Downtime is a big issue in games these days. Optical discs keep getting bigger but their transfer rates just can’t match the processing power that uses it. And with the average console game starting at $59.99, having a design plan for this sort of loading down time is crucial to keeping the player interested. (They certainly won’t forget load times when they decide whether to post something about it, anyway.)
There are three major areas of downtime to consider:
- Loading Screens (system bandwidth at a minimum; the console is preoccupied with data access or packet polling)
- Cut Scenes (streaming high-bandwidth video)
- Credits (any sort of non-interactive text crawl)
Remember that saying, “A watched pot never boils?” Well, if we can get the player to do something other than watching the pot, so to speak, we can solve the problem for every one of those projects that doesn’t have the cash or time to find a more exotic solution.
Disc media is a fact of gaming life right now for home consoles. Sure, you can buy most games on PSN, Xbox Live or Steam, but with downloads reaching as high as 50GB you have to assume most players are coming in with a game on a disc. Without the proper plan up front, your audience is destined to be losing a few minutes each day to staring at a static screen, which in turn means switching to their iPhone and giving up on the whole disc game in the first place. I’ve seen games that lose up to ten percent of their initial play to loading, and that’s a sure-fire way to shake free of any good will the player may have been willing to share.
Key Solution: Beautiful Katamari (XBOX360)
Don’t let Namco’s absurd patent scare you, because Beautiful Katamari skirts that piece of paper to show a ridiculously simple solution to loading downtime: turning the loading notice into a controlled avatar. Use the left analog stick to steer the King around the screen, and use the right analog stick to aim his chatter. It’s like Robotron without the enemies, score, or anything resembling a gameplay flow.But it works. The player has something to do, a very simple environment in which to test the limits, and if nothing else, waste a few seconds without realizing it. Like fashion magazines in a waiting room, your audience is going to be grateful for the chance to do anything beyond staring at the paint on the ceiling.
Consider the active backgrounds in iOS7 that allow you to “move” the image with the accelerometer. It’s cheap, it has no gameplay, but it can grab attention, and that’s what is important when you’re stalling for content.
I would venture to guess that less than one game in a hundred has a story worth making the player sit through cutscenes for. Like the trailers before a movie in the theater, as developers we just start the reel and throw away the remote, and that really is troubling considering what we are selling. Throughout my career I’ve seen designers struggle with the idea of adding a “skip” button to cutscenes, knowing the impatient types will become forever unplugged from the narrative. While this could be true, there are methods to compensate.
Key Solution: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (PlayStation 2)
The film appreciation of Kojima Productions shows even without the cutscenes, but knowing how vital they were to the game, the studio added ways for the player to stay occupied. All of the cutscenes in the game are in-engine, allowing the player to have some minor control of their presentation. The right analog stick can pan the camera subtly, with R3 used to zoom in. Key sequences have an alternate angle (with occasional gameplay implications, like hidden numbers) that can be triggered at time-sensitive moments.The first part seems minor, right? But it’s another great example of involvement and distraction. Players will go from fiddling with the controls, to checking all the corners for secrets that might never come. Suddenly a twenty or thirty-minute real-time cutscene is doing a better job holding player attention than a 30 second pre-rendered one could.
Another simple method to compensate is simply to cache all revealed cutscenes somewhere in the UI. Give the player a way to recap and relive without having to start a new save. A single UI screen is relatively low-cost to build and lets you re-use content instead of have to engineer past it.
So you had a staff of fifty work themselves to the bone, and now you want the player to sit through the credits? Why bother? Most players won’t sit through the credits of their favorite 2 hour movie let alone the last-minute finale of a twenty hour game unless there’s a really damn good carrot after. Instead of waiting to the very last day of development to cobble a television-grade credit roll, why not try something the player would like?
Key Solution: flOw (PlayStation 3)
In case you haven’t sensed the trend yet…it’s “keep the player playing!” There are actually a good handful of games I could have suggested here that trigger games during their credit sequences, but Flow feels more refreshing about it because the credits are themselves an actual level in the game progression. An easy, you-cannot-possibly-fail level, but a level nonetheless.And that’s all you should really ask for: a pleasant diversion to relax with after beating the game. Give the player something fun to think about at the end of their experience, and they will remember your game much more fondly because you respected their time.
The key thing to get at here is that player downtime is never going to go away unless we factor it into our designs. Games like Beautiful Katamari, flOw, and MGS3 are significant because they all make the player realize – early and often – that the game experience only ends when the player stops playing. The sooner we realize this as designers, the sooner gamers can expect to see games that won’t leave them waiting.