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While getting ready for launch, player testing your title is truly a tough and eye-opening experience. Every. Single. Time. You’ve constructed all these really simple, educating and fun levels, just to realize that players don’t play the game ‘as they should’. To ensure that your game is played like it is supposed to be played, you need to have a killer first-time flow.
First-time flow hooks the players and teaches them the core loop of the game. Most importantly, you have to win the player over with the first playthrough. If first-time flow sucks, all the later levels content will be left untouched.
Here are my tips for achieving a killer first time flow, derived from numerous sessions of player testing:
1. Start off with a story
Call me old fashioned, but I really like having a story to my games. It just gives that certain something to the whole game – a meaning instead of a mindless activity. The story can be told with a single image, cartoon or video. As long as it’s not text, I’m cool with it.
2. One Image = 1000 Words
You should always show your players how to play the game instead of telling them how to do it.
George Fan, creator of Plants vs. Zombies recommends using no more than two to a maximum of eight words when absolutely needed. So stop writing instructions. Nobody reads them!
3. One tutorial mission = 2.5 practice missions
On one hand, first-time flows are all about showing how cool and awesome your game is and will be if the player just continues playing. But on the other hand, first-time flows are also about teaching your players how to play the game… and teaching is the part where most games tend to go wrong.
The most common mistake developers can make is to over-teach. They bombard players with popups, spotlights and texts right from the start. To avoid this, you just need to simply cut back on the things that you want to teach the player on their first levels and leave them for later.
My rule of thumb is to have a conversion rate of 2.5 between teaching and doing.
For example, if I want to teach the player how to shoot, I’ll start off with a level/mission where player is taught how to shoot with a spotlight, a floating text and an arrow or two. Then I will follow up the teaching level/mission with 2 – 3 (depending on event data and user tests) levels/missions where players have to practice their new skills without any hints.
After the follow-up missions I would move on and teach another element of the game. Then I would follow it up again with 2 – 3 levels/missions where players don’t get any instructions and just do what they were just taught. Or, in case this is a complementary skill, say reloading a gun, you can have only one teaching mission followed by a combination mission, where players have to do what they were just taught to do plus what they were doing beforehand.
4. Performance feedback
Feedback on performance, such as stars, is often used just to show how well players did on a particular level and to challenge them to best the level with a perfect performance. Now this challenge to perfection is a great thing, but it’s not the only way you can use performance feedback.
Assessing performance is also great for keeping your funnel in check and for making even those not-so-good players progress from one level to another. What you need to do is make the 1-star performance really easy (at least during the first dozens of levels/missions), just to ensure that players don’t drop off because the game is too hard for them. At the same time, those skilled players can be challenged to perfect their performance by getting 3 stars, for example.
In other words, the performance feedback system should be tied in with the level design, so that levels don’t block the progress of unexperienced players, while at the same time providing a true challenge for the experienced ones.
5. Collect suitable event data
Finally, make sure that you are collecting the right event data. Knowing when, how and how many levels/missions were completed is essential for a successful first-time flow.
There’s always room to improve the first time flow, and numbers are what you need to get there. In addition, by making use of numbers, you’ll avoid all the discussions about how people ‘feel’ they should play the game and what they ‘think’ might be the problem. Numbers. Give ’em numbers!