Extended Opening/Prolonged Prologues

CraneSoft

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Last week, I had a talk with a friend about how to entice players and keep them engaged early on, and had a discussion about prologues. By “Prologue” (which different people may have different definition of), I don’t mean the long scrolling backstory infodumps at the first few minutes after you hit “New Game”. Here I am referring to the introductory segments of a game before you are given full control to explore and start acquiring skills/levels, instead of just “partial control” like being forced to walk from Point A to Point B and just doing tutorials and interact with static events.

After playing many games and heard gripes about long prologues turning people off, I’m curious about how people make their prologues. Without a doubt, it is one of the most important segment of any game, especially in demos, where they are often the deciding factor if a game is worth buying. They often include the following:

Action Prelude:
The most popular approach for many, many commercial RPGs, you are thrown straight into action within the first few minutes of starting the game, often with guest characters you won’t actually get to play as, or giving you a Taste of Power with a much stronger protagonist. Do you include action segments where the player are in control before the “main” game? Or you just start them out in some village/town and provide immediate control?

Major Character Introductions:
Some stories simply do not work without an established cast of characters right at the beginning to provide the basic expositions, and introducing them all can take time. Do you have experience in handling such a scenario?

Tutorials:
The bane of any player’s existence. They are often spread out to prevent infodump and interrupting gameplay. Do you even include them if any?

For my case, while I give control to the player 2~3 minutes in, my actual prologue (call it Chapter “0” if you will) would be at least 30 minutes to an hour long because it had a tutorial dungeon (that you are expected to breeze your way through, no EXP/levels will be carried over) and contain critical events and foreshadowing that lead to the main game. This part could easily be revamped as a flashback if I felt like it, but it is necessary to establish the plot and the important characters before the adventure can properly begin without a ton of question marks.

Some other popular examples:
  1. FF9 doesn’t properly start until you reach Evil Forest, although you have a whole town to navigate and tons of story segments with event battles to establish the basic plot.
  2. Persona 4/5. Known for their ridiculously long prologues before you are actually given full control to explore a town or be allowed to freely dungeon crawl.
  3. The Tanker Chapter of MGS2 and The Virtuous Mission of MGS3. Not exactly an RPG but has the same concept.
So how are you guys structure out your opening/prologues (if any) and your opinions on this?
Discuss.
 

gstv87

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I like the interactive introduction approach.
Portal did great at this, because you literally "just wake up from bed", and the game is all about ramping up the difficulty at solving puzzles.

Major Character Introductions:
Some stories simply do not work without an established cast of characters right at the beginning to provide the basic expositions, and introducing them all can take time. Do you have experience in handling such a scenario?
I think lately I've seen games like Fallen Order or Outer Worlds doing great at this, because the plot sections its encounters with characters in a way that it appears like it's open world, but it's more linear than it seems, so by going from mission to mission there's always a small cutscene that takes care of exposition.
looks like they've started from the purely linear narrative to take care of those exposition moments, and then branched out as much as they could, to give it that open world feel.
I'll have to go and watch the playthroughs again, this time taking notes.

personally, I wrote my story with an action piece at the beginning, following a small cutscene to set up the action.
now, I think I can probably rework that, and still get to the same action piece by starting from a basic tutorial.
as tedious as they can be for seasoned players, it has to be noted that not everyone is a master of adventure/rpg games so things like "check your quest log" or "remember to equip your items" have to be stressed, for new players, who probably aren't even aware of the concept of quest log or inventory.
 

dreamfall887

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I struggle with this too tbh. I want to people to get a feel for my characters but not feel bored and think to themselves "where's the gameplay?".
With tutorials, I feel most gamers already know the basics. They can just be short little messages. You don't really need a Navi type character. I notice whenever people use them nowadays, even the main character just wants them to shut up after a while XD

I think it depends the story. if it about the adventure I think humble beginnings can work. like the hero leaves their loved ones and their hometown and sets off on a quest with their loyal crew to seek thrills, explore or just find the lost civilization or something haha. Or it can start in the middle of a bounty or mission. you get to see the characters in the heat of battle and how they interact when sh*t hits the fan. and then you can compare to when things are calmer. are the characters relieved and can let their guard down or they bored and are eager to back on the road?

Some stories simply do not work without an established cast of characters right at the beginning to provide the basic expositions, and introducing them all can take time. Do you have experience in handling such a scenario?

Maybe just have the characters eavedropping on the gossip in crowded areas like pubs or markets. they you will spot a wanted poster of the first dungeon's boss and the townspeople will be scared of encountering it's minions in the nearby forest or at night. Little kids who don't really get what's going on asking their parents. The parents gently sugar coating or pretending nothing is wrong but is clearly scared and makes the player curious about what's troubling them. People giving out newspapers or those bell ringer guys you see in films. beggars who give info in exchange for gold.
 

HumanNinjaToo

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I prefer the game to allow the player to get into action fairly soon. More than 5 minutes of movie/cutscene and I'm getting bored. I prefer the story to be presented in shorter segments that don't break up gameplay for too long. Same with tutorials. I prefer they are short and to the point, and I believe they should be optional. I understand why RM games give tutorials on movement and other basics, because you can't assume everyone knows how to play the basics; but, I think they should be optional because many people don't need to see the movement tutorial for every RM game. Bonus points if they can be accessed from the menu or a hub area at any point in the game.

Also, when it comes to tutorials, I prefer they be integrated into the gameplay in such a way that you may not immediately pick up that it is a tutorial. Either way, I think they have to be short and concise. However, this comes from someone who will turn off a movie after the first 5 minutes if all I've seen are scrolling text credits...so yeah.
 

TheoAllen

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Action Prelude:
With the steam refund policy, I have a theory that some games just pad out the playtime at the beginning of the game for like one or two hours with a long introduction and tutorial, then give you the actual gameplay after you passed 2 hours, yeah, that is just no.

My ideal game progression is something like this:

First, introduce me to the gameplay, the game loop, what I will be doing in the next hours of playing the game, preferably in minutes (it can be as simple fighting a few enemies, so I know how good/bad the control is, and how I should play, stealth or not). It is even better if you give me early access to the menu so I know what I'm looking forward to. If the game introduces a long introduction, I may just refund the game.

Second. Once the gameplay intro is convinced me, you can try to try to dump your story. A long cutscene is fine as long as I 'agree' with the gameplay.

Major Characters Intro
I'm not a JRPG Player, so I'm mostly not affected by this. As a player, I don't care how the dev introduces me to the major character. As a writer/dev, I just give the necessary info for them. You know this character has this role and this job, and I'd stop right there. Because that is what you need to know.

Tutorials
While it a bane of the player's existence, it also a bane of the dev existence. I'm yet to find a good formula to make a tutorial without interrupting gameplay, however, my current attempt is to give menu design as intuitive as possible. "Press X to show Y", tooltips, etc. After all, that was the one that helped me to remember how the control of a game is after a period of hiatus.
 

CraneSoft

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From the looks of it, it does seem most players don't seem to mind where the "actual" gameplay start as long as they are given control early on and the incentive to access menus, fighting battles early on etc. I do think however a "Skip Prologue" function should be present regardless (at the very least for subsequent playthroughs), so the player doesn't have to go through the tutorial levels all over again if they had to restart the game for whatever reason.

Tutorials explaining the basic controls span 1~2 clicks and it's certainly more work for the player trying to access the menu/bookshelf or whatever just to learn them or making a choice asking if they want to learn them - it's less about knowing movement controls (which should be common sense) and more about which key actually allows you to actually interact, cancel, accessing the menus and especially dashing (which a non-RM player might not be immediately aware). If you use hotkeys for certain functions that utilizes other buttons other than Z/X/Shift, I think it is pretty much compulsory - I wouldn't want to try pressing every key on my keyboard just to test if there is a shortcut button to bring out the map or skipping messages/cutscenes. @TheoAllen had a good point about intuitive menus (or simply an on-map HUD that displays the controls, very common in modern RPGs). On the other hand, any extensive tutorials should be skippable. I do make one of mine compulsory for the first time (and skippable in a replay or NG+) because not knowing it means you will absolutely not survive the game.

@dreamfall887 Adventure stories wouldn't have to worry about extended prologues for the most case, as control is likely given at first opportunity. As this topic is mainly about stories that take awhile to start up and needs to have gameplay "previews" to keep the engagement before the real thing. For characters here, I mainly refer to the plot critical ones, namely people that will play important roles at some point of the story or even simply as party members you have to recruit early on that is very involved in the plot - ie. you cannot simply skip their introduction and have some nameless NPC provide the same information/exposition.
 

dreamfall887

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@CraneSoft I see what you mean. I guess I was thinking of immersion as well. The player is exploring while also learning about the world and characters. Games aren't books. Books can take their time but games need pacing otherwise people will get bored. I think it depends on the player. I've seen people that skip story regardless and just want to get to gameplay and players that speed through the game so they can watch the next story cutscenes. Maybe try to appeal to one instead of trying to please both? I struggle with this because I like games with fun characters and interesting worlds, but I'm playing a game so there needs to be more interaction.
 

Basileus

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Trying to please both markets is definitely a bad idea. I know people that disregard the story and just want to play; the kind of players that skip cutscenes on first viewing. And I know some other people that will put up with pretty bad (or at least generic) gameplay if they like the story. Trying to please both types of players is like saying "I want to have a deep story, except no I don't".

I like a good story, but I find myself missing how older games told those stories. Pretty CGI cutscenes are nice to look at and can help show who a character is as well as a movie could. And yet I still really love the old school style of just starting the game and learning about the characters and story by interacting with the game world. Something like Dragon Quest 4's opening.

A bunch of soldier-looking guys are lined up.
Guy in front says: "Oi, the king's about to speak. Shut up and listen."
King walks up: "Kids be disappearing and parents keep asking me to find them. Go figure out what's happening."
Everyone but your character walks away to start looking and then you take control.

It's a bit more complicated than that, but not by much. You can learn a lot of info about the kingdom and the current situation just by talking to everyone. The player can check bookshelves for lore and talk to everyone if they want, or they can go out and do whatever at their own pace.

I do like cutscenes in newer JRPGs where the character interact and talk to each other more, but there's just something really nice about being let loose almost immediately.
 

bgillisp

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I second that. I made my game for the story crowd so I probably broke a lot of rules on gameplay.

As for how I did it, I gave the player a very short < 1 min scene to introduce why they were in the intro dungeon, let them play some, and then the rest is introduced as they go. So my long scene is after dungeon 1 in this case, after the player has played a little.
 

Tai_MT

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Personally...

I'm a story kind of guy. There isn't a single mechanic your RPG has that I haven't experienced in the other 10,000 other RPG's or even video games that I've played. Your combat is likely going to be as bland and uninspired as the last 300 RPG's I've attempted to play. Your systems are likely to be the same.

I'm here for the story. If I want gameplay, I'll play a different genre of game known for good gameplay. Something tactical, probably. Or, something that says "FPS" in front of it. Or, I dunno, an MMO. I'll pick a genre that actually bothers to innovate and try new things, even if those new things are terrible. I'm not going to look for it in an RPG. I've been gaming for too long to see anything RPG's are currently doing as "innovative".

With that being said...

I don't like intros that throw me immediately into combat or the gameplay. Look, I need some set up first. I need you to explain to me why I should care. Why is "Generic Battle System #3458998675" in your game something I should tolerate? This applies to all games, to be honest. Even shooters. Even tactical games. I need a reason to care that these systems exist. I'm not interested in, "well, if it didn't exist, there'd be nothing to do!".

So, what I need is an intro of some sort. Who am I playing as? What are my goals? Who are my allies? Why should I care about whacking a bunny to death? Or the soldiers?

Murder for the sake of murder doesn't interest me in a game. It's too easy, it's too boring, it's too stock. Likewise, murder for the sake of Currency and XP doesn't interest me in a game either. Again, too boring, too stock. Murder for the sake of a mechanic is almost worse as I'm not even being rewarded for my time at that point.

Think about that a minute. Watch your favorite movies with your favorite protagonists. Does Luke and Han Solo mow down every single Storm Trooper they see 'cause they "need the XP" or "need the money"? No? Is the story better served by them not mowing down every enemy they see?

Most games are 100% "kill everything that even moves". So, when you've played over 100 games where this is the primary gameplay loop (with variations on how you accomplish this killing only), you tend to get bored of it very quickly.

Let me put it this way... When I was a young kid, I played the first "Star Ocean" game. I was immediately grabbed by the set up. I had no idea what this game was about. It started out with some disease going around in a medieval time and we went to a forest to find the herbs that might cure it. Might. But, it's an RPG, so they're sure to work. Right? Fight all the standard enemies and get back with the herbs and... disaster strikes. But, a twist! We're pulled up into outer space with high end technology! What's going on? Oh, the people tell us the herbs won't work and we're going to be engaging in time travel to find the real cause of this nonsense and fix the world as it's broken because of outside influence.

That sounds awesome! I want to play that game!

Except, I didn't. After the first time jump... the game was literally nothing except battle after battle after battle after battle after battle after battle after battle after battle after.... okay, I turned the game off.

3 hours into the game and I was done.

Other Star Ocean games have not broken this mold yet. I've yet to complete a single one because of the way they do things. Amazing set up, gets me interested... cue 10 hours of doing nothing except combat. Yeah, thanks. No thanks. If you start a game with the primary gameplay loop of these huge swathes of time where I'm just whacking enemies until dead... I have no reason to stick around. I can play 100,000 other games that do exactly that. I have no reason to pick your particular game if what is being done is the same as the other 100,000 other games.

Basically, I need a reason to stick around that isn't the monotonous combat system. I prefer that reason be a story of some description. Or characters that are interesting. Or a goal that doesn't seem like I'll only be able to accomplish it after 50 hours of gameplay.

Let's use Chrono Trigger as the example of what I'm talking about here. Chrono Trigger has "shifting goalposts" which always feel like immediate and logical stepping stones to the eventual "kill the big bad guy at the end". The initial goal is, "get back to our own timeline and save our friend". Then it is "evade the palace guards since you escaped from jail" and then it's "let's escape the hellscape future" and you then discover "the big bad of the game destroyed the world". Then, you go to figure out how that happened and that it was a wizard who did it. You go to defeat the wizard and end up in magic land. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Small goals. Each easy to accomplish. The game stringing you along until you finally destroy the big bad.

This is what I look for in a game and an intro. I'm not looking for bashing 50 goblins faces in. I'm not looking for a tutorial on how your combat works.

I'm looking for a reason to stay and a reason to keep playing.

Giving me control immediately doesn't give me that. Especially if I have no idea who I am, what I'm meant to be doing, or what my first moves of the game actually are. Drop me into a town and let me do whatever I want? Okay... what do I actually do? Where should I go? What should I be moving forward with as a goal in mind?

I need set up. I don't care if it's a 20 minute cutscene to get me there, either (Final Fantasy X's intro was fantastic!). I need set up. A reason to keep playing. A reason to fiddle with a combat system I've fiddled with 5,000 other times before.
 

kairi_key

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I agree with the post above that I want a reason for me to care for the game that is also easy to bite/digest. I would love a few cutscenes before action and it better not take that long. 4-5 mins cutscene, for me, drags on too long. Only way that it can be that long is for me to have something more to care for, like good arts, nice music or voice acting then I can enjoy longer cutscenes. A strong start can do anything for me.

As for action part of it, I feel like giving players a taste of power in the game is a bit overdone, especially if it's some overpowered character who I don't have to care about for a few quests/hours of gameplay. I don't really like that. At least if it's the OP main character and then there's a reason for it to go back to the weaker form because the story telling require it so, then I'm fine.

I just need some compelling beginning to care for the main character. I don't care how you do the tutorial if there's a reason for me to care for its existence.
 

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