Helping Players Finish Your Game
In game jams like Ludum Dare, your project is subjected to the harsh rating of other participants in the jam. As a participant, your goal is to create a player experience that will be well-rated by your fellow jam participants. If you’re like me, you like to make jam games which convey short stories with a beginning, middle, and end. However, you might be surprised to find that when your game’s ratings come back, the players clearly didn’t play the game all the way through! How could they properly rate your game without seeing your amazing ending cutscene?!
Unfortunately, not every jammer is strictly dedicated to giving each game the time it deserves. After all, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of games for them to play, and participants are usually incentivized to rate as many games as possible. As a result, if a player becomes bored while playing your jam game, they’re more likely to move on to someone else’s game before reaching the end of yours. Luckily, there are lots of ways to encourage players to stick around until the end.
There are many reasons a player might call it quits after only a minute or two of gameplay, but once they’ve made it past the first few minutes, they’re more likely to stick around. With that in mind, let’s first discuss why they might be turned off by the beginning of your game.
They can’t figure out how to play
One of the best qualities of jam games is how often they can produce games with truly experimental gameplay, unlike anything players have played before. Unfortunately, these interesting mechanics and control schemes might leave players unable to lean on the genre conventions they’ve previously relied upon in order to learn how to play. For example, when you launch a new first-person shooter game on your PC, you likely instinctively use WASD to move, and the mouse to look around. The game doesn’t have to teach you these basic controls because they’re genre conventions. Instead, the game can focus on teaching you about more nuanced aspects of the gameplay. Jam games, especially genre-breaking or inventive games, don’t always have this luxury. They have to teach players the controls from scratch.
A very common approach is to list out all the controls on the jam page or website for the game. This is popular because it’s very easy to do, but it often isn’t very effective; the player will have to alt-tab frequently between the game and your game page in order to learn to play. This can be incredibly disruptive to the experience you’re trying to create. Luckily, there’s an easy fix for this problem.
Put your controls text in the game
Almost every game engine has the capability to quickly set up a UI element which can be toggled with a key on the keyboard. Instead of listing all of your controls on the game page, consider creating an in-game note that says “press ‘esc’ in game to view the controls.” It’s a small change, but it gives the player the ability to quickly check the controls at any time during gameplay, and you’re in control of how they are presented to the player. You can theme your control text to match the aesthetics of your game, or even pause while the player is looking at them. My favorite way to incorporate a control screen is to show it at the very start of the game, while the player is in an area that is safe for them to explore and figure things out. One of the key aspects of this approach is that players who learn quickly can leave this area and move on once they’ve understood what they need to know, while players who tend to take more time can linger as long as they would like. This approach can also help you avoid the next pitfall:
They’re annoyed by your tutorial
Another common approach to teach the player the controls is to build a tutorial. You might think, “if I don’t let the player progress until they’ve demonstrated mastery of the mechanics, then they won’t be confused by the rest of the game!” However, it’s important to remember that if you keep the player from having fun early on, they may choose to put down your game and pick up the next one. It’s important to give the player some credit--they can figure out certain aspects of the game as they go along. Give the player the information they need to get started, and then let them run free!
They played your game for a few minutes and didn’t see what made it special
This is the most important pitfall to avoid in the beginning of your game. Generally, jam games have at least one feature or mechanic that makes them special. It’s that one killer idea you had that keeps players interested, and helps you finally score in the top ten overall. Because players essentially have unlimited games to rate, though, they may pass on your game if they don’t see what makes your game special early on. Let’s talk about how (and why) to make sure that players see what’s special about your game.
Don’t withhold the good parts of your game
Far too often, I download and play a jam game and don’t see anything unique or interesting until I’ve been playing it for at least ten minutes. A less dedicated player would have given up on the game by then, and rated the game poorly because they missed out on its best aspects. In my games, I try to make sure that the player can see what makes them special within the first 90 seconds of launching them. This ensures that even the most impatient gamer will see what I want them to see, and hopefully this will encourage them to continue playing. In my recent jam games Aquarial and Aviarium, you play as a fish and a bird, respectively. The “special” part of these games are the animal character controllers. Recognizing this, I made sure that the player learns to swim/fly within the first 90 seconds of gameplay.
Once the player is through the first few minutes of your game, there’s a much higher chance they’ll make it to the end. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re in the clear-- there’s still a few reasons a player might quit playing in the middle of your game.
They got stuck
Something that’s personally frustrated me has been when I’ve gotten stuck in games. I’m not talking about games being too difficult-- I’m talking about situations where, due to a bug in the game, I’m unable to continue making progress. I’m usually forced to either quit playing, or restart the game from the beginning. Sometimes, this involves replaying a large percentage of the game, only to get stuck again in the exact same way. Luckily, there are ways to fix this.
The simplest solution to the problem is to simply put a button on-screen which restarts the game. This isn’t much better than the player being forced to alt-f4 and relaunch the game, but at least this way they jump right back to the beginning without the added frustration of having to relaunch the entire game. It also might be worthwhile to make sure that the restart button starts the player after any intro cutscenes or tutorials your game may have, as the player probably already knows what’s going on and how to play-- they just want to get back to the action.
A more bespoke solution would be a stuck button. This isn’t much help if your game is crashing unexpectedly, but if the issue is that the player gets stuck in a box they can’t escape from, or that they fall through the floor and into the void, you can provide the player with a button to respawn in a safe location. Other approaches I’ve seen involve simply teleporting the player a few units up in the air, going back to the beginning of the level (instead of the beginning of the game), or temporarily disabling the player’s collider so that they can fly themselves back to a safe location. This solution does have some potential for abuse, so be careful in your implementation if you don’t want players to skip parts of your game using the stuck button.
This solution is partially covered by the stuck button solution, but checkpoints are the gold standard in stuck player recovery. Giving the player a “back to last checkpoint” button and placing checkpoints regularly in your game will alleviate all but the nastiest stuck state issues.
They didn’t know the end was near
Far too often I play a jam game for 20 minutes, decide I’ve seen enough, go to leave my review, and read in the comments that I was mere minutes away from reaching the ending cinematic. This may lead players to embark on a frustrated speedrun, hoping the ending is worth playing the game a second time. If you want people to reach the end of your game, it’s always helpful to give them some clues about how close they are to it.
An excellent example of this is the video game Journey by Thatgamecompany. In Journey, the player travels toward a mountain with a light at its peak. It’s visible for nearly the entire game, getting ever closer as the player travels through the beautifully rendered desert. This mechanic gives the player a sense of how close they are to the end of the game, and is integrated beautifully into the world of the game.
Sometimes it’s difficult to seamlessly integrate information into the world, and generally time is of the essence in game jams, so here are a few ideas for how to do this a bit more easily: if your game has levels, consider listing them as “Level 1/20” instead of just the level number. If your game works using missions/quests, let the player see what percentage of the missions they’ve completed. In my game Aviarium, in the bottom corner, there’s a text element that shows what percentage of the game the player has completed, starting at 0% and ending at 100% once they’ve finished the ending sequence of the game.
If you’ve avoided all the pitfalls above, and people still aren’t finishing your game, it’s time to take a hard look at your design and figure out if there’s something wrong. These final two pitfalls are heavily related, and both can lead to players having a hard time getting through to the end.
The game was too boring
It’s very important to avoid overstaying your welcome. Some jam games have mechanics that are fun and interesting to play with for 5 minutes, but the developer has prepared 2 hours worth of content. When in doubt, give the player less content, but make it the best content you can muster instead of padding your game out with lots of filler.
The game was too long
Finally, sometimes games are just too long. As I’ve mentioned before, in a game jam context, the player wants to rate as many as possible so that their game can get ratings. As a result, players are looking for any excuse to stop playing your game before they get to the end. Because of the pressure to move on to the next game, only the most dedicated players will play your game for longer than a few minutes. For this reason, I try to keep all of my jam games to under ten minutes in length.
It’s important to remember that players won’t know how your game works when they start playing, though, so if it takes you 10 minutes to play through your game at the end of the jam, it’s likely to take players 3-5 times longer when they play through, making your game actually 30-50 minutes long. A smart rule of thumb is that if you can speedrun your game in 2-5 minutes, first-time players should be able to play through the whole game in a reasonable amount of time.
Grades Aren’t Everything
Ultimately, you may decide to break many of these rules while you’re making your next jam game, and that often leads to better game design. These rules are designed to help players finish your game, not necessarily make it better. Even if there’s nothing actively pushing people away from your story, they may still decide they don’t want to push through to the end. It’s important to remember what you want them to finish the game for. Avoid these pitfalls, tell your story, and the players that matter will make it to the end.