How to make sure players finish the first hour of your game (TATT#28)

the acagamic tip tuesday Aug 30, 2022
The UI of the introduction level of Persona 5 is shown. Several yellow arrows point out the features that the game does really well in its introduction like simple goals, clear feedback, and easy controls.

In today's issue, I will break down how to design the first-time user experience arc of gameplay.

Creating a smooth onboarding experience for your games is vital because the start of a game is the most played sequence in the final product.

UX design for the first hour of gameplay is essential. Given the sequential nature of user testing in games, the first hour is also usually the most tested part of a game. It should be the most compelling.

Intrigue trumps enjoyment for the first hour of play: When designing game onboarding, instead of focusing on fun alone, focus on intrigue and engagement of players.

Unfortunately, more people start games than finish them. Only about 20% of players finish games. But more than 70% play past the first hour of gameplay.

Most people don't finish video games because they lose interest or lack skills

Among the popular game-related reasons why people don't finish your game are:

  • Lack of clear feedback
  • Complicated goals
  • Complex control scheme
  • Uninteresting story scenario
  • No visible progression

Alternatively, among the player-related reasons people quit your game are that they don't have enough free time to play anymore, that they lack the skills to play, that they would rather play socially with others, or that another new intellectual property has taken over their attention. These player-related challenges are out of your control.

However, once you understand the arc of first-time user experience in games, you can overcome at least the game-related challenges and design a compelling game right from the start.

Here's how, step by step:

Understand player expectations

Before even designing your game, understand what expectations players bring to the first exposure to your game. A franchise and similar games in the genre set expectations. Additionally, marketing, influential reviewers, buzz, and friend word-of-mouth shape the expectations of players for your game.

The final bit of player anticipation comes from gameplay trailers or demos of the game. An interesting start situation goes a long way here to shape expectations of players of what's to come later in gameplay. Clear feedback and simple goals make it easy for players to feel in control. Clear action instructions (such as Open Door or the control scheme from Persona 5 shown below) make it even easier.

Design beyond memorable experiences for engaging UX

Many designers go wrong in their approach to designing memorable experiences, things that people find cool and exciting. These leave players in awe of a cool feature or well-designed environment. However, these memorable moments don't hook players to continue playing. A giant boss fight thrown in at the beginning may be exciting but won't get players excited about a gameplay mechanic.

In contrast, providing an engaging experience leaves players enthusiastic about wanting more. This hooks them or gets them emotionally invested in gameplay. This is usually done via gripping narratives, thematic elements, or novel game mechanics. For example, in Marvel's Spider-Man (2018) game, the mechanic of web slinging and swinging from buildings is so intuitive and fun that many players just forget about game objectives while they explore the city. This is an engagement masterpiece.

Measure the outcomes

Possible outcomes of the first hour of gameplay experience can be anything between people keen to play again, abandoning the game, or returning it ultimately.

We must measure the outcomes to adjust our design and decide whether the experiences were positive or negative. This is best done through a qualitative approach and asking players about the exact things that went right or wrong for them in their initial playthrough of the first hour.

Together, these three form the first-time user experience arc: expectations → experiences → outcomes. Expectations shape experiences, which in turn adjust and shape outcomes. This handy framework allows building any type of UX.

UX Research App of the Week: Userbit

Userbit is a pretty complete tool for the entire UX workflow. I gave it a quick whirl but still have to take more time to go through their user research stack (they allow a complete user research repository for projects with notes, interviews, surveys and insights through tagging, highlighting, and charting). What I loved on the design side is how quickly I could set up a persona, user flows, a journey map (for my persona), a hierarchical sitemap, and even run a card sort. It covers everything you need in the UX and IA design and research cycle. Use my affiliate link to sign up.

Games Research Find of the Week

This paper explains the initial play experience in games works and quite frankly inspired this entire newsletter issue. The authors analyzed 200+ reviews from gaming websites (35 reviews) and Amazon (212 reviews in 30 different genres) of Xbox 360 games and interviews with industry professionals to get a better understanding of people's onboarding experience in video games.

They posit that "games must start by grabbing the player’s attention, feeding their interest for the future. Frustrations must be minimized. The player needs to be taught how to play, rewarded emotionally and with a sense of control."

They coded their data based on a grounded theory approach using open, axial, and selective coding. In their paper, they present the first-time user experience arc that I discussed above.

Findings that stick out:

  • Players understand they have to learn the mechanics, but the game mechanics must deliver on their pretenses.
  • Key details must be communicated well to players because if they miss them, it's a deal-breaker.
  • Players need clear directions and the freedom to discover. Missing directions cause frustration.
  • Defining a holdout as "something that keeps players playing even when annoyance, frustration, or boredom accumulates." These can be found in anticipated game elements, enjoyable game mechanics, good narratives, and social reasons.

Read the full study: Gifford K. Cheung, Thomas Zimmermann, and Nachiappan Nagappan. 2014. The first hour experience: how the initial play can engage (or lose) new players. In Proceedings of the first ACM SIGCHI annual symposium on Computer-human interaction in play (CHI PLAY '14). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 57–66.

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