Waiting in Line to Press Start

As anyone who has been reading my site can guess, game flow has been a big topic lately. I’ve ranted about bosses, I’ve ranted about cutscenes and loading screens, and now I’m going to rant about the biggest afterthought in games today:

The title sequence.

By that I mean not the title screen in particular, but everything leading up to playing the game itself. Twenty years ago in the arcades, what we had made sense. Put in that quarter, and the game really should be asking permission to take it. With the games of today, however, we gave that permission at the check-out counter. We gave that permission when we click the icon on our blade, our inserted the disc into the drive. So why do we sit through unskippable legal text and studio logos? Why do we wade through all sorts of junk just to press start?

The Legal Shield

The Reality: Corporate entities are paranoid. Publishers and Developers want to make sure their stamp flickers in the player’s eye once a day. Licensors want to have a big sheet of text to back them in court.  And the hardware manufacturers…well, they want to drive home what system you are using and what you better not be doing while you use it. That final title screen is there to drive home what all of those pages applied to, and that by pressing the button, you’re okay with it.

The Problem: It’s a waste of time. The player has given their permission already. Every second from the disk going into the drive becomes a gamble as to whether interest in the game will hold up until the player can play. Go too slow, cover your legal ass too well…and you’ve lost your audience.

The average film (after trailers and ads) will cut right to the chase. Here’s a couple of studio images, and away they go. Often the team that cuts together the final reel is so aware of losing their audience that dialogue and music may kick in while the studio ads are on-screen. TV has taken it a step further, leaving little more than a logo on the front end – and usually not right away either! – while saving credits and legal for the very end…otherwise known as the exact moment when the audience won’t care.

These examples are important because they show what our audience is exposed to every day: a quick jump to the content!

The Ideal: Save the legal for the credits. Most games will make their credits readily available anyway, right? On the same line of thinking, I don’t believe we need to get rid of publisher or developer logos – it’s good to know who makes what! – but can’t we save those for the intro sequence of the game itself? Let’s allow developers to do the same things film can do, without forcing a big corporate ad down the player’s throat. This goes for middleware, too; we don’t mind mentioning you in the small title-screen print, but otherwise, there’s plenty of room on the credit roll.

There are very few examples of this practice in the console realm – games can’t even ship without the hardware manufacturer getting in an image or two – but on the PC, this practice is pretty common among smaller projects like web-based games. Moreso than on any other platform, the developers of such small titles can’t gamble on their audience hanging around for logo screens, as there’s no guarantee anyone will even stick around for the game to load in their web browser.

For games that can’t get away without some sort of representation up front…I really believe compression should be considered. Any artist worth his salt can fit together multiple logos on a screen and make it look like they fit there. I’d rather know that Mass Effect was some epic congregation between Bioware, Microsoft, and UE3 than being forced to sit through each logo sequence individually.

The Load Curtain

The Reality: No matter what system you’re on, the game needs to be loaded, and getting data from the source medium is always a slow process. Logos and legal screens can – theoretically, at least – help cover up the loading and give the player a smoother transition to the title screen and eventually, the game itself.

The Problem: We’re not actually doing all of the loading here!

Even out of the big hits of this past holiday season, most games would typically greet players who passed the title screen with – you guessed it! – a loading screen. Any good will that might have been earned in impressing the player up to that point would be hopelessly lost.

The Ideal: Loading is inescapable for a lot of projects today, so I think the best thing we can do is either front-load it – actually doing the gruntwork while the player trudges through logo city – or back-load it, explicitly loading after the title screen, but saving the player on wait time up that point by moving the legal and logo stuff elsewhere.

Either way, it’s bad enough to make the player wait once. Making the player wait twice could be a fatal development mistake.

The Teaser

The Reality: Trade-shows and retail demos need your game to do something besides burning a logo on the screen. Automated gameplay (see any given racing game) or long cutscenes (see any given RPG) provide a simple, if removed, way to attract an audience.

The more film-oriented developers also believe that the intro helps establish mood and the pacing of game to come – few people probably remember playing the PS1 classic Wild ARMS, but many will likely remember the western whistling theme from the intro.

The Problem: Intro’s are rarely useful in their current context. Retail rarely has the space for playables, advertising is being dominated by pre-made video footage, and trade-shows are currently a fractured story of playable demos and publisher controlled venues. Determining things like mood, style, and pacing seems fine, but is inevitably let down by a 4th-wall breaking title screen, character setup, and usually even more loading in order to reach gameplay!

To make it worse, the typical intro in the games of today tends to be one of two things: either a fast-cut clipshow that tells you little about the game, or actual gameplay footage that taunts the audience as to what they might be doing…if they weren’t watching the video.

I know that sounds like a cyclical argument, but can’t we save that video for the advertising department? The player is interested in playing, not watching a clips-show.

The Ideal: Toss the intro from the pregame, or build it INTO the other pregame content. Final Fantasy is famous for not even showing the real intro until after you’ve played through the first dungeon. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater builds the title and developer logos into an elaborate playable intro sequence after the title screen. Many other games in the past have used attract reels, but only as something triggered after a delay on the title screen.

The gold standard for this ideal, of course, is Valve Software’s Half Life series, which typically introduces the game as something of a long walk, plugging actors, logos, and legal along the way instead of as a front-loaded barricade. I’d argue the dystopian/apocalyptic walkthrough of City 17 in Half Life 2 was a more compelling way to get players involved in a game than almost anything else in the industry before it.

As developers, we should be focused on getting the player into the experience as quickly as possible. Our audience is much smarter than many games give them credit for, but nobody is going to stick around to hear what you have to say until you sell it to them. For film and TV, sure, story might be enough. But for games, it is both our advantage and our commandment to sell with gameplay.

It doesn’t have to start out complex, with a Michael Bay budget and Hollywood’s finest screenwriting. But if you can get the player started out doing something – maybe not even fun, but simply interesting – then you’ve successfully captured an audience.

After that, all you have to do after that is keep them there.

2 Comments

  1. Radiant

    Everybody hates legal screens. While some games let you skip, some games don’t.

    While it also is bothersome, I have yet to see anyone actually turned off enough to stop playing the game altogether. I think the suits up there realize this, and this may also be the reason they abuse it. It’s an annoying “fact-of-life” sort of thing that we’ve come to accept, just like how people have come to accept Windows will crash on occasion.

    I think that fixing this problem will improve the experience, but commercially doesn’t serve as a viable option. Sure, gamers are smarter than developers give them credit for, but there’s no guarantee that the player will care to see these logos in some other context. 15 seconds of pre-game logos while long enough to annoy, is also short enough for a player to bear, and simply mash the start button saying “C’mon, c’mon already.”

  2. Richard Knight

    But that’s just the point – we are blindly accepting this stuff. Hell, we aren’t even considering it during the design process. (I’d be surprised if half the games on the market even build a credit roll until beta!)

    This is it. We are making games. Not movies, not advertising platforms. The player puts all of the success and blame squarely on our shoulders.

    I like to think of it like buying a new computer monitor. Sometimes I forget my monitor is even new. Sometimes I’m only concerned about what I play on it. But whenever I go back to something worse, the difference *is* noticeable.

    The same can apply to games. If we make ours easier to get into and easier to stick with, why won’t the player notice something is missing when they try something else?

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