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In light of the recent annual IGF controversy/drama going around, I figure I should expand and clarify a point i've continually made every time the yearly IGF drama comes up. Simply put, if judges stop playing your game after 5 minutes, then there's something wrong with the first 5 minutes of your game. This is some advice for future IGF hopefuls, or, well, anyone looking to release a game to the public really.
First point: People (including IGF Judges and potential fans/players/customers) are not gonna change to fit the needs of your game. So, its up to you to take a step back and look at what you can do to your game to make it fit the people playing it. I understand that you don't want to change your game drastically or sacrifice artistic integrity or do shit in your game purely for the purpose of making it "accessible", and, well, the good news is you don't have to! Nothing about the rest of your game needs to change if you focus on making a stronger intro (although often a better intro lets you do stuff later on you weren't able to before, more on this later in the post).
Second point: A good intro isn't just there to make your game appealing to competitions, its there to help your game do better when its finally released, whether or not you are a free web game or a commerical game. Yes, there ARE exceptions of games that do well in spite of a bad intro, but the key part there is "in spite of". Minecraft, Twilight Princess, and other recent Zelda games all have pretty terrible (or for minecraft, nonexistant) intros, yet nobody claims that that's a GOOD thing. Don't expect to be the next Minecraft, you're just setting yourself up for disappointment.
Third point: It's not that difficult to polish up your intro to acceptable levels. Most of the suggesstions I have here are gonna seem REALLY obvious, and well, they are. They aren't difficult decisions, they aren't sacrificing any sort of artistic integrity, they don't require you to change the rest of your game, and unless you want to make it absolutely perfect it really doesn't take that long. Yet, commercial games still ship with absolutely terrible intros, and new devs still constantly make the same sort of mistakes here.
So, first off what makes a BAD intro? This is an immensely easier question to answer than what makes a GOOD intro, so it's here first.
- A giant wall of text. This seems obvious, but games still do that. Nobody wants to read a giant wall of text in the start of a game, and if you make it optional people WILL skip it expecting to be able to learn for themselves. The same applies to a long cutscene before the game begins, though a cutscene can be more easily made compelling than a wall of text.
- Starting right off using lingo and names that only exist in the game's universe without letting the player have a chance to explore for themselves first. If you're intro starts off right away with "QUICK! Palnesto! The smonbloxians are attacking with their phidgleams of mumbaxto! Attack them with your akkalmint ray to harvest their bamkai energy for your plebo meter!" it just overwhelms the player. Yet I still play commercial games that do this, and it makes it really hard to "get into" a game when it starts right off with a cutscene or message that starts throwing words at me and expects me to remember them before I even have a chance to figure out what the controls are. This isn't a death sentence for an intro, and it CAN be done well, but its so commonly and easy to mess up I felt I should mention it here. If you really want your game to start this way, at least give the player a short amount of time to play with the controls before throwing plot stuff at him.
- Repetition. Don't make the player fight 10 of the same type of enemy in a row in your intro stage, after the first few a player is naturally going to think "is this all?" or "uggg when do I fight something new?", same goes for an arcadey game with a bunch of short levels in the beginning. I played one arcadey puzzley game for IGF judging where the first level had 1 blue guy in it, then the second had two blue guys in it, the third had three, the fourth had four, then the fifth added a RED guy (1 red 1 blue), then the next did 2 red 2 blue, then 3 red 3 blue, then 4 red 4 blue, then it added a GREEN guy. The difference between 2 and 4 is minimal in terms of what it asks the player to do, and it could have ramped up a LOT faster with less hammering-in of the mechanics and been much better for it. No getting bored in the intro with minimal changes that didn't add much each time, faster to get into the "real" puzzles/levels.
- No intro, suddenly complicated mechanics. I played one game which was some weird simulation thing, where you were supposed to be able to program AI's with a weird abstracted interface and they would walk around and do stuff. I assume the game was pretty neat if you could figure it out (screenshots and trailer certainly made it look neat), but instead it thrusts you right into a really complicated game with a complicated and unpolished interface that was just... impossible to figure out, and a lack of feedback made it not feel worth it to keep trying at it.
- Terrible controls. Nothing makes me not want to continue playing a game more than a terrible (/unresponsive/buggy) control scheme that actively hinders my attempts to progress. QWOP is an exception, don't use that to justify terrible controls please.
Examples of games with bad intros? The only ones I can list are ones that are popular DESPITE a bad intro, since most of the terrible offenders tend to... not become popular... Minecraft is one. No instructions, requires a wiki to play (good luck if you want to play in fullscreen and only have 1 monitoe HA). Its popular because it does become good once you learn it, and there's shitloads of videos of people doing amazing things in it. Zelda Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword also had pretty terrible intros. Really excessively long plot-focused intros with a shitload of text and weird fetch quests and minigames that aren't ever used later in the game. The point of Zelda is swordfighting and dungeons, so why wait AN HOUR to even give you the training sword? Why do I have to herd goats around TWICE when there aren't even any goats (or goat-like enemies) anywhere else in the game? If these weren't branded as Zelda games, there'd be absolutely no incentive to keep playing the game after such a terrible intro.
Hey Link, my goats escaped again, sry bro.
So, what makes a GOOD intro then? This is a much looser question, every game is different and there's no end-all answer to it, though starting off by avoiding the things I listed for a BAD intro is a good start. A few simple (highly subjective) guidelines are
- Make it not boring
- Make it compelling
- Give a reason to keep playing
- Make it not buggy
The way to test this is to have random people play your game for the first time and watch their reactions (We did most of our testing here at conventions... random people playing your game's intro with no investment or play time requirement really tells a lot just by seeing where they stop playing). If someone gives up during your intro, make note of where, and what you could do to prevent that. Someone leaving immediately after picking up the controller and seeing a large block of text, that tells you something. Someone missing a jump a few times then giving up? That also tells you something.
Games with a good intro (from memory) are Portal/HalfLife/etc (They start with a lot of dialog, but you have full control of your character so you get a chance to actually fiddle with the controls while playing, and none of the dialog is really critical either, so it doesn't harm you to not pay attention to it and instead focus on playing with the controls. Also, its pretty entertaining dialog anyway. Portal 2's intro was funny and exhilarating, even though the interactivity was minimal. Really did a great job drawing you into the world and giving you incentive to keep playing.
Pick up that can.
Super metroid / metroid prime also. Start fully powered up then lose everything? Nice way to show what there is to look forward to in the game, suddenly there's a feeling of "OH SHIT I FELT SO AWESOME I WANT ALL THAT STUFF BACK". This doesn't work for every game, these are just examples of games that have a good intro, your game could have a good intro without ever invoking the tropes other games used. Hell, if none of these fit your game, invent something new! (and test it with people).
If your controls are good and intuitive, you can do textless tutorials. Instead of saying "PRESS A TO JUMP", just casually put an obstacle you need to jump over in the way of progress, and paint an A button on it. The player will press A, jump, and be like OH COOL, I GET IT!
Wind Waker has a passable intro. It does a bunch of things right, but still has a few of the issues of the other recent zelda games, and takes a bit long to get the sword and shield, though not nearly to the same frustrating length as twilight princess or skyward sword. But it does start you off with a simple cutscene that doesn't assume knowledge of the series or give critical instruction to you, has a really neat art style which can be appreciated right from the start, and once you get the sword and shield it gives you an intro mini-dungeon to help show off the controls and give a feel for what style of game it is (while not having any super tedious enemies or puzzles or repetition), then a short plot event that gives you motive to continue (they kidnapped his sister!). Then, they skip sailing all together to bring you right to the first major gameplay part of the game. Sailing was a weak point of this game, so naturally they wait as long as possible to introduce this mechanic to you. Not really an excuse to have sailing be so boring, but hey thats a different problem altogether.
Watch Egoraptor's Megaman analysis video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FpigqfcvlM), does a really good job of explaining why Mega Man X's intro is so good, in pretty detailed analysis. (It's a long video, but hey, its entertaining right from the start, and there's never any point where you feel like stopping watching cause of its length. Would you look at that, how coincidental).
I'm not gonna analyze individual games past this though, feel free to discuss it in the comments. I'm gonna talk about what we did in Closure, and why, only because you know, when you work on a game for 3 years you think about this stuff a lot. And I like to think our intro is a success. I've watched a LOT of people play it at PAX and stuff, they all play through the whole thing, they all play it exactly the same way, and they all show the exact reactions I want them to. It works, people are entertained and compelled when playing the intro, and it teaches a huge amount of mechanics very fast so I can get to the REAL puzzles faster. I'm going to record a whole video walkthough / commentary of our intro later once the game comes out, but for now I'll just write down a brief thought process of the levels.
Here is the first thing people will see when they start a game in Closure.
They get 1 instruction, no text, and the only thing they can see is this right here (lights are really good at drawing attention towards important things, heh). Its creepy and mysterious and makes people wonder what type of game it is (the look on their faces is usually that sorta scrunched up look people do if they are trying to decide if they like something or not). They pick up the orb, it lights up another instruction (forward on the d-pad), they go forward, there's an obstacle to jump over and a "X" button icon, they press X and jump over, then there's a door with a triangle, they press triangle and go through the door. Bam, all the important controls are introduced right here, in about 15 seconds, while also being pretty mysterious.
Next level, same button prompt, but this time the orb is inside a pedestal, and they remove it out of the pedestal when pressing the button. Another mechanic introduced right here, they walk forward unprompted cause it's the only thing to do, fall off a large cliff (and don't receive any fall damage or anything), walk forward and a BIG sign that says "Closure" gets lit up, they walk forward a little more and there's a pedestal to place the orb into, they do and it lights up another pedestal (this is hard to explain in text, but people get it pretty quickly when they can actually interact with it in game), then jump the gap and go through the door. They can see the core mechanic in action here if they explore a little, but it's not necessary and not as powerful as the next level (we're about 30 seconds in at this point).
Third level, they have an orb, and a second orb lights up as they walk across the stage. The door is inactive and has 2 slots to put orbs into on either side so the player places an orb into a pedestal, turns around to go get the other one and FALLS OFF THE EDGE AND DIES (when they get outside the ring of light the orb makes). Every single player's face changes from that of confusion to that of "oh I get it!" at this point if they hadn't figured out the mechanic yet, and they remain smiling throughout the rest of the intro (about 5 more levels), right up until the character changes and they get another look of confusion (and then the rest of the game happens).
We combined setting the mood, opening credits / title, teaching the controls and basic mechanics, all into an intro that takes ~5 minutes to play (there's a few puzzles in the intro that take some people a little while, this is OK). This includes most of the mechanics which the flash version took the entire game to introduce, and a few of the newer ones. It took a while to get this intro to the state it is now, but initially making it "passable" only took about a week. It teaches the core mechanics really well, and sets an atmosphere that encourages people to keep playing to see what else the game can offer.
Pretty much all I can suggest if you don't know how to make a decent intro for your game, is ask advice from somebody. Get feedback, ask people to play and if they say anything about the intro is wrong or confusing, take that as a top priority piece of feedback. Watch people play, not friends or family or people who want to play, just random people who don't know who you are and don't care about your feelings. PAX,gdc,indiecade were all spots we got a lot of honest testing and feedback from, if you can't make it to one of those conventions, I dunno go to a university or a coffee shop or something, set the game up on a laptop and let people play, watch their faces, see what they do and how they react to your game.
I feel like I should also say, don't use 'good' games with bad intros to justify not putting much effort into the intro of your game. It happens every time I bring this up, "Well XXX gave me a very bad first impression but I kept at it and its one of the best games I've ever played!". It's hard to explain in words why I find this argument so wrong, but don't you want to try and make your game BETTER than what's currently out there, or at least avoid copying the flaws of another game? Yeah, it takes a little bit of effort, and yeah there's genres where it can take a LOT more effort (starcraft, dota, other online competitive strategy games), but its not impossible, and it can and will make your game better in the end.
Lastly, I don't feel like I fully discussed which games have good intros and which have bad intros, so feel free to bring up and discuss more in the comments.