Friday, February 18, 2011

Featured Feature: Player Investment in Casual Games (Part 3)

Part 3: Escalating Player Investment

As we've been discussing, a major difference between the "casual game" and the $60 AAA title is the players lack of investment in the media upon initial exposure. We, or I have if you've decided I'm a moran, have decided that.

The first goal is to to get the player to invest just a first few moments of their time on the title. After the player's brain recognizes that they've spent some of their precious time with a game, the game begins to benefit from that aforementioned investment bias. They've allotted the time, so they might as well pay attention and see weather or not this thing is any good. Your goal in this period is very simple - don't cause the player to turn your game off. Hell, avoiding higher brain functions at all may be advisable

This is basically the old "first impressions" routine. The player absolutely will not go beyond the first minute to see if your title gets better as it goes. Final Fantasy XIII provides an enormously scaled model of failing at this. So, in the first moments you must avoid raising the following red flags: frustration, dullness, and unoriginality. The game must only be entertaining.

A common mistake is placing an overly restrictive tutorial, especially a lengthy one, at the very outset of the game. This is often raises all three of the red flags we just mentioned. Tutorials are an essential part of most games, but they're also an art-form in and of themselves. Most players are perfectly fine with tutorials, usually appreciative of them at first, but their patience wears thin quickly. They've started up a video game - and thus you know that your players want to play a video game. Bad tutorials fail because they are not "playing a video game." Good tutorials either do not get in the way of play, or they are, themselves, play. The majority of Portal is nothing but play, without a traditional tutorial in sight, because that's all been integrated.

Don't neglect to teach your player how to play either, or their constant failure will simply result in frustration. Again, red flag. This isn't to say that the first level of a game should be impossible to fail at, of course. This isn't the case for Super Mario Bros or Sonic the Hedgehog, and those games caught on alright. In the beginning though, your game should only present enough challenge to prevent it from becoming dull, another of our red flag issues.
I'm predicting exactly 0 people will need to click the "Super Mario Bros." link.
Once you've avoided those "red flag" issues, you can safely assume your player will provide the game with a reasonable amount of time to assess its quality.

Here things should be rather simple. Theoretically you believe you've built a good game worthy of publication, unless you work for Omega Force or EA Tiburon of course.
If those two got pregnant, they'd have quintuplets. Identical quintuplets.
There is, however, a pitfall there. Occasionally a game will try to give the player new content in such small portions, holding its best parts back for a big climax, that the player has quit before they ever experience them. Don't let this be you. The ending should be spectacular, of course, but the beginning should be just as fun. You have to let them know that good things are coming.
Theory: Halo 2's original ending was so awesome that Bungie worried it would dwarf the rest of the game and scrapped it.

The next thing I can advise is providing a clear sense of purpose. Ever wonder WHY so many gives are divided up by levels?Yes, there were originally considerable technical limits that reinforced modular game design, but why has this remained when so many other tropes from that era have faded? Why did Super Mario Bros, use not only levels, but "worlds?". Progress. By breaking up the game into definite checkpoints, you provide the player with a sense that, even in the short time they've been trying the game, they've made progress. They've attained something, and are thus further invested. A more modern example of this can be seen in current XBox Live Arcade demos which often end with a statement along the lines of "Congratulations on beating the demo! Buy now to maintain your progress and get the avatar award you unlocked!"

After beating 3 of the 5 levels of World 1 the thought process will become "well, I might as-well beat World 1." After that, "Well, I've beaten 1/3 of the game. Might as well pick it up for myself and finish it." And why? How does that last part make any sense? It's normally only "So I can say I did." IE: "So I can't say I wasted my time on the first 1/3." The player has become invested, and you just moved a unit.

In summary:
1 - Avoid "red flag" issues like frustration, dullness, or unoriginality. These may cause the player to end the game prematurely.
2- Show your player the quality of your game early. They have to know what they'll be getting to assess value.
3- Provide a sense of progress. Lead the way to the full product.

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