How long should it take from pressing "Start Game" to player's first battle?

SOC

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Forgive me if there's a discussion on this already, I couldn't find it.

For me, getting to know how/what the battle system is like for a game as soon as possible is very important. I often look at screenshots and features of the game well ahead of time before purchasing or deciding to play it so that I can know if it's something that will interest me or not. Even then, sometimes I need to actually experience and feel the battle system to know for sure. If a game takes too long to reach a point where I'm experiencing it, sometimes I lose interest quickly and don't even bother giving it a fair shot. I think this is very shallow, but it is something I've noticed when playing games throughout my life.

I think this question can vary greatly depending on the type of game and what its purpose is: is it narrative driven/story based game? Or is it a battle system focused game? But for the sake of this conversation, let's imagine it is applying to your typical JRPG RPG Maker game that has a mix of story and battle driven gameplay and focus.

I often think of games like FF1 where you can literally start battles immediately after picking and naming your party (Even before buying items, but even if you take into account item buying and seeing the king, you're starting battles pretty quickly) or Golden Sun where during the "opening scene" of being a child, you're facing battles within the first few minutes. Many JRPGs either use these battles as tutorials on how to play, or are story-driven and impossible to win or lose them no matter what choices you make in those battles. Either way, they're introducing you to how the game will play and if it's worth keeping your attention or not.

Then we have the topic of specifically RPG Maker games, where it can be much more challenging for developers to get their audience's attention to keep playing their game. If it's JRPG-like, then I think it's that much more important to have a battle sequence early on (in addition to screenshots/feature list showing/explaining the battle system) so that players know what they're getting into.

What do you think? How important is it that a player gets to experience your game's battle system as early as possible while fitting into your narrative and enhancing your overall storytelling and game's purpose?
 

bgillisp

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I think it really helps for them to have a battle early on. You don't want the player to have a four hour info dump of things that they will not remember (And then the Kythalians destroyed the Zartaual and hid the Nothte from Xandual). Instead you want them actually playing the game early on.

The way I handled this in my game was I put a very short scene so you know why you are where you are, then you run into the first battle at a fixed point on the map. In fact, you can see it where it is as soon as you start the game as I use visual encounters.
 

Milennin

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I think like 5-10 minutes at a maximum. Longer than that, and the intro is dragging on for too long.
 

JtheDuelist

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I have mine within like the first minute of the game, and not even a wall of text as to the controls.
 

coyotecraft

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Generally the conflict of the game exists from the beginning. You fight off invaders or a monster that wandered into town, signalling something is wrong and the start of a quest. At the very least the characters are all ready to spar or train in the meantime while things heatup. If you consider the character's career its fairly easy to initiate something. A woodsman copping wood already has an ax in hand; a wolf pops out! Or maybe the princess is playing croquet when she gets whisked away by a dragon and dropped in a tower where she starts cracking skulls with her wooden mallet.
Mages offer far more interesting tales in my opinion, performing forbidden arts and consequently summon a demon or shadow self that becomes the antagonist. Priests perform exorcisms. Bards get in bar fights. Chambermaid steps in sh--
You get the picture.
 

Eschaton

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Depends on how much information you want your player to have between selecting "new game" and the first battle.

The player character's motivation needs to be established, as well as getting the player on board with the goal of the game.

The player ought to have the absolute basics of navigating the game world down, too.

It's a fine line between wasting the player's time with infodumps and leaving the player completely bewildered.

I really like the way Breath of the Wild did it. You start a new game, are forced to learn how to move around, given a spectacular first view of the game world, and then are shown an old man standing next to the fire. On the way, you encounter enemies hell-bent on murdering you. Perfect in its simplicity.
 

coyotecraft

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@Eschaton I was waiting for someone to bring this up. Zelda games are Adventure titles, not RPGs. Why would you start a game off with secondary gameplay mechanics? You don't get a sword right away, usually you have to learn to pick up or push items to navigate obstacles first. Use the Shield as a tool to get the sword. That's what Adventure gameplay is all about.

It would be bad form to start the player off in a jail cell and follow Adventure gameplay to escape, when the game is suppose to be an RPG.
 

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It seems to me that a false polarity is being proposed: either straight into battle within the first 5 minutes or a long info dump. There are actually lots of other ways of using that opening time. Certainly I agree that the player should gain control of protaganist within a short time of the game starting, but unless you are making something of a dungeon crawler why limit yourself to just those 2 options?

Also the assumption that it's monsters or invaders or something very similar as being what one might call "the precipitating event" and that therefore everyone is going to go leaping into training immediately seems a bit of a strait jacket to put on oneself and on the story.
 

Soryuju

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@coyotecraft While it’s not an approach I’d recommend for most RPGM games, I think Persona 4 is a decent example of a JRPG which starts well in spite of delaying its primary gameplay. P4’s first real battle doesn’t come until you’re 1.5-2 hours into a normal playthrough, which is virtually unheard of by genre standards. Maybe 30-45 minutes in, there’s a brief fight in a dream where your lone protagonist uses basic attacks against an unkillable enemy (and the fight ends automatically after just a couple rounds), but that’s it. Yet in spite of the game’s exceedingly slow start, P4 was a widely-beloved JRPG and did well with most critics.

The way it pulled this trick off was by:

1) Oozing style
2) Focusing on the “role-playing” aspect of RPGs. It constantly worked to immerse players in their role as a seemingly-ordinary Japanese transfer student who is about to be caught up in a supernatural drama.

You slowly learn certain secondary mechanics as you talk with your friends each day, study to raise your stats in the evening, wander around town after school, and consistently catch wind of a murder mystery and a mysterious TV program connected to it. It sounds dull to read about, but the characters you meet are lively and charming, and the game’s bright, chic aesthetic makes you feel cool about doing even mundane things. That “cool” feeling holds it all together.

And don’t get me wrong - by the time you finally get to your first real battle, you are absolutely chomping at the bit, but nothing leading up to that point feels boring. The RPG fans who I’ve introduced the game to have said that they loved their first couple sessions and that the game felt like “playing an anime.”

As I said above, however, I don’t think most RPG Maker games should seek to emulate this approach. Most simply aren’t long enough and/or don’t have the assets/resources to create a truly immersive aesthetic. Furthermore, the whole thing can fall apart if your writing or base game mechanics are bad. And on top of that, RPG Maker devs also have to worry about the stigma RPGM games have thanks to so many being low-effort, boring productions. It’s generally safer to hit the ground running and quickly show your audience what sets your game apart than to draw things out and risk losing your players’ interest before they get to “the good part.”

Given all that, 5-10 minutes until the first battle in a JRPG sounds about right to me. Maybe even less if you’re using mostly RTP assets or your opening scene features cliches/lore info dumps. You can push it longer if you know what you’re doing, but it will depend heavily on your ability to dispel early doubts about your game’s quality and to immerse your player in whatever other experience you’re providing.
 

coyotecraft

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@Soryuju Persona 3 and 4 are primarily SIMs and that's what the game starts with. And I think you're falling into the trap of treating genres as a game and not a category of gameplay. Even though everyone phrases it this way, it's really not accurate to say "[game title] is a [genre]".

I'm not suggesting that RPG Maker games have to fit in that genre. They can be Adventure or SIMs or whatever. All I'm saying is that if the developer's aim is primarily an RPG, then the first battle should follow almost immediately after the introduction of a characters. It's not uncommon to have a battle start before the characters have been introduced even, leaving the character names as "????" or "Cloaked Figure"
But yeah, if you're creating a High School SIM where students literally become weekend warriors, then you delay the RPG mechanics until the player has gone through a week of school.
 

Kes

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@coyotecraft I find your approach a bit too absolutist for my taste. Again I think you are posing a false polarity. You say that in an RPG the first battle should follow almost immediately after the introduction of the characters, unless you're making a High School SIM. That is not a law of the universe. There are so many other games beyond SIMs which don't jump straight into battle (especially with the clichéd ???? or Cloaked Figure), depending on the story, pacing etc. Yes, you have to be a decent writer and know how to use the time properly, but 15-20 minutes can easily pass before the first battle, if done well.
 

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Okay, @coyotecraft ...

The difference in genre between Zelda an any proper RPG is irrelevant. You could learn a lot from game series like Zelda, Metal Gear Solid, and the early Mega Man and Mega Man X games about cinematic presentation - even of core game mechanics - and its place in video games. Eschew dialogue and try to tell a story through level design, character movement, music, and even the mechanical design of enemies, the composition of troops, and placement of events.

If your game has puzzles, maybe its important that the player be made to solve a very simple one to let them know that there are puzzles and how to solve them before they're allowed to move forward. Maybe they need to learn that the player can jump. Some designers like to include that feature, even in proper RPGs. Maybe the developer included a feature that allows the player to swing a weapon on the map and strike an enemy as an event, allowing a first strike. Lots of proper RPGs have mechanics that are used outside the core combat gameplay or NPCs talking the player's ear off.
 

Soryuju

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@coyotecraft

I’m not sure I’d agree with the classification of P3 and P4 as “primarily” SIM games for a few reasons. One is that virtually all of the choices a player makes serve to directly or indirectly enhance the JRPG aspects of the games, specifically the player’s combat performance and customization options. Furthermore, outside of which optional cutscenes you see, the choices the player makes don’t work to build any other gameplay elements you might expect from a high school SIM. Take away the JRPG elements, and you’d have a rather shallow simulator, but take away the SIM elements, and you’d still have a fairly robust JRPG.

Finally, while the cutscenes you earn from doing Social Links are an important part of the game’s secondary narratives, all of the game’s non-combat activities are strictly optional content, and they take up relatively little game time compared to the potential time you can invest dungeon crawling and upgrading your combat tools. You could theoretically finish the game without completing any Social Links or activities (besides those directly incorporated into the main story), but you need to fight battles and fuse new Personas even to get through the first couple dungeons.

And I agree with the overall idea that it’s often beneficial for games to introduce their primary gameplay relatively quickly, especially RPGM games. I was simply mentioning an example where a game which made extensive use of both classic and fresh JRPG mechanics (if you feel it’s misleading to call it a JRPG in light of its SIM elements) was able to succeed by doing the contrary, thanks largely to it being cohesive with the other design choices the developers made. And while I’d like to hear your response to my points above, I also don’t want to derail this topic into a discussion about one specific game series. So let me just say that my overall stance is that the longer you delay your primary gameplay, the more important it is that you absolutely nail the atmosphere/aesthetic, writing, and secondary mechanics that will fill the time leading up to that point. Many players will be patient enough to discover your world if you can prove to them up front that it’s worth discovering.
 

gstv87

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little time, if you need to explain the battle system.
long time, if your character creation screen is actually part of the story.

for instance, Mount&Blade puts you right into the action (your story opens up with you getting mugged, which most of the time you fail to win, and the character creation screen decides where that fight takes place, and what weapons you have available, but it's just a menu).
Pokemon games let you choose your Pokemon first, and run you through the immediate NPCs and controls first, before introducing you to your main antagonist (at least, the oldschool ones did), and the character creation is interactive.
I gave my players the choice of going through the basics first, or skipping right to serious (lone) combat.
either way, the basics lead you into serious (lone) combat, and then serious (group) combat. (which is regular combat).
it is structured so that you get a taste of the general shape of characters, skills and tactics, and are left to explore that everything else is just complications, iterations and augmentations of the basics.
 

coyotecraft

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@Kes @Eschaton the point is that whatever genre is primarily being marketed as, that's the gameplay it should lead with. 15-20min is a ridiculously long time for a game to start. What is the player doing in all the time?! Can you call it gameplay? That's all video game genres are concerned with. If the game can truly be categorized as an RPG then it's really bad form to take that long to get to what's advertised on the box. BUT, if there's another kind of gameplay that the player is engaged in, then perhaps calling it an RPG is inappropriate.
 
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I think it all depends on the creators intent. Something like Paper Mario has a long intro between starting the game and actually getting into your first combat encounter, but thats also very deliberate and suits the tone of the game. Games like Pokemon get you in their pretty quick but the game is also contextually about fighting almost exclusively, your a trainer after all. I think it all comes down to context. What works for one games narrative or pacing isn't going to work for every game.
 

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I'm taking the Lufia & the Fortress of Doom approach, where a new game starts the main character at level 99 with OP gear and a few equally-OP abilities. In this very linear intro dungeon, the player will get to beat up non-threatening bad guys after just a few lines of dialog, as well as pick up some loot designed to teach players about Materia (equippable abilities) as well as how to use scan/libra-like abilities to read enemy weaknesses and respond with the appropriate element (fire/ice/etc) and damage type (physical vs magical damage).

Because it's effectively the main character daydreaming that she's a badass, exploiting these weaknesses isn't required to succeed, but it does make the battles go faster (1-2 rounds instead of a few more than that).

That said, I'm quite aware of how irritating many RPGs (HI FF4!) can be in terms of forcing you to endure a long intro and other mill-around-town nonsense before you can actually go out, explore, and fight stuff, and I'm trying to avoid both that and the long introduction info dump if possible. No idea if I'll succeed or not, though!
 
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jonthefox

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it really depends. some games introduce you to the protagonist and then have you explore your town, running into various characters and scenes before any battle happens. it can take at least 15 minutes in these games - off the top of my head, skyborn and gaia's melody. that said, there's a reason almost every (all?) final fantasy games have a battle in the first 5 minutes. most people want a feel for what the combat in the game is going to be like, unless you compel them to keep going by story and atmosphere alone, which isn't easy to do.
 

Kes

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@coyotecraft 15-20 minutes before a battle is not a "ridiculously long time for a game to start". A game starts (or can start) well before the first battle. Your statement seems to imply that there is no game worth mentioning outside of battles. While that is true for some games, why are you insisting that it must be true for all games? Yes, battles are a key component of what makes up an RPG, but that is not the only component.

I have played a significant number of RM games (well over 200) of different types and standards. It is true that a lot go quickly into battle and it is just as well for some of them (perhaps many, though certainly not all). It becomes apparent that the developer can't write, and so they've obviously decided to concentrate on their strengths and minimise the impact of their weaknesses. And by "writing" I'm not just referring to words in dialogue. It includes plot structure, character development, use of non-verbals to convey information, avoidance of threadbare clichés, creative use of cutscenes etc.

Then there is the "how" certain things are done. Take the choice of a class. Yes, it is possible to stick a choice screen in front of the player in the first couple of minutes, they click away and in next to no time, it's done. Totally arbitrary and boring, but fast. In my last project the player could choose the class of a couple of the characters (not all), but there was a story driven reason for this, so it feels integral to what the game is about. Part of the beginning of the game involves you going to get the class for one of the opening characters, and actually getting it involves some significant increase in the player's knowledge of the character's temperament and personality. It's also visually more appealing than just having a screen. But it takes a bit longer. There is also a story-driven way of showing the importance of the player doing at least minimal exploration. That game has sold, and is selling, well. No one has complained about having to wait for the first battle because the time before the battle is filled with interesting things for the player to do, discover and experience.

That style of game is not for everyone, and so I do not insist that it must be followed. But equally what I will resist is the imposition of someone else's personal preference as a rigid criterion which must be followed under all circumstances. I don't think it helps to break down the "oh, it's an RPGMaker game, I know exactly what it's going to be like even without loading it up" reaction that we see so often.
 
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Basileus

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@coyotecraft
I'm going to be up front since I think it is important for this conversion - you are factually wrong in your definition of what an RPG is. You seem to think that RPGs are about combat, and that if the game is not primarily centered around the combat engine it is not an RPG. This is completely incorrect. While many video game RPGs use combat systems as their core gameplay loop, it is not actually required and you can make an RPG with no combat at all.

The only requirement for an RPG is a system where the player character can perform actions independent of the player's skill, so success in the game is dependent on the skills of the character and not the player. This is the entire reason that stats exist. Tabletop RPGs use stats to determine a character's skill and combine that skill with dice rolls (which are then modified by stats and abilities) to determine if an action is successful or not. Good rule of thumb: An RPG would use a hit/evade stat to determine if attacks land or are dodged. A non-RPG would use some method to test the player directly to see if attacks land or are dodged based on if the player completes the challenge (like lining up cross-hairs in a shooter, or timing a real-time dodge button in an action game). These RPG systems can be used for any number of non-combat purposes, like interacting with NPCs and completing puzzles, opening up tons of possibilities for quests that don't require combat.

For this reason, I do not believe there is any real standard for time until the first combat encounter. It all hinges on what your game is about, what types of gameplay systems you plan on using, what kind of story you are writing, etc. There is no problem dumping the player straight into combat as soon as the game begins. But there is also no problem having no combat encounters for 30 minutes or more. It all depends on the kind of story/experience you want to make. If combat is your focus then feel free to dive right in, but if you have a story to tell then it is better to have some story segments to get a feel for the character and/or world first.

Yes, lots of writing advice says to open with a hook. No, that hook does not have to be combat just because your game has a combat engine. It just means you need something that is interesting and many gamers will tell you how much they love diving into a new world and then just poking around looking at everything.

Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind gives you the freedom to go run off into the wilderness to get into a fight as soon as character creation is complete. But most players will stay in town and talk to people to find some quests , look for loot, and get kitted up before running off into the dangerous unknown. Also the unknown will kill you if you didn't find some money to buy actual gear.

Chrono Trigger has an excellent opening where the player is in a peaceful time and can wander part of the world map freely before going to the Millennial Fair. The Fair is fun and has mini-games and people to talk to before the plot begins. One of the mini-games is a training robot so you can try out combat a few times before the time portal opens and things get dangerous, but you can easily go 20 minutes or more before that happens.

Persona 4 was already mentioned, but the opening is slow and takes a LONG time before any combat begins and even more time before you can get into a proper dungeon. The beginning has a ridiculous amount of hand-holding and takes forever before you are allowed to actually control the character and make decisions. Yet it is still highly acclaimed as this opening sets the stage for the murder mystery and builds the town and characters, all while having an interesting atmosphere and style. It's hard to imagine the game rushing combat sooner and still being as good.

Final Fantasy games tend to like "cold opens" where combat begins quickly to make it seem dramatic. II opens with the party in an unwinnable battle as they flee from imperial soldiers. III begins with the orphans dropping into a cave and having to fight their way out. VI has the opening mission with Terra and 2 soldiers in mech suits. VII has about 2 minutes of cutscene before Cloud jumps out of the train and combat starts.


You can do whatever feels right for your game. But don't assume your player has the attention span of a goldfish and needs flashy combat as soon as possible to avoid tuning out. If there is a narrative reason to get the player into a fight in under a minute, then do it. If deadly combat doesn't make the most sense as the beginning point of your story, then don't rush into combat. Just immersing the player in a new world is enough for a lot of people, so don't be afraid to let the player wander around for a bit first.
 

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