Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Want Players to Finish the Game? Let Them Quit!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 3, 2012

There are a lot of important features to an RPG that make the experience really stand out for me. But these days, with my “grown up” schedule, the two most important features for any video game (not just RPG, but I’m focusing on RPGs here) are the following:

1. Make it easy for me to play a short session (~20 minutes. Or less).

2. Make it easy for me to get back to the game after taking a (possibly extended) break.

In other words, make it painless to quit and encouraging to come back to later.

I’m not saying I’ll only play an RPG for 20 minutes at a time – but I have problems starting a game these days that I think I’ll have to commit more time than that in order to get anything out of the play session. Once I get going, sure, I may end up playing for a whole hour or two, but that’s inertia. And taking a hiatus from a game is nothing new to me. I tend to play a lot of games, and even as a kid, I’d often take a break from some of my favorite RPGs to play with something new and shiny, only to come back after a few days / weeks / months and finish the game.

And that’s what it’s really about. I keep hearing game company CEOs talking about how players rarely finish the games, and they really only play for something like 8-15 hours, so why not make 8-15 hour games? The truth is that a lot of gamers – especially RPG fans – love the big ol’ marathon games, too, but we can’t play them like a marathon (anymore) to the exclusion of all other games.  But I, for one, am happy to play a larger game in shorter segments over the course of weeks or months, maybe coming back to it after a long break or two. I want games that fit my life, not the other way around, but I do not think that should relegate me to some casual-gaming ghetto.

I don’t think I’m completely alone in this. Assuming people with similar adult-life schedules represent enough of an audience to worry about, here are some features of RPGs that meet the above demands well enough that I’m likely to play a game to completion:

* Save anywhere. Or save automatically on exit. This is historically why I haven’t been much of a console gamer… when I have to quit, they won’t let me quit without penalizing me.

* Short quests, or quests that have short stages that can be completed in a few minutes.

* I love deep, tactical, turn-based combat, but either allow me to save in mid-combat (best), or keep the fights relatively quick (<5 minutes).

* Keep a nice log of quests and story information so I can remember where I was and what I was doing when I come back to the game after a hiatus of a few days (or a few weeks).

* Being able to review past interactions / dialogs / story expositions can be extremely handy! While the latter isn’t too uncommon in many games, the ability to find information easily through good indexing or navigation is a little more rare.

* A quick summary of the story up to that point would really help – maybe showing a summary of the currently “active” quest when you first load the game.

* This one is going to take some explanation: Don’t unduly penalize me for forgetting how the controls work.  I play a *lot* of games: I treat my gaming library as a giant arcade sometimes, where I just kinda “graze” a bunch of games. One of my problems with action-RPGs – except the very simple ones (Diablo-style) is that they demand control skills that may have gotten rusty during a hiatus, or confused with control schemes of other games I’ve played in the interim. It’s very frustrating to jump back into a game after a three-week hiatus and find myself hitting a wall because I’ve lost my button-combo-mashing edge.  And yes, this is one of my primary issues with the “consolization” of modern RPGs. And while I am not unhappy with the trend towards purely auto-saving, the old school approach of restoring from multiple saved games does help you “take a mulligan” after your first combat or two after a hiatus, when you are remembering how to play and likely to make some serious mistakes.

* Allow grinding. I’m not a big fan of games that require a lot of grinding (all filler, no meat). But if a 15-minute excursion into a moderately challenging zone can serve to get me a level or two and some new equipment, then I always have “something to do” for a quick fix.

* Display the time stamp information on the load game screen so I can see which save game was really the latest.

* Don’t depend exclusively on cut-scenes (especially non-repeatable ones) for exposition and goals.

* Automaps: Automaps that only show areas where you have already been are not only more “realistic”, but they provide an intermittent player with useful information about where they still need to explore.

* Likewise, leaving visual game-state cues about what has transpired (opened chests and doors, and yes… dead bodies and blood splats) not only helps the player remember exactly what had transpired in his last game session, but makes the game world feel more interactive.

* Provide hints and reminders to get a player ‘on track,’ especially if they happen to be short of quests at the moment and may not remember where they should go to regain the thread of the adventure.

Granted, this is mainly a laundry list of features that aren’t uncommon these days. There are probably a lot of great ideas I haven’t thought of yet.  I’d urge CRPG designers to think of their games more like a TV series and less like a long movie; as something that must always beckon the player to keep “coming back to it” rather than staying in their seat.  Chances are that more players may actually enjoy the experience all the way to the end that way.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 12 Comments to Read

  • BryanB said,

    Excellent ideas, couldn’t agree more!

  • Ayrik said,

    This is exactly what I’ve been trying to tell people at work when we talk about games on the phone. I like to play for about 5 minutes or less at a time on my phone, but that doesn’t mean I want these games that have small play times. It would be really refreshing to play a “marathon” length game on my phone, in fact, I am making one right now :).

    Very good points Jay, and I’ll probably bookmark this for future reference.

  • BelgarathTAO said,

    Excellent points! I hear of people that have finished games like Skyrim the week after they come out, and I wonder if there is anyone else that plays games as I do. I can spend a year playing a single game, but playing many games all at the same time, depending on my mood and how much time I have available to play. But on the flip side, I do have a friend that will play one game exclusively until he has completed it. Sometimes I wish I had that level of dedication.

    Dragon Quest 8 did a good job of providing a quick recap every time you load up a save game, and it made me wish more games would do that, especially when it has sometimes been several weeks or even months since I have played.

    Belgarath the Ancient One

  • Jackson said,

    “Don’t depend exclusively on cut-scenes (especially non-repeatable ones) for exposition and goals.”

    I think this is a big one for all games. Especially for games like Prototype, Infamous and Darksiders where I could care less about the story, but would still like some context for my actions.

    A short, in-game line like “We have to kill him or else he’ll blow up the dam!” Tells me what I have to do, and why, whereas a long drawn out cutscene can leave me confused. They aren’t mutually exclusive of course, and I think having both is the key to all the great dramatic vg moments, but if I had to choose between one or the other I’d go with the short and to-the-point.

  • MalcolmM said,

    I agree with all your points. I use to like 50 or even 100 hour rpgs. Now when I read that a game takes over 50 hours to complete, I am less like to buy it.
    I just finished Legend of Grimrock, which was about the right length for me, maybe 20 hours. I could save anywhere I wanted, and getting back into the game after not playing for a week or more was easy.
    I’ve now started Space Pirates and Zombies. Although you have to return to your home base to save, combat is typically at most five minutes, so little time is lost if you have to reload a saved game due to getting wiped out in combat. Preventing saves in combat makes battles more interesting, so a nice balance is achieved.
    Having a log of all active quests in rpgs is crucial to me. I’ve given up on a lot of games when I leave them for a few weeks, and when I start playing again, I have no idea where I left off.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, I’m generally not one to advocate saving in mid-combat, unless the combats are exceptionally long (>5 minutes). The kind I was thinking about were games like the Gold Box series, Wizardry 8, or some of those really nasty JRPG boss-battles that pad things out with slow, repetitive animations…

  • Barry B said,

    “Allow grinding. I’m not a big fan of games that require a lot of grinding (all filler, no meat). But if a 15-minute excursion into a moderately challenging zone can serve to get me a level or two and some new equipment, then I always have “something to do” for a quick fix.”

    This ties neatly into a pet peeve of mine: namely, game developers (and players) that want everyone to approach each challenge in a game at the same level. I might want to train up a given skill, but no: that’s cheating, somehow. No grinding, no going into areas where you could grind; no trainers, no ways to earn money so you can afford trainers. If you pump up your party, it somehow means you’re not getting full value out of the game–which is one of the stranger ideas I’ve heard in this mad business.

  • Alan said,

    Zeboyd’s _Breath of Death VII_ suffers mightily from this. Coming back to it after a couple months, my character is in the middle of a wasteland labyrinth and I have no idea which way I was supposed to be going. No world map, no quest log, no hope of getting the game back on track.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, for once I think mainstream games are probably handling these things better than the indies. I know my own game isn’t (and future games won’t be) perfect in this respect either. I look at it more as suggestions and goals rather than a laundry list of features. Just something else creators should be mindful of when developing their games.

  • Rene Damm said,

    Very good points! Finding myself in quite the same spot.

    I have a separate category in Steam (it’s name includes expletives so I better not print it here) for games that so much go against the points established here, that I refuse to continue playing them.

  • Xenovore said,

    Excellent points!

    Quote: “Allow grinding.” I would say this really is just “Allow — actually, facilitate — the player to play the way he wants when he wants.” (That covers a lot of the other points too.) If you the designer ever find yourself forcing the player to play a certain way, re-examine your design — it can likely be improved.

  • Colter Cookson said,

    For me, it’s important for games to support Windowed mode or at least Alt+Tab. That lets me periodically check the clock, which makes me more comfortable playing when I’ve got limited time. It also means I can play while listening to Pandora or chatting sporadically with friends on Gmail.

    Being able to pause at any time is also helpful. I’ve missed a few cutscenes, including one that only shows after a difficult battle at the end of Baldur’s Gate II, because people wanted to talk while I was playing.