RPGs: Stop Making Bad First Impressions

30 minutes. That's all I need. 30 minutes to decide whether or not a role-playing game is worth playing.

It's that first half-hour that comprises an RPG's most important moments. It's when we meet our hero. It's when we find out what he or she wants. It's when we're introduced to the game's world and core mechanics. It's when we fight for the first time. It's when we start seeing the first roots of the story. It's when we see and hear and play what we'll be seeing, hearing, and playing for the next 50-500 hours.

And when that first half-hour is boring, when a game's first impressions are sub-par, there's really no reason to stick with it.

That might seem unfair. After all, RPGs can run upwards of several hundred hours. To dismiss a massive game based on its first 30 minutes seems premature, like turning off a movie because you don't like its opening credits.

But in an era where countless sources of entertainment are constantly vying for our attention, why should we accept any less? I don't like wasting my time. If a game's creators can't make a good enough first impression to hook me in its first few minutes, why should I trust them with another few dozen hours of my time?

On a whim yesterday while doing some errands, I stopped by my local gaming store to see if they had anything interesting. They did indeed have something interesting: Resonance of Fate, a Sega-published JRPG made by the people who developed the hit-or-miss sci-fi Star Ocean series and a few other gems, like Radiata Stories. Resonance of Fate is one of those games that I've always meant to play, but never have. The perfect impulse buy.

So I got home, popped in the game and watched the opening cinematic, which is super dramatic. There's a gun. Botched suicide. A raven-haired girl leaps from a tower as a pocket watch falls from her hands and shatters on the ground and a Bieber-haired boy charges to rescue her before she plummets to her doom. It's all set under the luminous backdrop of what appears to be an 18th-centry European city. It's neat stuff.

After these first few minutes, I'm taken to a house with three characters: a man I don't recognise and a boy and a girl who may or may not be the boy and the girl from the intro. (I really can't tell.) The man says something about needing to go out and suddenly I'm in control. There are no directions, no instructional prompts. No introductory sequences or I flip through the menus and see their names: Zephyr, Vashyron, and Leanne.

"Cool," I think to myself. "I'll wander around and figure out what's happening on my own."

This was a bad idea. A few minutes later (after heading to some sort of guild and accepting a few quests) I'm in a battle and I have no idea what's happening. I try to target an enemy, aiming each character's firing reticle with the X button and waiting for them to charge, but the bad guys interrupt every attack before it finishes. I start mashing buttons and moving my characters around, which makes weird red and blue lines appear on the screen. The game makes no attempt to explain what's going on. I die several times.

With a reluctant sigh, I open up the menu screen and start up the tutorial, something I hate to do. A well-designed game eases you into its mechanics without forcing you to read supplementary materials.

The tutorial is 16 pages long. I immediately turn off Resonance of Fate.

Look, Tri-Ace. You guys might have devised the most brilliant battle system in the world. This game could be an absolute masterpiece, a triumph both narratively and mechanically. But if we can't figure out how to play without suffering through endless chunks of instruction, why should we give it a chance at all?

I don't think it's unfair to say that as a general rule, JRPGs have a serious accessibility problem. Because their stories and mechanics are often complicated and unfamiliar, they can feel obtuse. It can take a few hours to get the hang of them. This needs to change.

At this point you might be raising an eyebrow and picking up your pitchfork, ready to tear me down for daring to suggest that games be less hardcore. I am not saying games should assault you with prompts and baby-steps like Fi in Skyward Sword or any Zynga game ever. Nor am I suggesting that games should look more like this. But no game should require me to suffer through a lengthy instruction manual. I shouldn't have to memorize a series of rules and commands with no context or escalation.

The best RPGs introduce themselves with grace and aplomb, guiding you through their world without making you feel like you're holding their digital hands. Watch the introduction to Final Fantasy VII, for example. We're introduced to the city of Midgar and we get our first glimpse at one of the game's most important characters, Aeris. We meet the "ex-soldier". We get into a battle, which is quick and easy: all you have to do to win is press Fight. (The game's more complex mechanics, like the Materia system, are introduced at a reasonable pace rather than all at once.)

A large part of Final Fantasy VII's success draws from the fact that anyone can play it. You don't have to be a genre expert or hardcore gamer to follow along with the adventures of Cloud and crew. You just have to dive in and pay a bit of attention. When a JRPG doesn't pull this off, when it turns you off in its first few minutes because it is inaccessible or tough to follow, the genre suffers accordingly.

I haven't given up on Resonance of Fate just yet. I'll slog through its tutorials and try to master what appear to be some extremely unwieldy mechanics. But I'm already mad at it. That's the power of first impressions.

Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.


    I did the exact same thing with this game. Never went back to it. Xenoblades enormous amount of fetch quests is pretty frustrating but I'll persevere for the monolith team

      +1 to this. I love rpgs and had heard great things about this. Have had it sitting here now for a long time and only played maybe an hour. Found it to be average at best. I am sure it gets a lot better but I cbf putting the time in to get there.
      Now Dragons Dogma on the other hand has me hooked like crack. And just when you think it is all over the game smacks you upside the head. Love it!!

    I picked this games gameplay up straight away, long tute didn't bother me at all. What put me off was at the first boss the difficulty suddenly spiked and it took me ages to figure how to beat him. Then I realised I should have been buying upgrades instead of new trousers. I had wasted all my money.

    A shame cos I was having fun but found it suddenly too hard and gave it up for another game.

      You probably didn't need to upgrade, just switch ammo types. And new outfits are never a waste of money! :P

    I like RoS. The episodic slice of life chapters. I like playing without being burdened by a doomsday scenario from start to finish.

    Resonance of Fate is a pretty challenging SRPG... and holy crap cheap at times.

    You turned off a game because needing to read the (electronic) manual to know how the mechanics work is somehow indicative of poor game design? I'm genuinely baffled by the stance that having a manual that needs reading included among the stuff that comes with a game is somehow a failure on the part of the designers.

      It very much is though. Manuals are basically the least effective way to teach people, and should only be used for really technical special case stuff, not basics (I can provide academic references if you'd like).

        Funny you should mention that,
        First of all, the author is false in saying there's only a manual, the game specifically directs you to a tutorial area where while the manual page is shown, you're also given a chance to put each element into practice (eg. showing by doing, the much more effective way of teaching people).
        You're quite right about manuals in general though, but that's the thing, a great deal of Resonance of Fate's combat system is relatively technical special case stuff (at least compared to a majority of modern day gameplay). It's stuff that needs an explanation, at least of some of which is best conveyed through words, so assuming you accept that, the only recourse is to argue games like that shouldn't exist (which I heartily disagree with), or accept that the game needed some form of manual explanation for it's complicated combat system.

      Should you need to have to read a manual to drive your friend's car? No, you shouldn't. When you sit down you should be able to see that there is a steering wheel in front of you, pedals on the floor, and a gearstick somewhere near your hand. Fiddly things like the radio aren't essential and can be learnt about at your leisure, but the core controls should be immediately obvious.

        See my above post, but basically yeah, Resonance of Fate's combat system is the fiddly thing, if you think that's bad design and it should be made more simple, that's cool, but in making it more simple you're changing the combat system, there's no longer a game in existence that has the combat system of Resonance of Fate, which while complex, is a rewarding interesting system. Diversity is good, even if it's just an example of what not to do if you want be a commercial success.

    This article is really poorly written. You've also failed to make a clear point. Also, addressing the game developers halfway through the article? That was weird.

    The points you raise against RoF are the reasons I like JRPGs. I love being dropped in a universe I don't understand and use a battle system I don't know how to exploit. The sense of satisfaction is what I get out of it. To draw a parallel with music, my favourite albums don't make themselves instantly accessible but they reward getting to know the material over repeated listens.

      Agreed. I have a favorite band and I have learnt, over time, that whenever they release a new album, and I hate it (initially), that's a good thing. I always end up loving the MORE I play it.
      Then there's other music that I love initially, but forget over time.

    Don't buy random games you know nothing about.
    You say its got 30 mins to impress, or you give up. This is fine for demos and free trials of mmo's, but you've already given them your money.
    If you cant be bothered working out how to play it, the only one who loses is you.

      This is all well and good if you don't think your time is worth anything. Having paid for the game already makes it a sunk cost. If it wastes my time with poor design, its actually only increasing the cost of the game.

        if its not easily understood within half an hour or so its costing you money? what was the hourly rate you got for skyrim?

          Its not costing me money. My time has a value that isn't necessarily financial. If I have to fight bad design just to play a game, my time is better spent elsewhere.

            i understand abandoning a game if it has terrible design flaws, but discarding something like RoF for what is more steep learning curve than design issues is like drowning a baby for teething. I for one find it refreshing for a game not to hold my hand and assume that I'm an adult with cognitive abilities. Having to use your brain isnt a design flaw.

    Well you've just robbed yourself an opportunity to play one of the best JRPGs out there. Suck it up, go to the battle arena and learn. The battle system is actually really easy to understand once you put some time into it.

    The story is brilliant as well.

    Uh, bit late but isn't there an actual gameplay tutorial (not a read and understand one) in the coliseum? I'm pretty sure one of the NPCs tell you that too.

    Honestly I didn't find it hard or difficult to get into at all, although I have the benefit of playing many other strange tri-Ace battle systems and TWEWY.

    Personally, I love RoF. Spent 105hrs on it, Though it took me a while to full master the simple and the advanced parts of the battle system, but once you do it's one of the most fun systems in RPGs.

    A game where you have to read the instructions?! My god, the audacity of the designers!
    Come on man, you have to be kidding me right. Did you not ever play a fight sim, a shooter or many other RPGs that .....well I mean christ look at Wizadry 8. I bet you did not play it because it was a complex game. Or how about Legacy of Kain (spelling), Baldur's Gate (I miss ring bound manuals)?

    I do agree with the premise of the article though. Yea, if the game-play is wonkey, if the story is shot, if there are graphic glitches or game play bugs that you can see in the first half hour, yup, you know there and then if you have a lemon of a game. But walking away because you have to read the instructions in order to play? That is just down right lazy on your part and in no way indicative of a poor RPG.

      You didn't need to read the manual for Baldur's Gate, or Legacy of Kain. The controls made themselves obvious with some exploring.

        As do the controls for Resonance of Fate. If the author of the article had been paying attention he would have realised he was being directed toward the Arena which is where all the information he wanted was.

        There was some very useful info in those manuals. Regarding the Legacy of Kain bit, yea, don't know out of which end I was speaking there :D

    too hard not worth it. boo hoo.

    Tutorial requires learning = Nope, not playing?

    Can't say I agree with this. If all JRPGs played the exact same way, to be honest I wouldn't play most of them because I'd already know EXACTLY what to expect; it would make things quite boring. Which is why I enjoy playing the different games knowing they don't all work the same. If the games you're after should Only be easy to figure out how to play across the entire genre, for god's sake just play FPS; some of us enjoy how JRPGs are at present.

    30 Minutes? Really? That's the gaming equivalent of reading 2 pages of a book and giving up. You can't gauge anything about the game in that time. You said it yourself you had no idea what was happening and it was all very confusing. I'm sure if you had kept playing or perhaps put some effort into reading the documentation (which I know is terribly uncool and a waste of you oh so precious time) you'd be able to play. I can think of countless games that were monotonous, bewildering slogs for the first hour that turned out great.

    He's not saying it's a bad game
    Just that it could have been made a lot more user friendly (which makes sense if you want to attract consumers)
    I guess case in point is the Tales of series. Off of my head, Graces and Xillia ease you into the combat system with tutorial pages after battles, during battles
    And the characters have proper introductions, the kind that give you a glimpse of what they are like etc

    lol @ butthurt comments. Did he say instructions = no play? No, he didn't. He said that the gameplay should be shown to the player in such a way that you don't NEED to sit through 16 pages of instructions. Should you have to read instructions for Mario? No, you shouldn't, you press the A button and see what it does, and go from there.

    Comparing to simulators isn't fair because in the real world a plane or helicopter take months and years of training to fly competently. RPGs shouldn't require that much effort.

      Because Mario was a JRPG, of course.

        nah. dungeon crawler i believe.

    Actually, if you paid attention to what was told to you in-game you were directed towards the Arena which is where the in-game battle tutorial is. I played (and loved) the whole game without reading the written tutorials. It was one of the most fulfilling JRPG experiences ever.

    As for Final Fantasy VII being accessible? That first level is one of the most badly designed starts to a game ever. There's little indication where to go in that, either. I'm a fan of the game but my glasses aren't so rose-coloured I'm blind to its faults.

    I think the bad first impression the article is talking about is definitely not confined to JRPGs or even RPGs. In fact, I think the in-game tutorial are even more likely to give a bad first impression than not having one. Often they're a straight line kind of level where you have to wait to be told about it before you can use a certain skill and bear little resemblance to the actual gameplay experience of the rest of the game. If you're playing a game to see how it is, the in-game tutorial does not give you right experience to base your decision on.

      Some people may not like me saying something positive about CoD, but one of the best tutorial levels ever is Modern Warfare 2's.

      On topic, I'm playing Chrono Trigger at the moment and the way it introduces everything, and what's in the manual, it's basically perfect.

        The sequel is very different. I had no idea what was going on or what the battle commands meant. Turns out I'd missed an exit from the main part of the starting village where the people who give you the in-game tutorials are. :P

    Go watch the eposodes about JRPG vs. Wester RPG on Extra Credits if you want a nice summary of the long and retarded history these genres entail:


    A nice watch

    I'm playing Resonance of Fate right now, while I agree the game could have eased you into it's many facets in a nicer way, I think complaining about it is the equivalent to complaining about how you don't like a certain character in another game, that is, it's not a reason to flat out dismiss the game as 'bad.' Mind you that's in regards to the tutorial presentation, the fact you managed to get through the entire town of Ebel without becoming aware you needed to go to the arena for the tutorial says volumes about why you probably shouldn't be playing a JRPG, if you actually HAD explored the town and talkdd to people at least 4 of them would have told you, 'GO TO THE ARENA TO LEARN IF YOU NEED TO' one of these people is at the freaking guild. You picked up a JPRG and didn't want to read npc dialogue??? Good tutorials are great, but good tutorials don't force you to do them (oh Vanquish) in case you've already know what you're doing, so it at the very least got that right, and did a better job than most by including it as part of the narrative instead of just giving you a 'skip tutorial' button.

    One of the very reasons I picked up RoF is because I was in the mood for a game that didn't hold my hand, that left me something to figure out myself. (Of course I actually spent all of 10 minutes researching the game a little, because you know.. that's a good idea with anything.) And RoF was very much that beast, I completed the tutorial at the arena thinking this could have been paced slightly better but that's alright because I can access the info at any time, and also confused as to some of the more complicated aspects of the combat system, no problem that's what I wanted. It's been rewarding slowly figuring out the intricate details of a combat system like no other (its closest relative is Valkyria Chronicles) and while the game is far from perfect it's far from being a bad title.

    As for first impressions, I completely understand and agree from the point of view of selling your game to as many people as possible, but I'm so very very glad that not every developer does this. There are some things that simply can't grip you in half an hour but are nonetheless amazing experiences, again, you want to argue that's no good for the average short attention spanned consumer, fine, but that is not contrary to the fact that some things that start slow end up extremely compelling and well done, whether it be a book or a game, and that slow start is integral to the overall design. My favourite game of this generation is Nier, a game that started you off simply trying to help your sick daughter and ran with that for a long time, boring right? Yet this extended introduction serves to develop the characters, specifically the daughter before shit goes bad, the game gives YOU, the player, a reason to want to save this sweet little girl beyond just accepting your protagonist's motive, if the game had simply started with the daughter being kidnapped the player wouldn't have any reason to be invested, to care. And that's only what makes the game reasonable, it wasn't until I completed a second playthrough the game shot to masterpiece status in my mind, yet the implications of that second playthrough would have meant absolutely nothing without the first.

    If a game isn't good enough to hook you in the first 30 minutes why should you give it your time? I think you answered your own question, you're not interested in pacing, in a beast that crafts itself over time, you want a quick entertainment fix, which is fine, but that's not so much a bad first impression as your personal preference. You know what I dislike (generally), games that open with a whole bunch of explosions, things dying, and suddenly you're in control and told to go kill more things without any context or motivation to so, but I don't (generally) think that's a problem with the game, so long as it's not selling itself as a narrative heavy piece of entertainment. Again Vanquish is a great example, it's a game I loved, but it's a game I played purely for the gameplay and combat, I'm not going to argue it gave a poor first impression because I had no idea what was going on storywise or why I should care about Sam's mission.

      Sorry.... I kind of wrote an article of my own >_>

      Hello Sam. I love you for loving Nier. One of the most criminally under-appreciated games ever and also the only game I've ever replayed straight away. The way new game+ is handled was so brilliant.

    Im thinking that this might have been a troll post :)

    Would you rather spend a little time in a tutorial and start getting the most out of the battle system straight away, or do you want to play with a gimped battle system for hours and hours until the game decides you're ready? A personal preference I guess. Not a fan of this article. If there's a tutorial play it, don't think that because you've played lots of games you can just wing it and then bitch when it's not spoon fed to you like a baby.

    This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

    umm... I don't recall ever having to read the manual when i played... pretty sure there was an in-game tutorial that explained everything well.

    I guess you should have spent that first 30 minutes actually paying attention? Just saying.

    So does this mean he never visited the Beginner's Hall in Final Fantasy VII to learn how to fight properly? The place where everything is explained to you in the form of an electronic manual?

    His Resonance of Fate experience reads like he rushed through the beginning, missing all the signposts saying "Go here to learn useful tactics.", lost a battle and said "I can't be bothered learning anything, it's too hard." and quit. I had difficulty with the game myself until I put some (minimal) effort into learning about scratch damage and conversion to actual damage and then it was just a matter of reading the hints and techniques handed out by NPCs after that. Thoroughly enjoyed the game despite its flaws, and absolutely loved the battle mechanics.

    We have one lot of people complaining that in game tutorials are too much hand-holding and they'd rather learn things for themselves, and another lot who can't be bothered to learn anything unless they have a 30 minute, in-game, hand-held tutorial. It's no wonder that game designers can never seem to get it right.

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