Improving Player Experience Outside of Gameplay
Mike Ellis, Psychopomp Game Dev LLC
Over the course of the last decade, the games industry has seen vast improvements in how we observe and monitor ‘player experience.’ Many tools and processes have emerged or been embraced that have helped us to understand how players interact with our games: focus groups, UR testing, collecting and deciphering BI data, etc. This has helped us to better understand our games and answer key questions such as:
Where are players dropping out?
What parts of the game are too hard?
What items are players purchasing?
However, while we now have much greater insight and understanding as to how our games are played, another problem has also emerged, deep in the shadows. One that fundamentally affects player experience and appears to grow stronger with every new batch of games that flood the market each holiday season. To put it bluntly:
We don’t care enough about the player experience outside of gameplay.
As an industry we show incredible amounts of dedication and commitment to crafting gameplay that is rich, deep, and compelling. But, rarely do we focus on how our games are satisfying players when they’re not actually interacting with them.
This article hopes to shine a spotlight on some of these problems and propose solutions designed to creating more enjoyable experiences for players. Let’s take a look at our suspects.
The Purchase-to-Play Experience
Modern hardware provides us with the ability to store large amounts of data, and so we do. But, there was once a time when entire universes existed within the confines of the ZX Spectrum’s 48k of memory. Efficiency and optimization saw programmers coding in assembly language in order to crank out as much performance as possble. Now our consoles and computers have gigabytes of memory and terabytes of storage. However, there are side effects to filling up these large containers with code and assets. The most frustrating being downtime spent not playing the game itself.
In the rush to meet shipping deadlines, often there is little thought as to what this means for the player - the person that is eager to play the experience that they’ve just purchased. Regardless of whether the player has purchased a traditional disc or has chosen a digital download of the product, there is plenty of time for the player’s initial excitement to become diminished as they slog their way through the installation process. Waiting anything from 10 to 45 minutes is enough to make anyone long for the golden days of dropping an SNES cartridge into the slot and being greeted by the title screen a few seconds later.
There are those who will tell you, “that’s why you should be buying digital downloads and pre-loading your games, so that they’ll be installed ahead of time and ready when play when you want them.” While this is great if you pre-order something that you know is a guaranteed hit (and are willing to leave your box on 24/7) it’s not a great solution for product discovery and sampling. It doesn't necessarily always fit with modern lifestyle in which people have busy lives and want something (now!) in the spare hour that they’ve managed to carve out for themselves. Pre-loading is obviously a good thing, but it too requires a certain amount of pre-planning and executtion in order for the game to be ready when precious game session time comes around.
While there is no golden solution, there are some other things that we can explore here in order to help our players out.
- As an industry, we need to get better at designing and planning ‘install chunks’ that allow players to get into a small part of the game, while the rest of the content is still installing. Ideally, a player shouldn’t have to wait more than 10 minutes before they’re playing the game that they’ve chosen.
- Platform holders should work with third parties to develop entertaining activities for players to undertake while the game is downloading and/or installing. Most installation procedures are boring to say the least.
- With a captive audience, the install process would be the perfect time to take the player through the training and onboarding process, so that they’re ready to play as soon as the game is installed.
- Use the downtime to introduce players to the game world and feed them background fiction. Just as the train into Disneyland transitions the visitor from the real world into the fantasy, so can the time spent waiting for the game to be ready.
- Outside of the primary language for a given territory, language packs should be downloaded and installed on an on-demand basis. Players should only undertake the burden for languages that they’re actually going to use. A small additional wait for those players that want a different language is easily eclipsed by the vast majority that never touch the feature.
Star Wars Battlefront allows players to practice the basics and play as Darth Vader while the game installs
Day One Patch Agony and Content Updates
Just when we think we’re finally ready to go, and have some of our precious hour of play time remaining, there’s the dreaded day one patch. While this practice can be essential for developers and publishers to meet their street date, it’s a special kind of hell for players. Day one patches may have started as a way to get a last few fixes in, or a way to eliminate that playthrough stopper that was found at the 11th hour. But, they’ve become a common practice production crutch and regularly feature substantial chunks of game that can easily weigh in at over 10gb. They’re often the result of not entering a ‘closing down’ phase early enough, allowing the dev team to squeeze in ‘one more thing…’ or teams not being disciplined and accumulating too much bug dept over the course of production.
Regardless of the reason, it’s unhealthy for our games. If we don’t find ways to reverse this trend, we risk turning off players all together as there’s many other things that they could be doing with their time.
There’s also a growing trend in patches and content updates that leave players in a worse situation than they were before they arrived. Forums are flooded with posts from players that have lost progression or their hard fought save games. This is usually the result of a patch being rushed out without the proper amount of testing.
So, what can we do to improve the experience here?
- Teams need to start being more disciplined in planning, monitoring and auditing patches and content updates. Whether it’s hunting down redundant art assets, stripping out unused audio files and removing defunct blocks of code, we need to make download commitments more efficient.
- Producers and team Leads should be questioning individuals on the changes they’re submitting. Will a change, adjustment or tweak really move the needle for the quality of the product or the player experience? Has it been performed in the most efficient and least impactful manner? Is the change even worth the additional time spent downloading?
- Avoid cascading updates that require players to constantly be updating the game. GaaS shouldn’t be confused with Downloads-as-a-Service. Unless there are strong reasons to release yet another update, work to a release calendar that is predictable and transparent.
- Investigate if the save/load/restore feature can be designed in such as way as to be future proofed. As games are growing longer ‘tails’ we need to ensure that our players are safeguarded against setbacks and losses caused by updates, fixes and changes.
- Be strong and disciplined enough to push back patches if they haven’t been properly tested. It’s better to be a little late than have to issue another patch to fix everything that the last one broke.
"But, I just want to play!"
Now Loading…..Please Wait
Once players are able to play their chosen game, they’re often faced with load times as they wait for gameplay to load - either the initial load into the game, or loading from one chunk of gameplay to another.
When this occurs during gameplay, it’s likely that the player has just achieved a goal (whether it be skillful challenge or just merely finding the entrance to the next area) and are excited and engaged. Then the loading screen appears and they become passive and dormant. As we all know, breaks in gameplay can be good for pacing. But, loading screens can present an opportunity for disengagement. It’s now not uncommon for games to feature (gameplay-to-gameplay) loads that create 30 seconds, or even a minute of downtime. The longer the time spent loading, the greater the chance the player will become disenchanted and seek some form of distraction.
Often load optimization doesn’t happen until right at the end of the project. The results usually being whatever the programming team was able to deliver while also aggressively crushing bugs. So, there’s a lack of satisfaction all around here.
While there may not be a lot of potential avenues to attack here that aren’t deeply technical, there are things that we can do to reduce the pain.
- Designers, artists and programmers should sit down and discuss how the game is broken up into levels/worlds/streams to ensure everyone has a good understanding of what needs to be loaded at any given time. There shouldn’t be any late production surprises.
- Designers should aim to design missions/tasks/quests that minimize the need for players to bounce between areas that require loads. (The exception being streaming games and even they require a certain level of discipline to avoid hitching.)
- Good interactive language and a ‘Go to <next area>?’ style prompt can prevent players from accidentally triggering unwanted loads.
- Set targets early in development for acceptable load times and measure against them at each milestone.
- Create debug messages that warn when loading is taking longer than expected.
- Use BI data to generate reports that track load times versus the targets set.
Halo War 2 disguised the loading screen as a briefing that provided narrative, hints and tactics info.
Are Splash Screens Necessary?
The ‘splash screen’ has become a staple of the boot sequence for many games. It’s usually a static screen that features the game title and logo, a piece of key art and a prompt to press a button or key. Yet, for many titles, all it does is allow the player to perform a single interaction in the center of a load sandwich. Historically, games used to use this screen as part of a demo attract mode. If the game rested on the splash screen for a preset amount of time, demo footage would showcase the game for retail environments. However, many modern games don’t support the concept of the demo loop anymore, yet still have this screen.
Has this screen become obsolete? Is it now an unnecessary nuisance that frustrates players by adding to the wait?
What is your game using this scree for?
- Ask if your game really needs a ‘Press to Continue’ splash screen?
- Can the splash screen automatically start loading the next chunk into networked game services and the frontend before the player elects to proceed?
Example of a splash screen
Why We Should Eliminate Long Periods of Inactivity
You may believe it’s okay that these long periods of downtime exist because “Hey! Our competitors also have these problems. As long as we’re not worst than they are…..Ima right?” Wrong!
As workers in a tech industry, we’re constantly reminded that we’re in engaged in a battle for eyeballs and attention spans. Today, we’re competing not just against other games, but, a myriad of other products that are vying for player’s attention - Netflix, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Tindr, etc. People are surrounded by entertainment boxes and have an umbilical tube to their mobile device, allowing them to grab it anytime there’s 10 seconds with nothing to do. What happens if they suddenly becomes engaged and invested in the distraction? There aren’t any guarantees that they’ll return, once your game finally ready. If they do, a lot of the time and technique invested in suspending disbelief has been eroded. It’s the reason why movie theatres want our phones on lockdown. Distractions deter from the experience.
Personally, I now play mobile games while I’m waiting for my console and PC games to get themselves in order. Once I start a mobile session, it’s the console or PC game that then has to wait for me to find a good place to disengage and return to the main event. It’s sad as I know that I’m not enjoying the primary experience as much because of this. But, I’m a slave to needing something to do as much as anyone.
They want your players too...
In modern AAA gaming, the trend is fewer products, that retain players for longer periods of time. Regardless of individual opinions on whether or not this is healthy for players, creative diversity and the marketplace in general, it appears here to stay. It understandably helps big publishers to manage their risks and and it allows dev studios to double down on their successes.
This has lead to games that are engaging with players in different ways. Some are merely much bigger and have a larger ‘time to complete’. Others push out expansions and adds-ons that continue the core experience, via new content. Many online games now sport seasons and event calendars that encourage players to come back at select times in order to earn more or unique rewards. While each of these strategies has its own strengths and challenges, they have all been proven to successfully lure players back after a lapse.
What we don’t often pay attention to, is how long the player may have been away and the level of atrophy they acquire. Most of the conversation around re-engagement is linked to monetization and how to get player purchasing again. But, before players are fully reinvested in any game, they need to remember why it was fun. It may have been one hour, one day, one week or one month since the player last played. As we create more complex stories, develop more intricate systems and build more detailed worlds, it becomes harder for players to recall exactly what they were doing, why they were doing it, and where it needs to be done.
Providing these pieces of information is something that good designers are always working toward. But it’s often based upon an unconscious filter that the player is experiencing the game in a single sitting, as if it were a movie. In this scenario, the player has constant presence and (hopefully) total recall. But, playing large games is more like watching an entire season of a TV drama on Netflix. It may be all consumed in a single marathon session, over a weekend, take several weeks, or require months before it is completed.
We need to help players to rediscover why the game was entertaining to them, recall where in the story and progression they were, and be instantly aware of what their next goals are. For that, we need to develop on-ramps that help players to re-engage.
- Build refresher courses into the game for players looking to regain their muscle memory or remember some of the finer points.
- Challenge systems can help players to relearn skills and techniques that they were employing before their break.
- The ‘story so far…’ or ‘previously on…’ type scenes can be borrowed from television. These techniques were devised purely help audiences to get back up to speed on story developments.
- Displaying hints, tips and game facts on loading screens can help players to remember how to perform interactions, learn strategies and find out more about the world.
Arkham Knight helps returning players to remember where they left off
Championing the Cause
As previously stated, we now live in a world that has more entertainment possibilities than ever before. Consumers have more choices and options than they actually have time to invest in. Therefore, it’s important that we be aware of how players are engaging with our games outside of actual gameplay itself and remove obstacles and friction.
While many of the solutions offered in this article can help a product to offer a more friendly player experience, it is ultimately up to teams (and platform holders) to be disciplined in their approach. Because of need for continuous diligence, it may be worth creating a small multi-discipline strike team charged with championing the player experience cause.
I hope that you have enjoyed reading this article and consider how you can make your current project a smoother experience.
Learn how Psychopomp game design / game development consultancy can help your project - https://www.psychopompgamedev.com/
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