WOW gamers with an amazing first hour of your game.
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The Golden Hour is a rule of quality game development for games made to impress their target audiences. The basic idea is that you polish the first hour of play to be as great as possible so that your users have fun, are impressed, understand how to play, don’t rage quit or get bored, and have a positive opinion.
This idea has been around for a long time! In books the beginning needs to be great enough to hook the reader. Likewise the beginning of your game needs to be good enough to capture your player’s attention and make them want to play more with as little friction as possible.
With games, the Gold Hour of Fun was (and in some cases still is) a very important concept to nail down well in games which lived and died off the demo or shareware model. For example, with our original Faerie Solitaire (2009), we made sure to make first impressions as good as possible, and to put the majority of polish into the first areas of the game the player would be able to reach within the first hour. That’s not to say we didn’t polish the rest of the game, but we paid special attention to the hook — and so should you!
With platforms like Steam allowing no questions asked refunds within the first few hours of playing a game, it is even more crucial than ever to make the first hour of your game as good as possible.
In our 2019 game Faerie Solitaire Harvest, the Golden Hour is something we fumbled on (and tried to fix as well as we could with later updates). Particularly with it having no A-Z story (we intentionally wanted to test a game not having this, and our conclusion from testing is all of future games must have this), having an overloaded initial tutorial, and having too many mechanics available at the very start. There’s a good reason why games lock out entire mechanics until X level or by needing to do Y first - just having too much complexity available immediately in your game can make people confused and skip on your game.
The Golden Hour is not just about WOWing your players, but it is also about the idea of “not too hot, not too cold.” You don’t want the game to be so hard that the players feel like they are stuck at a hopeless brick wall, and you don’t want the game to be so easy players feel like it’s pointless boredom. Of course target audience dictates much of your design in these processes. Easy for some is hard for others, so know who you are making your game for.
And of course you can safely break the conventional rules if you have an established audience who will support it. It’s possible your rule breaking will even become the new normal of what is “good” in games. From Software’s PS3 game Demon’s Souls (2009) was initially not very successful as its relatively punishing difficulty at the time gave it poor reviews and turned away players. Eventually though players would figure out that the gameplay was actually great, they loved the challenge that most modern games at the time did not provide with too much hand holding, forced tutorials, and casualification. DS’s cult like following lead into making Dark Souls (2011) the hit it was (even with the large enough of people who rage quit on the tutorial boss of DkS… only to be dragged back by their friends and eventually made to realize how good the game is, how good it feels to overcome its challenges), and helped to turn Souls games into a continuously successful franchise with many copycats and constant comparisons (along with a tradition of tutorial boss / starting area reality checks). You will note though that every Souls game does follow these general rules, but with a reference point geared toward its target audience who enjoys the higher standards of challenge.
Unfortunately, there are many excellent game designs which require tutorials to really enjoy. Of course you should try to design your game to be as obvious as possible, you should try to make the game teachable through play, but sometimes you cannot avoid forced tutorials for some audiences. If you have these, try to make them as short as is necessary to highlight the crucial features players need to know to enjoy the game.
Don’t overload the player with too much mechanical information at once. Look at games like the Mario franchise. In these Nintendo games, the player is often introduced to a single mechanic at a time. The first time they see the mechanic they are allowed to interact with it in a low skill, low risk way. Later they will see the mechanic in a more advanced setting. Finally they will see the mechanic in a high risk, fully intensity way which challenges their mastery and understanding of the mechanic (with sometimes an iteration further which flips the mechanic on its head to make it even more challenging). If the Mario games introduced every mechanic at once full blast it wouldn’t be as fun, and the player would not have time to understand each mechanic fully before going on to the next discovery.
If you are spamming your player with dozens of messages and tips within the first few minutes of play your design is likely bad. It is better to have one larger teaching segment between early levels than to spam lots of small teaching moments early on.
Simply put, you need to let your player play as soon as possible once they launch the game. If your game requires an hour of just dialog before there is any game then you are likely to bleed players who don’t want to commit to reading a short story before having fun.
If your game needs a story introduction of some kind, try to still let them play at least for a while immediately. Death Stranding (2019) has many sections of very long cutscenes, but still lets the player play the actual core “hiking gameplay” at 6 minutes in for ~25-30 minutes depending on the player before then going into an almost ~40 worth of cutscenes. If this game had not given a window of play early on and had only cutscenes for the first hour it would have frustrated players who are there to play a game (even more than it already did perhaps). In many JRPGs the early narrative can go on for multiple hours before going into the gameplay loops. In the Witcher 3 there is almost 10 minutes of narrative before the introductory game finally beings.
Of course the early narrative can be forgiven based on the audience. If the audience is expecting it, and wants it, then by all means have it, but know that you may still be hurting early player experience if your early story before the actual game begins is not totally engaging.
An unbearable slog to some is interesting to others. Keep your primary audience in mind always. For some, gameplay isn't as urgent and a long intro is fine.
It’s true that some games do not need a story, but it is also true that a compelling story can help keep people engaged for long enough to find the fun in the game and want a resolution to the narrative. The more hooks you put in your game’s story, the more people will want to play to reach those hook resolutions. The more you resolve all of the hooks by the end of the game, the more satisfied the player will be. If you resolve all hooks at the end of the game, the more likely the player won’t want more however! But if you don’t resolve enough of the primary hooks the player will be justifiably upset about your cliffhanger ending. If you end your game on a cliffhanger you had better have an immediate follow up planned. Personally I would strongly recommend resolving the primary narrative, but still have openings ready for a follow up story.
Story, world, things, premise, characters help to hook the player in and get them personally invested.
Even if you think your game couldn’t possibly have a story that would work - try to include one. Narrative can elevate an experience above where it is naturally at. There are many games which are great without any gameplay, and a good narrative on top of them in some form could have pushed them even higher.
If your game has a quick fail state, how long does it take to get back into the game, back into the fun? This is an example of friction. In this kind of case, you would want the down time as low as possible, the friction toward restarting as minimal as possible. This could be the difference between having a restart button on a pause menu vs on the game screen somewhere in terms of increasing enjoyment of a challenging puzzle game.
If a single audio sound hurts to hear it can be jarring enough to hurt the Golden Experience of the Golden Hour. Paying attention to the details is crucial to ensuring the best possible initial experience. Doing polish right requires much play testing, soul searching, honesty with yourself and your team about what isn’t right and needs fixing. You are the curator of your game, and sometimes you need to cut out parts to make a better whole. Iterate! Optimize! Focus on the fun — the general enjoyment the target audience can have in your game.
Ending your game on a Golden Experience can be just as important for long term sales and review scores, overall player satisfaction. This means leading the player to a satisfying climactic resolution which answers enough of their questions, gives them enough of a high quality gameplay experience to make them look back and be happy they played your game. This is done very well in games like Portal 2 (2011) where the player will want to go for a walk and spend a while reflecting on the total experience. It’s the same kind of feeling as watching a great movie to the end, or finishing a great book. That is a feeling you want to capture in some way.
You and your game are unique. You know what is that something special you can put into your game to really get your players exited and hyped up to want to play more, to feel good about playing the game, to get invested and wanting to reach the end. Break the rules where necessary, go against the norms when necessary to make a better game.
Getting the Golden Experience at the start of your game right can mean the difference between a very successful launch and a lackluster launch in terms of sales and hype. It is crucial to get the start of your game fit with everything right before you release. Study other games which do it right, see how smoothly they transition the player into the game, how long their cutscenes are, how they introduce players to new concepts. These learnings you can then apply to your own projects. If you have not played our game Faerie Solitaire I recommend you download it for free on this sites homepage while it is freely available. Our game was not perfect, but it did many things very right, so please do learn from it and make your games better because of it.
In our next game Dire, you can be sure we will try very hard to get the Golden Hour right!
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