Thursday, April 29, 2010

Where’s the Fun?

In this article, Steele Filipek and Jeff Gomez of Starlight Runner Entertainment explain why the opening hook is so important to video games and how game designers can create opening hooks that deliver gamers into game worlds of long-lasting fun.

One of Shigeru Miyamoto’s more famous quips is, “Find the fun.” That is, first find what is fun about a game and then build around that. It can be narrative, gameplay, action, mystery, whatever. Find the fun, the essence of what makes your game uniquely enjoyable and what will keep a gamer coming back for more. In that briefest of statements, the creator of Mario, Link, and a host of other iconic characters has captured the essence of creating a game: make the player WANT to play the game.

This desire is what separates a fling from a passionate affair. All games are a narrative about choice, after all: develop your pawns or move a knight, buy Boardwalk or save your money, hit on sixteen or pray for a dealer bust. The ones that people never put down are the ones that are gratifying on more than just a superficial level, the ones that give back for a long time to come.

Video games are a natural extrapolation of that, but at an average of fifty to sixty dollars for console or PC title, gamers need to be sure that their investment is worth three times as much as a DVD, five times as much as a film, or six times as much as a novel. The most important choice for a gamer is an abstract one: whether to play at all. And that means that the most vital moment of any game lies in the opening – the hook – where the gamer decides whether to continue playing or move on to other pursuits.

If one will allow a comparison, should this hook be…

…a long, drawn-out, unskippable cinematic with poor voice-acting, overblown graphics, and a story that seems to go everywhere at once, followed by a tedious training mission in which the game leads the gamer by the hand?


…a quick showcase of the story, including (if any) the protagonist, the goal, the obstacles in the middle, and an element of mystery that launches almost immediately into the first level of gameplay? There, the player is rewarded for his/her time with a gratifying experience of wonder and achievement.

That comparison might seem too simple but far too many games fail right out of the box because they place too much emphasis on the cinematic rather than the game itself. Games aren’t films. They have a language all their own, one that is based around a person controlling the events in a simulated environment. Short and awesome will always trump long and expository, so demand more from your writers by asking for less. Putting emphasis on the narrative right off the bat is understandable and sometimes necessary (particularly for sprawling, JRPG-style titles), but why would a gamer want to WATCH an event when they can take part in it?

Certainly, an emotional connection needs to be established from the get-go. In a narrative-oriented game, for example, the player needs to take a gut punch from the villain, experiencing something directly or indirectly that subverts everything he symbolizes and stands for. We see this in the greatest video games and that’s no accident. And it can be done with shocking brevity. Both Mass Effect 2 and Half-Life 2 thrust the protagonist into a world of mystery, adventure, and terror, where the villains seem insurmountable and victory hopeless. But they – and many other, successful games that rely heavily on narrative – accomplish this with very limited cut-scenes that lead directly into gameplay that cleverly masks learning with a sense of tone and accomplishment. Within thirty minutes, one has taken down a platoon of Combine Overwatch Soldiers (Half-Life) or a swarm of renegade androids (Mass Effect) and suddenly, even with hours of gameplay ahead, the gamer has become a willing participant in a world quite different from reality.

Many games, however, require little to no narrative of this nature. Tetris, Snood, Boom Blox…even a title like Super Mario Bros. There are no intros, no cinematics; just an opening level that establishes the world, the rules of the universe, and the mechanics. Or, in the case of a sports title like Madden, an pulse-pounding collage of battle and victory that quickly segues a gamer (heart-pounding) into an arena where he or she controls the action. With good design, players instantly feel at ease in a game that they didn’t even know the rules of just a few minutes before.

When a hook is done correctly, gamers won’t even know they’re being taught how to play. Jump on that first goomba in Super Mario Bros. and you automatically know how to defeat almost every enemy in the game. The learning not only CAN be the fun part, it SHOULD be the fun part. Like Robert McKee wrote, “Make your exposition ammunition.” Tell players what they need, when they need it on the fly, using story and environmental elements to show rather than tell, and then give them a sense of triumph that gratifies their actions. It doesn’t matter if they don’t understand the draw of the game beyond a primal urge of completion or accomplishment. When a good game is engaging from the opening, nobody wants to put it down.

It doesn’t need to be long, then, but it does need to be good. Bad controls? Glitchy graphics? Unlikable protagonist? Why would someone stick around when a title is only going to offer more of the same for entire rest of the game? The first minutes should be some of the most highly crafted, highly detailed, and most minutely controlled minutes of any title. Play through the director’s commentary of the first level of Portal and you’ll understand what this means. This isn’t to say that the next twenty hours of a title are inconsequential, but that the hook functions as both a preview and a contract for the gamer from the creators. Here is the game that we’ve created, and here is why you’re going to fall in love with it.

Miyamoto understood this. It’s why his games stand the test of time, even though some are as simple as “climb a ladder, jump the barrels, then save the girl from an angry ape”. It is about the willingness of a gamer to be drawn into a gaming world, and the eagerness of a game developer to create a game of lasting value. And by value, I mean fun.

Always find the fun.

Steele Filipek is Editorial Coordinator at Starlight Runner Entertainment, a New York-based transmedia production company.

Jeff Gomez is CEO of Starlight Runner, and is one of the foremost transmedia producers in the entertainment industry. His clients include 20th Century Fox (Avatar), The Walt Disney Company (Tron Legacy), and Microsoft (Halo). You can follow him on Twitter @Jeff_Gomez or on Facebook at Starlight Runner Entertainment.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

In Medium Ludum

In this article, programmer Nels Anderson argues that "in medium ludum," or starting in the middle of a game, be it mechanically or narratively, may lead to better beginnings.

Jason Rohrer's Sleep is Death was released recently, providing unique digital gaming experiences that harken more toward improv theatre than anything else. Given the similarity, theatre professor and games critic Michael Abbott wrote a great post recently about how the methodologies of improv can be applied to Sleep is Death (and life in general). Given the inherently extemporaneous nature of that game, improv techniques are quite directly applicable. But, as I alluded to elsewhere, while I was reading Truth in Comedy, I was struck by how relevant their observations were to digital games in general, especially when it comes to how games begin.

Michael writes, "A Player needs 3 things: 1) A character who wants something. 2) A clearly defined situation, ideally with an inherent obstacle or conflict. 3) Strategies for getting what you want."

When digital games go off the rails, typically one of these three things is absent or vague. The player's goal is unclear ("I don't know where to go now"), the obstacles read poorly ("Is this room a dead end or did I miss a door somewhere?") or it's not clear how to start achieving the goals ("I can't see any way to open that door"). When I'm banging on about readability, this is what I'm talking about.

Note, this does not mean everything should be painfully obvious. The problem is when the player is at a dead end and feels like they have no means of discovering what to do or how to do it. Having to explore and puzzle things out is good, having absolutely no idea what to do and being reduced to trying things completely at random is not (e.g what happens when you're stuck in basically every old-school adventure game).

The other interesting lesson from improv I wanted to call out is "Start in the middle." Rather than starting at the beginning of some action or narrative, which tends toward unexciting exposition, the scene starts in the middle of some event. This technique is called "in media res" or literally, "into the middle of affairs." It's more common in film and television (e.g The Usual Suspects or Reservoir Dogs) than in games.

Despite my increasing intolerance for their staid mechanics and overwrought narratives, a number of JRPGs including several Final Fantasy incarnations have used this technique to good effect. So did Uncharted 2, both Max Payne games and the recent Tales of Monkey Island, for example. And of course, Planescape: Torment's "You wake up on a slab in The Mortuary" may be the best in medias res opening of all.

Opening in this fashion is still quite uncommon though. I wonder if part of the reason why more games don't open in medias res is that the character's mechanical progress moves with the game's narrative progression. By opening in the middle of some action, it may seem harder to have the character mechanically progress from there (and if flashbacks occur, one might feel like abilities ought to be removed). Many games also open by introducing mechanics in a tutorial-ish fashion, which may be a bit harder to fit into a scene or story already in progress.

A few games also begin in the middle of the game mechanically, but at the beginning of the action narratively. Most notable would be the Metroid Prime series, where that player begins with powerful equipment only to lose it after a short opening scene (I think Super Metroid opened this way as well, but I can't remember for sure). These abilities are slowly recovered until the player eventually surpasses that initial state.

We might call this structure "in medium ludum" (thanks Roger!) if we wanted to be delightfully pretentious. And to be honest, I'm not sure how successful I feel it is. For me, it often gives the feeling that for at least the first half of the game, you're behind the curve and simply playing catch-up. The Metroid series is so well engineered, and this formula is fundamental to its gameplay, it works. But other games that have attempted this, most recently I remember Prototype doing so, don't work as well.

I generally like in medias res openings, partially because it dovetails well with another improv lesson: "Take the active choice toward forward action." Especially in improv, given the choice between discussing some possibilities and simply doing one of them, always opt for the latter. While Shakespeare can make Hamlet-esque indecision fascinating, neither improv nor games are particularly suited for this. If a game explicitly offers a choice, it ought to be between one type of action or another, not between action and non-action. And by "action," I simply mean something meaningful for the player to do, not "action" like shooting guys in the face.

A great many games have sleepy, unengaging beginnings, rife with text-laden tutorial billboards and mundane tasks. This is something no game can afford, especially for those of us in the digital download space, where demos and conversation rates are of vital importance. But even more fundamentally, opening in media res can help focus a game. Starting at the beginning makes it very easy to justify a bunch of dry exposition about characters and a world the player doesn't care for (yet, hopefully). Starting with action and conflict, something that will be engaging for nearly everyone, we can draw players in. Don't throw a bunch of narrative at the player right out of the gate; wait until questions have been posed before supplying answers.

At the end of the day, our currency is engagement. Structuring a game to start in media res is only one approach. The first five seconds to five minutes of a game are vital, however. All games would be well served by a careful consideration of this portion of the experience.

All that from a short book about improv, eh? Again, I highly recommend it.

Nels Anderson is a programmer at Hothead Games. He's probably the only game developer in Vancouver (and maybe all of Canada) that was born and raised in Wyoming. He writes about games and game design on his blog, Above 49. A version of this article appeared there.

Friday, April 23, 2010

History, Mystery, Story: The Cinematic as Game Opening

In this article, freelance games writer Leanne C. Taylor takes a look at cinematics in the context of game openings. She identifies three ways in which cinematics can be used to create a bond between the game and players: History, Mystery, and Story.

Games are like movies, or so some would have us believe. With their ever-increasing budgets and graphical realism, they're certainly heading down that path. In movies, there's something that's colloquially known as the 10 minute rule. The idea is that, after 10 minutes, the viewer will generally have a good idea of whether they'll enjoy the rest of the movie or not. In games, which are exponential in terms of cost and time-cost for the audience when compared to movies, where does the 10 minute rule lie?

In the same way that the Call to Adventure comes at around 10 minutes in movies, to convince viewers they want to keep watching, games need a hook to convince the player to actually start playing. This can come in the trailers, before the game is released. In earlier days, when advertising for video games was all but unknown, it had to come from within the game itself.

This was where cinematics came in – they told the player the story, linked the gameplay to something the player could relate to, understand, or wonder about. Far apart from the gameplay, they gave the player a reason to keep playing.

But the opening cinematic of a game must do much more than simply tell the player the story or provide a hook. It has to convince the player that they have spent their money wisely. And because games are so much more expensive for the player in terms of time and money than movies are, it has to do so quickly.

The best and most memorable games that I recall from the past 20 years have managed to do this: to hook the player with their opening cinematics. But what made them so compelling? Why did they succeed where so many others have failed?

My theory is this: for original IP, your hook must be some form of a history or a mystery, probably combined. For second forays into a world, you can start to rely on story. It's easy to discover what kind of hook a certain game has by asking which one of these three things the player will be wondering about by the end of the intro cinematic:
  • What has happened? (History)
  • What's happening now? (Mystery)
  • What's going to happen? (Story)
To illustrate my point, let's look at games from the three Big Bs – Blizzard, Black Isle/BioWare and Bethesda.

Mystery is the largest category – for first-run IPs, this seems to be the preferred method of getting and keeping players. In this category, we have games such as WarCraft 1, StarCraft 1, Diablo 1, Baldur's Gate 1, Planescape: Torment, Morrowind and, oddly enough, WarCraft 3. Despite our lone contender at the end, you'll notice most of those games have a one after their names. Sequels generally being a sign of success, we can assume these games did well.

The reason WarCraft 3 fits into the Mystery category is simple: since there were 6 years between the last released WarCraft title and when WarCraft 3 came out, Blizzard figured they would be attempting to sell their product to a new and broader range of gamers, and treated the IP as original. They developed a mystery in line with their lore, and met the Mystery and Story categories in a single two-minute cinematic. The result is something short, compelling, and lucrative.

History, by comparison, is the smallest category. These games usually have also either a Mystery or a Story to back them up, as History by itself is not especially conducive to gameplay. In this category, we have games such as WarCraft 2 and Diablo 2. They tell of the events that came before, and are most effective when applied to the player's previous actions. In WarCraft 2, you're continuing your battle. In Diablo 2, you're discovering the path of the Wanderer – your own character from the first game. History is more compelling with a personal context for the player.

This leaves us with Story. In this category we have games such as WarCraft 3: Frozen Throne, StarCraft: Broodwar, Baldur's Gate 2 and Oblivion. The question in these introductions is not What has happened? or What's happening now?, as these things are usually explained. Prior knowledge is used to propel the player into discovery, to lend the unmistakable allure of history in the making.

This, I would argue, is the most difficult way of creating a hook, simply because it relies on previous worldbuilding and play experiences to generate interest. These games often throw in a motive, such as revenge (Baldur's Gate 2) or Mystery (Oblivion) to give the story more shape, but their underlying message is: Come and play a part in what's about to happen. Come and create the future.

If we look at these categories from another angle, we can see a different way of trying to decide what draws the player in – is it discovering the past, understanding the present, or shaping the future? What experience do you want your player to have? How can you make it more personal?

Know all this, and you will know what the first 10 minutes of your game should be. You will have your hook. Know that, and you will know your audience. Know your audience, and they will love you for it.

Leanne C. Taylor is a freelance games writer currently lecturing in Interactive Narrative at Qantm College, Brisbane. Her most recent achievement is writing a lecture on the narrative structure of Kick Ass using Sleep Is Death as a delivery medium.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

April 2010: The Opening Hook

This month's topic was proposed by game designer Doug Hill.

Doug writes:

Much like the first chapter of a book or the first fifteen minutes of a movie, the opening hook of a game quickly confirms whether a player will continue playing or find something else to do. This hook can come in many forms: showing a non-interactive opening movie, thrusting the player directly into gameplay, or even playing an interactive narrative opening that also hides a gameplay tutorial.

In this month's topic, Game Design Aspect of the Month wants to explore the ins and outs of creating a strong opening hook for games. Here are some potential topics to explore:

  • What elements make a good opening hook for a game? How does interactivity change the opening hook in media, or does it?

  • How do we best introduce the player to both the gameplay and the narrative? How do we handle games that are heavy on narrative? Light on narrative?

  • How do we balance the need to teach the player how to play our game while still creating engrossing gameplay right from the start?

  • What are the fundamental flaws and issues that many games still have with the initial user experience today? What can we do to remedy these flaws and issues?

  • What games have gotten it right, and how did they do it? Can those lessons be applied to all games or just specific types of games?

Doug Hill is a freelance game designer and writer who has worked on a variety of published video games over the past ten years. His current focus is on developing intellectual property for use in both interactive and non-interactive media.