Few Minutes" Rule of Game Design
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
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
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.
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
“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.
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.
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
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
Make The Controls Easy To Learn
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.
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.
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
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
Show Off The Best Parts of the Game In
The First Level
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
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
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 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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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