IGF Observation #2: Slow Initial Experiences

Observation #2: if at all possible, it’s best to entertain a judge from the very first minute — just like a potential customer.

Several of the games I evaluated simply weren’t very fun to start with. Some even came with explicit caveats which I will collectively paraphrase as follows: Dear judge, you must play this game for several hours before you understand why it is special.

Who wants to slog through an endless tutorial that isn’t inherently fun before actually getting to enjoy themselves? Who wants to trudge through hours of uninspired gameplay before the “magic” of the game’s design reveals itself? As a judge, I’m willing to do it because I feel obligated, but which game do you think I’ll probably give the higher score: the game that entertained me for three consecutive hours, or the game that entertained me for only the final hour out of three hours, total? With rare exception, it will be the former. And you can bet that most consumers will vote the same way with their wallets. In summary:

  • Long-winded, boring tutorials are bad (seems like this should be self-evident, right?)
  • Conversely, dumping people into a game without any explanation of how to play is also bad, unless the initial gameplay experience is very intuitive. For an example of a game that does a good job of introducing the player to the core mechanics of the game, see Braid.
  • Games that don’t become very interesting (or don’t reveal their “special sauce”) until the player has invested lots of time into them are not inherently “bad”, but unfortunately such games are often doomed to smaller audiences. Most people simply aren’t willing to give a game the benefit of the doubt if it doesn’t entertain them relatively immediately. Long story short, developers should think carefully about finding ways to expose their game’s “special sauce” right away.

PS. On a tangent, my old post on crafting a good game demo might be interesting to some of you.

20 Responses to IGF Observation #2: Slow Initial Experiences

  1. Again parallels my experience judging the Unity Awards. You’re spot on with this post.

  2. Hi David, I’m judging for the IGF too and have been thinking the same for a number of the games I’ve judged so far.

    One or two of the games I was assigned in the first round were pretty good. That is, except for the mind crushing number of options, required reading, and tutorials. Complexity and depth can be virtues in a game but not when they are dumped on you all at once.

    The biggest missing element in many of the games was pacing. An extremely complicated space sim could be great but the mechanics need to be presented in a way that is digestible. I felt a few of these games were sending a message along the lines of “look upon my vast array of features and praise them.”

    Well, no. Not if I can’t understand why they exist, how they fit together, and why, within the context of the game, I should care about them.

  3. “Complexity and depth can be virtues in a game but not when they are dumped on you all at once.”

    Perfectly said, Mark. :-)

  4. When you say “doomed to smaller audiences”, aren’t you implying that you judge a game on it’s ability to attract a wide audience? A great majority of people still don’t ‘get’ Picasso or Pynchon. Would you recommend low scores for their work based on mainstream appeal?

    I think judging is really hard because you have to understand the audience and then judge it within that group. I recently judged video game scripts for the Writers Guild of America, and my top pick (of the subset of scripts assigned to me) is a game for a subculture of a sub-genre in video games, but it clearly had the best writing for an audience that particularly enjoys good writing.

    Now, I agree that games that obscure their fun, say with too much or too little explanation, should go back to the dev cycle, but to require a game to be maximally fun in minimum time in order to win a good grade… (no, you did not say that, I’m exaggerating)

    To enjoy the tomes of James Joyce, the reader has to WORK. To enjoy Men of War, you have to play through and absorb a lot of controls tutorial and be a hardened grognard to realize it’s the best game since the original Close Combat series. All that work pays off. (for some games)

    Sometimes a work must lay down an extensive foundation before it can rise to great heights. And sometimes the strongest foundation may be the ugliest that cannot be buried. (where upon this metaphor promptly crumbles, sigh :-)

    Another axis to consider is resources. For example, if an indie can’t afford fancy animations or even hundreds of ‘scene’ illustrations to convey story efficiently, text may be the only substitute. Will reading 1000 words be worth the same score as glancing at the picture it paints? If one indie can afford voice acting and another can’t, is good voice acting worth a higher score than none? We are talking about indie developers here. I think judges should level their playing field.

    Yeah, I don’t envy IGF judges, even after 10 years, it’s still a wild west as to the best way to identify what is best of breed.

  5. Keith — you make excellent points.

    One problem (for me) was that I wasn’t being asked to judge games within “categories.” I was assigned a wide variety of *extremely* different games and asked to ultimately evaluate them along the same lines. One could argue that it isn’t possible to meaningfully compare a simple puzzle game with a hardcore strategy game, but as an IGF judge that is what you are implicitly doing. Now, if the IGF gave awards for every genre or even sub-genre, things might be different.

    I reached out to the IGF organizers once and was basically told “evaluate the game according to your personal enjoyment of it.” Now, you could argue that perhaps I was given poor guidance, but you could *also* argue that one of the reasons the IGF recruits such a huge number of judges is so that presumably, each game will be evaluated by a good mix of people (some who are inclined to like a given type of game, and some who aren’t.) You could also argue that judges tend to be pretty bad at guessing what other “theoretical” audiences want, so it’s most efficient to ask them to think about themselves. But that’s ultimately a debate for the IGF to handle, not me.

    Lastly, I should dispute one thing you said: I’m *not* implying that I judge a game based on its mainstream appeal. No… I judge a game based on how entertaining it is from the very first minute. And some *extremely* complicated games still manage to be entertaining from the very first minute. You could argue (as you seem to be doing) that indies will have a hard time accomplishing this. Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t; IMO an enjoyable starting experience doesn’t necessary require expensive assets — just polish. But either way, I don’t personally feel like giving games a pass on this just because it might be a hard problem. You want to make this type of game? Then you should be prepared to invest the effort in making it not suck for the first few hours of play.

    But then, I don’t read novels that suck for the first few hundred pages, either. So maybe that’s just me. ;-)

  6. Keith Nemitz

    Thank you, David, for sharing guidance given by the organizers. Seems quite reasonable to me – perhaps frustratingly vague. But if a judge were to put a commercial viability filter on indie games, that would disingenuous to the indie foundation of ‘build what you love’.

    Oh, and I did mean to query about my concern of what might be implied not assert it. Thank you assuaging it. :-) You’re right to just judge by what you enjoy and hope there is sufficient diversity in judges that statistically, the insane diversity that gets clumped into the set of ‘computer games’ all have a fair chance. (probably not possible)

    Basically, advising indies to think of players as potential customers is credible advice, as long as an indie still understands that making what you love is important. As you’ve gone on to say, a lot of quality comes in the polish. Which can largely depend on the quality of feedback and the developers’ ability to process it.

    Happy New Year

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