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History, Mystery and Story: Games and the 10 Minute Rule
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History, Mystery and Story: Games and the 10 Minute Rule

November 18, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[The "10 minute rule" governs the creation of films, but is there a similar rule that could apply to game narrative? Game writer and academic Leanne Taylor discusses the possibilities, and examines narratively successful games for clues.]

Games are like movies -- or so some would have us believe. With their ever-increasing budgets and graphical realism, they're certainly heading down that path.

In movies, there's something that's colloquially known as the "10 minute rule". The idea is that, after 10 minutes, the viewer will generally have a good idea of whether they'll enjoy the rest of the movie or not.

In games, which are exponential in terms of cost and time for the audience when compared to movies, where does the 10 minute rule lie?

The reason it's called the 10 minute rule is because that's when the hero usually receives their first inkling of the events that are about to unfold: 10 minutes in.

In The Princess Bride, the 10-minute mark falls conveniently on the point where Princess Buttercup is about to be eaten by a Shrieking Eel. If done correctly, this moment will convince the audience to keep watching, in order to find out what happens next.

In a similar way, games need a hook to convince the player to actually start playing. This can come in the trailers, before the game is released. In earlier days, when advertising for video games was all but unknown, it had to come from within the game itself.

Simple and to the point.

Enough said.

Spinning a tale to hook players was where cinematics came in -- they told the player the story, linked the gameplay to something the player could relate to, understand, or wonder about. Far apart from the gameplay, they gave the player a reason to start playing. They acted as the first intellectual or emotional half of the 10 minute rule, with the gameplay acting as the second, tactile half.

This meant that both facets had to combine to create a certain level of interest. Most gamers can agree that if, after playing through the opening cinematic and tutorial, you still aren't hooked, you've got a problem. And, more importantly, as games are becoming more expensive to both produce and procure, the publisher has a problem, too.

Australian price for the Fable III Limited Edition

So it's important to convince the player that they have spent their money wisely. And because games are so much more expensive for the player in terms of time and money than movies are, it has to do so quickly.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Brent Ellison
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There's a lot of great stuff here, but I generally skip opening cinematics as soon as they go over the 1 minute mark. The first thing I want to do when I get a new game is play it, not watch it. Am I unusual in this regard?

Fortunately, all the suggestions in the article could be applied to in-game opening sequences as well. Thanks!

Ronildson Palermo
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I think you are, but I don't think you should, if you know what I mean.

I think we should play first, get acquainted with the game's mechanics and functionality and then something should happen, something that turns the challenge of being good at the game into a situation where you must survive or face, giving a purpose to the, otherwise, mechanical challenge.

Arjen Meijer
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Many people already get hooked on looking at the cinematics online so there they already did there job.

Altug Isigan
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Great article, Leanne! :)

Joe Cooper
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I used to use the Final Fantasies as a good example of this.

Final Fantasy VI and VII drop you into something happening immediately.

The 8th game, I played it for about two-three hours and still had no idea what it was about.

Hours! In movies, that's about how long it takes before it's completely done.

I took the game back to the store.

Altug Isigan
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Many games do not even waste 5 seconds to draw you in. Think of Pong: Game start; the white dot comes at you, if you can't bounce it back: 1-0. That's the ludic way of locking a character into conflict. Narrativity isn't really that far from games.

I'm speaking on the functional level of course. You might say Pong has no narrative. I'd say any text must solicit the actions that it wants it users to carry out. That is already narrative design. You can't ignore it's importance in any type of communication design, including video games.

Adam Miller
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I agree with Brent -- I'm always most concerned with the game itself, and so want to taste the gameplay before I get the story, as no matter how great the story I won't explore it through a cumbersome game.

I'd like to add what I feel to be the WORST way to begin a game: The "explore town" scenario. This happens in many games such as the recent Ys game for PSP. It's crippling in FPS games like Halo. Essentially, you're given some are filled with NPCs (command room, village, spaceship, etc.) and are made to bumble about, talking to random people until you talk to the right one or find the right area or whatever. This can be incredibly tedious, and usually requires that you paid attention to some snippet of dialog that, at the time, seemed skip-able.

Laurie Cheers
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See also: Zelda games, particularly Twilight Princess.

Robert Marney
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God of War is a great example of dropping the player into a tutorial with exactly as much information as they need. There's a one-minute cinematic while the game loads, a long tracking shot of the main character that establishes "We're getting ready for combat" and "This is the player character, even though he looks different from the CG", and the remaining 8 minutes introduce killing bad guys, opening doors and fighting bosses (3 out of the 4 major actions in the game).

Andy Lundell
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I usually skip cutscenes on demos, but for a game I've already spent $60 for? At that point I'm invested, I might as well make and effort to enjoy everything the game offers.

Also, I think the "Games For Lunch" game review blog is based very much on the theory you lay down at the beginning of this post, although he generously gives the game an entire hour rather than ten minutes.

david paradis
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As a lot of other comments alluded to without saying it, I agree the 10 minute rule does not apply to video games.

If you think about it, even in story driven games, 10 minutes in you are well past the opening scenes and dialogue, and you are playing the game. Feeling out the game mechanics, discovering the basics of what you have to do, and you aren't necessarily paying attention much to the story.

If the game mechanics aren't too confusing, and the developer did a good job making the game accessible, you may be getting to the next level of the story shortly after this first test of the game mechanics, and in most games, good or bad, you still havent really recieved enough of the storyline to decide if it can pull you in on its own, likewise, you have not had enough exposure to the mechanics to decide if they can similarly keep you hooked.

Granted, there have been a few games out there that you know very quickly the game isnt for you, but for most, 10 minutes really isnt going to decide anything at all.

As an example for myself, when I played Fable, I thought I would hate the game, because the first 10 minutes are full of cut scenes, and the little bit of game play you get between cutscenes provides such a slow ramp up to how the rest of the game will feel. I kept with it though (coming close to turning it off a few times), and when I was finally offered room to breath when I finished my training at the academy (well past the 10 minute mark) the game only then starts to really grab you and show you what you will experience the rest of the game. And it takes several missions once you leave the academy to get an idea of if you will like it.

I think you can site countless examples, and each individual can think of many of their favorite games and come up with many examples where you had no idea if the game would work for you at the 10 minute mark.

There have even been games I turned off completely before the 10 minute mark, but when I went back and gave it a chance, I ended up loving it. (The first Civilization games come to mind)

There has never been a movie I hated 10 minutes in, and then later found I loved it when I spent more time wathcing it over and over, learning to like the story and images :P

Alan Jack
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I would suggest that the 10 minute rule does apply here, but the article (as interesting and well-written as it is) seems to take too much of a narrative tack - if I have to sit through 10 narrative-heavy minutes before I can play the game proper, I don't care, and I don't think I'm alone on that.

I've recently been playing Read Dead Redemption (late to the party, as always) and have had to put in about 2 or 3 hours of play just to unlock the full gameplay mechanic (lassos, horse breaking, etc).

Game writing is hella-complex, and needs to appreciate that a balance is needed between embedded narrative (as discussed here) and emergent.

So filling the first ten minutes of play with cut-scenes, or - as Adam Miller points out - the "explore the town" scenario - is a killer. Find a way to write in the full play mechanic in the first ten minutes and you'd be golden!

A good example that springs to mind is the opening of the Lord of The Rings movie, where we see the great battle taking place centuries in the past. From a narrative standpoint, this foreshadows the battles to come and sets the tone. If it were a game, and said battle was playable, then from a ludic standpoint it would also let us get to grips with the game mechanic. We could then settle back into a more relaxed build-up on both sides of the coin, trekking Frodo through the woods, and so on.

The first Star Wars: Force Unleashed did a good job of this, with the Darth Vader scene at the start.

david paradis
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I agree with what your saying, but I don't think it will make or break a game if it is not done this way.

There are so many examples out there where it takes a while to slowly ramp up to the full experience of the game, but they are still great games.

In a movie, it's important to grab attention in the first 10 minutes, because people are accustomed to that, it's part of the experience. So if in the first 10 minutes things dont feel right, it's usually a good indicator the movie is not going to get better over time. So people will stop watching, or struggle through the rest even though it is not what they want to watch.

The point is with a movie, you know the first 10 minutes are probably going to set the tone for the movie, so because of that, you can decide in the first 10 minutes.

Games are not like that, and I think it's actually very bad advice to try to get developers to make sure the full experience of the game is shown in the first 10 minutes. It is not necessary, because it is not expected. Gamers understand there might be some ramp up time, and most games take longer to learn everything you need to know to enjoy the game to its fullest. Most gamers enjoy this ramp up time, and it is actually a tremendous tool developers can use to keep players engaged. Learning and feeling they are mastering the system as time goes on.

I am not saying the first 10 minutes should drag on, or be super boring, or not give at least some basic game mechanics and feel for the story, but I dont think it's necessary to cram everything the game has to offer down the throats of players. And I don't think they would want that.

I keep thinking of Starcraft II as I write this. It gives you a basic background to the story, introduces you to the main character, then let's you play a very simple one squad mission in it's first 10 minutes.

I don't think many first time gamers will have any clue as to wether or not they will like the game at that point. And they certainly haven't been introduced to even a fraction of what the game offers at that point, but.....the beginning of that game I think is exactly how most games should start. You feel a little bit of the story, you get the very basics of the gameplay, and you get a feel for the game.

It takes much, much longer to achieve everything this article implies should be done in the first 10 minutes, and it works just fine, perfectly actually.

I just think it is a very bad design goal try to achieve this 10-minute rule standard in any game.

Games involve so much more than just an image and a story being narrated to you. The first 10 minutes of a movie largely represent the whole experience, Games are entirely too immersive an experience to be reduced to the first 10 minutes. And gamers know that.

Alan Jack
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That's a lot of good points.

"Ten minutes" is a ridiculously short space of time. I think its safe to assume, as a rule, everything takes longer in games. What we're really looking at is the first "mission". This would vary from game to game, between the first ten minutes and the first hour.

You're right about not cramming the full game mechanic in, but the core mechanic should be there. Take Portal and Red Dead Redemption. Neither game showcases the full range of techniques in the first mission. But the things Portals holds back (moving the blue portal, kinetic portal jumps, cubes, lasers) are extraneous twists on the portal mechanic, whereas Red Dead withhold game-changing mechanics (the lasso, dead-eye aiming) for several missions. If I didn't know what was coming, I'd have given up on RDR after the first missions as being bland and boring.

You say it yourself, though - after the first mission, "I don't think many first time gamers will have any clue as to wether or not they will like the game at that point".

Not a lot of people will give a game more than the first mission before they make up their mind - so if your best game mechanic doesn't come in until half way through, the majority of people won't be interested.

Tim Tavernier
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There's a giant structural flaw in this article which also shows the subjective preferences of the author which he/she wants to push yes or no: what about all those other games like, oh...Super Mario Bros., The Sims, WiiSports, bloody Farmville, you know, games that have reached far higher cultural acceptance then all the examples used, except for the Blizzard ones.

This "10 minute" thing for videogames should be considered on the terms of being games. People will be discouraged from playing a game if the game does not answer three simple concepts: player control, player growth and player authorship. Players will first concern themselves with the game mechanics, what options these mechanics give them and how the gameworld gives them oppurtunities to use those options. Narrative,after all that, only kicks in then, which also videogames don't really need (the implicit one then).

Altug Isigan
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I remember someone calling the three concepts alltogether the Player Vocabulary. But your breakdown is nice really.

I believe that Leanne isn't wrong in claiming that the first few minutes of a game are basically about introducing the game world and creating attachment to it. Depending on the importance and the depth of the story element (which is basically a design choice, it's in your hands to blow it up or keep it shallow) in the game, you might have to use these few minutes not only to introduce the player vocabulary, but also to lay the basis of the plot and to introduce characters that are significant for the story.

I also agree with your observation that affordances have to be satisfactory enough to overcome the problem. In other words, characters must be in possess of the strenghths to overcome the challenge, despite their obvious weaknesses that lie at the bottom of the trouble they have to face. Karl Marx once said that humanity only poses those kinds of problems on itself that it has the solutions for. I think that could be a design mantra as well: A game designer only poses those problems onto the player that she provides solutions for.

Chris Crowell
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A lot of great comments, I especially like Altug's mention of how Pong begins. :)

At a fundamental level, the 1st 10 minutes needs to about the player validating their decision to play. That will vary A LOT depending on the kind of game. This excellent article is very focused on story intense games, and every other kind of game can use the examples provided AS GUIDELINES on how to present their own game experiences. Just let the player experience what the game will be like by focusing on whatever is core to your game. Get em excited to dig in and keep playing. As an example of a "non-story game" opening cinematic go here

I was very pleased with that one. It conveyed all the core gameplay, showed the locked cars and hopefully was a call to action for players. :)

Gary LaRochelle
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I don't mind a 10 minute intro if it sets the mood for the game. Although, a 10 minute cut scene may be a bit long for my taste. But I do mind 10 minute cut scenes after I do a few simple tasks.

I once played a demo and it seemed that whenever I did something I then had to sit through another 10 minute cut scene. I wanted to play a game, not view a movie. Needless to say, I never bought the game.

Tim Tavernier
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Was this game Metal Gear Solid 4 by some chance? :p

Altug Isigan
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Using cutscenes in this way is basically a mistake in exposure of information. A good script gives information when the spectator asks for it. Basically you use many tricks to make them beg for that info (like limiting POV etc). Then, when you pass the info over, the player will forgive you for that. But if you just use cutscenes to pass over the info because you have to, and the player realizes that the aim is information, you basically ruin immersion. That *is* bad narrative design.

Darren Schnare
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I would argue that games have several of these "10 minute" periods (the duration of these periods can vary of course) where it's the game's duty to hook the player deeper into the game's universe (i.e. keep the player in the zone --, which will ultimately cause the player to complete the game and hopefully play over and over again. I do agree, however, that the first encounter with a game is vital for grabbing the player's attention and getting the player interested.

I also believe that the effectiveness of these testing periods is influenced by the player's learning style ( ). Visual learners will most likely prefer cinematics/cutscenes/demonstration, whereas kinesthetic learners will most likely perfer getting their hands dirty by jumping into gameplay, etc. So cinematics may be a safe bet (i.e. since the vast majority of us are visual learners) for dropping that first hook for players, but certaintly it's not the only effective method (as can be seen from several commenters of this article discussing their preference for a more kinesthetic learning style).

This is not to say that you should use cutscenes for everything. As Altug points out, "this is bad narrative design".

Michael Grimes
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The article does provide an interesting look on what could intrigue a player to continue playing or begin playing a game, but it really focuses on games that have an already established storyline, of course the players are going to seek out the lore in order to see what insight they will have on the game they are about to play, yet ideally what makes a game immersive and engaging really focuses on operant conditioning and the theories that lie within.

I have skipped opening cinematics, yet recently was playing SCII, and felt it wasn't necessary for me to really understand the storyline, I knew there were bad things to I skipped it and still was able to enjoy the game, a lot of games have useless cinematics....especially games that really don't need them...i.e. RTS of FPS....but I guess it would depend on the game.

The 10 minute rule seemingly should only apply towards RPG's and MMORPG' that is a necessity in within that genre, yet I'd be interested in reading the author's viewpoint on what makes or break a game when there isn't a previous game in the series.....what about a brand new game? Would your theory work?

Robert Ericksen
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10 minutes of a 100-200 minute movie is like 5-10 percent of the total experience. Games last (should) longer than a few hours. Maybe experiences that are 20-30 hours total should have about an hour or so to decide this? It always takes me about an hour or two before I can really call it on a game...10 minutes is way to short of an experience for games. I agree there is some sort of time period for the player to decide if they like it or not, and for games like pong its 10 seconds, but that number just goes up from there until the player feels its right.

Kriss Daniels
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If I haven't had to restart/respawn/etc within the first 10 minutes then I begin to suspect that I am not playing a game and might just be watching an annoying neurotic movie that just requires constant reassurance from its audience.

Wylie Garvin
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[Edit: this was supposed to be a reply to Alan Jack's comment about the slow start in RDR.]

Most (all?) open-world/sandbox games from Rockstar have this problem.

GTA 4 is a classic example. It opens with a several-minute intro, sort of a cutscene, with music and credits. You meet your cousin at the dock, and he has you drive him home. You sleep. Boooring. Next day, you start your first mission. Your cousin has you drive him to a local gambling establishment. He hops out and goes inside. *You then sit there in the car for several minutes* until some loansharks arrive in another car, looking for your cousin. At this point (which was at least 15 minutes into my playthrough), I was so frustrated by the lack of action that I decided to floor my accelerator and ram my vehicle into the driver-side door of the loansharks' car. It turns out any damage to the loansharks makes you fail this mission, and I was forced to start the mission again. In disgust, I threw the game on a shelf and didnt play it for another four months.

Meanwhile, Saints Row 2 came out and its first 15 minutes consisted of: (1) a short cutscene to re-introduce your character, waking up from a coma in prison, (2) a gameplay sequence where you bust your way out of an island prision, which included knifing and gunning down several doctors and prison guards, running away from police snipers, stealing a cop car and running a roadblock with it, etc. and finally (3) an escape sequence on a boat, where your accomplice drives the boat while you use a *heavy machinegun* to shoot down helicopters and blow up pursuing police boats. The best part was that this kind of thing was actually representative of the rest of the game, so the promise of action and fun, that the game made to me with those first 15 minutes was not broken later on.

Going back to Rockstar for a moment, I eventually did play through GTA 4 and liked it. It takes a good hour to get into it, though. Having eventually liked GTA 4, I decided to buy Bully: Scholarship Edition, and discovered the same thing there: it has a long, slow beginning, it forces you do stupid tutorial-like missions while the rest of your gameplay options are locked down, and it takes maybe an hour before they really open it up and let you go around doing whatever you want. (In this game, I failed the first tutorial mission probably 10 times, because I kept running around trying unrelated types of gameplay, and ended up getting busted and having to repeat the tutorial mission stuff).