How to Make Games for Everyone
For those of you familiar with my work, you’ll know that I regularly produce videos discussing game design (you can check out my YouTube channel here). I get some great comments on my videos, sometimes from developers asking questions, keen to learn more about a particular topic. Recently, I saw a comment on one of my videos from someone asking me about manipulating 3D cameras in a game — specifically, how they can learn to do this effectively. The question reminded me of an important point that I believe a lot of developers fail to grasp: understanding and designing around the new player’s experience.
Three types of newcomers
It’s not enough just to say “new player”. What do we really mean when we use that term? It may sound obvious at first, but I tend to divide “new players” into three distinct groups.
Existing genre knowledge
This first group includes players who are familiar with the conventions of your game’s genre (as well as the typical gameplay loop), but they aren’t familiar with the specific mechanics in your game — or, to put it another way, the elements that make your game different from others in the same genre. This group are the easiest to design around, because much of the onboarding has already been done. If you’ve read the manual for Civilization III, you’ll know it has a section specifically for people who are already familiar with the series and just want to know what’s new in the latest version. Although onboarding isn’t as important to this group, it’s still vital as a designer to able to explain the areas of your game that differ from its cotemporaries. This is especially true for abstracted titles within the strategy or RPG genres, where each game can have different rules.
The second group are players who are new to a genre. What usually happens in this case is that a game achieves a high enough level of renown to attract people who really want to play it to see what all the praise is about (and who may otherwise not be interested in the genre). This group has the highest potential to convert into longterm fans, but it’s often a point of failure for many developers.
Remember: this is a group that can’t be relied upon to come to your game with even a basic knowledge or understanding of the genre. This is where considering factors like onboarding and tutorial design becomes important — without these considerations, you’re likely to turn away this group. There are numerous examples of developers who haven’t considered this angle.
Too often, developers of niche genres will only consider their established fans and not take into account the broader market — they’ll create experiences that veteran players can jump into, but that will leave new players with no idea what’s going on. Incidentally, this is where AAA developers tend to succeed over indies: the ability to create effective onboarding/tutorials.
Of course, it helps that AAA developers tend to a) work in established genres and b) have the budget to do extensive playtesting.
The third and final category is increasingly a rarity, but one that is still important to consider: someone who is brand new to playing games. As the industry has grown over the years and games have become more a mainstream form of entertainment, this group has become smaller and smaller. However, there are still people out there who might be experiencing your game as their first game. Onboarding is obviously vital here — especially given that we’ve seen a surge of non-gamers take to mobile and free-to-play games in recent years. Mobile games have historically been built around the need to be as accommodating to new players as possible.
It may be that some readers believe that indie developers simply don’t need to worry about this group (or perhaps even the one prior) given that their games are smaller in both scale and reach. But I’d argue that understanding the new player experience is important not only in order to welcome these groups to your game, but also because it’s an important way to improve as a game designer.
Why does this matter?
Not catering for new players is one of the easiest traps for game designers to fall into. This can result from an “echo chamber effect”, where you’re only listening to yourself and not the people who might actually be playing your game. It’s not just about listening to players in general though — it’s understanding that different groups of players will have different preferences. For example, if you visit almost any online forum centered around an especially difficult or niche game, there will be one group who ask for the experience to be made more playable and easier to learn, and another group — often expert players — who denounce that idea.
As a developer, it’s important to recognize that complexity and difficulty are not the hallmarks of a good game. While some players will find it rewarding to figure out confusing systems and gameplay loops, you’re ultimately doing a disservice to your game (and your potential audience) by not attempting to deal with those pain points. Not only that, but if you can’t properly explain what makes your game different from its contemporaries, you’re less likely to have your project break into that market.
To put it another way: the ability to take something complex and explain it in a way that is easy for anyone to follow is a sign of a great developer. One of the best aspects of Slay the Spire was that very fact, and how the developers used an elegant UI to help demystify many of the game’s rules.
There are numerous indie games out there that have achieved cult status, but fail to grow beyond a limited cult following, often due to their onboarding. I cannot stress this enough — every game, regardless of genre and fanbase, should always keep the new player experience in mind.
Remember that even complicated titles that are built around niche audiences still need to consider a new player’s experience. You can, for example, look at the differences between Factorio and Kerbal Space Program to clearly articulate this point. Kerbal Space Program kicks off by offering a wide range of tools and components and leaves the player to make sense out of everything. That complete freedom might be nice for skilled players, but it leaves new players wondering what to focus on.
Factorio, on the other hand, starts the player out with a limited pool of tools to use and figure out before further complexities are revealed (although, even with that approach, the developers have actually added an introduction scenario in recent years).
Considering returning players
There’s another aspect to this which is at least tangentially related to the whole question of onboarding new players. It’s about onboarding returning players. As live service games become more and more common, there’s an increasing number of players out there who will tackle a game for a period of time, put it down for a while, and then return to it later. In my view, live service games are among the worst titles in terms of punishing returning players. If you haven’t played a game in six months, or a year, or more…then you should could easily be considered a “new player” upon your return.
This becomes even more relevant when you’re talking about games that receive extensive post-release support and updates. Warframe, Payday 2, Team Fortress 2, Fortnite, and many more titles have evolved considerably since they initially launched. Sometimes the updates involved are simple patches and balance tweaks. But occasionally you’ll encounter entirely new systems and rules. At their core, these titles are all designed around conditioning people to play regularly (often daily) in order to “keep up”. And if they fall behind, it can be a nightmare to catch up.
There are several reasons why this happens. First, many live service games are built around the idea of account progress rather than player progress. With Warframe, for example, everything you do is tied to your account (in terms of things like unlock able items, premium currency, quests completed, and so on). Although that game allows you to review basic tutorial information, it doesn’t make that content easy to find — especially when thinking about what’s been changed since you last played, or if you need to get a quick refresher on how the mechanics work.
This issue becomes even more complicated when thinking about titles built on competitive or ranked play — some players will have a pre-existing rank that dictates placement. Just because a player had a high rank a year or more ago doesn’t mean they have the same skills now. However, when they jump back in and try to re-learn the game, the matchmaking system might assume they’re still high-ranking and effectively punish them by placing them in matches they aren’t ready for (this also punishes their teammates who expected a higher-skilled player).
There are several ways to make it easier to return to a game. The first is obvious: ensure that tutorials are always replayable. And for games with multiple systems, it’s always useful to have help screens or tooltips available.
Games with ranked play are a tougher nut to crack. The problem is that every option could, in theory, be exploited. If you let players create multiple characters, then you run the risk of “smurf accounts” emerging: this is where players use different characters to hide their skills, thereby manipulating their online ranking. Setting up a transfer of purchased/acquired items from one character to another could also enable an unfair advantage.
Empathy through fresh eyes
No matter who your market is — or what genre of game you’re creating — all designers need to consider the new player’s experience when building their games. This is how you can improve onboarding and tutorial design, and retain players in the longer term. Every person you turn away due to poor onboarding is a potential fan permanently lost.
Remember: every game is somebody’s first, and thinking about your onboarding and tutorials along these lines will ultimately make you a better designer and give you game a better chance of being enjoyed by the maximum number of players.
If you enjoy my work and like talking game design, the Game-Wisdom Discord is open to everyone.