Easy to learn, hard to master.
That is the ideal goal for any game to strive for. The question of how approachable and how usable your game is can determine how easy it is to learn it and how fun it is to play.
It has many aspects to it and I'm going to talk about all of them related to this topic.
This is something you do not want to screw up. It has been the downfall of many projects, both in the industry and the indie scene. So read up to understand how to ensure the success of your game.
Approachability is about how fast and well a player can learn the game and immerse himself in it.This is about having a good introduction, good presentation and a good tutorial.
Usability is about how well designed the game mechanics are. Its about good controls, readable graphics, coherent user interface and good streamlining.
So what do I mean by the word "good" for any of those topics? Here's what:
*Introduction. It is the first impression a player gets from the game. Like any first impressions in any situation, it has a big impact on what a player will initially think about the game.
A good impression will get the player interested in the game. It will also help with player immersion and excitement a lot. A bad impression, in the worst case scenario, can make the player hit uninstall.exe and perhaps even demand a refund without even giving the game a second chance. Or in a less dramatic scenario, the player will simply forget the game and let it collect dust somewhere far and buried deep. Hopefully, you can see that this is a big deal.
So what is a good introduction and how to make one?
Introduction is the first moments in a game. There may be an intro, the menu and the actual game for the first couple minutes. This sums up what the introduction is. The intro and menu are optional, since not all games necessarily need them. Other first impressions may include the actual installation of the game and a start screen. Again, not all games need installing and a start screen is best suited for console or arcade games.
The overall goal for an introduction is to communicate to the player what the game is about, what is so interesting and fun about it.
An intro may attempt to interest the player with a synopsis of the story/goal or show a quick example of the action the player will be participating in. The intro may be a text, image, sound, slideshow or a video. The intro comes before the menu. It should be skippable too.
The menu can be used as a tool to further improve the introduction by giving it a theme or effects that suit the actual game. This is entirely optional, but just so you know that the menu can participate in the introduction in its own way.
As for the first moments in a game... this depends heavily on the game and its a whole subject on its own. I'll try to make a blog post about it later, because describing it here would easily make this post be twice as long as it is already. Games differ a lot.
Presentation and aesthetics.
*Presentation. This means the overall appearance of the game. Graphics, sounds, music, story, themes and effects all play a role in this both individually and together. Presentation is important from the introduction of the game to the very end.
Good presentation is basically that the graphics are pleasing to look at (read: not ugly), the sounds are approriate and tolerable, music is fitting and the story can be understood by anyone and is plausible (not confusing or outright garbage).
Theres more to this than simply having high quality content. You also need to know how to put it all together in a good way that the entire system works as a whole. This is a skill and it comes from experience from creating various artistic projects and analysing anything from video games, to movies, websites, brands, comics and anything else that uses more than just one form of art in it.
Using basic logic and indepth thought is very helpful to figure out how to organize a proper presentation.
*Tutorial. A good tutorial is crucial to get a player to learn the game mechanics as smoothly as possible so he could be efficient at it, and thus, enjoy the game as it was meant to.
No matter what the game, you must teach the player to play it in one way or the other. Tutorials can be either hidden subtly within the actual game or have a dedicated place for learning/training where new players can go before they are introduced to the real challenge.
The crucial thing to keep in mind, is that you should never put a player into a situation that he/she does not know how to handle. I dont mean challenges or surprises by this, no. What I mean is that the player must know how to do something before you tell him to do so.
If you give him a human character and tell him to go somewhere, you must teach him how to walk at first. This is absolutely important and you must never be ignorant towards this.
Whatever the player will play with, be it a character, function, tool, system or item, make sure you teach him how to use it and then verify he learned the lesson. There is a good reason why people can't drive cars without a drivers licence. Take note and teach the player how to operate and use whatever you give him.
Another important thing is to teach one thing at a time. If you overwhelm the player with more than one thing at a time, it will stress him and depending on how patient the player is, you can lose lots of players at the very beginning of the game, simply because you gave them too much information at once. Pace the information properly and don't overburden the player.
It is a game, after all, and the player is here for the experience and fun, not to study and work to learn something (game mechanics) that isn't really necessary in his/her real life. Ration the information to one lesson at a time and keep it fun.
Additionally, make sure the player can access all the information he learned previously at any moment to review it, incase he missed something or forgot about it. Returning players will find this most helpful.
Controls: the human-machine interface.
*Controls. Very important, the better the default controls, the more naturally a player can grasp them and have fun.
Built for humans, by humans.
Remember that you're making a game for a human being. That means you should try to design your controls to be as efficient and comfortable as possible for a human to use them. Think of the most logical solutions for each function based on their importance, the speed at which they should be accessed at optimally during gameplay, how to access it and through where.
Control interfaces range from the keyboard & mouse combo to gamepads, joysticks, wheels, pedals and so on. Choose the most suitable control system for your game and stick with it. Trying to support multiple control devices can end up in a mess, so its best to focus on one type of control system at all times. It avoids confusion and is more simple that way.
Allowing customization of controls is also a good idea, especially for the mouse & keyboard combo. Someone might feel more comfortable for one function to be mapped to another key due to personal preferences, so custom control mapping is a very useful feature.
Readability and clarity.
*Graphical Readability. This means that all the graphicals elements of the game are easily identifiable and recognizable by a human being, so he can easily distinguish objects, user interface, the background and other elements seperate from each other as naturally as possible.
Essentially, just make sure the interface, background and the game elements stand out from each other so you can tell what is what without confusing one with the other.
Having the infromation you need to understand whats really going on.
*User Interface. UI is about providing information to the player that he must know in order to efficiently play the game and understand his current status in the game.
The goal is to keep only what is truly necessary. Anything redundant should be removed as it will only distact the player from what really matters. If possible, hiding UI elements that are context sensitive is a very good idea.
Streamlining and optimization.
*Streamlining is about optimizing overly complex or tedious mechanics/controls in a game to be more enjoyable and smoother to use, while still retaining all the features that were intended to be had.
So if you have something you find cumbersome or tedious, consider streamlining its design to make it better. When streamlining, never remove what is necessary, instead, do your best to preserve the functionality it was first intended to have, just simply have it work more efficiently.
This pretty much covers briefly all the basic aspects about approachability and usability in a nutshell. Theres more to each of these topics, but this is more than sufficient to make you aware on what to account for when designing and making a game to ensure that it will be successful.