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.