Is it better to save your best content until the end of a game so you have a strong finish, or is it better to make the first few minutes of gameplay as good as they can possibly be? If your best stuff only shows up after the player has invested 20 hours, reviewers and some players might not even know it’s there. But if you "give away the farm" on the first level, the game has nowhere to go but down.
The general trend I see in successful games is that they tend to show a great deal of their coolness (but not all of it) in the first few minutes to half hour of gameplay. Let’s look at some case studies.
As of this 2006, Metroid Prime is the 4th highest rated game of all time on gamerankings.com (10th highest as of 2014), receiving a 9.7 from Gamespot, a 9.8 from IGN, and a perfect 10 from EGM. It’s sold 1.3 million units on GameCube, according to TRSTS data.
The first few minutes of Metroid Prime show off an amazing amount of the game. We learn basic movement (R button shifts to freelook, L button shifts to strafe/lock-on). A button shoots and B button jumps. If you hold the A button, you get a fancy charge-up shot, while the Y button fires missiles. The X button turns you into a ball (with 3rd person camera) equipped with bombs (that make you bounce), and everyone loves rolling around as that ball. Your visor lets you scan the world to get info and tips and even open some doors. Most doors you just shoot to open, and your charged shot can be used to clear rubble. You also learn how to operate elevators and use the save stations. After only a few minutes, you fight a boss where you learn how to circle strafe while locked on and dash sideways during a lock-on. A few seconds after that, you get to use your grapple gun. (It was probably a mistake that they had you use the grapple gun for the first time during a timed sequence, but oh well.) You also get a taste of Metroid Prime’s map and mini-map, which are probably the best in-game maps of 3D levels the industry has seen yet.
That’s an incredible number of cool features revealed in the first few minutes of the game. It makes you realize right away that Metroid Prime is a class act that deserves your time. Incidentally, after the intro sequence, your character gets damaged and loses access to the morph ball, charged shot, missiles, and grapple gun. The game designers need to give you these items slowly over time to reward you, but they wanted to make sure your first few minutes were packed with coolness, so they gave you a great taste of what’s to come.
Grand Theft Auto 3
This infamous breakthrough title conveys its core ideas in the first few minutes. The game starts with a very short series of three missions: First, get in the car and drive your buddy to Point A, then drive to Point B, and finally pick up a certain passenger at the hospital and take her to Point C. This sequence teaches you how to get in and out of cars, basic driving (gas, break, turning), how to change the radio station in the car, how to pick up passengers, how to get a new car if your current car gets too damaged, and how to use the mini-map to find mission objectives.
After those first three missions, the game turns you loose into the world to do whatever you want. Doing whatever you want is the core concept of Grand Theft Auto 3, and the player realizes it right away. You can drive anywhere. You can fight people on the street and take their money. You can crash cars, wreck stuff, and steal cars. You can totally ignore the story and mission structure and make up your own story and missions. In doing so, you quickly learn about the police "star" system where committing worse and worse crimes increases force of police who are sent after you. You have to hide out or find secret police stars hidden in the world to reduce your infamy rating and get the cops off your back.
I’ve watched several people play GTA3 for the first time, and all of them abandoned the game’s mission structure within 5 minutes to explore the world and create their own goals. No wonder it sold over 5.6 million units on PlayStation 2 alone (and many times more than that once you factor in other platforms and expansions).
Castlevania and God of War
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PlayStation 1) and God of War (PlayStation 2) are both examples of a near ideal distribution of “good stuff.” Both games start by showing you a large portion of the game mechanics. Castlevania uses the same trick as Metroid Prime where the player gets to start with a bunch of cool moves and weapons that they won’t get to use again until much later. God of War introduces basic fighting, ground throws, air throws, opening hatches, walking tightropes, a boss fight, special finishing moves, and use of magic all within the first few minutes. Note that best boss is the first one (the Hydra) and the most fun and effective magic power is the first one you get, (Poseidon's Rage, the 360 degree lightning attack). Each of these games is putting its best foot forward to get your attention from the start.
The interesting thing is that these games feel great right off the bat, but they don’t feel like the 9/10 or 10/10 games that they are. In each case, something later in the game takes the quality from 7 or 8 up to 9 or 10. In God of War’s case, it’s the emotional content of the excellent story that builds to a very satisfying conclusion. Even though the game is a “fight a bunch of guys game,” the story and presentation elevate it to the status of “memorable experience,” rather than just “brawler game.”
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night has one of the biggest surprises in games, and if you haven't played it, I’m about to ruin it. The game leads you to believe you've reached the end when you find Dracula and kill him. There’s a map that keeps track of what percentage of the game you’ve visited, and it approaches 100% by the time you reach the big boss. The surprise is that this is only the halfway point! The boss causes the castle (the entire game world) to flip upside down, and you must now play through it all over again, this time walking on what used to be the roof. Chandeliers stick up from the ground, you walk on the undersides of stair cases, and you begin to realize that the entire game was planned from the start to support an entirely different upside down game! Wow! All the enemies are replaced with harder enemies, and the various keys are hidden in new places. The awesome design of the upside down world elevates Castlevania to a very memorable experience.
So if starting out strong, but ending stronger is the key to victory, then what are some examples of games that break this trend? Games that start out weak and end up weak aren’t very informative here, but games that start weak and end strong would be great examples. We’d expect those games not to sell very well.
I hate to pick on Psychonauts because Tim Schaefer’s great writing in previous games is one of the reasons I joined the game industry in the first place. That said, the first 12 minutes of Psychonauts are, from a gameplay perspective, a very poor experience. The only interactive things I did in those 12 minutes were enter my name, move the camera to the right and then up one time each in a tutorial, and walk two steps to an NPC that triggered even more movies. The rest of the 12 minutes was all movies. I just wanted to play the game. What’s just as bad is that after two hours, I didn’t get even a single Psi-power. Only after about three hours did I get to see anything that set this platformer apart from any other platformer, and the real interesting stuff isn’t until much later in the game. Even though many people told me that the game has wonderful ideas and cool gameplay as you get into it more, the first time I played it, I never made it past the first 12 minutes.
RPGs in general also suffer from this phenomenon. Most (Final Fantasy-like) RPGs start you out with a wooden sword, no spells, and have you fight a few rats or something. Over time, your arsenal of spells and attacks increase and you usually get the ability to do combos of spells (or use your party members together in combos) that are pretty interesting and fun. This fun tends to come later in the game though, at hour five rather than minute five. This is perhaps why the single-player RPG genre isn’t selling as well anymore, except for games called Final Fantasy or games that have the Star Wars license. [Post publication note: Oblivion and Skyrim are RPGs that did well, but note that they use the GTA3 sandbox gameplay model.]
Pace for Impact
It should be no surprise that you need to start out strong, or at least strong enough to grab the player’s attention. Burying the best content at the end is generally not a good idea, but it’s a question of degree. If your final boss is a 9/10 experience, but your first level is a 2/10, you have a major problem because no one is going to see that final boss. On the other hand, if you can get that first level up to a respectable 8/10 experience, then ending on a 9/10 boss is great, and perhaps nearly the ideal scenario. In any case, don’t be tempted to save all the fun until after the 20 hour mark because your first level is going to be your most played and most judged level. Go the extra mile to make it stand out, even if it means giving the player a preview of a few fun mechanics you planned on saving for the end.
One last note: if you really want to start in a way that no one ever does, then get rid of all that junk that players are tired of waiting through when they turn on a game. Get rid of the intro movie with the publisher’s logo, the intro movie with the developer’s logo, the legal screens (put them as an option on the main menu), and any other non-content cruft you can find. It’s getting totally out of hand how many screens of garbage games start out with before getting to the main menu. You’re much better off building brand awareness by actually making a good game than forcing everyone to see your logo every time the game boots. Put your logo in the main menu itself if it matters so much. When I pay $50 for a game, I expect to be exempt from even 5 seconds of this stuff. (Technical disclaimer: sometimes those logos are shown during loading time, and removing them wouldn't actually save any time.)
Almost no games follow the above advice. Yours could be one of the few. Oops, I saved my most interesting idea for the end of the article where no one will really see it.