Warning: Stream of consciousness ahead!
The start of something is, to me, among the most critical sequences.
Perhaps its merely a result of being impatient, but I am fully willing to drop something if the beginning doesn’t interest me. Cries of “but it gets better later on!” tend to fall on deaf ears with me. If the thing I’m screwing around doesn’t grab me and engage me quickly, I’m not going to feel like pressing on and seeing the “better stuff” that comes out later. Happened with me Haruhi. Happened to me with FFX. Etc. Etc.
Is this unreasonable? Yeah, a bit. I mean, I SHOULD be willing to give things something of a chance. Especially lately though, I just don’t have the patience. If you can’t be bothered to make an experience that, at the very least, intrigues me enough that I really want to pick it up again after I shut it off/close it for the first time? Then I’m not really going to trust you to make the rest of it something I care about, and I’m certainly not going to invest time enough to test that theory when there are at least a half-dozen other titles I have sitting around that I could bother with instead.
Gaming, unfortunately, is in a slightly rougher spot here. The necessity of introducing play mechanics, expositing, introducing characters and setting, etc means that games have a whole hell of a lot to introduce you to in a relatively short time. I’m just gonna ramble about a few examples.
Final Fantasy X: Oh you. Oooooh you. The game I still haven’t bothered to play because the beginning bored me stupid. I’m pretty sure this game lives in an ever exaggerated state to me (I’m reasonably convinced I didn’t actually not need to touch the controller for three hours), but the fact that I have reached this horrible state of exaggeration is a little much. The game just took too long to get started for me. The cinema wasn’t that interesting and I’m really pretty positive I had like, no combat system experience in the time I played. Its just… blargh.
Persona 3: Guilty of the same sin as Final Fantasy X, but lucked out and got a pass for the early cutscene failure for just being more interesting. Starts with something intriguing, the art design appealed to me more and the first combat you get felt more exciting. So yeah, despite taking too long to really get running, it at least manages to intrigue a little more by being different and introducing the interesting ideas/mystery a lot quicker than FFX seemed to.
Mana Khemia: Oh game. I like you so much, but why the hell did you waste so much time getting to the fun part of your combat system? Introducing unique concepts, be they plot or gameplay, should be pretty much the highest priorities. This game jumped immensely in fun once you could start using supports. I DO realize there is some difficulty with character introductions in that regard, but MK2 did avert those with a new cast, so clearly it wasn’t insurmountable. This is the sort of thing that’ll hook players. As is, the game was lucky I was charmed by it enough to get to that point!
Mass Effect 2: Runs a little bit long in the cutscene department (could probably have done just a little less of the Lazarus Project stuff), but once it hits gameplay it goes pitch perfect. Sticks you right in the middle of action and quickly and systematically introduces you to all the basic concepts in a brisk and entertaining sequence. Runs just long enough to let you get a feeling for the gameplay and what its going to be like (and introduces you to pretty much every major concept by having you use them), but doesn’t overstay its welcome for experienced players. Does a very good job of what I consider my ideal structure which is: Introduce Concept, Action, Cooldown Exposition.
Baldur’s Gate 2: Excellent newbie dungeon, horrific drag for experienced players. Strips down your options a fair amount while introducing you to what you’re going to be doing for most of the game. Annoyingly basic for people who have played several times though, and very, very long. Again, though, is oriented in my ideal way: Introduce Concept, Action, Cooldown Exposition.
Silent Hill 2: A candidate for probably one of my favorite openings. The beginning is just a little slow, but it starts with some very memorable imagery and ideas. The game really doesn’t fuck around and says a LOT with its introductory sequence. The atmospheric walk is a little on the long end (Silent Hill 1 did this a bit better), but the payoff is solid. On the whole, the game is just damn efficient. And, I will also say, little tthings like letting you walk out of the bathroom and the like (to bridge the opening there and the opening outside) are good, since they help involve the player.
So I guess rambling on about these has helped me arrive at a few thoughts.
Formula: I do feel there is something of an ideal formula to starting games (and, at least to me, most other forms of media, but this is particularly applicable to games). You start with the hook. The introduction cinema or whatever that sets the stage/setting/character. Then you hand control over to the player and let them participate in what’s going on. You should here introduce the player to as many of the major gameplay points as possible, giving priority to anything unique or standout. By the end of this, the player should know whether or not they like the core gameplay. After this sequence, you can cooldown and have a longer uninteractive spot to start expanding on the introduced concepts.
There is, of course, room for variance in the formula here, but something along these lines really does seem like an actual ideal.
Concept: By the end of the first hour, I really feel I should be able to say what the game is, in general terms, about. While there can still be (and should be) concepts or gameplay nuances to be introduced, I shouldn’t have any major conceptual overhauls at this point regarding gameplay. If I spend the first hour shooting bitches, I should not learn later that half the game is street racing. If combat involves swapping PCs in and out of combat strategically, I should have experienced that by now.
Control: I should be playing the game within a few minutes of starting it. I’ll give a bit of leeway here, but if I’m not even experiencing something as simple as bridge gameplay within the first 10 minutes, there is a serious issue. Snagging and holding player interest is what beginnings are for. Introducing to the game is what the beginning is for. Blasting my face off with cinemas for half an hour is not the best way to do this. Don’t be afraid to use them, but, especially at the beginning, keep them tight and efficient.