that they will need to use our, for example, mobile messaging app, and hide advanced functionality off-screen, perhaps behind a hamburger menu. We might present them with a brief onboarding slideshow when they start up the app for the first time, giving them a quick overview of how the app works, then letting them proceed with their tasks. This is great for novice users, because it means the software is not in the way, they can do what they came to do and leave. It’s also a boon for advanced users, they can figure out what they have to do and not have to scan through a bunch of features they do not need or desire to use.

With that in mind let’s talk about video games. This is the tutorial for Team Ninja’s Nioh 2:

Choose from two out of a dozen weapons, each with a stat bonus (not yet explained). Press the glowing flame in the middle and begin the basic weapon tutorial. The game throws dummy enemies at you and walks you through all the mechanics of combat. Press X to quick attack, press Y to strong attack. Strong attacks do more damage than quick attacks but consume more ki. Press the right analog stick to lock onto an enemy. Press LB to guard and tap A to dodge. Press LB after an enemy’s attack connects to perform a ‘cut-in guard’. Then there are the three stances: high stance, mid stance, low stance (RB + Y/X/A respectively). When you’ve staggered an enemy hit Y to ‘grapple’ them. After you perform a quick or strong attack, wait for blue light to gather around you, and at the right moment tap RP to perform a ‘Ki pulse’ and recover the maximum Ki possible so you can keep fighting. This done, choose a guardian spirit. Press Y + B to assume Yokai form. Press RT + B to perform a “Burst Counter”, a riposte for an enemy’s “Burst Attack” (super dangerous attack that will be telegraphed by a glowy red animation. Press Y next to a downed or staggered enemy to grapple it in Yokai form. Press LB +Y at the right moment to perform a “Fang Break”, another situational riposte to enemy Yokai attacks. Press RB + B to return to human form. As can be seen in the video, this process took about 6 minutes. It will probably take a new player much longer.

Is this the best onboarding experience for new players of Nioh 2? Is the player going to be able to keep all of this functionality, all of these game mechanics, in their working memory and be able to put them into practice effectively from the start? Should the User Experience be better optimised? Should mechanics be progressively revealed, applied in ‘real’ game missions, before new ones are introduced? My answer to all of these questions including the last is no. I originally set out to compare Team Ninja’s Nioh 2 with Fromsoftware’s Souls series and Sekiro, and declare that the latter’s games were far more elegantly designed. The difficulty lies in completing the challenges, levels, enemies, boss battles, rather than grappling with what each button does on the controller and the keyboard. I still believe this to an extent, but after performing a kind of usability test in which I went back to a game I uninstalled and vowed never to play again half a year ago, I’ve decided that the onboarding in Nioh 2 could not be otherwise. To simplify the controls, or simplify the way they are introduced to the player, would fundamentally change the experience of Nioh 2 for the worse, as well as sacrifice some of its identity. However, comparing and contrasting Fromsoftware and Team Ninja’s approach to onboarding, and considering the effect this has on the user - the player - is still worthwhile.

Donald Norman writes in his The Design of Everyday Things about affordances, and where having strong affordances might be vital for some everyday products, but not others, like video games. For the non-UX-savvy gamers reading, I’ll quote the passage in full to explain the concept:

Affordances represent the possibilities in the world for how an agent (a person, animal, or machine) can interact with something. Some affordances are perceivable, others are invisible. Signifiers are signals. Some signifiers are signs, labels, and drawings placed in the world, such as the signs labelled “push”, “pull” or “exit” on doors, or arrows and diagrams indicating what is to be acted upon or in which direction to gesture, or other instructions. Some signifiers are simply the perceived affordances, such as the handle of a door or the physical structure of a switch. Note that some perceived affordances may not be real: they may look like doors or places to push, or an impediment to entry, when in fact they are not. These are misleading signifiers, oftentimes accidental but sometimes purposeful, as when trying to keep people from doing actions for which they are not qualified, or in games, where one of the challenges is to figure out what is real and what is not. (my emphasis, pp. 17-18)

Discussing affordances is a slight detour, we are not talking about affordances in video games (for example, doors or boxes that are openable, things in the in-game environments we can interact with) but with controls and functionality. But should we apply this statement to controls in video games as well? While using a banking or a work conferencing app needs clear, intuitive controls to prevent frustration, errors, or real-world confusion, is learning how controls and game mechanics part of the challenge? That is, does making the user experience worse, to a degree, make the game ultimately better? More rewarding or less rewarding?

Team Ninja have been making beat-em-up and fighting games for nearly three decades, but Nioh is closer to Dark Souls than it is to Ninja Gaiden. Here’s how Dark Souls 2 onboards the player:

Having chosen your name, customised your starting class and appearance you leave the safe zone for the first area, Things Betwixt. You learn by doing, tapping buttons until they do what you intend them to do. You explore the environment and come across these stone markers. The first one reads, “Bonfires are places of respite, you may also light torches on them”. The player goes up to the bonfire, interacts with it with A and discovers this is a save point. Glowing things are items to pick up, fragile scenery can be destroyed, attacking can be done with RB reads one tablet, running can be performed by holding forward on the analog stick while pressing B. As experimenting and reading will reveal, lots of moving and fighting can be done using the analog stick, RB and the B button, and what these inputs do is situational. Things Betwixt functions as tutorial land but the game has begun in earnest at this point, the player will return here to perform various functions and complete quests, or re-allocate their skill points. To reinforce this point about this being the ‘real’ game it’s also worth mentioning the player can die here and lose progress (which takes the form of losing currency, souls, and going ‘hollow’, losing maximum health). Nioh 2’s tutorial island is closed off from the rest of the game world, and the player cannot die. It is no exaggeration to say that the player knows everything they need to complete the game at this point, combat, movement, items. There is more to the game, but these mechanics will be revealed when they are required, and not from the outset.

What you see in the above clip is representative of how Souls games onboard their players for all three games: a relatively - but not completely - safe starting zone, low level enemies to fight, terrain to explore, items to discover, and brief in game explanations of controls on sign posts or messages on the ground. Sekiro required a new mental model, because the combat mechanics were changed from attacking and rolling to sword-on-sword combat. It is not radically different from Souls, but it introduced tutorial overlays that appeared when the player needed to learn a new mechanic to progress. I’ll include a clip of the first few minutes below.

Which brings me back to my earlier point about the elegance of FromSoftware’s design, as well as an oft-repeated maxim of UX design: “don’t make me think”. When playing a Souls game there’s no lag between thought and action. I don’t have to think about how to execute a swing of the sword, or a dodge roll, I can perform this as soon as I think it. Granted, this will only apply to gamers who are reasonably experienced with third person action games, but then again this is who Fromsoftware are targeting. On the other hand, at least initially, there is a lag between thought and action in Nioh 2. The player will struggle to hold all the controls and menus and functionality in his working memory. The advantage of Fromsoftware’s approach is that the player can become less aware of himself and more immersed in the role of the avatar. Nioh player that are thinking about the buttons they are pressing are probably less immersed. Is Nioh, then, worse than Dark Souls, Bloodborne and Sekiro?

There is an argument for chunking the functionality and the first mission in a way that allows players to master each aspect of the combat: basic attacks and parrying, managing your Ki, fighting with a guardian spirit. In traditional Japanese martial arts, we don’t give the student a 5-minute overview of everything before having them try it out on their own until they sink or swim. Rather they drill the basics of movement until this is perfected to the standard for their rank, and then, and only then, are they shown the next technique (unless they attend a McDojo that sells black belts). Nioh 2 is trying to emulate traditional Japanese martial arts, and could have done this, I suppose. But like I said earlier, I ultimately felt things should not change at all.

The player does need everything they learn in the tutorial to complete the first mission.They will need the basics of combat, they will need to learn how to manage their Ki, they will need to fight Yokai with their Yokai guardian spirit, and be able to effectively counter burst attacks. As long and involved as the tutorial is, it is in fact limited to the essential functionality, without which the player is unable to complete their task. Players coming to Nioh will be coming from Ninja Gaiden or from Souls, and they will require new mental models to approach the combat, especially all the different stances and combos.

Once I was released from the magical tutorial island, I noticed at Nioh’s version of a bonfire, there’s an option to go to the dojo. There the player can practice to their heart’s content and drill stances and combos as they would learning a martial art in real life over many years.

There were embarrassing mishaps:

And glorious triumphs:

It was worth it. It's currently sitting at Very Positive above 84% on Steam reviews. Donald Norman’s comment about poor UX being the challenge of video games was made in passing, and I haven’t read anything he’s written about video games in detail if any books or articles exist, but he might be right. For a certain audience, mastering intricate mechanics is part of the reward. It’s not for everyone though.

Git gud.

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