(this is a cross-post from the original blog that can be found here)
Have you heard about that thing called YouTube? Let's Plays and "First Impressions" videos are all the rage these days.
For smaller indies, getting noticed by famous youtubers is something like a dream come true. They can turn your game to a run-away hit overnight, or at the very least, give you a big boost in sales. Which of course has resulted in devs and publishers offering paid deals to youtubers to promote their games (which some times are disclosed to the viewers and other times not). But this is not what I want to talk about.
YouTube personalities have become so influential, that a whole subgenre of games, that could be classified as... "youtube bait" has emerged. (I'm looking at you Goat Simulator). But again this is not what I want to talk about, I'm just referencing it as proof that youtube is very influential and it's actually affecting the development of games. Goat Simulator is obvious, but there are also somewhat subtler ways it's affecting the development of games.
There are two types of YouTube videos that are really popular. "Let's Plays" and "First Impressions" videos. Let's Plays originated in the Something Awful forums and while I don't have much experience with them, my impression is that they were more like well researched walkthroughs of a game, where the "Let's Player", aimed to both entertain and inform. Modern let's plays are basically comedy talk shows with a game as a background. If the game doesn't immediately give the commentators enough material to talk about, they are unlikely to create a series out of it, or make a single video in the first place.
"First impressions" videos are to "Reviews" what modern "Let's Play" videos are to the original "Let's Plays". Reviews are meant to be the thoughts and opinions of an author after he has a pretty good understanding of a game. They are (or at least they should be) researched and thought out. "First impressions" are about someone trying the first hour or so of a game, usually with minimal or no previous experience and then expressing his opinions on the game based on that first hour. While the games are not scored as in traditional reviews, the viewers are given suggestions on whether it's a good game or not, even though it's only based on the start of the game.
Free to Play
Now let's talk about free to play games. Free to play games have no barrier of entry. They create no expectations "it's free, what do you expect". As such, if they don't immediately "hook", or in less nefarious terms, make the player interested in less than five minutes, he is likely to stop playing and try the next free to play game. As such he will not watch ads, or buy any in-apps. Which means there is an immense amount of pressure, to make the first 5-10 minutes of the game draw the player in.
It also trains people to easily judge a game by its first few minutes and pay no more attention to it. Image a generation that has grown with free to play games that is then asked to 1) Pay for a game up front, 2) Sit through a "normal" start of a game, which might or might not be its most interesting moment.
1) Let's players are not going to make a whole series out of your game, if it's not immediately interesting (and by interesting I don't necessarily mean good, although that helps).
2) First impression videos are basically critiquing and making suggestions on whether a consumer should buy a game, based only from the start of a game. And while first impression videos often come with a disclaimer, that these are first impressions and should be treated as such, it doesn't really matter because the effect the suggestion has is still huge, even it is "only" first impressions. Effectively, a positive or negative "first impressions" video has the same impact as a positive or negative full fledged review, assuming it is coming from equally popular publications/personas.
3) Because Free to Play games, live or die by their ability to "hook" the player in their first few minutes, a tremendous amount of pressure is put on those first few minutes. Which is also creating a precedence for all games.
I'm not arguing that the start of a game should not be good. All parts of a game should be good.
What if your game requires a slow start? What if for thematic, narrative, mechanical, or whatever reasons, maybe the first hour or so of the game should be boring, or slow, or misleading. Maybe the story makes it all make sense later on. Maybe the game wants you to experience negative emotions early on to have a great pay off later. Maybe the game slowly teaches you its mechanics and it doesn't truly become interesting until much later, when it all comes together. What if the game deliberately creates false expectations, to subvert them later on. And I don't specifically mean narratively. For example, the beta of Fract appears to be "just" a weird Tron inspired Myst-like game. You need to play the whole beta to understand that it's building up to something else, mechanically.
I was really bored by Spec Ops: the Line early on. It was competently made, but since militaristic 3rd person shooters aren't really my kind of games, "competent" wasn't enough for me. The end made it all worth it though. I didn't have "fun" with it, but so much time has passed and I still have some headspace allocated to Spec Ops: the Line. If the start of the game was "better", if it didn't feel as generic and derivative the point it was trying to make would have been lessened.
What if I hadn't heard that its ending is good? What if it was free to play and I went into it with a more "I'll just check it out for a bit" mindset?
Is it a coincidence that all the first impression videos, didn't sell me on the game? (and instead, it was a bunch of videos and articles that came later on, that made me interested in the game).
Is it a coincidence that Spec Ops: The Line was a financial failure?
Isn't the current state of the gaming industry and community, restricting the kind of games one can make?
If we want gaming as a medium to evolve, aren't the standards we have now problematic? Wouldn't it be insane if movie critics offered us their opinons solely based on the first 10 minutes of a movie? Wouldn't it be insane if someone suggested a certain album is bad, based only on its weird 5 minute non-song intro and never bothering to hear the rest of the album?
It seems there is this demand for new and more innovative experiences and for games as a medium to grow and expand. But at the same time, we have these sets of rules and expectations, which have a lot to do with how gaming journalism operates these days, than what really makes a game good.
(and... this is a huge topic and I don't have a lot to add to it that hasn't been already said, but we've also recently started drawing arbitrary lines in the sand on what is considered a game or not, which is very depressing).
So, go ahead game developers! Innovate and try new things!
(as long as the start of the game is «immediately interesting» and gives the best first impressions. Did you think you were making art? No, you're actually about to meet your future in-laws for the first time and I heard they're really judgemental (I also heard they generally like «fun» and «wacky» things, just keep it in mind). I'm sure you know how important it is to make a good first impression. You want to make more games, right?)