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What video games can teach us about product onboarding

Willingness to learn is directly correlated with time invested.

UX/UI Design
5 minute read

One of the things I remember my parents telling me most growing up was, ‘JOHN! Stop playing computer games and finish your homework’.

Recently, I was listening to a cracking episode of the Awkward Silences podcast*,* where the topic of conversation with guest Pulkit Agrawal (Co-Founder of Chameleon) was how to nail user onboarding. Agrawal described how video games have been successfully introducing new products to players for years and that designers can learn a thing or two about onboarding from iconic titles.

In this post, I’m going to discuss three key lessons that video games have taught me about successful onboarding. With one in four app users abandoning a product after their first use, onboarding is a topic that shouldn’t be ignored. Especially, since a great onboarding experience can increase user retention levels by 50%.

Well, Mum and Dad, I guess all those hours playing video games weren’t wasted after all.

Lesson #1: Teach by Doing

In the most iconic video game level of all-time, World 1-1 in Super Mario Bros., game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, taught players the fundamental principles of how to play the game simply by playing the game. Let me break down Mario’s first interaction with an object to show you what I mean:

  • As the mustached plumber moves across the screen, he first encounters a flashing brick with a question mark. Like a moth to a flame (or a raver to a strobe light), the player’s attention is immediately drawn to it. The question mark sparks further curiosity that there is more to this brick than meets the eye.
  • With only the ability to make Mario jump, the player is forced to work out how to unlock the secrets of the brick with what's available in the environment.
  • Once the player successfully hurls Mario upwards into the brick, they are immediately rewarded with a coin for doing so. The instant reward reinforces this fundamental mechanic of the game and encourages further brick smashing with the promise of more coins (a pure stroke of genius, tapping into our human desire to amass coins).

Super Mario Bros, World 1-1, Nintendo

So what can be learnt from Super Mario Bros? Well, it's that great on-boarding should focus on teaching users the main principles required to immediately start using the product.

Miyamoto didn’t overload the players with jargon or marketing about other Nintendo games. Rather, he focused on introducing the core principles that a player needed to know to start progressing through the game (e.g. smash blocks to earn coins, eat mushrooms, and don’t touch the Goombas).

Great onboarding is almost unnoticeable. The faster you can get users to start using your product, the more likely you are to hook them in and retain them over time.

Lesson #2: Information Overload

Anyone who has played Monster Hunter World, knows just how complex this game is. As the name suggests, you play as an aspiring hunter whose goal is to defeat creatures of all shapes and sizes to help protect the townsfolk, whilst getting paid handsomely for doing so.

Developer, Capcom, does a great job of getting players to complete tasks quickly, all the while teaching them the core mechanics of the game (does this sound familiar?). But, when it comes to introducing new mechanics like skill progression, weapon upgrades and alchemy, the honeymoon period comes to a rapid end.

In quick succession, players are introduced to mechanic after mechanic via instructional popups, embedded with pages full of detailed text. I spent more time reading about how to play than I did actually playing. Worst of all, when it came to using a new mechanic, I had forgotten most of the instructions from the tutorial. Frustrated at having to go back and relearn how to progress my character, suddenly playing Monster Hunter was more of a chore than a pleasure and quickly fell into the ‘Too Hard Basket’. Now, I’m lucky if I boot up this game once a year.

George Fan, designer of Plants vs. Zombies, outlines that a player's willingness to learn is directly correlated with time invested. The longer a player has played a game, the more receptive they are to learn new information about it. This same logic can apply to products. Too much information, too quickly, exceeds our willingness to learn and causes us to feel overwhelmed, confused, or frustrated. In turn, creating friction and increasing the likelihood of walking away, never to be seen again.


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When it comes to designing an onboarding experience, too much, too soon is a bad thing. Designers should avoid overwhelming users with irrelevant information at the start of their journey. Yes…the content might be super important to the product, but ask yourself, is now the best time to share this information?

The more relevant the information to the specific action or area under consideration the better. In fact, onboarding should be looked at less like a single moment in time (e.g. first login) and more of a midterm journey over the first few weeks or interactions with a particular feature. Help users when they are ready to be helped to avoid exceeding their willingness to learn.

Lesson #3: Personalisation = Engagement

Cyberpunk 2077 was one of the most anticipated games of the last decade and one that will not easily be forgotten (and not just because of its catastrophic launch). Developer, CD Projekt Red, pushed the boundaries to set a new standard for what personalisation means in video games.

What Cyberpunk did so differently was give players the freedom to experience the game how they wanted to play it. Instead of being constrained by a single narrative, players had the choice of three different paths. This choice dictated the first hour or two of the game, unlike other games that force players to make upfront decisions that don't really matter.

After spending way too much time customizing my character (and I mean way too much time) it was satisfying to see my decision on which story to follow come immediately into play. I started to think ‘if I’m making decisions like this now, what’s around the corner?’. This anticipation hooked me in and kept me coming back for more.

While not every product can have the same level of personalization as a game, tailoring the onboarding experience to the individual user can be extremely powerful in driving engagement and retention.

Personalisation can be as simple as collecting user interests and then tailoring content to match. Reddit does this supremely well in its onboarding, capturing what users are interested in and recommending subreddits for users to join. Thus, getting people onto the platform and scrolling through content that they actually care about from their first interaction.

Reddit’s Onboarding Experience

Next time you’re working on an onboarding experience, try shifting the perspective from a one size fits all approach and explore how to create a more tailored experience that aligns with why the user came to you in the first place.

Final Thoughts

Pulkit Agrawal was spot on! There are so many lessons that we, as designers, can take from video games when it comes to creating an epic onboarding experience. Just remember, a user's first interaction with a product has the potential to be a make or break moment. So, let's stack the odds in your favor by applying tried, tested, and true principles from the video game industry.

So, brush the dust off your console of choice, boot up a game, and get studying. It’s time to prove your parents wrong, you weren't wasting time playing video games, you were preparing yourself for designing banging onboarding experiences.

My personal recommendations for games with a great onboarding experience that I haven’t mentioned here already are:

  • Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
  • A fantastic example of not overwhelming users with gameplay mechanics.
  • Celeste
  • Does a great job of teaching the player whilst playing.
  • FIFA (2011-2023)
  • How to effectively onboard players by using loading screens.