Because the rules of play have changed, specifically with the advent of App Stores – be it the iTunes App Store, the Xbox Live Indie Games and Arcade Games stores, the Playstation Network PS Store, Wiiware, various Flashgame hubs (Kongregate etc), the ever-present Facebook games, Steam and a growing number of independent publishers on the web specializing on publishing downloadable and free to play games for the masses and niches.
The result of this onslaught of new game titles, the release of more game titles over various platforms has to result in the abandonment of the “captivate the player within 15 minutes” rule. It no longer holds true, maybe with the exception of expensive, high-quality productions where players might be a little more patient with games – but even that bastion is slowly succumbing to the sheer quantity of titles a player can select from. Players are increasingly becoming impatient with games, many times not even enough to give a game a trial run for 15 or even just 5 minutes. But if you’re actually lucky enough that the player chose to download and start your game, what should be the most important goal to make the most of this fortunate event?
Engage the Player within 15 seconds!
That is the new rule: “Engage the Player within 15 seconds!”
… “or you’re screwed” I wish to add.
This rule tweaks two crucial aspects, the most obvious being that the time frame is now one sixtieth of what it used to be.
The other is the change from captivation – which to me means any game that puts the player in a state of excitement and exposure to game mechanics that lets him forget the surrounding world and everyday business – to the word “engage” – which means to actuate the warp drives and accelerate past the speed of light. Or in non-Star Trek terms: to give the player something meaningful to do, something to play with, something to go on. It doesn’t need to excite, it doesn’t need to shut off reality, it certainly doesn’t have to be so immersive that mobile players walk blindly on the street right in front of a truck. But it should give the player an experience that’s new to him, that’ll spur his interest, a small “A-ha!” moment, the “oh that’s nice” thought, or just a smile on his face.
The new rule doesn’t mean that you should aim lower than before. In fact it could well work together with the old rule. It’s more a change in priorities, down to the point where we have to question a lot of traditions and standard ways of doing things, like the ubiquitous main menu being the game’s first interactive experience for the player. The new rule does tell you that it has become and will continue to become ever more important to engage players first and very, very quickly before you even have a chance at proving to captivate the player. Because most games these days will be dismissed by most people – and most certainly this includes game reviewers – within a very, very short period of time.
To engage, you need to get to business ASAP
That it the essential message of the “engage player within 15 seconds” rule. Your first priority – and this is even more important the lesser known you, your company and your game’s brand are – is to not bother the player telling him about who you, your company and your game’s brand are. At least not as the first thing the player experiences, and especially not if this costs valuable seconds of the player’s time. Put your logos elsewhere. Postpone the gist of your wonderful story until the player innocently stumbles over the story root himself.
To make it even possible to engage the player within 15 seconds, you need to get rid of old conceptions that used to define how a game is started the first time. Most games today follow the traditional sequence that often includes a series of company logos, an intro video, a main menu with too many options, multiple selections to make before the game is actually loaded. Keep in mind that most pre-game selections like difficulty have consequences that only become clear while playing the actual game, when it may already be too late to change the difficulty. Another intro video or animation sequence or ingame cutscene can be deferred until after the basic gameplay has been experienced. And certainly don’t do a text-message based tutorial alienating both experienced gamers and newcomers alike when better options like context-sensitive visual hints are the less intrusive alternative.
I dare you …
… to re-imagine the game you’re currently working on and figure out a way to put the player in control of the actual game as soon as it has launched. No logos, no main menu, no difficulty selection, no intro video, no cutscene. Just put him right into the game (*), and allow him to figure out the game all by himself.
Use text, icons or other visual or audio indicators to guide the player and have him find out how the game is played organically. If he wants to start killing things right away, let him try it. If he fails you might want to tell him why he failed – many reasons are pretty easy to discover programmatically: he didn’t side-step, he didn’t jump, he shot the wrong weapon, he focused on suboptimal targets, and so on. In essence, allow the player to be in the game right away and learn it like a baby does: by experimenting, by failing often, by having an advisor point him in the right direction, pointing out flaws in his approach and giving suggestions for improving his skills and tactics the next time.
(*) = Minus the necessary and accepted selections of course, for example on consoles you usually have to have the “Press Start to Play” screen followed by the selection of the storage device. But other than that, the player should be in the game right away.
Oh, and …
… don’t piss off the player!
Things that piss off players, and little kids for that matter, include anything that is forced upon the player and goes against the nature of being in control or how a game is normally played. Actually, if this happens among human players it’s usually cheating and frowned upon.
Forcing the player to flee, to die, to not do anything goes completely against the idea that the player should be in control. In the games I worked on, we had a number of such scenarios that required you to do the unusual. For us it was innovative, and some players really, really enjoyed those scenarios because we managed to make them fun and entertaining and fit the flow of the game nonetheless. But the times it was forced onto the player, for example by sending ever stronger waves of enemies at the player, the players started to get frustrated. They did not want to flee, so they failed over and over again. Some even found exploits that made it possible to survive but with the scenario being designed that it has to be completed by fleeing instead of fighting, the result was a feeling of emptiness. The player achieved the impossible but he wasn’t rewarded for it, the game did nothing to acknowledge his achievement.
But there are more subtle ways to force something onto the player. The aforementioned sequence of company logos that you can’t skip. An intro video or cutscene that can’t be skipped or fast-forwarded. Having to complete seemingly unrelated or mundane quests or chores (*). Buttons that are too small to tap correctly 100% of the time. Button sequences and combos that require perfect timing or the reaction time of a 12-year-old on steroids.
(*) = It works for World of Warcraft and most other MMOs. But keep in mind that these games are about social interaction, and the gameplay is designed to keep the players in the game as long as possible. In other words: MMOs are designed to be time-sinks for players because without many players staying online an MMO is pretty much worthless. In that sense MMO design is completely different from regular game design, which IMHO also explains why so many new MMO game developers fail. They want to make their MMO more “fun” but that’s not what an MMO does. MMOs challenge the player’s resilience to perform (mostly) mind-numbing tasks in order to gain a relatively miniscule reward or achievement. Over time, accumulation of these micro-achievements give you a sense of greater achievement and bragging rights, especially in the social context that MMOs have. Or, as I like to put it: MMOs are modern religions, the players are minions united under a common belief (aka reward) system, the guild leaders are clergymen and the successful game developers become gods while the beta-testers of soon-to-be-released MMOs have to have a lot of faith.
Inconsequently implemented design features are also great offenders, for example mouse-over-highlighting only some of the game’s items but not all of them. Making deadly bombs suspiciously similar-looking to health packs so that you’re usually close enough not to be caught in the detonation is only fun for the sadistic developers. Making the game adapt the difficulty as soon as one player is leading, for example a sports game that gives the opposing player or CPU team a noticable boost when they’re behind. Especially in sports you would rather frequently see the other team taking a hit on morale when they’re behind, so this design clearly goes against our real world experiences (Hello, Fifa 10!).
I could go on … I’m sure you’ll have your own list of grievances. Feel free to share them with me in the comments!
From my own experience and by looking at other games i am aware that in a lot of cases – even today – Tutorials in games are an afterthought. I would even go as far as to say that if i don’t like the tutorial chances are, i won’t like the rest of the game either. For a good game, the Tutorial blends in with the game, it just feels natural. Where it is an afterthought, it’s in cases like Prototype: at first, you get all the good stuff, all the weapons and powerups and what not and you are free to try one after the other. Then the game starts, and you’re just that little guy without all these powers.
Types of Tutorials:
1) you get it all but then we’ll take it away from you
2) we explain our overly complex system to you…
2a) … in just 5 minutes, even if you wouldn’t use most of this stuff anyway – we know you just want to play the game, right?
2b) … in 60 minutes because we think it takes this time to really memorize all the good stuff
3) we interrupt your playsession for this trivial hint shown in a messagebox!
3a) PC: if you happened to be clicking your mouse where the OK/Cancel buttons where – we are sorry, you don’t get this message a second time
3b) Console: if you happened to be pressing one of the action buttons that dismiss the messagebox – again, we are soooo sorry we didn’t think you might hit that button while playing our button-smasher and might want to see that message again.
From the comments:
4) Let the game show everything to the player, while not giving him the chance to try out for himself.
5) This is your sixth playthrough for the game? Too bad for you, you must take the tutorial again and you cannot skip! :]
Do you have more tutorial cliches to add to this list?
Due to lack of time, just some links that are highly recommended for Computer Game Developers, especially Indies.
Discussion on stackoverflow.com: best place to look for (free) game audio, graphics, etc. Contains some great links.
Suggested tools for Game Designers. Game Maker, Flash, Unity.
The Art of Computer Game Design – Chris Crawford, 1982. The classic on Game Design and still highly valuable to this date. Can be read online or as PDF version.