The FTUE as the Hero’s Journey — Part 0

Creative Director at EA, Stanislav Stankovic, explores the parallels between the design patterns of First Time User Experiences in video games and the Monomyth narrative framework by J. Campbell.

Stanislav Stankovic
ironSource LevelUp
Published in
5 min readApr 11, 2021

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“You do not get a second chance to make a first impression.” — Someone famous

Have you ever wished that you could skip a tutorial of a game you just installed? Have you ever dropped a new mobile game before even playing it once, because it started to download 15GB of something, right after you tapped on an icon? Have you ever gave up when game demanded you open a new account on some service you have never heard of, before letting you play?

Well, you have been a victim of a bad FTUE. If you are a game maker and want to spare your players of these kinds of torture read on.

Go Rocket

The Start

FTUE is a term used in the games industry to describe the initial contact of a player with a game. The acronym letters stand for First Time User Experience and it describes the process of user onboarding.

Many professionals in the industry tend to think of it in a relatively narrow sense. They equate the term with the idea of Tutorial, a carefully crafted bit of design aimed at teaching the novice player the basics of the gameplay. Quite often these tend to focus on the control scheme and functionality of the UI.

I prefer to see FTUE in a much wider sense. To me it encompasses all of the interaction that a player will have with a game during the initial gameplay session. This can possibly extend to several subsequent sessions. The first time user experience is something that the player will have regardless of whether you take an effort to deliberately design for it or not, so you better get prepared for it the best you can.

It is hard to overstate the importance of FTUE. If you take a look at the standard retention graph of any game, you will notice that the biggest drip in the number of active users happens exactly during the first play session. This is even more important in the case of free-to-play games, which are, as the name implies, available to players at zero cost. With the premium games, especially AAA the initial cost of the purchase that the player had to make, serves as an additional incentive for the player to at least sit through the initial gameplay sequence no matter how gruelling it is. Not so in the world of mobile free-to-play, where play sessions are short and attention spans are limited.

Retention graph
Typical retention diagram of a F2P game. (disclaimer: not actual data, YMMV)

Designing a proper, high performing, FTUE is thus an art form in itself. Any mistakes made in this process can be very costly and difficult to fix. As with any art form there is no foolproof universal method that can be magically applied to this task. However, in order to be able to create a good FTUE one needs to understand what is its true purpose.

Key Idea

Key idea: The purpose of the FTUE is to create an emotional connection!

It is the 3rd decade of the 21st century. Video games have been around for more than 40 years, mobile applications for more than 10. Most users are already familiar with the basic UI conventions. The users that gravitate towards your game are likely to be familiar with the types of interaction dictated by the genre of your game. Unless you are employing some novel and highly unusual control scheme, you have very little reason to focus your attention on handcrafting a tutorial which will explain these sorts of things. Don’t make your player chase the yellow arrow!

What you should be doing instead, is building engagement. You should try to motivate the player to make an emotional investment into your game!

Van

The Journey

If you are familiar with the work of user acquisition specialists, or growth hackers, you are most likely familiar with the notion of Customer Journey. It is a way to describe the user experience that goes through several distinct stages starting with awareness, the moment a potential customer encounters an app or an ad for an app for the first time, through consideration and installation, to retention and finally advocacy. In this framework, FTUE is situated between steps 3 and 4, installation and retention, with a distinct task of ensuring the player retention.

Customer journey

This framework is very good for seeing the player’s journey from the perspective of the business owner and product manager. However, to create a well designed FTUE one needs to go one step beyond, and put himself into the position of the player, to see the game from the player’s own vantage point. To do so, it is useful to apply another journey framework.

The Hero’s Journey is a concept proposed and popularised by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work on comparative mythology, 1949 book titled The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This concept, also known as Monomyth, has since become a darling of Hollywood script writers and narrative designers everywhere. It postulates that most, if not all, of the epic stories in the human history share the basic underlying pattern, a sort of a narrative blueprint, that is shaped by our collective subconscious, shared genetic heritage, and evolutionary imperative. But what does it have to do with the FTUE?

Key Idea

Key idea: Everyone wants to be a hero of his own story!

Simply put, everyone wants to write their own success narrative. Your player wants to be a hero of your game. This is why he came here in the first place, so treat him as one!

Next up: The FTUE as the Hero’s Journey — Part I: Call to Adventure

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Stanislav Stankovic
ironSource LevelUp

Game Designer at Supercell, Ex-PixelUnited Ex-EA, Ex-Rovio.