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I'm making a bullet hell shoot-em-up game:

enter image description here

However, those players who have no prior experience with bullet hell games didn't realize they can also move up and down. Moving only horizontally, they of course couldn't dodge some patterns and always lost.

Players should use the arrow keys to move in all directions.

I don't want to spend time creating a tutorial. And I worry a little about being condescending. How should I tell the player that they can move vertically as well?

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You could improve the onboarding a little bit:

  • Your spaceship starts weaponless
  • Basic weapon upgrade pops up in the centre (it doesn't move anywhere, stays right in the centre) with some "Pick me up" label flashing above it.
  • The level doesn't start until the player picks up the weapon upgrade.

I would say its almost guaranteed players will use arrows to reach the weapon upgrade. This way you will ensure player is familiar with controls before the bullet hells starts.

I always consider proper onboarding to be superior to text overlays.

  • very nice solution to do a direct jump start without the annoying tutorial level! – JonnyZoo Mar 7 '17 at 7:43
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Some ideas:

  • Make an initial animation, so the ship starts at Y=0 and automatically goes to Y=100 (or the other way round)
  • Make the ship start in a place (different than Y=0) where the user will understand he can change the vertical value to go to the bottom
  • Place some item that suggests the user he can go down to get it
  • Take a look at Gesture education and Feature discovery. You could place some initial tips before the game starts over the actual game screen, like arrows over the ship in the 4 directions it can take, that either disappear after some time or when the user dismisses them
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I'm going to assume that there is some sort of menu before you start the game.

You can show an animation next to or behind the menu as a sort of background, showcasing the plane dodging stuff going both from left to right, and also moving forward and back.

This way, it won't be a tutorial, but players will still see the plane physically going forward and back, insinuating that they can do that too.

Example? Remember super mario on the nes? If you stayed in the menu for a few seconds, an animation would start of mario trying to complete the level by itself.

enter image description here

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At the bottom of the screen you include instructions for all controls except movement, why not just add it there.

"Use arrow keys to move" and include a small thumbnail image of the four keys.

Or "Use mouse to move in any direction" depending on your controls.

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One of the principles in game design is on-boarding the user. So as they play the game for the first time, you can introduce some subtle on-boarding visual cues - they learn as they play.

This is such a common game design technique, you see it in all sorts of games (especially in first person shoot 'em ups). So consider making the first level or two of your game, instructional levels where you introduce the player to the features of the game, and they can only progress if they complete each learning task. Let them learn as they play.

So for example, you could make task one to learn to move up the screen - so you will have text appear on the page stating "Press cursor key UP to move up the screen - do this now!). When they do this, you put up text that says "Well done!".

Task two is to learn how to move down the screen, so text will display on the screen stating "Press cursor key DOWN to move down the screen - do this now"

Task three might be to learn how to to shoot - so text will appear on the screen saying "Press Z, CTRL or A to fire, do this now"

Each time you introduce each learning task, you can only move to the next learning task if you have completed the preceding task. Very quickly you introduce the player to features of the game.

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Having played a could of bullet hell games myself, vertical movement came naturally. However, a neat example I have seen from the Touhou series is the "Get Item Line", which is a threshold you need to cross for all items to come to you. The line appears every time you start a new game for a few seconds, then disappears. Lets the player know it can move vertically for a reward.

enter image description here

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