Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

How To Ruin the First Fifteen Minutes of Your Game…

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.

 

 


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 25 Comments to Read



  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    The unskippable logos are a major sin that has been annoying me more and more lately as more developers use off-the-shelf middleware and engines. Like you, I understand the need to give these companies credit, but some of the big games are getting INSANE now with this. Every company think they deserve their 15-20 second song and dance logo showing EVERY TIME THE GAME STARTS.

    I have had games that had 10-12 unskippable logos in a row every time I want to play the game. Speedtree needs credit, and Nvidia or ATI, Havok Engine, Unreal Engine, publisher, subsidiary of publisher, developer on east coast, developer on west coast, studio, the middleware for sound, etc. etc.

    WHY?! Credit where credit is due, but I don’t want to sit through 2-3 minutes of unskippable video before even getting to the menu! And I resent ANY time control of my PC is hijacked from me. PCs aren’t consoles – making key strokes unresponsive for any amount of time is a grave sin.

    I usually watch all these things ONCE, and then I rename the video files in the installation folder. Then the game just skips right to the menu. Why not make the player watch these the first time, then make it so they can be skipped every time after? These aren’t click-thru ads! You already have the player’s money. It doesn’t matter if they see your logo each time they play the game. If your game is truly good or truly bad, trust me, the player will remember who you are.

    And I’ve become a huge fan of having a separate menu option for tutorials. Maybe even a question when you start a new game – “Do you want to play the Tutorial first?” So new players can learn by example if they choose, and old players don’t have to pull their hair out waiting to get to the action on a replay.

    The first 15 minutes of a game is like the first 10 minutes of a movie, or the first page of a book. This is where some of your BEST stuff should be on display. Where you hook the player into continuing the game. Game developers need to follow some literary advice – “start with the action in progress”.

    A lot of RPGs start with the player doing boring things, or strolling around their idyllic village. I still remember the opening to the first Breath of Fire game, decades later now. You pressed start and you where in your room, with the house on fire, and people screaming for you to escape! The game dropped you straight into the event everyone knows is coming – the destruction of your home village. You watch monsters and enemies you won’t see again until the end game killing villagers and fighting the big baddy that destroys you effortlessly. Only later, when the player is hooked does the game slow down and show the hero’s past village life in a flashback.

    And you should be able to save anywhere. I don’t game for masochism, I game to RELAX. Like Ernest Adams said – not being able to save anywhere and any time is a Twinkie Denial Condition.

  • slenkar said,

    not being able to save anywhere is disrespectful of the players time

  • Tim said,

    How to really ruin the 1st 15 minutes of any game. Only have 15 minutes to play.

    Not being able to save in the middle of the 1st tutorial level makes sense. If you don’t even have time to make it through the 1st level, because you are in such a rush, you probably aren’t going to remember how to play when you come back and will need the tutorial again.

    Tutorials can be a pain, but until we live in the Matrix and can instantly download all info to our minds, they are necessary. But they should definitely be broken up into small pieces only introducing 1 or 2 game elements at a time.

    Yes, cut scenes should always be skipable, this sounds like it was the only flaw in the game.

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    “How to really ruin the 1st 15 minutes of any game. Only have 15 minutes to play.”

    There are plenty of games where fifteen minutes is enough to dip a toe in and see what the game is about. There are plenty of other games where it isn’t.

    Part of the issue is managing player expectations so that you *understand* whether or not it’s a good idea to boot it up with only fifteen minutes available.

  • Tim Hargreaves said,

    @Tim For a perspective on why tutorials aren’t always necessary when given proper design, check this video out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FpigqfcvlM

  • Red said,

    “And I’ve become a huge fan of having a separate menu option for tutorials. Maybe even a question when you start a new game – “Do you want to play the Tutorial first?”

    Um.. who is going to say yes to that question? The majority of gamers are going to say no, end up playing the game anyway and when they can’t figure it out, they are going to just bitch about how awful the game is.

  • Tim said,

    @Tim, I’m very familiar with that video, but you have to admit, some games are more complex than “shoot the bad guy”.

  • Phillip said,

    I have to disagree. Saving does not always need to be a menu option. Saving can be a mechanic. Yes, it makes the game more ‘hardcore’, and you might have to lose some time if you really have to leave early. I guess we disagree because you ‘game to RELAX’, and I game to be immersed and / or challenged. But I do sympathize with the feeling of tedium keeping me from coming back. Still, if you only got through the tutorial level, I think you should give it another chance.

  • BvG said,

    I know you’re ranting about the general evilness of all game developers, but your problem does have a home brew workaround:

    Pause the game
    Leave computer on
    Do important other stuff
    Come back to computer
    Unpause the game

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    It’s not like I take it personally. :) I’m just pointing out that a game only has one chance to make a first impression, and while logically I totally understand that I need to give the game another shot and that I’ll probably have a great time playing it, my enthusiasm has waned considerably. The first impression is blown.

    My reason for posting is for the sake of game developers – learn from the mistakes of others. If you aren’t allowing “save anywhere,” think long and hard about why you aren’t. There may have been technical reasons for this, but I suspect it was done just to “make the game harder” and stretch things out. There’s a substantial segment of the market for whom that will only piss ‘em off.

  • Noble Kale said,

    Unskippable intros are a HUGE pain. I immediately recall the Dawn of War series, with the ‘YOU MUST WATCH IT THE FIRST TIME’ 6 minute intro, for each expansion. Worst, was that if the game crashed when loading the first time? Watch it all over again….

  • EHamilton said,

    I’ve always been annoyed by “save anywhere”, since I feel like turning saves off helps to impress upon players that they’re in a dangerous part of the game world and they can’t simply reload their way past obstacles. Many games I’ve played that I’ve enjoyed have been games with limited saving. This seems particularly important in games with a high level of randomness (i.e., most RPGs). At the very least, I’d like to see some diversity in save mechanics, where at least some developers are still free to make games with limited saving as an important design element, to serve the portions of the market that are interested in it.

    That being said, I think that Jay has more credibility in his critique due to the serious investment he made in providing incentives not to abuse save scumming in his own game. And I definitely agree with the annoyance of overlong tutorials, and the idea that the early portion of the game shouldn’t create obstacles to play.

    No saves in the Lair of Ultimate Doom: Reasonable.
    No saves in the Newbie Playground: Not reasonable.

  • Xenovore said,

    I take it personally. =P

    There is absolutely no good reason for not allowing a player to save anywhere, anytime. Games should be playable in any time increments that are convenient to player: 15 minutes, 5 minutes, 1 minute, it doesn’t matter.

    As mentioned above, wasting the player’s time is disrespectful and really just down-right lame; that includes:

    * Unskippable middle-ware credits. We really don’t care if you used Havoc or are pals with nVidia, especially when we just want to play the game! Show that junk in the (completely separate and optional) credits screen.

    * Unskippable tutorials. Yes, we need to know how to play, but a good design teachs the player as he plays, not with some tacked-on, slow-assed handholder. Back in the day, we managed to figure out how to play games without tutorials; don’t assume people have become idiots these days. (Or maybe they have…?!)

    * Unskippable cut-scenes. Cut-scenes should always be skippable, even if they provide important keypoints to the story. Maybe this is a second play-through and the player already knows what the fudge is going on!

    * Inability to save anywhere/anytime. Save checkpoints should be used as a convenience mechanism, i.e. auto-saves. If the designer is just using limited saves to make the game harder, said designer is a lame bastage. That’s what difficulty levels — selectable from a menu — are for! (@EHamilton: If a player wants to “save-scum” that should be his prerogative! if you hate “save-scumming”, then don’t do it! Also, if a game’s design makes the player feel like he needs to save every 30 seconds, the game’s design is fundamentally broken anyway.)

  • EHamilton7019 said,

    The problem with save-scumming is that once it exists, designers balance the game around it. Then either you have to do it too, or you’re playing a harder game than the designer’s intention.

    Lots of difficulty options can bypass this problem, but indie devs often skimp on these.

    Again, I’m not saying you don’t have a right to your preferences, just that I hate when it becomes a crusade to drive every other type of game out of existence. Some people like different things than you do. The gaming world is big enough for them too.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yup, and I didn’t want to wax too vitriolic on this one. I just wanted to explain why the game left me with a bad first impression. It’s subjective, I know, but I think illustrates some issues that game devs (especially indies) should consider when they are making their games.

    As to the middleware credits — I would love all of these to be skippable (or missing entirely), but I know from first-hand experience that this may be mandated by contractual obligation. If it is, maybe gamers should complain to the middleware vendors themselves! (I do not know if these credits were unskippable in this game… I haven’t gone back to check yet).

  • Troy said,

    @Xenovore: Out of curiosity are you a gamedev yourself? Because lots of what you are saying seems like self righteous, impatient gamer bullshit.

    “There is absolutely no good reason for not allowing a player to save anywhere, anytime. Games should be playable in any time increments that are convenient to player: 15 minutes, 5 minutes, 1 minute, it doesn’t matter.”

    This is just ridiculous. There are games where you can make no conceivable progress in 15 minutes let alone 1 minute. Maybe if you played something other than bejelewed on your iPhone you would realize that.

    ” Unskippable middle-ware credits”

    You might not care, but you know who does? Havoc and nVidia. These companies demand these types of titles for using their tech. What would you have us do? Write all our own engines? In this case no indie developer could survive. This is a very naive comment and again reeks of impatience. Seriously. it’s 10-20 seconds. Who gives a shit. Go get a drink or something while they play if you feel don’t want to waste your precious time.

    “* Unskippable tutorials”

    This part I can maybe agree with you. For a large number of titles I think you can get away with clever design to help implement your tutorials without breaking immersion. The unskippable will depends a lot on the game though and I think blanket statements are not your friend here.

    “* Unskippable cut-scene”

    This I can understand from a gamer’s perspective and from a gamedev’s perspective. As a gamedev you don’t want people to be skipping past all of your hard work and effort, but I think player frustration from second play throughs probably trumps this.

    “* Inability to save anywhere/anytime”

    I have to disagree with several points here. I think limited saves or “save scumming” suits many games. I think it shines in survival horror games especially. If you can save whenever you want then that removes a large portion of what makes the survival horror genre.

    This point also doesn’t take into account the technical side of saving either. Do you wan the player to be able to save in the middle of a with 10 enemies around them shooting at them? If so, what do you save? Do you save the exact state of every enemy and the player? if you are doing such a fine grained level of saving then you would have to save out every object in the entire level. This could end up taking longer than the 10-20 seconds you were complaining about having to sit through middle ware credits. And on some platforms this is totally not viable (think handheld, very limited memory devices).

    The other issue with this scenario is what if the player saves in the middle of this fire fight and then stops playing for a while. When they come back to it they load and suddenly they are dead, because there’s 10 guys shooting them. Talk about frustrating? Also what happens if the player save just as they are about to die? They die, the reload and then die straight away again? Congratulations they just lost their save file.

    Saving at specific points in a level can accomplish many things. For starters they address the problems I raised above. Secondly it can help pace the game, or at the very least it can tie into the pacing (saving in down time periods).

    “Again, I’m not saying you don’t have a right to your preferences, just that I hate when it becomes a crusade to drive every other type of game out of existence. Some people like different things than you do. The gaming world is big enough for them too”

    This is the most valid point I have read in this string of comments. Don’t try and push what you think is right on to everyone else.

    Frankly I’m tired of blanket statements on game development made by people who have probably never worked in the industry. There is not one solution. What you want is not what everyone wants.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Options! Games should have more options.

    For example, I’m currently replaying Jagged Alliance 2 (with 1.13 mod) yet again, and that has an “iron man” mode, which prevents you saving during combat (to reduce save scumming). This is a reasonable alternative that allows for different play styles.

    The crown has to go to the original System Shock though, which had four difficulty sliders, allowing you to make the game challenging for you in whichever ways you wanted (or easy if you’d prefer it to be more of an adventure game).

  • Greg Squire said,

    I totally agree with #1, “being able to save anywhere”, because life just happens. I don’t how many times I’ve been frustrated about this, both as a player and as a parent of kids trying to get them off the game and into bed. I’ve heard “I’m not to a save point yet, Dad” more times than I can count. All that grief could have been avoided if the developer had just allowed saving anywhere.

  • Xenovore said,

    I like to mix grape Koolaid with my vitriol. Mmm-mmm good! =P

    @EHamilton:
    Quote: “The problem with save-scumming is that once it exists, designers balance the game around it. Then either you have to do it too, or you’re playing a harder game than the designer’s intention.”

    The blame lies squarely on the designers there; they should not ever be artificially increasing a game’s difficulty just because someone might save too often! That makes absolutely no sense! Also, I don’t think there are any players out there that “save-scum” just for kicks; it’s not actually that fun. They do it because they feel like they will lose progress otherwise, i.e. they don’t want their time to be wasted. The alternative, with limited save points, is that the player will become frustrated, stop having fun, and likely give up on the game altogether. Yeah, that’s a good idea: Let’s deliberately design the game to ruin the player’s experience. *face palm*

    Quote: “Again, I’m not saying you don’t have a right to your preferences, just that I hate when it becomes a crusade to drive every other type of game out of existence. Some people like different things than you do. The gaming world is big enough for them too.”

    I agree with the sentiment, but… You’re saying that being able to save any time that I want is ruining your fun? And it’s somehow destroying entire game genres?! What a load. As I said before, if you don’t like to save, then don’t save! But don’t expect to limit me from saving whenever I want to!

    @Andy_Panthro:
    Quote: “The crown has to go to the original System Shock though, which had four difficulty sliders, allowing you to make the game challenging for you in whichever ways you wanted (or easy if you’d prefer it to be more of an adventure game).”

    You nailed it: The player should have the major control over the difficulty, not the designer.

    More to the point though: The player should always have full control over when and how he plays a game.

    @Greg: Exactly.

  • Troy said,

    @Xenovore:

    “They do it because they feel like they will lose progress otherwise”

    If we are talking about crafting an experience, then not letting players save any time they want can enhance certain types of experiences. I mentioned the survival horror genre earlier and that stands as a good example. We want the player to be cautious and worried about what is going to happen next rather than rushing head first into each new situation blindly. Limited saves helps create this experience.

    If you want to remove frustration from games should we also remove dying? That too makes a player lose progress right? So why waste their time by making them die? If there is no risk of failure, then there is no sense of accomplishment. If I can save during a boss fight or other such scenarios it cheapens the experience, because there is no real way you can lose out.

    “Yeah, that’s a good idea: Let’s deliberately design the game to ruin the player’s experience.”

    If you really believe this then you are an idiot. If not please leave your hyperbole outside, it’s not helping anyone.

    As to your point “if you don’t like to save, then don’t save”, if the ability to save whenever you want is present then it has already ruined the experience we have crafted in such a scenario outlined above, whether the player uses it or not. And if the comment about destroying entire genre’s is aimed at my comment, please don’t put words in my mouth, I said nothing of the sort. What I said is it that it enhances the experience.

    “You nailed it: The player should have the major control over the difficulty, not the designer.”

    Really? For each of those sliders that help you control aspects of the difficulty, how many variables are uncontrollable by the player that the designers have tweaked for hours and hours?

    “The player should always have full control over when and how he plays a game”

    Constraints are parts of games. Even as soon as a genre has been chosen constraints are laid on the game. You also can’t let everyone play a game how they want. It’s just not feasible. This is especially so when you are trying to craft very specific experiences. If you don’t like the experience we are trying to give you, don’t play the game. We can’t please everyone and I don’t think we should be trying to.

  • Bad Sector said,

    About save/not-save… a nice option is something like done with Torchlight (and is probably an older idea, but Torchlight is the game that I noticed it most).

    In that game you can save anytime and everywhere. But saves are character based – that is, if you screw up you have to live with that screw up. Saves only continue from the last one – in other words, there is just once save.

    So an option might be to make a single save per game (but be able to have multiple games) and always continue from the last save.

    This solves the problem of abusing the save system in a way that nullifies the game’s difficulty without forcing the players re-play big sections when they want to go away, close the computer, play something else or do some work.

    And since some players like to have saves with their progress, this can be combined with a checkpoint system: have both this “anywhere-but-you-exit” save (like in Torchlight) and a checkpoint/autosave system in designer-placed points (like in Final Fantasy games where you can save anytime but in specific places).

    Of course the whole thing depends on the kind of game you are making. Torchlight’s method for example works fine with Torchlight but I would hate it in an oldschool action FPS. But for a RPG, a horror game and possibly an adventure game I think it is fine. Again, this is in broad terms – this has to be tested per game in practice: some FPS games might work fine (or even better, given the extra caution that the loss of the ability to skip challenging parts provides) – while it is possible in the game, I never used the manual save in Half-Life 2 Episode 2 too since the autosaves were almost perfect. Some RPGs may work better with saving anywhere. Etc.

    Assuming of course the save system isn’t there to hide or work around design issues with the game (such as having traps that you can only know *after* you have fallen victim to them).

  • Xenovore said,

    @Troy: One word, “straw man”. Look it up.

  • Xenovore said,

    @Bad Sector:

    Quote: “I never used the manual save in Half-Life 2 Episode 2 too since the autosaves were almost perfect”

    I felt the same way playing Half-Life 2: for the most part, I saved out of convenience, not because I felt compelled to. This is a great example of how saves should be implemented; the quick-saves are available, but the game is designed well-enough that the player isn’t coerced into using them.

  • Troy said,

    @Xenovore: “One word, “straw man””

    …that’s two words

    Also I’m not trying to straw man. If I’m misinterpreting anything, it’s not intentional. Please correct me, rather than just accusing me of doing something I’m not.

  • mk2net said,

    @Troy: Your condescending tone indicates you’re not here for a conversation, but to troll. Do it elsewhere.

    @Xenovore: I completely agree with the “save anywhere” points. Having, as functional adults do, responsibilities means that we are not always in control of our time. Just like Rampant having to get out the door in fifteen minutes, we can often find ourselves in similar situations where we can’t keep playing. At that point, it’s wonderful to be able to keep from having wasted time by being able to save. Of course, for some, that may be the crowd they are trying to please. Some designers aim for the power-gaming, exploit every loophole crowd. If that’s the audience they have in mind, that’s fine too, they just won’t get my money.

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