The first 5 minutes are the most important or not

If you listen to the speakers in the brilliant Flash MindMeld series there is a recurring bit of advice that you must grab the user in the 5 minutes of gameplay. As they say, the game’s rules must be so clear that it can be picked up intuitively. The challenge must be clearly presented and be pressing. If, as the programmer, you aren’t having fun playing your own game, ditch it and try making another one that does.

I certainly see why this is true. I have quit playing many games in a matter of seconds because they didn’t grab me.

However, this rule of immediate fun seems to be further complicated with the release of Sword & sworcery: EP and a postmortem talk by Out of this World creator Eric Chahi.

In both S&S and Out of this World the tension builds slowly. The world is wide open and your first encounter with danger doesn’t happen until several minutes in. Both of these games rely on atmospherics to keep you going. The lush and creatively abstract graphics make you want to dig in deeper. There is a mystery in S&S as to what is behind the next bush. Similarly, when I first played Out of This World I wanted to keep playing to see the next vista.

Both of these games prove that the first 5 minutes can grab you not because of the mechanics (I still do not have a good handle on S&S touch controls) but because of environment.

That’s great because I think the game I am making relies on the environment as its hook. Out of this World is a definite influence. So is Pitfall, which is a similar game that is not about combat but of environment.

There are a few problems with making a game where the environment is the hook because I can’t tell if I am on the right track right away. It takes a long time to build an environment. As of last night I have a guy walking around according to a script, a barricade that raises and lowers appropriately and a staircase. I still need to build a subway the runs on a defined schedule and word bubbles with little jokes of people’s thoughts. Have I created a compelling environment? I don’t know, it will take more time. Also how can I tell if I have created enough mystery. I know what I have put behind every corner.

It is probably harder to create a game where the environment is the hook. I probably wont grab as many people as I would with flashy twin stick shooter. The thing that keeps me up at night is if my little town will keep people entertained.