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Opinion: Is Your Game Re-approachable?

Cort Stratton, senior programmer at SCE/Naughty Dog's ICE Team, offers tips for making your title re-approachable to players who take long breaks between games, in this #altdevblogaday-reprinted opinion piece.
[Cort Stratton, senior programmer at SCE/Naughty Dog's ICE Team, offers tips for making your title re-approachable to players who take long breaks between gameplaysessions, in this #altdevblogaday-reprinted opinion piece.] Does this sound familiar? I'll be playing (and enjoying) a game, maybe halfway through a single-player campaign. Suddenly, something comes up: an illness, a vacation, finals week, a busy spell at work, a new relationship, the release of a new game that I'm even more excited about, etc. The previous game gets shelved, through no fault of its own. When free time eventually presents itself, I try to pick up where I left off, but I just can't get re-immersed. I'm thrust into the midst of a half-remembered story whose subtle narrative twists I can no longer appreciate. My companions and antagonists may as well be total strangers. My short- and long-term objectives are completely forgotten. I've almost certainly lost any sense of the controls and game mechanics. I'm provided with challenges which assume that I'm the master of my environment, when in reality I'm still trying to remember which button makes me jump. The core of my gripe is that as far as the game is concerned, I never left; I'm expected to clearly remember what happened a few minutes/hours ago in game-time, even though weeks/months/years may have passed in real-world-time. So, I have a few options here:
  • I could track down a walkthrough, but that's a risky proposition; I recently had the ending of Dead Space spoiled for me by a guide on GameFAQs.com, and all I did was skim the table of contents!
  • I could start over from the beginning of the game. Ugh; how tedious!
  • I could put the game back on the shelf and play something else. Double ugh; how depressing!
All too often I reluctantly pick that last option, and the original game goes unfinished. Apparently I'm not the only one; if you don't believe me (or you just want to depress yourself), spend some time browsing through Steam's global achievement stats. Many games have a series of achievements that you earn as you progress through their campaign's critical path; compare the percentage of players who've unlocked 'I Did Something Trivial In Level 1″ to those that unlocked 'I Defeated The Evil Lord Finalbossenstein'. Then, weep. Even Portal has a completion rate of <50%; most are far, far lower. This is appalling! Think of all the time, money, effort and Red Bull that went into developing your game! Don't you want it to be fully experienced by as many players as possible? So, if we accept that players will put our games down, how can we streamline the process of picking them back up? Damned if I know! I'm not a game designer; in fact, these days I'm not even sure I can call myself a game programmer. However, as a naive game player, I can safely demand the following:
  1. Let players view conversation logs and replay cutscenes! Useful and pretty!
  2. Consider including a context-sensitive recap feature! In the Professor Layton series, every time you load a game, you were greeted with a brief reminder of what had happened recently and some indication of your next immediate goal. This was amazingly helpful, and I'd love to see a similar feature in more games!
  3. Provide a comprehensive in-game tutorial available from any point in the game! In this day of minimal or non-existent game manuals, a rich in-game help system is essential. If the player earns new abilities over the course of the game, be sure to include them in the help system.
Do your part to keep temporary breaks from becoming permanent! [This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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