Optimizing your tutorial and your first session

Every game has a tutorial. But why are you designing a tutorial? What do you intend to achieve by having a tutorial? Is the tutorial the only – or even the main – tool at your disposal to achieve what you want for the user’s first contact with your game?

Asking those questions and identifying the ORKs of your first session can help define what your first-time user experience will look like. It can also help you focus on what really matters – and maximize the little amount of time users are willing to give your game.

When you look at your game data and assess how unique your first session is compared to all following ones, I strongly believe you should design your first session with 2 key results in mind:

  1. Get your users to return to play a second session
  2. Get your users to convert

Those are the 2 tangible and measurable things you should design your first session for. And the best way to achieve that is by emphasizing what’s cool and unique about your game – what your game’s entertainment value proposition is. Teaching users about how the game works is definitely not what you should be aiming for. When you are designing your first session, you should aim to be more like Raiders of the Lost Ark than the intro lecture of a Cousera course. The first 10 minutes might not have much to do with the rest of the movie or provide you with much context and background story. But those first minutes do showcase what’s cool about Indiana Jones and the adventures he gets himself into – and make you want to stick around more. That should be your guiding principle when hand crafting your first session.

Does this grab your attention and make you want to see more?


Track your tutorial funnel and avoid a common pitfall

Looking at the tutorial funnel is a pretty straightforward thing. Ultimately, at every step of the tutorial you want to be keeping 2 things in mind. First, what percent of your installs are making it to that tutorial step. Second, what is the dropoff on each step: what percent of users making it to that step don’t make it to the next? Nothing special about this and no need to elaborate. The visualization below is a good way to look at your tutorial funnel.



If you have a visualization tool with some flexibility you should aim to have filters to see what the dropoff looks like per device, per device OS, install version, etc. Looking at the tutorial funnel is crucial to identify technical problems, or glaring tutorial issues – whether technical or conceptual. For example, you might see that having users input a name early on has a negative impact on dropoff rates and decide to move that step later. Looking at the tutorial and on-boarding is crucial because you lose users from the moment they first launch your game. Improving your tutorial completion rate by a few percent points can have a long term impact. And there will be fewer opportunities later on to have such a large impact on user return rate. Maybe removing the name entry tutorial step helps increase your tutorial completion by a few percent points (or fractions of a percent). But in absolute terms and at the scale of your title’s lifespan, that small percentage can mean a lot more users making it to day 7, 14 or 30. Few changes later on can have such a large impact.

But unless there is a clear problem with a given step (for example instructions not clear) – or technical/loading issues – looking at the tutorial will rarely provide you with indications concerning what your tutorial should include. Looking at the tutorial funnel will help you catch big and obvious problems you need to fix – but it won’t help you make a decision about how to design for your users’ first experience of your game.

There is however one constant feature in pretty much every tutorial: the biggest relative dropoff always occurs once the tutorial ends (again, excluding any blocker or major technical issue).



The end of the tutorial is a natural moment for users to drop out of the game. It’s a natural “closure” moment for users when they can decide they’ve seen enough – and in this case they are not interested in continuing to play your game.

One of the best analogies for this – and one most of us can relate to – comes from some common dynamics in interpersonal communication. When someone is talking to us – even in the extreme case of the unsolicited pitch from a random stranger on the street (trying to sell you something, make you sign a petition, etc.) – we will usually wait for the person to finish speaking before responding/declining. Although dealing with digital entertainment is not the same as dealing with someone in person, the same general dynamic applies. The end of your tutorial is a natural drop because it’s the moment where you let the user know the grand tour is over. You’ve showcased what you wanted to showcase about the game. Users will give you some time to make your case. And once you’re done presenting your case (your tutorial) users will make their decision.

There is no silver bullet to solve this. But there are some ways to slightly soften the drop. The simplest way is to not provide closure to your tutorial. Having a message saying your tutorial is over is like creating a “Tada!” moment. You are providing closure on your tutorial and implicitly putting your user in front of a decision to make: evaluate what you’ve seen and decide if you continue playing or not. That’s why one of the “best practice” when designing your onboarding is to not tell users the tutorial is over, to not provide users with a “end of tutorial” message. There are some examples out there of games that do that very well. For example, if you play Game of War or Mobile Strike, it’s very difficult to pinpoint the moment the tutorial ends. Users are always prompted to do something next.

Now this raises a different question about potentially artificially increasing a metric. For example, maybe the dropoff at the de facto end of tutorial is smaller when you don’t call it out as such. But gradually users who would have dropped out at that point might simply drop out more gradually later. Maybe your dropoff at the end of the first session, or your day 1 retention isn’t radically different. But even a slight improvement in tutorial completion can have a waterfall effect on longer term retention. That’s why there can be great ROI in tweaking your tutorial. Every step you take in improving your tutorial completion rate – no matter how small – can have a long-term positive effect on your game’s performance.


Beyond tutorial: designing your first session to make users come back and convert

One of the beauties of dealing with tutorials is that you are usually working with a linear progression that leaves no room for player agency. That means a tutorial funnel is probably one of the features of the game you can analyze in the most exhaustive way possible. But being exhaustively analyzable doesn’t warrant being the center of attention. Ultimately, your first-time user experience is about much more than the tutorial. So, while you definitely need to be looking at your tutorial funnel, you also definitely need to look beyond that and think about the user’s first impression of your game in a more strategic manner. It will be easier to design your onboarding session if you have clear goals in mind. It will also help you design your first session accordingly.

You need to have a tutorial in order for your users to be minimally functional and be able to play the game. But your users’ first impression of the game cannot be reduced to the tutorial. That’s why you need to think beyond the tutorial and think about the first session. And you want to generate enough enthusiasm to get users to play a second session on install day. I won’t elaborate here on why you should design for your users to return play a second session on install day (you can read my post on that). This part will rather discuss the how. Is the best way to achieve that is to showcase what’s cool or unique about your game? Or rather teach players about your mechanics and how to play it? (if you’ve done a bit of UX research or seen playtest videos you probably noticed users can have fun even if they don’t totally understand what they’re doing or what’s going on)

Your installs are only willing to give you a few minutes. If you distribute users based on the time of their first session, you will probably see the 25th percentile only plays your game for a minute or two. And the median might be around 5 minutes. Of course, every game will be different, but the general trend (and your practical working assumption) should be that you only have a few minutes to make your users want to come back for more. Something along the lines of the graph below can help you get a better sense of how long you should be aiming for when designing your first session.



There is nothing very aspirational in teaching users about systems. But if that wasn’t enough of a reason, the very little time users are willing to give you means the “educational” approach is simply not a viable option. It’s wildly unrealistic to expect you’ll provide a set of instructions in that timeframe that will allow your users to comprehend what your game is about and how to play it. And that’s not even discussing the level of concentration and attention users are giving to your instructions. This is not meant in a demeaning way at all – on the contrary. Why should users be paying close attention to the instructions of a mobile game they just downloaded for fun when they had a few minutes to kill?

In your first session, you need to showcase what’s fun and aspirational about your game. You also want to do it soon enough for most of your installs to actually see it. That means you need to be sensitive to how long users are willing to give you. If you assume you have 2 or 3 minutes to showcase what’s great about your game you will be likely to reach the largest portion of your installs possible (and try to wow them). Of course, if you limit yourself to a few minutes to show your game, you will have to leave a lot of stuff out. But that’s where you need to make a judgment call.

You also need to apply the same logic when it comes to conversion. I’ve already argued you need to appeal to what’s aspirational when trying to get your biggest fans to convert. Your biggest fans are those most sensitive to the thematic aspect of your game – and they are also the ones converting the fastest.

Users convert quickly – a non-negligible proportion of your customers will make their first purchase within a few of minutes since installs. If you break it down in terms of convert session, you will see the first session is by far the session users convert the most. If you look at users converting within 7 days of install, chances are between 20 and 25% of your customers will have converted on their first session. That means you should ensure you are being proactive and trying to capitalize on your fan’s willingness to spend as soon as the tutorial is done. The first session is extremely conducive to getting users to convert. If you are not aggressively trying to get users to convert, then you are missing out on a key opportunity. Furthermore, trying to get users to convert on their first session is a way to capitalize on a preexisting tendency. That means there is potentially a bigger ROI if you are trying to capitalize on users’ existing preferences – rather than trying to get users to behave in a way they might not be naturally inclined to do.



If the ORKs of your first session are to get your users to play a second session on install day and also to entice them to convert, then you are setting yourself with some tangible and measurable goals. What’s more, a lot of evidence suggests you can achieve both those goals with the same general philosophy: focus on what’s appealing and fun. Your first session isn’t a lecture, it’s a celebration of what makes your game unique and fun.


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