In this chapter, we will explore the concept of engagement-led design in more detail and look at some specific tools we can use to build mechanics that respond to the player’s evolving needs. This isn’t intended as a prescription to define a formula for game design, but is intended instead as a tool to help you review your game designs and to identify potential problems, as well as ways to punctuate each stage of play with experiences that can help build deeper engagement, perhaps even to “upsell” players to the next life stage, to spend money, or simply to keep playing.
We need to grab the player’s attention in just six seconds and lead them to a meaningful success within the first minute. But how do we do that; what design principles can we use to deliver on something like that?
The Bond Opening
Let’s take an analogy from the film industry and look at the James Bond movies, which always deliver a spectacular opening moment. Within the first ten minutes or so, we are treated to a condensed experience with all the guns, girls, chases, cars and, of course, quips that we expect from the genre. This isn’t a random indulgence. This reintroduces us to Bond himself, what he does and, importantly, just what he is capable of at his best. It’s a benchmark against which his abilities are measured, allowing us to understand the difficulty to overcome his opponents later. The story of that opening is separate from the rest of the plot. This moment is about setting up the conditions that allow us to make sense of the plot later in the story, hopefully without giving anything important away. This is about explaining the environment of the world Bond lives is. Then it ends with a classic staged moment, we look at the archetype “licensed to kill” spy down the barrel of a gun. This reinforces the continuity between the films and whoever is playing Bond on that occasion. It’s a level of familiarity that creates a concrete connection between the viewer and the film, settling everyone into place for the journey that is to come. This approach makes us willing to forgive all kinds of incredible or flawed plots as it gives us permission to turn on our “suspension of disbelief” and turn off our critical thinking.
What has this got to with games? Well, it provides us with a perspective we can apply when we look through the first moments of our game. We should try to work out what qualities the opening experience has to delight players and importantly whether they foreshadow the value of playing our game. This starts from the moment that the player selects the icon. We are setting expectations with the art style, the UI and how smoothly this functions. The way we explain to players what they need to do to play the game matters and should feel part of the experience. In fact I’d go further: it has to delight the player. If we have a boring, frustrating tutorial, this risks setting an expectation that we have a boring frustrating game. Instead we should try to eliminate the need for a tutorial and use play to educate the player in the ways of the mechanics as far as possible.
A Core Experience
The early stages of a game should clearly communicate the core mechanic (what we earlier called the “bones”) of the game and this means we have to also clearly communicate the success criteria (the “muscles”), which at the same time means we have to explain the values of the game, which are intrinsically linked to the reasons why we should keep playing. Games such as Assassin’s Creed take a very direct approach to this by giving us the chance to play a fully equipped and skilled avatar in the first stages of the game, only to take away much of those perks so that we can earn them back again. On the other hand, Plants vs. Zombies uses a pattern of play that starts simply and draws you across the map for each level, allowing you to quickly unlock a series of new seeds you can use. This demonstrates the route map through the game, before you are informed that to proceed to the next “world” you have to collect a specific number of stars. This asks you to repeat the journey you have already made, but with a new end-goal as well as new twists to each stop on your journey. Both these techniques provide the player with a degree of freedom, a sense of purpose, and the opportunity to take a step-by-step journey of discovery that gives them the opportunity to learn and perfect the controls without this being too scary. Further, they use these steps to create entertainment, genuine fun as well as genuine progression punctuated with regular and early playing rewards. These are not just meaningful to sustain every player, but they also set up the expectations for later in the game. From this groundwork, the player will understand whether, for them, the game is worth spending money on later. Don’t ask players to spend money at this point, however; the point of this stage is to demonstrate the value of the game to them so they are much more inclined to buy at the right stage in their engagement. That being said, this is an opportunity to lay our cards on the table; that our game is worth spending money on. We want to make sure that even in only the first minute that we are explaining that we have a great game, that there are things about this game that are worth spending money on, but only when the player is ready to do so.
Last Chance! Come to the UK Book Launch March 7th, 2014 at UKIE!
Excerpt from Games as a Service: How Free to Play Design Can Make Better Games by Oscar Clark © 2014 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.