Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 19, 2012
I’m not going to name names, but there’s a particular indie game I picked up last week that I was pretty excited about. It was a huge game, so I ended up having to download it overnight. But it looked cool and sounded fun. I was excited to try it out. Unfortunately, the day I was going to try it out, things were a little busy. But I found myself with a small block of time and eagerly prepared to try it out.
I installed it. That took a while. All of this Microsoft run-time component crap that needs to get updated on the back-end. Okay, this is a modern suckage that I’ve learned to put up with. No big problem, it’s common enough that I don’t fret much over these things. Installation is always a problem. But since things had to be downloaded or whatnot, this took several minutes.
The problem is that after the installation is done, I only have a few minutes to play. I’ve got places to go. It’s part of being an adult gamer. But hey, fifteen minutes should be plenty of time to check out an indie game, right?
I sit through the company logos as the game starts. Ugh. Yeah, again – as an indie, sometimes beggers can’t be choosers, and the price of a cheap license for various engines and libraries (graphics, physics, sound, etc.) is often displaying their logos. They have to advertise somehow, I guess. Still, no biggie, but it takes me a little while to get to the main menu, which isn’t exactly bounding with alacrity either. But, finally, I’m at the menu. I figure out how to start a new game. And away we go…
Almost. I actually watch the introductory cut-scene. After all, I want to know what this game is about. It’s got a comic-book style intro, and it takes a few minutes to watch all the way through. I’m fine watching these once. But now I’m about four or five minutes into the game and I still haven’t actually played the game or truly seen what it is about yet.
But now, finally, the game begins. It’s the tutorial level. There is lots of explanation. I don’t know if it’s possible to skip or speed through these tutorials, because I am actually trying to pay attention so I can learn how to play and enjoy the game. But the clock is ticking. Another five minutes pass. I’m supposed to be out the door Real Soon Now in the real world.
I experience some action sequences! And a little bit of freedom to explore between tutorial sections! Woot! This is a lot cooler. I take some time to explore and experiment. Some experiments don’t end too well, and I take damage. But the graphics are pretty, and the gameplay seems decent from what I can see. I run into some more tutorial sections. And I spend some more time exploring and experimenting.
Now I’ve had ten minutes to play around in the first level of the game, because I’m not rushing it. Games should be explored and experimented with, right? I don’t know how many more tutorial sections I’m facing, now, but I don’t seem to be near the end of the level. But it’s time to go. I have to be somewhere at seven o’clock. I bring up the mid-game menu and…
There’s no save button. There’s a “quit” button which warns me that I’ll lose all unsaved progress. But as far as I can tell, no way to save my current progress.
My wife calls down. “It’s time to go,” she reminds me. As if I wasn’t already acutely aware of the time issue.
I return to the game, and cast about frantically for something that looks like it might be a “save game” marker of some kind. Instead, I get another tutorial section that pops up. DAMN IT! I don’t want to skip it, as I don’t know what information I might be losing if I *do* manage to find some way to save my progress. Another thirty seconds of me frantically scanning text, trying to commit it to memory, and then I have to hit the pause menu again because the Bad Guys are attacking again and I don’t have time to fend them off.
Nope, still no option to save.
I accept the penalty – my unsaved progress will be lost, which means I have to start over again from the very beginning. And I leave.
Now, logically, I understand that the next time I play, I won’t have to go through the entire installation / update process, that the logos weren’t really that long to sit through, that I can hopefully skip through the intro cut-scene, and that I can probably move through the tutorials a lot faster the second time through. And that I won’t need to devote quite so much time to experimenting and exploring the first level unless I really want to. So I probably only have to suffer through two or three minutes of repetition.
But emotionally, what I feel is: The whole fifteen minutes (twenty, including installation) I spent playing this game was utterly wasted, and I have to start all over again from scratch.
I probably will. Eventually. But all this weekend I had opportunities to pick up the game again and start over, and I didn’t. I felt zero desire to play, in spite of how cool and pretty it was. I never really got to the point where I felt I was really playing instead of being led through a training course. I never quite got to the point where I was having fun. I was teased with excitement, but now have to return to the “back of the line” to repeat the obligatory training before it will let me have fun. Oh, and I now know that I cannot just play the game whenever I find myself with five extra minutes and a hankering with fun. No, this game will require an investment of time… maybe longer than fifteen minutes!… should I have the desire to play again, as I may not be able to exit whenever I want without losing all my progress.
Hmmmm… no, not feeling much love right now.
There are several things wrong with this scenario, and some of them aren’t really easily fixed. But I’ll focus on three that are common, preventable problems:
#1 – Save anywhere. Good grief, developers – this isn’t the Nintendo era when manufacturers had to use endless level-repetition to stretch out a two-hour game into something that seemed remotely worth the cartridge price tag. I don’t even necessarily mean literally ‘save anywhere’ – just make saving the game convenient, rather than a test of how macho your players are. I have up macho when I had children.
#2 – Don’t require huge tutorials from the get-go. Yes, I know, glass houses and all that. But here’s the trick: Try to make your game fun before the player has learned everything he needs to know to play your game. There are entire games where the mechanics consist exclusively of hitting a single button. Then layer additional abilities (and / or explanations) on top of that. Your goal is to have the player make progress and start having fun as quickly as possible. Going step-by step through a lengthy tutorial level isn’t that.
#3 – Reward exploration and experimentation. This game didn’t directly penalize it (though I did hurt myself as much as I helped myself doing so), but the lack of a saved game certainly counted it against me under the circumstances.
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