It's freezing outside. The Christmas lights are flashing from house to house. Yuletide spirit is in the air. A new game is in the system, starting up nice and right. Egg nog, nicely prepared. The game title flashes on the screen as I hit start...
And then begins a four hour story setup movie. Or worse, a four hour dialogue segment, telling the wonderful back story that writers clearly spent far too long on. Possibly even a disgusting chunk of symbolism I'm supposed to digest before enjoying the game.
When did it become even remotely acceptable to have a large chunk of the game at the beginning suck? When did it become acceptable to be sitting around for an hour watching some movie in order to begin to interact with a game? There's something WRONG there. While games can and should exercise movies as appropriate, the beginning of a game is the first foot forward. I don't care if the game design requires tons of setup, the player should be in and playing shortly after turning on the game in some fun manner. Seize the day and their interest!
I was chitchatting over Prince of Persia: Warrior Within a few days ago, a game that happily spent its first hour in a wretched combination of crappy level, cheesy combat, and sucky movies. Now, I'm a huge fan of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, but Warrior Within had me gouging my eyes out within mere moments of play. I went and ranted on it on our boards here, and someone actually went ahead and said: "Hey, it's only absolutely horrible for the first few hours. It gets good after that!"
I stared at this. The game is only estimated at about twenty hours in length, so a few hours is about the first ten-fifteen percent of the game. When did we start accepting that games were given several hours of complete failure to entertain us before they had to start bringing the fun in? It used to be that several hours would represent an entire game. RPGs don't have any special trait that makes them unable to engage the player right out of the gate with fun gameplay interwoven with story.
Star Ocean is a game series that gets tons of love and hate but you know, I think it earned a good deal of its hate through its consistently terrible beginnings. Star Ocean 3 goes nearly an hour before you get any real freedom of motion. Why start so far back? You can filter us back later. Get us into the game play! Star Ocean 2, a game I rather enjoyed has such a terribly boring intro sequence that I have friends that literally keep a save an hour into the game just to avoid it, because they wouldn't play it again if they had to go through that boring piece of garbage at the beginning.
This is a ramble to those designing out there. Think of the player. You have one chance to make a first impression. Make it a good one. Draw out the best parts of your game in the beginning and let it shine. At the very least, folks will leave happy from the first few hours rather than not seeing that there's ninety hours of good stuff after ten hours of pain. Whether the rest of the game is awesome or horrible, don't give up the battle to give a great first impression.