The FTUE as the Hero’s Journey — Part I

How to satisfy players’ psychological needs in the First Time User Experience & create an irresistible call to adventure

Stanislav Stankovic
ironSource LevelUp
Published in
6 min readApr 18, 2021

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This text is a part of a series which explores the parallels between the design patterns of the First Time User Experience (FTUEs) in video games and the Monomyth narrative framework by J. Campbell. To read the previous part, click here.

“A beginning is a very delicate time…” — F. Herbert

Journey

Call to Adventure

Every journey begins with the first step. Monomyth describes the journey of a hero as a series of distinct stages, starting from the familiar world and going into the unknown, the underworld, the land where the adventure takes place.

Just like any hero, your player begins his journey from the familiar setting of the home screen of his device. This first step is equivalent to the Awareness step of the Customer Journey.

The initial encounter can be initiated in several ways, for example as:

  • Organic conversion — when the player spots your game while browsing the App Store,
  • Paid Ad — shown to player in another game or on a social media channel,
  • Viral — if the player learns about your game from an influencer, for example via a YouTube or a Twitch channel,
  • Word of mouth — when friend or a relative recommends your game to a potential player.

Your task as a business owner and game creator, at this stage is to convince the player to acquire, i.e. to install your game. An array of tools has been devised specifically for this task by the User Acquisition specialists.

In the context of the Monomyth a hero can reject a call to adventure. Likewise, your potential player has the freedom to reject your game, even after he already installed it on his device.

To you, as a game developer, the user acquisition is expensive. The cost per install has been growing on all platforms and will continue to grow in the future. On the other hand, the potential player has not invested anything to acquire a free game. This asymmetry is why retaining players is such a big imperative. You already paid the price of the player acquisition. You better keep them engaged at least until you manage to convert them into paying customers! Keep in mind that not only your ads need to be inviting to the player. Your game must be also!

Understanding player motivations is a cornerstone of successful design. Self-Determination Theory is a psychological model that provides useful insight into the phenomenon of human motivation. Among other things, this theory states that all humans share certain inherent psychological needs:

  • Autonomy
  • Competence
  • Relatedness

According to this theory humans are compelled to constantly seek the satisfaction of these needs in the same way as they must satisfy basic physical needs for food, water, shelter, etc. Certain human activities offer better chance for need satisfaction than others. Our subconscious brain constantly evaluates the opportunity for need satisfaction in every activity that we engage with and will navigate us towards the activities that afford better opportunities.

In general games offer better psychological need satisfaction than most other activities. This is the primary reason why people play games in the first place. However, certain games do so better than others.

Your game — especially its FTUE — must support players’ psychological needs.

The first among these needs that comes into focus when designing an FTUE, is the need for the Autonomy, i.e., a need to be an active agent in one’s own life.

Video games are interactive by nature, implying a great degree of Autonomy in player’s actions. When a player faces a new game his motivation is to get to satisfy his need for Autonomy as soon as possible. Everything standing in his way will be seen as nuisance.

Avoid anything that would prolong the time before the player can get to do any meaningful interaction with the game.

A common error in FTUE design is violating this principle.

Typical things to avoid include:

  • Large initial downloads,
  • Slow loading time,
  • Mandatory logins using social networks,
  • Requiring player to create a new account on a new service,
  • Intrusive pop-ups and dialogues.

Some of these things will be outside of your control. COPPA age gates, GDPR, Times of Service and Privacy Policy agreements, etc. are dictated by the government regulations. However, although you are required to implement these intrusive UX elements, you do have a certain degree of control over the way they are implemented. Consolidate those as much as possible under the legal framework. Try to implement them keeping in mind the overall guiding principle of trying to reduce the time before the player reaches the game’s content.

To the players’ subconscious mind these intrusions read as if being asked to commit to something before even knowing what they are committing to. This is why they feel so bad!

Genshin Impact manages to thrive despite of an onslaught of pop-ups in FTUE!

Other bits of FTUE are firmly under your creative control. One of the most common mistakes that game designers tend to make is to create an overly long section of dialogs. If you are trying to build a rich intricate world, you might feel the urge to immerse your player in it as soon as possible, and you might imagine that the best way to do so is by throwing the information at your player from the get go. You can be mislead into thinking that you are building the emotional engagement by introducing the elaborate backstory and a set of characters.

This is a mistake, akin to presenting a movie plot by drowning the viewer in the infodump exposition and voice overs. Resist your narrative urge. You player is not yet ready. He doesn’t care if Arvena is in love with Lady Eyre, that there are no less than five moons orbiting around the world of Ae, and the eternal Pillars of Urn have been handcrafted by wizard bards of wherever. Provide just enough of the backstory to pique his interest. Lead you player into the story by leaving the trail of breadcrumbs. Teach him about the game world by showing.

“Provide just enough of the backstory to pique his interest. Lead you player into the story by leaving the trail of breadcrumbs”.

“Now is the beginning of a fantastic story!! Let’s make a journey into a cave of monsters. Good luck! “— Bubble Bobble into.

The introduction to Taito’s Bubble Bobble from 1986 is a masterpiece of minimalism. It consists of only three sentence. The first one promises excitement, helping establishing player’s mood. The second one introduces the setting, mentioning the cave of monsters, taking almost verbatim from the Monomyth. The last sentence sounds more ominous. On one hand it is full of foreboding. Why would one need luck unless one will face danger, from those monsters perhaps? One the other hand it implies support. Someone is rooting for us. This intro provides zero factual information about the nature of the world in which game is taking place. Yet it choke full with emotional hooks. What is best, you can grok it in a single glance!

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Stanislav Stankovic
ironSource LevelUp

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