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2. Tutorials integrated into combat.
As games (and controllers) become more and more complex, teaching players the mechanics of the game has become one of the big challenges for developers in general.
All our research indicates that male game players in the 18 to 34 year-old demographic are not receptive to being told what to do -- and they learn most effectively by doing.
We've seen two side effects that reinforce the importance of having engaging tutorials. First, and most obviously, players who don't know how to play the game consistently have lower recorded engagement levels throughout their play session, as they continue to struggle to immerse themselves in gameplay, even after the introductory tutorials and levels have finished.
Second, long and boring tutorials delay the first moment of engagement, that critical moment when players realize they can indeed be immersed in this game. In some games we've tested, the first strongly engaging event does not occur until 20 minutes into the experience, a lifetime for a gamer who just wants to have fun.
The most important takeaway for developers regarding this finding is to not leave the creation of tutorials until the end of the production cycle. Tutorials can (and moving forward into future generations of hardware, will) be the first moment of true engagement in the game.
Two games that add new gameplay in this test sample were Gears of War and Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2. The former adds a cover mechanic. Ghost Recon has a cross-com remote camera heads-up display, squad-based combat, smoke grenades, unmanned aerial vehicles -- the list goes on and on.
These games engaged users quickly with a simple strategy. Players were thrown into action and were threatened, and were expected to learn. The player learns to throw grenades not by tossing one into a dummy box target, but by utilizing them against enemies with real consequences on the line.
Gears of War not only forces players to learn gameplay mechanics under fire, but it gives them the option of skipping the tutorial altogether and being thrown directly into battle. Forty percent of subjects in our study did in fact skip the tutorial, but regardless of whether they did this, they engaged with the game strongly and quickly. In fact, average engagement during the first level was comparable to that in subsequent levels.
The entire first level of Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 is a tutorial, a "simulation" that nonetheless has failure conditions and appears indistinguishable from standard combat. An emotional and adrenaline climax occurs when players utilize smoke grenades and explosive charges to take out a heavily outfitted, armored personnel carrier.
In fact, the alternation between the calm of instruction and the intensity of trying new tactics against powerful enemies created a big emotional roller coaster that registered as one of the top two most engaging events out of the eight titles we studied.
3. Bring players down to bring them back up.
The roller coaster analogy is an apt one to describe players' engagement and physiological responses. The fun lies in going up and down on the ride. Staying at the same elevation is about as much fun as riding a monorail. Creating emotional drama, of course, is easier said than done in video games.
It seems counterintuitive, but the most intense points of engagement in the titles in our study were often the result of calm moments. Downtime, a period of lower engagement, is not always bad. Periodic but brief lulls in action allow for more intense action sequences and stronger reactions to climactic final battles. The emphasis is on "brief"; take too long, and players are truly disengaged and want (to continue the analogy) to get off the ride.
The most important thing for developers to understand is that the two elements -- big intense events and brief lulls -- must both occur. One doesn't function without the other.
Examples of big, high-intensity moments included epic courtyard battles (Call of Duty 3, Resistance, Gears of War), powerful enemy bosses (Ghost Recon, Gears of War), and swarms of small ones (Half-Life 2, Resistance, and Gears of War).
Creating the calm before the storm is much trickier. We identified a few strategies. In Gears of War, there's a surprising amount of walking around, listening to the radio com -- and these moments explicitly calm players just before hordes of Locusts appear from their emergence holes.
Half-Life 2 used a different method. In between combat, puzzles provided an emotional break from action. As expected, these puzzles did not evoke adrenaline, but they did elicit engagement and more specifically, positive emotion in droves. Engagement was 17 percent higher than the benchmark, and the recorded level of positive emotion upon completion (the "reward" feeling of finishing) was additionally nearly 20 percent higher than the norm. It is Half-Life 2's back and forth between the adrenaline of combat and the reward of puzzles that creates its roller coaster.