Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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RPG Design: Four Guidelines for Making An (RPG) Introduction

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 22, 2013

Maybe I should blame Star Wars.

I mean, perhaps the biggest hit movie of its time, and it opens with… text. A big wall of text. Literally, a crawl text. I mean, what is this, a silent film?  Well, not exactly… but George Lucas borrowed it directly from the old film serials of his youth, like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. In those serials, there was a little ‘wall of text’ at the beginning of each episode summing up the events of the previous episodes, so that first-time viewers (or those who missed a few episodes) could get caught up to speed. Later, television serials wised up and showed ‘previously on’ summaries that using actual show footage to tell an abbreviated version of the story. But back in the old days of the film serials, you’d get stuff like this:

“A mysterious world that came hurtling from the skies, threatening to destroy the earth, forced Flash Gordon and Dale Arden into a rocket plane with Doctor Zarkov, in a mad attempt to reach the planet and divert it from its course. Hurled through boundless space, they land on the onrushing planet and fall into the clutches of the merciless Emperor Ming, who promptly imprisons Zarkov in his laboratory and then, determined to win the beautiful Dale as his bride, condemns Flash to fight huge ape-like man killers in the arena.”

And that was it. Two (large) sentences, and new viewers were brought up to speed with all the backstory they needed to know. It was minimal, but then again the stories weren’t exactly Inception. Lucas wanted Star Wars to feel like those old Saturday film serials, and even went so far as to make it feel like it was in the middle of a series. The opening crawl, which looks pretty dense on the screen, isn’t much larger than the Flash Gordon introduction:

“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy….”

It is actually pretty short. According to one report, Lucas originally had problems with editing these down to reasonable size as well. It takes a lot of skill and effort to tell a story in a concise manner.

But now we have a generation of aspiring game developers who think, perhaps because of Star Wars, that it’s perfectly awesome to start a game with a dense wall of exposition.  Maybe not all text-based (though I’ve seen that too), but narrating dense exposition isn’t an improvement. Even with pictures and 3D backgrounds.

I’m not going to mention the particular offense that inspired this blog, especially when I know the developers worked so hard on it. But let’s just say that in that critical first five minutes of gameplay, you still wouldn’t be to the ‘play’ part of things.

The Final Fantasy that might have put the “Final” in the series for me was an offender – Final Fantasy XII. I am hazy on the details by now, but it seemed like it had as many intros as Peter Jackson’s Return of the King had endings. At least one was interactive (a tutorial), but I wasn’t too impressed overall.

So here are my general guidelines – as a fan of quality indie RPGs – for handling a proper game introduction.

#1 – The player is there to play.
This is the cardinal rule. While it’s okay to take a little while out in your menu screens and introductory cut-scene or what have you to try and get the player ready and hyped to play the game, the focus must always be on playing. Thirty seconds of intro is cutting into thirty seconds of play-time. If you have only five minutes to make an impression. Is this thirty seconds worth the trade? Maybe. But if not, then the intro should be cut down. Think “Opportunity Cost” here. You are cutting into their game time, so be very sure of what you are doing.

My favorite “bad example” in recent years is Dragon Age: Origins. The intro video is well-done, but it’s basically a 3.5 minute info-dump. It’s not fun to re-watch. The entire background could have been summarized in three sentences, and even then most of the information could have been more interesting if discovered by the player through, you know, playing. Seeing the Gray Wardens mocked behind their back, learning that there are very few left and that the evil they were meant to fight is long gone, and then discovering first-hand that the evil is back with a vengeance.

#2 – Address the the Four W’s soon, but not necessarily before gameplay starts.
The “Four Ws” are questions in the players mind about the story. These should be answered soon, but not necessarily in the intro cutscene. The four W’s are:
Who am I? (Or “Who is the main character?)
Where am I?
What am I supposed to be doing?
Why should I care?

In the Flash Gordon example: It’s pretty obvious by the name of the show that the focus is on Flash. Where? A mysterious planet, in the clutches of Merciless Emperor Ming. What to do? Well, obviously, he’s in trouble and his friends are in trouble, so he’s got to help them all escape. Why should I care? Well, friends in danger is important, and the Earth is in danger, and typically friendships and our home is important to the viewer. It’s not much, but it’s enough to go on until they become more invested in the characters.

In Star Wars: Who is still a little up in the air, but it’s clear that Rebels are the good guys, and Princess Leia is mentioned by name. Where? Somewhere in space, with the whole galaxy as the setting, where an evil Galactic Empire rules. What’s the goal? To restore freedom to the galaxy, of course, probably having something to do with the secret plans to the DEATH STAR.  Why should we care? Once again, a planet-killing space station sounds like Bad News, as we’re kinda fond of our own planet, and freedom tends to be pretty high on folks’ list of Good Things to Restore. It’s not much, but it’s enough to get started until we’ve gotten more emotionally invested in the story and characters.

These aren’t detailed responses to the questions, nor should they be. We don’t know (or care) who Princess Leia’s parents are (and at this point, it would be meaningless to try and explain it to us). We’re not even introduced to Darth Vader, the main bad guy of the show. Likewise, we have very little information about Emperor Ming’s planet hurtling towards the earth, or his plans (beyond marrying Dale and offing Flash). They aren’t critical to our understanding of what’s about to happen. If it’s important, it’ll be explained later.

#3 – The intro is a promise and a tease
The introduction is a chance to get the player excited about what they are about to play, to tease them a little bit about what’s going to be in store, and to give them enough hints about the plot to pique their curiosity.  The player has an entire game to play in which to obtain background information.  The introductory cutscene needs do little else than point them in the direction of the gameplay and sell them on the prospect of playing.

Again, drawing on Star Wars – what happens immediately after the crawl? Space. A planet. Two ships battling it out, one desperately trying to escape a clearly GIANT starship. Lots of lasers and explosions. This is as much a part of the introduction as the opening crawl. This is the promise, the tease. We’re going to be in for an action-packed adventure on a scale clearly larger than life. Booyah!

Compare this to some games (I won’t mention names) where the opening sequence – a promise of what is supposed to come next – sounds like somebody reciting from the Book of Chronicles in the Old Testament. All that promises is boredom and unpronounceable names that the player won’t remember five seconds after they are uttered.

As a final bit – something many mainstream games miss – the intro should be directly related to the game. Having a cool CGI movie at the beginning of the game is fine, but not if it looks like it could be used as the intro to a dozen other games just as easily. It doesn’t have to be about the main character, but it should focus on the actual story – maybe introducing the bad guy, or the setting (an ‘establishing shot’), or a mystery. Final Fantasy VII provides a pretty good example here.  Also, the original Diablo.

#4 – Don’t be vague!
Vagueness kills interest. Again – look at the sample crawls from the movies. While they introduce more questions than they answer (deliberately!), they name specifics. Names. Ape-like “man killers.”  The Arena. The Death Star is mentioned by name, as well as its key features (armored, capable of destroying an entire planet).  The hidden rebel base is left a little vague, but it’s revealed by the end of the movie.

Compare this to some intros for (particularly indie) RPGs that speak vaguely of prophesies, evil, great heroes, struggle against a dark force, blah blah blah. Measured in power of putting the player to sleep, this is second only to describing the lineage of the main character back four generations. The player should receive concrete details, but without elaboration. Flash Gordon was fighting killer ape creatures in an arena? Holy crap, that sounds awesome! This is much better than “Flash had to fight monsters.” But I don’t need to know how the ape-like creatures were genetically engineered by Ming’s great-great-great grandfather to create a slave race that proved too dangerous, and they rebelled, and when the rebellion was quelled in the year 182 of Ming reckoning (calculated by… etc. etc. etc.). It has enough details to give it flavor, and that’s all.

So, indies: Avoid the temptation to tell the player all about your world before he’s or she has even gotten a chance to do more than click “Start.” Good story-telling starts with the introductory sequence, and it’s arguably the most important part. So make it TIGHT.

Filed Under: Game Development - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

  • Tesh said,

    This seems to be a natural tension. It’s like starting a novel, where you also want to answer those W questions and keep the reader interested. An infodump prologue can kill impatient readers.

    It’s hard, since creative sorts (I’m guilty of this) want to share these intricate worlds we dream up, but the sad truth is that few people actually *care* about them until they get invested in characters or some conflict in that setting. Stopping to smell the roses and dig into the history of an Otherplace isn’t something that usually matters on page one… if ever. Tolkien did a TON of background construction on Middle Earth, but even a full read of the Hobbit and LOTR only shows a slice of it… and they are long-winded in places at that.

  • OttoMoBiehl said,

    This post makes me feel like sitting down and writing some fiction. 😉

    I’d also like to add that it’s imperative to start your intro as far into the story as possible. If we look at Star Wars again we don’t start when they are stealing the secret plans and we don’t start when the droids land on Tatoonie. It’s right when they are about to land on Tatoonie that the Empire intercepts them and we have the wonderful open.

    I would also say this extends to starting the game too. Get the player into the action as quick as possible. It seems like I’ve played a good number of games that have you wander around the village, learn to fish, learn to ride a horse or whatever while there is some sort of mega-evil in the world that threatens your fair land.

    I agree with what Tesh said too. It’s fun to create a large expansive world full of wonderful detail and life but the audience will only care once they’ve connected with and cares for a character in your story.

  • Xenovore said,

    Very good points! Of course I prefer being dropped straight into the world, but not necessarily always straight into the action. I like how games like Half-Life and Farcry 2 start; in these you’re initially just a passenger, unable to do much except look around and enjoy the ride. But you do get to see a bit of the world and its variety, and by the end you’re (hopefully) intrigued and and interested. (I was.) The big flaw with this sort of intro, though, is that it gets old fast after you’ve gone through it more than once or twice. It should always be skippable (at least after the first time).

  • Xenovore said,

    To be entirely clear, anything that is non-interactive and detracts from actual game-play — intro movies, cutscenes, text-walls, passenger-ride-alongs, etc. — should be designed to be skippable. (Or better yet, re-designed in some way that allows the player to interact and participate.)

  • Maklak said,

    I disagree to an extent. I like intros. They should be skippable, but I still like them. They can be overdone, but even a few minutes of “Wall of text with pictures” can be great, as in Dune 2 intro: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TK5TwFaKA2M It one of the best game intros I have ever seen.

    I agree that intro has to have actual info on the setting. I dislike something like “The Generic Evil (R) (TM) has sent armies to conquer the land. The people are suffering. A group of adventurers has gathered in a taverns and decided to put an end to this.”

    I don’t like just being thrown into the game without knowing anything, including what to do. I mean it is OK for an FPS, but not an RPG. I strongly disagree with “30 seconds of intro is a wasted 30 seconds, the game is to be played”. I also don’t like having to do everything by myself, even if I have allies. It just gives me the feeling that they are useless, except as cannon fodder and that I have to do everything by myself, including the use of heavy weapons. I also dislike the Bioware-style false sense of urgency when everything is scripted to happen anyway.

    Back on topic of the walls of text near the beginning of the game: There is a way to do this right. Just have the player begin behind a desk with papers, books a terminal and his journal and let him dig through all that and figure out what to do. Or include an encyclopedia inside the game, optionally one which grows with the character’s knowledge. I also like in-game books and notes, but most games unfortunately make those very short for some reason.

    Underrail did the beginning well. You start in your room, get to loot it, then find a terminal and read an email from your boss that says “get your ass in here”. You are then free to explore the Vault at your leisure and are an hour from even entering the first combat unless you rush to it. Well done, but the terminal could use some serious love. In the demo I only ever saw 2 messages there. I liked the Bloodlines terminal. There was always something interesting there.

    As for Frayed Knights, well, the introduction in the Temple works, but normally I prefer something more substantial. Starting in Ardin in the morning of the day they go to the temple, but a night after they got the quest from Silas and talking to people, trading and exploring would work OK, but I don’t think it would be as good as starting in the temple. I don’t know. I like to get some background info, start slow, talk to people and gear up, before going into combat. Baldur’s Gate worked like this: You started in Candlekeep and was free to walk around for over an hour before running out of things to do and the first serious combat.

  • Adorna said,

    this reminds me of something else… I used to read a lot of fantasy novels – back when there weren’t so many that you couldn’t keep track. Then I stopped. And now I realize that when I pick up a book in the bookstore I give the text on the backcover a few seconds to win me over. If its mentions its charcters by race instead of by name or if it tells me anything more than a lifespan back, I put the book back and don’t buy it.

    “The big battle of 1402 left scars…” check
    “Two elves discover..” check
    “For 10sands of years the lived in piece but now the dwarfs of Summertown..” check

    I feel a bit guilty about it, but there are so mayn books – and if the author doesn’t care enough about his characters to put their names in the description text, why sould I care enough about their adventures to read the book?

    I guess its similiar for game introductions..

  • Keldryn said,

    Completely agree with you on this. My free time for playing games has shrunk drastically over the years, particularly since becoming a father. When I finally get the chance to check out a new game, I get extremely frustrated when I have to sit through 10+ minutes of barely-interactive intro sequences. Far too many games follow the same pattern where after 30 minutes of “playing” the game, I’ve watched a 5-minute video about the history of the world, wandered around a safe introductory area doing nothing interesting, and watched a few more non-interactive scenes or been given a few explanatory lectures by characters in the game. It’s maddening.

    One of the worst offenders was Xenosaga on the Playstation 2. It not only had a long intro video, but had frequently long non-interactive scenes throughout the game. About 3 or 4 hours into the game, a series of cutscenes kicked off such that I put the controller down for 40 minutes straight. When they finally ended, I played for about 5 minutes, and then another cutscene started, at which point I shut off the game and sold it.