1. Cutscenes that inform, rather than entertain.
Cutscenes open up a big opportunity for creating a cinematic experience. Games like Call of Duty 3, F.E.A.R., and Gears of War leverage them successfully to stimulate emotion in players.
However, other titles in this study struggled with maintaining engagement during cutscenes more than any other element. Players say they want them, but cutscenes in general are not as engaging as combat or other interactive gameplay. All too often, cutscenes simply served as the cursory bridge between two levels.
Underperforming cutscenes showed a distinct pattern. Most were highly informational and involved "talking heads" or narration. Briefing-style cutscenes often fall into this category. For instance, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 evoked an incoherent response during cutscenes across players. Its scripted briefings did not consistently engage players. Players did not even strongly think about the information in the briefings, a clear sign that these cutscenes were not grabbing players' attentions.
In Resistance, engagement dropped significantly in 57 percent of cases during cinematics. Cutscenes here recount the Chimeran attack and Nathan Hale's journey, leading to long sections of emotional disengagement. Dynamic scenes of action and conversation between characters, on the other hand, demonstrated a stronger ability to engage and influence emotions.
Even extremely high-performing games suffer from disengaging cut scenes. Halo 2's cutscenes disengaged players 64 percent of the time, in stark contrast to its extremely engaging core gameplay. Results like this confirm that Halo 2 single player is fun more for the joy of combat than any cut scene or storyline element. It also suggests that, given the tight timeframes inherent in every production schedule, knowing how to allocate production efforts is as important as game design itself.
The proper use of cutscenes is certainly one area we feel has broad applicability across genres, particularly as next-gen, triple-A titles are increasingly expected to deliver big cinematic experiences. Indeed, it raises questions about the role of cutscenes: to inform or entertain.
Predictably, Gears of War seems to get it right. Its cutscenes are filled with action, while information is largely communicated via radio and conversations during lulls in gameplay, in between firefights. Our data demonstrates that entertaining cutscenes engage and connect with players at the emotional level.
2. Boot camps and training areas.
We've all seen the classic boot camp in war movies, televisions shows, and video games. Pushed on by staff sergeants, recruits are put through the paces and come out stronger and ready to fight.
There's only one problem: The act of learning to shoot a gun, throw grenades, and perform hand-to-hand combat against dummy targets isn't very engaging. In the critical first minutes of the game, when players' first impressions are made, tutorials isolated from the action and storyline leave players emotionally disengaged.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in Call of Duty 3. Its training area, where players are taught how to fight without danger or penalty for failure, led to below-average emotional engagement for the first seven minutes of gameplay -- that's seven long minutes when players are not immersed and not entertained. Only when players were thrust into battle did engagement rise again.
Through our years of testing and analyzing video games, we've found very few absolute rules in game design, but this one seems to come close. Titles that do not make its tutorials a "game," with their own sets of rewards and failure conditions, are not as engaging as those that do.
3. Broken roller coasters.
There's only so much intensity players can handle. Games that try to keep intensity continuously high created (counter-intuitively) an experience that was actually less intense, less cinematic, and less "epic."
This problem occurred in two ways. First, games that do not vary the intensity of events ultimately began to lose players. Over time, we measured what amounted to attenuation. These games actually led to smaller and smaller responses to each repetitive event. Halo 2 excelled in fast-paced action, but one side effect was a single player experience that was less intense. In the first level of Halo 2, players only faced a mix of smaller threats. As a result, the intensity of that level was up to 40 percent lower than in other games.
Second, level designs that begin with an intense firefight may have captured players' attention, but often they overshadow subsequent events. Players' engagement across the rest of the level, by comparison, was significantly lower in these circumstances. It amounts to an emotional letdown.
For example, the second level of Call of Duty 3 starts with an extremely intense battle, but players' emotional engagement for the rest of the level was comparably lower. This was not the climactic finish that we've heard so many developers want to try to shoot for.
4. Repetition and assured outcomes.
We also discovered how important novelty and its close cousin, the unknown, are to engaging players. The Seeder in Gears of War provides a nice case study of this phenomenon. In the first 90 minutes of gameplay, players encounter three Seeders, one at a time. Killing them can only be done with the Hammer of Dawn weapon, and taking them down is crucial to restoring radio communications.
The result is that the novelty of the first encounter with this enemy makes the gameplay intensely engaging. However, the second and third encounters with Seeders do not engage players at nearly the same level of intensity. In some sense, emotion data demonstrated that players only went through the motions with the second and third Seeders.
Do exceptions exist? Sure they do, even in the same game. The wretches in Gears of War, fast-moving, crawling, and with swarms of Locust enemies, consistently engaged players in part because players were often pinned to the only thing that could save them, a Troika machine gun turret.
We think the important distinction here is not repetition, but the unknown outcome. Once players locked onto the Seeder with the Hammer of Dawn, it was fairly clear that it was going down pretty quickly. However, for each wave of Wretches, the player had no idea if he would be able to fight them off in time.