Wednesday, December 8, 2010

EXP Podcast #107: The 10 Minute Rule

It’s crucial for games to catch a player’s attention, but what is the best way to ensure that someone will stick around to the end? This week, we use Leanne C. Taylor’s article to think about the ways both cutscenes and mechanics are used to keep players’ interests. She examines the concept of the “10 minute rule” that many movies follow when attempting to engage their audiences and examines its applications in video games. Hopefully, the first 10 minutes of our show persuades you to stick around! If so, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Some discussion starters:

- What sorts of story-telling devices capture your attention when you start a game?

- Are there specific genres that benefit from a particular kind of hook?

- What are the relative strengths and weaknesses of a cut-scene approach vs. a gameplay approach?

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Show notes:

- “History, Mystery and Story: Games and the 10 Minute Rule,” by Leanne C. Taylor, via Gamasutra
- Run time: 35 min 45 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks


  1. Mass Effect 1 initially missed the 10-minute mark for me. So there's a bad guy with a cool ship with unspecified goals that we've never met personally and at best considers us collateral damage. Why should I care? Sure, there was a vast universe and political intrigue, but the main FPS-style gameplay was an obstacle until I retried the game much, much later and reached Virmire. There the game properly introduces the main villains and the main story. It also hammers home that your dialogue choices and your actions in combat have consequences. The story part could have been done with a proper cutscene, but actual gameplay is the only way to make the entire game matter.

    Mass Effect 2 was somewhat better. The main villains and the untrustworthy allies are established in minutes and the game mechanics are taught during the tutorial level. But the real hook was the characters. In my case, Mordin's recruitment mission. You first hear about the character from third parties. When you reach the doctor himself, he proves to be everything that others said and much, much more.

    One important factor is that every work of art is also judged against it's peers. God of War's first level seemed like a Devil May Cry clone with somewhat more visceral moves. But it was the sight of Ares fighting against the entire city of Athens that really sold the game. It's an epic tale of vengeance where everything is collateral damage.

    By comparison, God of War 2 was much more economical with it's introduction. It quickly establishes that gods, Kratos included, are all treacherous, vengeful and egoistical bastards. It establishes the scale of the conflict and the gameplay mechanics with the Colossus of Rhodes. And it establishes that Kratos' defining characteristic is his willpower. Even without powers, he will tear through anything and everything that stands between him and his vengeance.

  2. It seemed like you guys derailed yourselves a bit and started looking at hook as a point in which you understand the (whole) story - which led the discussion into the depths of several games (FFXIII, Silent Hill, etc.).

    I think the intent of the 10-minute rule is that in order to engage the audience, you have a limited window in which to start the plot. Somewhere within the first ten minutes, the catalyst event that drives the rest of the story forward needs to happen. In books, this usually can be found in the first 20 - 50 pages. You can't spend an hour setting scene and expect the audience to wait for you. You aren't telling a good story.

    But I don't know that that is the same as the hook. There has to be something that initially captivates the audience, and lets the author reel them in far enough to engage the audience so that they swim the rest of the way into the net. A tense action scene, gorgeous visuals or sound, interesting characters, bizarre circumstances... These types of things hook the audience, buy our attention for a few moments, during which the author needs to get us to that '10-minute' mark.

    Before games became interactive stories, all of that had to be done with the gameplay itself. The '10-minute' mark was the point at which the game had proved itself fun to the player. The player trusts that the designer has given them a game that will be worth their investment of time and (in the olde days) aggravation. For Pac-Man the hook may be simply that the game is a novel maze game where you get chased by ghosts. But the '10-minute' mark is that after you finish your first game, you've done well enough, that you understand the controls and know that you can do better, that it was challenging enough and fun enough, that you put in another quarter.

    Games that are story based have two tasks: they have to engage you with the story (for you to enjoy the story) but more importantly (because they are supposedly foremost games) they also have to engage you with the gameplay. Ace Combat 6 is an excellent example of this dichotomy. The Ace Combat series has always been a par excellence arcade flight combat game. AC4 is often marked as the pinnacle of the series in part due to its excellent story. AC6 brought the series to the current generation hardware (360). Its gameplay continued the series tradition and almost instantly grabs the player with an exciting flight experience that sells the rest of the game. The story, however, is abysmal. While it does present itself within that 10-minute window, the story is both not very good and is not told well. So the player skips the rest of the cut-scenes and thoroughly enjoys the rest of the game.

    So does FFXIII fail to present the plot catalyst in the first '10-minutes'? (I haven't played it.) I've heard the first half of the game described as a tutorial, because the game doesn't fully relinquish control until that point, but what kept you playing that long? My guess is that the story probably passed the 10-minute test. And the core gameplay, the strategic nature of the combats (because that seems to be the essence of FFXIII, unlike the balance with exploration in the other games) maybe missed the mark. Instead, it drags the player along with hook after hook, gradually layering the complexity of the combat system, until finally handing over the reigns. If that is true, then can a game use story as a crutch to keep the player hooked long enough to finally get to the essence of the gameplay? Does that make good game design? Can a system be so complex that it takes twenty hours to teach and still be a good game? Am I just derailed myself?

  3. @ Hirvox

    I am right there with you on Mass Effect. While Mass Effect 2 manage the introduction better, it also relied, to some extent, on the emotional connection players may have felt for Shepard and her crew from the first Mass Effect. The moment when *SPOILERS* the Normandy explodes, is perfectly timed to grab me and want to keep playing.

    God of War 3 is also a good example of the mechanical ten-minute mark. The battle with Poseidon is the introduction, and the team holds nothing back.

    @ Loberto

    At first I didn't get your point, but I see what you mean. A hook might keep players captivated long enough the creator to appeal to our continued attention in a less dramatic way. I can see the value in separating the two terms, but they are functionally very similar. If the 'ten-minute mark' happens, and the game has not convinced me to keep playing, then I will grow impatient, my attention will fail, and I will cease to be hooked - from any source.

    I would say FXIII failed in most all the ways discussed. The story certainly didn't pass the ten minute mark for me. They may have revealed most of the important figures and concepts (sort-of), but I had no understanding of how any of it fit together and why I should care. Maybe they tried for a "ten-minute mark" and just failed.

    But you bring up a great question. I think games get away with using mechanics as a crutch to keep players hooked until a story reaches the mark, so they can certainly get away with using story as a crutch. If people know their limitations and design with them in mind, and it works, then I think I can call that good game design. Hell, after reading some excellent written pieces on it, I still think FFXIII is probably a good game. (Oh, also. I kept playing because of the visuals and because of FF nostalgia - does that count as a hook?)

    Excellent comments all around.

  4. Two very important games that come to my mind are Half Life 1 and the Metroid series. Half Life does an excellent exposition by showing you the place you're in and building up tension. Metroid gives you every power you ever need just to take it from you.

  5. I am a very difficult gamer to please as far as the ten minute rule goes. I rush through tutorials and "tutorial missions" as fast as possible (the Kingdom Hearts 2 intro was almost unbearable for me), and opening cinematics often seem to me boring on account of being too vague/cryptic (perhaps trying the "mystery" hook but failing to establish why the images I'm seeing matter to me) and/or just plain putting "looks awesome" before meaningfulness.

    The problem I find in the way games attempt to tell stories, especially in the beginning, is that they often try too much to be movies or rely too much on movie-style story telling. This is a bad choice, I think, because it misunderstands the difference between gaming as a story-telling medium and film as a story-telling medium. The difference is that, in gaming, the player is an agent in the story--not just a viewer of the story--and must be treated that way.

    Another way of putting it is that, in a movie, there are two kinds of meaningfulness: the kind the movie intends, and the kind the viewer finds through relating the movie to themselves. Games are special in that they are capable of offering those two kinds of meaning, but they can also offer a third kind: the player is capable MAKING meaning. Through their interaction with the game world, they are actually helping to WRITE the story. (Remember dying in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time only to hear the narrator say, "No, no, that's not how it went"? I always loved how appropriate that was.) When games overlook this or only pretend to care about it (e.g., pretending player choices have consequences when they don't), gamers can feel bored or even irritated, and for good reason.

    Tutorials and cinematics have to avoid the same pitfalls in that neither should neglect the player's role as co-author of the narrative, especially when the player is still learning who they are in the story. If a game's tutorial makes the player feel like a trained seal jumping through hoops, and if a game (via cinematic) tells a player who they are and what they are like more than the player tells the game who they are and what they are like, it's kind of a turn off.

    I really think that in terms of telling stories with games, though, the key elements are that the player is A) the star, B) a co-author, and C) knows best. Players are not just obstacle course runners, unless that is the kind of game you're making. But if there is an honest interest in telling a good story that takes advantage of gaming's assets, the player needs to feel like a co-author, in whatever ways that meaningfully works in the given game.

  6. I just realized that my previous comment sounds more like a critique of story-telling in general than in hooking/the ten minute rule.

    What I mean by all of that is this: hook me by putting me in a unique situation or context. (This is interesting. What's going on here!?) Have me stay by SHOWING me--not just telling me--a world that is compelling enough that I want to co-author a story in it. The intro to a good story-driven game should essentially say to me, "I have this idea for a story, but I need your help writing it, player. How should the next part go, do you think?"

    There are many ways of accomplishing that--not just the morrowing/mass effect sort of role playing. But if a game can do that, in whatever way meaningful works for that game and its world, I'll totally bite.