I was going to write about Call of Duty: Advance Warfare. Then I was going to write about Dragon Age: Inquisition. I could not make my mind up really. I recently picked up both of these games and managed less than 30 minutes on each. And there I had it – the common thread.
What both these games, and a few others I have had a go at recently, have in common, is that they do not hook me within the first 15 minutes, not even within the first 30 minutes to be honest. Quite the contrary, they are shining examples of (what I think) is horrible design choices for the opening moments of the respective game. And both games have bad beginnings for different reasons. Let’s have a look at them in turn. There are very minor spoilers ahead. Really minor. I did not get far at all. This might be a bit of a long post.
Call of Duty
CoD has been a yearly staple for some time now and this time around it was the turn of a new studio at the helm, Sledgehammer. It actually follows in the footsteps of the last few iterations of the game quite neatly. It does not do anything radically different or better. By all accounts it is a solid, if not groundbreaking, game in the series. Personally I think other games do certain elements better (Titanfall for movement, including jump-pack, Battlefield for multiplayer), but that is purely subjective.
The opening however I feel is a great example of what not to do with a video game. There is the inevitable massive cut scene, desperately trying to establish the relationship between the player character and his buddy, and then the player is plunged into action. Only it’s not really action. You are in a drop pod with a few other marines. You descent towards Korea (North or South I can’t remember). Something goes wrong and the very first action of the game you have to perform: a quicktime event. Not only that, there is no real consequence of the quicktime event either (not gonna spoil more than that). You eventually crash land and guess what! Another quick time event! This time you can literally hang in your harness for as long as you want – I went and made myself a cup of tea and a sandwich – before you press the button to release. When you finally do, you are on the ground, but it takes another 2 or 3 minutes before you see action.
So what’s wrong with this opening? Well it depends on what you see in CoD. To me, first and foremost, the game is a first person shooter. Yet I do not get to shoot until I am 5 minutes into the game. The very first thing I do as a player is a quicktime event with no meaning. The entire opening of the game is framed around a cinematic set-piece, indeed the entire first level is. It is meant to WOW the player, it is not meant to let the player PLAY the game or learn anything. There is a tutorial which teaches all the new stuff the game has to offer (jump-pack, smart grenades and all that jazz), but you don’t actually get to see that tutorial (which comes in the shape of a rifle range) until 20 to 30 minutes into the game. By which point you should really have used all those gameplay elements if you want to survive.
CoD does 3 things in the beginning of the game:
- It gives me a cinematic set piece
- It throws me in the deep end of gameplay without teaching me any relevant elements
- It tries to force a supposedly deep and meaningful relationship on me, which actually means nothing to me at all.
In my book CoD does everything wrong. Gamers don’t buy CoD for a quasi relationship and shitty story telling. Gamers buy CoD because they want to shoot stuff. But the game does not allow me to do that until it forces all that sappy story stuff and the quicktime events down my throat. I am sorry CoD, but I am not pressing X to pay my respects.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
I was really looking forward to DA. I actually loved the first one, though only managed a few hours in the second before I gave up – it was utterly rubbish. So when Bioware decided to get back to work on it and change things, I was happy. What I had seen in trailers and interviews excited me and I have friends working on the game. I lasted slightly longer than 30 minutes (but! I might go back to it).
Dragon Age starts very much like CoD: It’s a big cinematic experience. It has character creation woven into it and it’s done well, but essentially it’s a big cut scene. The difference between CoD and DA though is, that at the end of the CoD intro I know what’s going on (shitty as the story is), with Dragon Age I have not got a clue. There was some green explosion. My character now has green glowing hands. I have been arrested but, through awesome conversation skills (which seem to offer choice, but don’t really as the outcome is the same), I managed to convince my captors to trust me and let me free.
The game then throws me in the thick of it and, unlike CoD, does explain a few more things along the first mission. The problem is: there is far too fucking much to learn and it’s explained at breakneck speed. There are different followers and their abilities, tactical views, combat strategies, special attacks, consumables, character upgrades (which a highly convoluted and unreadable menu) and many many more things. The game completely overloads the player with things to learn, while trying to convey story at the same time. It does not help that the voice actors for the first part are quite bad and the dialogue is wooden.
30 minutes in and I have no clue who I am, why I do what I do, who the enemy are and, most importantly, how I do the things I need to do. It’s a shambles. A friend of mine pointed out today to give it 5 or 6 hours and you’ll get the hang of it. Are you fucking serious??
As another friend of mine said a few days ago: DA:Inquisition is like Stockholm syndrome. You fall in love with something that is actually bad for you, hurting you, and you desperately want it to be good.
Am I just a rubbish gamer?
Well yes and no. I am certainly not the world’s best gamer, and my gaming habits and preferences certainly have changed slightly over the last few years (due to age probably, due to lifestyle definitely). I am busy in life, I have things I like to do other than gaming. For me gaming is like any other form of entertainment (movies, theatre, TV, gigs and books), something enjoyable to do when I have spare time. Occasionally there will be a game which simply takes over my life. A game I can’t wait to get home to play, a game which I think about when at work, a game I will say no to a session in the pub for. But these have been rare in the last few years.
But I am a gamer, and a designer, so I LIKE games and I want to play games. I cannot think of a time where I will ever stop playing games. I am just a lot more picky these days and I have no time for games that don’t grab me, in one way or another, within the first 30 minutes.
What do games have to do then, to achieve that?
How to create a good game start
It’s easy for me to write this, it’s harder to actually pull off. There are many people involved in making a game and everyone has their opinion on what they need to convey to the player early on in the game.
All these, to one degree or another, are valid points. But I think game developers consistently get it wrong. They attempt one or more of these points and get the emphasis wrong, or convey it in the wrong way. Games focus on one element over others. Some which focus on gameplay go too far and create hand-holding tutorials that everyone wants to skip. It’s not easy getting the mix right, but it has to be done.
Essentially it boils down to this: Establish the setting, story and character but never at the expense of gameplay. Don’t focus on gameplay to such an extent as to break immersion. And never let visuals and reveals dictate anything else, instead visuals are there to reinforce the other parts.
Sounds easy right? Sounds like common sense right? Well it’s hard to implement properly, depending on who is in charge and what the focus is on.
So here is how I would have done CoD and Dragon Age differently, and why.
ZeGerman’s Opening of Call of Duty: Advance Warfare
Start the game in boot camp. Do not have a big fuck off cut scene at the start. The game obviously intends me to feel something about my character and my marine buddy. So do the tutorial first, in boot camp, on the shooting range. In the first 30 seconds of the game, give me a weapon to shoot with. Tell a story how these new suits of armour are being introduced. I am a brand new recruit and, what is going to be my best buddy helps me learn the ropes, teaches me. Introduce all new tech in an environment where you are naturally MEANT to learn weapons – it makes sense from a context point of view. Then have a radio, TV or public announcement of the Korean war. Introduce the reason for why we are going to deploy.
10 minutes in the player knows who he is, knows who his buddy is and knows how to operate the most sophisticated weaponry known to infantry soldiers. Above all he knows why he is going to deploy to Korea. THEN show me the kick ass cut scene. You can even do the silly quicktime event if you absolutely must.
And for the love of god, cut the gameplay event at the funeral, it’s embarrassing. The reality is, players of games like CoD will have a hard time relating to or feeling for their own character. Asking them to feel something for an NPC who dies is just never going to happen. It’s wasted time and effort to try. Cut scenes are great for that, as players feel they are a reward for playing the game. In games like CoD they can also be a nice way of “relaxing” after some intense combat.
ZeGerman’s Opening of Dragon’s Age: Inquisition
This one is actually a lot simpler in many ways. One of the biggest problems the game has is lack of context. Players new to the series will have no fucking clue at all about anything. So in this case a big cut scene in the beginning is actually a good idea. But rather than show what is happening in this instalment, take the time (and money) to give vision back to the previous games. If you make a game part of a series and the setting, story and characters have a history, you need to make sure that every player is aware of that history. Do not expect new players to have seen trailers, read websites or go back and play the old games. Double points if you make this “what happened so far” cut scene optional when a player first starts the game. “Would you like to be reminded of what happened so far?” – yes it will cost a bit extra to make a cut scene like this, but with a budget of DA that would have been peanuts.
The only other thing that DA would need to do at the start is to not introduce everything at the same time. Within the space of 5 minutes the player gets introduced to combat, group combat, tactical overview and (after leveling up) to player upgrades. Very very very simple solution: Slow. Things. Down.
Introduce the player to personal combat first of course, just basic controls. This can easily be handled in the context of the player recovering from the shock of the explosion. The character is slow, dazed, so not much else is available. Next introduce health, consumables, allow the player to regain health. Now the player is no longer dazed, so special attacks are available. Teach the player how to use them, how to map them. Once that is done, ensure the player has leveled up and introduce the character upgrade system (make sure ONLY the character upgrade screen is available at this point and make it actually readable…).
Now you can get the player arrested. Do your story bits as needed. Following that, give the player another scenario where he has to test the skills learned early on – solo combat, healing up and perhaps even another upgrade.
Then it’s time to pick up the pace and introduce group combat, but with one follower only. Have a couple of combat scenarios like that, make sure you introduce shifting between characters at this point, it’s much easier to keep track with only 2 characters in the group. Following that, add another follower and repeat the process, again for a few small battles. Then you can finally introduce the tactical element and different camera position.
In short: Space things out, make sure the player learns one thing at a time AND has time to practice what he has learned before introducing new elements. It’s an RPG. Even players who are familiar with these games, and the series, won’t mind the slower pace if it’s done well and if it is good content.
Not only does this retain the player, learning things, unlocking things and seeing new things are all little rewards that get the player into the “oh just one more” state, but spacing it out also gives the designers room to introduce storry, characters and context slower. This means you can make sure the player knows who he is, who his team are and what is going on. Telling me in my very first conversation choice that “Person X” does not approve of my choice, does not mean anything to me if I don’t know who Person X is or why I should care.
Getting the start of a game right is not always easy. But it is hugely important. Hardcore gamers aside (and as an industry we should not ever really care about them, because they do not represent the widest possible market), it is important to capture the player in the first 15 to 30 minutes or risk losing him for good and risk ending up with another copy of the game in the “used” section.
I think a lot of developers try to do just that, capturing the audience, by blasting them with all the features and a couple of great cut scenes early on. But I believe the opposite might be a better option. Slow things down, focus on what is important. The opening of a game is not an E3 or release trailer. The opening of a game has to be designed to tell the player all he needs to know to set him up for the rest of the game. Pacing, gameplay and context is more important there than in any other part of the game.