Saturday, February 11, 2017

Saturday Sidequest: The Importance of Your Game's First Hour

Finally, here we are at my third feature for The Cybertavern. As mentioned before this is the beginning of a new three post a week initiative on top of my work at The Game Fanatics. Saturday Sidequest is basically a constructive rant series where I have a big old literary scream about recurring elements both good and bad happening in modern gaming.

Alright, you read the title so let's get to this. That is unless you're actually a bot or something trying to inform me about a brand new offer that will expand my net worth within a year as long as I use a certain hair care product that is totally NOT full of carnivorous spiders. If the latter's the case, sign me up... I have some enemies to settle the score with this Valentine's Day.

Anyway for this inaugural installment of Saturday Sidequest I like to muse about the opening of video games. Not just the tutorials, although that is a crucial part of the experience, but how the presentation of a game from its visuals to its voice-acting to how it balances its gameplay with narrative intrigue is so absolutely important.

In terms of AAA production this is a no brainer. In order for such big budget games to make their money back they have to ensure that everybody who picks up a copy gets hooked within that first crucial hour. Otherwise the game will sit unfinished at best, or at worst gets returned to the store. But this installment applies to any game of any budget and scope.

Since I find it most constructive to begin with examples of an opening hour done poorly I have two games for discussion on two opposite ends of the spectrum. The first is 7 Days to Die by The Fun Pimps.

First, I need to clarify my critique of this game. I am very much aware that this game is still technically in a Beta state, not officially done with updates and future content coming to it when the creators have it ironed out. I am completely content with eating some serious crow if and when my problems are addressed. However, the game has gone on to release disc and digital copies of its current build on PS4 and Xbox One, as such I must treat this game by the same merits as any other product released in the same vein.

7 Days to Die is a pretty standard survival crafting sim that is all over the damn place, especially on Steam. You have to manage hunger, thirst, stamina and your own personal quality of life with shelters and traps to ward off an impending zombie attack. Once things actually get rolling and you can deal with the multitude of bugs and glitches, the game actually manages to encourage survival and base management in an engaging manner. Having to alternate between adventuring out into uncharted territory for food and supplies by day and hunkering down in your trap-laden home at night, all to avoid the zombies that become extremely aggressive when the moon is out.

But how about that first crucial hour? Well to The Fun Pimps' credit they do have something akin to a tutorial... as told through text boxes and letters. Once again, I am aware that carefully crafting a tutorial with unique assets used to help demonstrate a game's more complex elements is a massive drain on resources and budget when it comes to a smaller production. Make no mistake, 7 Days To Die is a complex game and almost impenetrable to someone with no gaming literacy at all, and the tutorial does a good job of giving you the survival game basics. Making tools, repairing and reinforcing structures, making weapons and armor, and how to hunt.

But this tutorial is undone by one truly painful element with three letters: RNG. 7 Days to Die is a procedurally generated world. This means that every time you start a new game, the entire game's map is completely different. Different biome, different architecture, different sources of water and food.

On paper, this approach does help sell the idea of the game, basically going Man Vs. Wild in the Zombie Apocalypse, but when random chance is thrown into what should be a structured tutorial, it's very possible that an element that should only take ten minutes winds up taking three hours. Case in point, the tutorial got around to talking about hunting game and encouraged me to run out with my bow and kill something then take it apart for food and pelts. The problem is I was in an area completely devoid of animals to hunt. So I was stuck with nothing for food and the latter parts of the game's tutorial I was forced to figure out for myself. Even worse, you cannot obtain any levels or skill points, crucial elements you need in order to give your survivor a chance, until you finish this introduction.

This is a sloppy first hour. When you leave something like this up to chance you run the very real risk of players becoming woefully uninformed and confused, which does not curry a large player base. A player base that 7 Days to Die desperately needs if the developers ever plan to fully implement all of their big plans for the game's “officially complete” version.

So how do you retain the terror and uncertainty of a randomly generated world where survival is paramount with the necessary structure, tone and precision of a tutorial? Two words: Doomsday Preppers. It was a reality show about real-life families who have dedicated large swaths of their lives to gathering food, water, and weapons in case some horrible inevitable cataclysm occurs. Zombie outbreak, nuclear holocaust, a squirrel being elected President of the United States, take your pick. Imagine if the beginning of 7 Days to Die was set in a pre-determined area with a fully charted map and you're going through a zombie outbreak exercise and undertaking it in a rural area out in the middle of nowhere. Make a bow, shoot some rabbits nearby, get some water from a lake that's nearby, make some armor from material nearby, and that's it. Then things go haywire, you have to “bug out” by entering a car to end the tutorial... and then the game proper begins. The car crashes. It runs out of gas. Some other poor soul runs you off the road and both cars go off a cliff with all of your important stuff lost. It doesn't even have to be a cutscene, just a simple text message will suffice. The point is you're stranded and now you have to survive with all the training wheels chopped off.

Admittedly it's very game-y but it's a much better approach than alienating a user base.

The other example I have is actually from a well established franchise. A series of JRPGs that have become beloved for complex and interesting storytelling alongside intense and exciting gameplay. Bandai Namco's Tales RPG series.

But the topic for dissection is the black sheep of the family and my introduction to the franchise: Tales of Zestiria.

There really isn't that much that's interesting about the opening of Zestiria, which is why there is a serious problem. A large JRPG that is going to eat up at least forty hours of your life needs to hook you in immediately with interesting characters and a compelling plot. Something that other beloved classics do so well. You're thrown back in time during a festival in Chrono Trigger. Final Fantasy VII opens with you leading the heroes on a huge sabotage operation against the evil Shinra Corporation. Persona's 3 and 4 balances both the mundane actions of school life with the psychedelic insanity that comes from facing the Shadows. All adeptly handled.

As for Tales of Zestiria's beginning. It opens on a sky island in the middle of nowhere with about ten minutes of exposition relegated to an unskippable cutscene about worldbuilding. The most generic kind of world building imaginable about an ancient evil that was eliminated by a chosen one. I wonder what's going to happen? This cutscene then continues with the game's two leads awkwardly expositing about how they should probably go home. Oh except the one character is invisible to anyone but the protagonist. This takes up three crucial minutes.

The rest of the hour is dedicated to a tutorial of the party going through a dungeon. Except it's a building that both characters have admitted they go in and out of continuously in order to get home. No explanation, no hand wave, and yes it's just as clunky as it sounds.

And then some more padding is thrown in with another character being introduced to the team. This eats up another five minutes where they have to once again explain that a certain character is selectively invisible.

After about twenty minutes of the starting dungeon tutorializing by way of giant blocks of text, Side note: whatever modern development studio still thinks they can throw almost seven paragraphs of text at a player with no input or training whatsoever and call that a thorough teaching of controls should hang up dev hats right now because that is beyond lazy, more cutscenes happen. Once again explaining how quaint and innocent the starting village is. Except it turns out the entire village are also selective ghosts, leading to even more oddball confusion. Confusion that could have very easily been avoided if this new character was simply omitted.

But wait, there's more! After a transition to another day, there is another tutorial for cooking and crafting, which means going to fight some boars and getting some meat. So that's another ten minutes, half of which can be charitably be called backtracking with another two minutes of lengthy exposition heavy cutscene about how food is good.

Finally around the fifty minute mark, it's revealed that the protagonist is the chosen one and must go to the mainland to fulfill his glorious destiny.

That's right, it takes this big JRPG almost an entire hour to get the entire plot into motion. That is truly awful storytelling, even by the slow boil standards of JRPGs. The festival of time in Chrono Trigger takes up about twenty minutes tops. FF7? Fifteen minutes at least. Even the Persona games, which can take north of half an hour to introduce the first combat encounter have such well written and dynamic characters you don't mind. Compared to Zestiria, the only information gained about the world and the main cast is a really confusing mystical element about a special race, and a chosen one prophecy. That's it. There's a reason why no one talks about Zestiria anymore, so much of it is so utterly forgettable and poorly presented.

Here's a perfect representation of my emotional state at this how badly this was bungled!


I bring all of this up because I do have a counter-point to juxtapose this stilted presentation: the first twenty minutes of the most recent Tales installment: Tales of Berseria.

Once again the game has a slow boil about a quaint village and a naive youth. But instead of dragging it out to the point of played out exhaustion, it keeps things sharp and to the point. There's an event that happens every seven years on a full moon that turns people into demons. The protagonist, Velvet Crowe is basically a single mother trying to protect her family. The demon night happens and she struggles to find help. Velvet's brother-in-law murders her younger sickly brother in some elaborate ritual in an attempt to get rid of the demons. She tries to kill him in a blind fury, good intentions be damned cuz she has very little family left. Her rage turns her into a monster. He can't kill her so he knocks her out. The game flash-forwards three years with Velvet in prison, using her weird dark powers to stay alive, biding her time. Opening from here is a tutorial where you escape your prison and plan to murder to Velvet's brother, who has instigated a large oppressive empire to protect the people from demons via a theocratic state based on reason and self-sacrifice.

All of this was expressed and covered in the first ten minutes. Themes of blind emotion and cold logic, familial struggle, a revenge plot in the style of Old Boy meets The Wolfman. All with clear and concise motivations. Don't you dare tell me that this sort of stuff can't be done. It can if you think things through!

So to conclude, there's a lot more to take stock of when it comes the opening hour of a game other than just figuring out how the buttons work. Things will be more positive next week I promise.

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