Judging games in five minutes

I usually don’t need more than 5-10 minutes to know if a game is going to be bad or good.

This may sound very, very pretentious, but it works for me. It’s not something that I’m writing on a blog to impress, but it’s valid in my case. I don’t need more than 5-10 minutes to know if I’m going to like a game or not. You can ask me 10 hours later if I was right or not, I would probably have a lot more to say, more precise and reliable opinions and critics to make, but my general impression would be mostly unchanged.

Now the point is that I don’t think this is odd. I don’t think it’s my own thing. I think instead this is the NORM.

The real point is that in the first few minutes you expose already a good 80% of the game. The real point is that what required a large group of devs and constant work for years WILL BE spoiled in those five minutes. The great majority of it. Scary but true.

In sport games this is rather evident. You can just launch a quick match and at the end of those five minutes you would have experienced already the majority of the game. Gameplay, flow, interface, controls, art, animations, responsiveness and so on. But the same is valid for every game type. God of War is a masterpiece from the very first minute. It doesn’t take you more than 5 minutes to figure out it’s a masterpiece. Actually five minutes are too much because right after the first three zombies and the first flourish you are already loving controls, animations, camera and the flawless fluidity of it all. Oblivion may be a different case, you need more than five minutes just because you need to get out of the starting dungeon. But as you are finally out, you still need no more than 5 minutes to have a very good idea of the game.

Usually when I launch a game the first thing I do is skip the movies (if I can), and go straight in the options. Looking at the options already tells you a whole lot about the game. Giving a look at the controls completes this. Then you start to play. Just the first impact, the very first few seconds and you have already the interface, controls, graphic, the engine. All these aspects require years of work, but once they are ready and refined they all happen at the same time. Right away.

Today I can already have a good idea of a game by looking at a screenshot. I can see already the type of engine, its power, the art style and quality, maybe the UI and maybe guess the gameplay. I can even see the quality of the animations. You cannot figure out the movement, but the postures can already tell you a lot.

This is why people wait for screenshots. In a second you expose the game. It’s a very important test.

What Shild wrote about Vanguard and the “first impression” made me think. Because I don’t think it’s a problem of “creating an engaging experience from the first moment you log in”. It’s not a problem of presentation. The first five minutes aren’t important because the experience may “bias” your opinion about the game, the point is that those initial five minutes are the PEAK OF FUN in the whole game. The whole impact with a new game is the best part. If the game fails to amaze you on the first impact, then it never will.

So my guess is that it’s not a problem of “reaching the fun”. Shild could force himself to play the game for another twenty hours before writing down his opinion. What I’m sure about is that if he didn’t like the game right away, then his opinion just isn’t going to change.

The original discovery, the first impact is what matters because what you see is already the majority of the game. The game can go on then for 10 hours, 20, 50 or 100 and more. But all those hours will be *variations* on what you see in those first five minutes. And aside exceptional cases you aren’t going to like those millions of variations if you didn’t like the original one.

I think this is valid for everyone. The most fun you get out of the new game is when you boot it for the first time and a whole new world opens to your eyes. The rest is a drift.

Specifically about Vanguard. Use this screenshot as an example.

I’m not pointing to the damage bug (lol!) but the world design. Imho Vanguard is about on the same level of DAoC when it was first released. One thing that always sucked in DAoC is world design. The art quality improved with the time, but the world design remained pretty much mediocre. I like a more realistic style, but Vanguard is ugly and empty. It lacks personality.

Brad publicizes the game focusing on the word “immersion”. That’s good because that’s something absolutely fundamental. I would have the exact same founding principle if I was working on a game. Long clip range, seamless huge world. The problem is that the principle is badly executed.

The players continue to talk about in-game settings, ini config files, hardware. Instead I ask you to give a look to the screenshot I linked.

I don’t know at what settings that screenshot was taken, but I doubt that the configuration or hardware can change the essence of what you can see there. The textures may get crisper, you may see further away, but the point is that the world is empty. Featureless. It completely lacks “world design”. This isn’t going to magically change by moving up a slider in the options. You can see far away and in some cases you have these huge, fancy buildings far away. Impressive skylines. But all this space is not filled with something worthwhile. It lacks consistence. It’s just an envelope with nothing within. There are these huge spaces with featureless terrain and one texture patterned everywhere. These aren’t places carefully handcrafted that are going to be interesting to visit and walk through. The scale of things is awesome, but the player’s perspective SUCKS. Vanguard is supposed to be the explorator-type dream. But the world design is so lackluster that there’s not much to see.

It’s empty, unfinished, ugly.

Look at this particular screenshot from WoW. See the tank on the left and the trail it leaves behind on the whole image? This is an example of a detail that you don’t easily notice from the player’s perspective, but it suddenly becomes evident when you are flying on a gryphon. WoW is built exceptionally from this point of view (and WoW is an unquestionable masterpiece of world design, there’s no competition), it’s built to please both from the eagle-eye perspective, with these impressive, imposing environments and details that can be truly appreciated when you look at them from way back, as well from the ground level with a carefully crafted world in every tiniest detail.

You cannot tell me it’s a matter of taste. If I didn’t know something like this was coming from Vanguard then I would mistake it for one of those amateurish, immature mmorpg engines. Not a recent major release that is expected to be loved by hundreds of thousands of players.

And that’s the EXACT opposite of immersion.

This is a quote from someone commenting NWN2 toolset:

Within days of starting to use the new toolset, I found myself actively noticing many more things about the natural world. How the reeds were growing only at the edges of a pond, but not in it. The way grass leading up to a heavily wooded area doesn’t just stop, but transitions from heavy growth to sparse shoots to nothing at all. How dirt trails and roads aren’t all one color, shape, or height. The way cobblestone in the ‘historic’ portion of the city was uneven and not of uniform color. The reason? For the first time, I had a toolset that was capable of reproducing these things.

THIS is immersion.

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