Solving Player Downtime

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:

  1. Loading Screens (system bandwidth at a minimum; the console is preoccupied with data access or packet polling)
  2. Cut Scenes (streaming high-bandwidth video)
  3. 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.

Loading Downtime

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.

Cutscene Downtime

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.

Ending Downtime

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.

4 Comments

  1. Radiant

    You make some good points there. Loading time is a distracting factor that can potentially break the game.

    There are other ways to distract the player, such as story elements, tips and tricks or interesting facts. Though Katamari does provide an interesting diversion, it still does feel like a loading screen.

    I think a better example would be the wonderous Okami. During load times, the player is presented with one of two mini-games that if completed within the loading time, rewards you with demon fangs which can be used to trade for rare items. One is a speed button mash game that is easy and gives one fang. The other is a timing game that can reward you with multiple fangs. These mini games + reward actually make the player look forward to loading time!

    To do stuff like this though, requires more than design thoughts, it requires programming and art resources. As you know, that doesn’t come by easily, and obviously there are much higher priority tasks that require attention than a loading screen… but that’s more of a mentality thinking, as you’ve described, it’s very important.

    Pixar movies ending credits are the only ones I really stay to watch because of their cute “blooper” segments. But the thing is, I end up simply not watching the credits. flOw does do this well, by integrating the credits into the levels, but if you have a long list of credits, well that becomes much more difficult to do.

    A great topic that’s definitely worth taking seriously.

  2. Richard Knight

    Ideally, yes, we would rather not have a loading screen at all, or at least something intrinsically linked to the game presentation (eg: rolling things up in 2D or something a bit more on-topic than word shooting.) But Namco still deserve strong points for effort, especially when even triple-A games now like Mass Effect and Uncharted ship with static or “coinflip” loading screens.

    Yes, this stuff requires resources. Yes, it requires a budget. Time. Designs. But so does the rest of the game, and that’s what I’m trying to argue, that we as developers are too quick to write these parts off as something other than what they should be: part of the game experience.

    As for credits, I agree; I watch the pixar stuff too, for the same reason you mention. We can’t compel players to want to read the credits, but quite frankly, as an interactive medium, we should be giving players reason to let their interest lead the way.

    Chrono Trigger developer rooms, Katamari mini-games, flOw gameplay integration, even mini-wiki style highlight information could all work to great effect.

  3. Radiant

    I really liked the Chrono Trigger developer room, and the Katamari ending credits game.

    The cool thing about those is that it requires less resources to build, but goes a long way.

    You’re right about making this part of the development process. We should put more weight into it. And with proper planning and design, it doesn’t have to be complicated or take up a lot of resources. Okami’s loading screen is a perfect example of a well executed plan that’s highly effective and highly efficient.

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