Best Independent Games, Free Game Downloads

Best Independent Games, Free Game Downloads Home | Games | Downloads | Links | Blog | Articles | About Us

  Article Categories






Sign up for the free newsletter to learn about new games, special offers, tips, and tricks!

The "First Few Minutes" Rule of Game Design

One of the most fundamental rules of video game design is what I term the “First Few Minutes” rule. It’s sometimes called the “First Five Minutes,” or “First Fifteen Minutes” rule, but all the variations mean the same thing: The first few minutes of a game are critical to its overall success. The player must be delighted and feel a level of mastery over the game within 5 to 15 minutes.

When I first started working in the videogame industry, I thought I knew about game design, as I’d been playing videogames since Pac-Man was the big craze. I knew what I liked, and understood intuitively some elements that made a great game, but I really didn’t understand this principle. Fortunately, I wasn’t hired as a game designer.

My belief was that you should give the player constant rewards throughout the game, and that you should save the best for last. I wasn’t wrong! But I totally neglected a critical element, which was that if the player wasn’t delighted by the game within five to fifteen minutes, he’ll quit playing the game and get to those later rewards or see “the best” that the game has to offer.  More importantly to game developers, he’ll probably vote negative on his purchase decision if he’s not made it already, or give negative word-of-mouth recommendations to others.

In order to make the first few minutes of gameplay a positive experience for the player, here are some general guidelines:


Get The Player Invested In The Game

The “introduction” to the game – these days often in the form of a video - is not a mere formality. It’s designed to set the stage, show the player what will be happening in the game. It’s to get the player excited about what he’s about to play, and “primed” to enjoy the game. 


In Rise of Nations, the video shows growing and warring civilizations throughout many nations and eras, culminating in the modern era. While the player never actually sees these actual images in-game, it gets him excited to re-enact events from these eras, and to imagine the detail occurring below the abstract layer of the game.

In the “Ghosts and Goblins” arcade game – which was tightly constrained by time and technology – the short introduction showed the hero and his girlfriend enjoying some leisure and possibly romantic time together out in a field. Then the demon shows up and abducts the girl. The player is immediately invested – our knight wants his girlfriend back to resume the romantic outing! (Hopefully they'll plan it somewhere other than besides a graveyard next time!)

Unreal Tournament 2004 shows an intro movie introducing the player to his highly-competent opponents that he will be facing in the upcoming tournament.

The original Unreal simply dropped the player into the 3D environment and let the story unfold during gameplay. In the right type of game, this is perhaps the most compelling sort of introduction.


Make The Controls Easy To Learn

The player should feel competent and comfortable playing the game in a very short time, even though mastery may be a long way off. If after the first few minutes the average player is still having trouble with basic controls, he will probably quit in frustration.

One trick to doing this is to present the player with the most basic and simple controls early on, and introducing more advanced controls later during the game. Learning the controls may be part of the game itself.

Another trick, if the game style allows it, is to make sure every input is valid in all (or almost all) situations.

A third trick is to appeal to the player’s knowledge of previous games. This can have a downside of alienating new gamers, but appeals to more experienced gamers who would like to take their advanced skills to new challenges.


Fighting games, such as Street Fighter II and Soul Caliber, were an extremely popular genre in the 1990’s, partly because they were ludicrously simple to play. A player could simply pound randomly on the controls and stand a good chance of winning the first level. Every input seemed valid, and translated to the on-screen avatar looking like they were making serious, useful moves. This gave the player a feeling of competence right from the start. Of course, more advanced players began to understand the critical aspects of timing, combos, and special moves.

Many first-person shooters simply adopt similar control schemes to their predecessors, such as Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. Experienced FPS players can jump in and enjoy F.E.A.R., Half-Life 2, or Unreal Tournament 2004 with very little time spent studying controls.

Ricochet: Lost Worlds has an extremely simple control scheme, and introduce new or variant controls (such as power-ups that give the left-mouse-button an action unique to the power-up) during the course of the introductory levels.


Show Off The Best Parts of the Game In The First Level

The first level (or wherever the player is likely to play during the first few minutes of gameplay) should showcase many of the game’s best and most “sellable” elements. This leaves the player with a good first impression, and of course the expectation that since the best is always saved for last, he’s got even better things in store for him if he continues to play the game.

Obviously, the first level shouldn’t contain everything – you do need to hold some rewards back to be doled out during the course of the game. But as with everything else in life, good first impressions are critical.


Unreal made tremendous waves with its initial level, which drew the player into the shoes of a prisoner aboard a crashed prison-ship. The player was exposed to some superior graphics effects for the day (including the full range of particle effects, reflections, volumetric fog, water effects, and obligatory light blooms), as well as some cool very cool dramatic scene (such as a half-seen slaughter beneath a broken door).

Super Mario Brothers had several power-ups, secrets, and even entrances to secret areas in the very first level. This set the expectation for the entire game to be full of fun stuff to do – and it did not disappoint on this promise.


Common Pitfalls

Even though almost every commercial game developer is aware of this rule and ways to implement it, there are still classic mistakes that get made over and over again. They are sometimes hard to avoid, due to the nature of the game. Highly innovative games suffer the most, because it is doubly hard to get the player invested in an untraditional concept and unusual controls.

Tutorial Levels

Tutorial levels are levels designed strictly to teach the player how to play the game. If they are optional, players may skip then, and subsequently become confused about how to play. And if they aren’t skipped, they often don’t show off the best parts of the game first. And if not optional, they may be boring or frustrating to advanced players. Either way, the first few minutes of gameplay are spent in training – which is not the exciting adventure the player was probably expecting.

Creating the First Level First

Often, development schedules proceed in the same order as the game will be played. I’ve seen many early milestones that demand a “playable first level.”

The problem is that for most games, the development process is a learning process for the team. This means the first playable level developed by the team is often the worst level of the game! Later, after they’ve gotten more comfortable with the game and the tools and ‘learned their chops’ a bit more, the dev team tends to produce much higher-quality content that better showcases the best features of the game.

The obvious way to avoid this pitfall is to save the development of content for the first level until later in the development process. Or plan on throwing away the original level and starting over later.

Requiring the Player to RTFM

You don’t want the player’s first few minutes with the game to be spent with his nose in the manual – so don’t require it. This isn’t a big problem with most games anymore (particularly as publishers are loath to even include an expensive manual with their games). The player should be able to learn all they need to learn about the game without reading the manual – it should be purely supplemental.

Realistic flight simulators are notorious about this – and the complexity of the simulation is such that it’s hard to avoid this and the tutorial problems. There’s no simple solution – which may be part of the reasons ‘hard core’ flight sims have waned so much in popularity over the last several years.

Ugly Set-Up or Installation

Installing or setting up the game is part of the first few minutes as well. Requiring a lot of effort on the part of the player to even get his game running can really ruin the first few minutes spent actually playing the game. Poor QA can also hurt this, if the player finds it impossible to get the game to even run on his hardware configuration.

Poor or Confusing Front-End

Bewildering the player with the front-end will also spoil his first few minutes of play. The option to just get started and start enjoying the game should be the first option in the main menu, and the main menu should have as few options as possible. While it is tempting to come up with inventive terms that maintain the immersion of the game world and use THOSE titles for menu items, it’s hard to beat “Start Game” or “Load Game” for keeping things user-friendly.

Burying options too deep can be just as bad. If the player has to dig through four layers of menus just to find where to set the music volume, he’s likely to get confused and annoyed.



While emphasizing the “First Few Minutes” of gameplay is a simple and basic concept in game design, it is criticial and not always easy to do. Indie games, in particular, may have a tough time with their small budgets, small download size, and appeal to non-hardcore audiences.  They can’t afford the cost or download size of big intro movies, or spectacular special effects. They can’t rely on players being very familiar with similar games. However, it can be done. Check out Outpost Kaloki for an example of this.

Just always remember to keep it pretty, simple, and fun from the get-go.

Jay Barnson
Rampant Games

Love Games? Want to try something different?
Try the best, award-winning independent games from Rampant Games!



Copyright © 2005-2006 Rampant Games | Privacy Policy