A Game Design Tip a Day #5 – [Design] The First Few Minutes of Your Game

The tips I’ve shared until this point have all been centred around scripting with Unity and using the Unity editor. This tip is going to be a more general discussion of the first few minutes or levels of your game. First impressions are extremely important, so you’ll want to grab your audience’s attention without completely overwhelming them.

Don’t overwhelm the player

In the first few levels of your game, it’s easy to just throw all the game mechanics at them in one fell swoop in the tutorial. Generally speaking, unless you have only one or two mechanics, this is bad because it’s simply too much for the player to handle. The best way to ensure the player gets a good grip on the core mechanics is to introduce them one at a time; show the player a brand-new mechanic and provide a safe area (one preferably without any deadly obstacles or risks) for them to test out the new mechanic, then put them in a relatively simple level that requires its use to proceed while allowing access to the safe area in case they need more practice. Making sure the player knows how to use a mechanic and has successfully completed a task using it will ensure that more complex later levels won’t present too many issues for them.

It’s also important to unveil your game’s signature mechanic early on, as this will be the focus of the game and keeping it behind a curtain for hours may make the start of the game feel like pointless warm-up. Portal 2 does an especially good job of drip-feeding new mechanics to the player and does all of the above very well – it even splits the Portal Gun tutorial into a single-portal device to smoothly introduce the concept of portals, weighted cubes and buttons, then proceeds to hand the player the dual-portal mechanic once they’ve mastered single portal placement. The backdrop of the first few levels of Portal 2 is also the familiar, yet now overgrown, scene of Portal 1’s introductory levels, which is a good technique to help the player feel ‘safe’ if you’re making a sequel.

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Portal 2 lets you play with the single-portal device in a familiar level with no threats

A short story introduction or cutscene goes a long way

If your game is built around any kind of story (and unless it’s completely abstract, then usually it should have some story), then it’s best if you give the player some kind of story to invite their curiosity and make them want to finish levels in order to get the next piece of the story. A short cutscene (we don’t need any Metal Gear Solid levels of stuff here) should suffice. You can also use cutscenes and story plot points in quieter sections of the game (such as in-between levels) to break up the game into more manageable chunks; alternating between interesting action and quieter plot exposition can lengthen the game experience while keeping the player interested. Quiet sections also provide valuable exit points in your game – places the player can safely decide whether to keep going or stop playing without risking losing progress.

The start of the story is also where you ought to introduce most, if not all, of the main characters, as they’ll be driving most of the plot forward. It’s best to take the same approach here as with game mechanics; don’t throw a whole cast on the player at once, because a) that would be painful – people are heavy – and b) having to remember all these new characters will make the plot feel more complicated than it really is. This is where I personally think a game like Pokémon X and Y fell flat, especially if you were a newcomer to the series at this point – within the first 10 minutes you were introduced to Professor Sycamore, then Calem/Serena, then Shauna, Trevor and Tierno all at once, as well as the Pokémon you’ll likely be travelling with the whole game. I mean, I have far more gripes with the fact that the whole cast may as well be made of cardboard, but the main problem is that a lot of characters with distinct, ahem, ‘personalities’ are introduced at once. It’s a lot to take in.

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Your friends would’ve been great in smaller doses. Or if they were actually, y’know, developed at all.

In summary, you want the first half an hour or so of your game to entice players with the first parts of a plot. Then, you want your main game mechanic, the one you advertise and put on the box art, to steal the show. After that, most of you game will be alternating plot points and gameplay (occasionally with new gameplay mechanics). The one thing you don’t want to do is scare away your player too early by shoving every mechanic you’ve got at them. It’s kind of like fishing, except you don’t want to shoot yourself.

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