Back-onboarding

Thinking zombieIt’s been at least a year since I last played Assassin’s Creed III. I haven’t finished the story, and it’s likely that I never will. It’s also been at least half a year since I last played Skyrim. The same thing with that. For the time being I am using the little time that I have for videogames, on No Man’s Sky and Cities: Skylines. One reason, why I’m unlikely to go back to the unfinished games, is that after I’m through with these two, I’ll be probably starting on something new instead. Another reason is the main issue of this blog entry: I would need to re-learn all the moves used in those games and figure out what the story was and where I was at the story. When starting to play a new game, you have this phase called onboarding, where the game is easy and simple and teaching you more and more what it is all about. Now I am in the middle of it all in these games, and I have forgotten most everything that the game taught me to do in the game. And, like any other game, these game have no back-onboarding designed in them.

In the core of Frans Mäyrä’s Contextual Game Experience Model there is the SCI-model explaining how a player’s immersion into the game can be created through three means: 1) Sensory input, 2) Challenge and 3) Imagination. Out of these three, the sensory immersion is rather straightforward and immediate. For the most part it relies only on the capabilities of the technology and the game artists. For the player the only role is to be exposed to what shows on the screen and what comes out of the loudspeakers. If it looks and sounds good enough, the player gets immersed, like in a concert, a movie or an art exhibit. If the audiovisuals are really good, they may even attract a distracted person to turn to see, what is going on in the game. (The sensory input is currently the only one of the three means that No Man’s Sky succeeds in.)

Immersion through challenge requires the player to be active. The player has to attempt something in the game. The player needs to learn how to use the controls, in effort to overcome the challenges presented to them by the game. Ideally, the controller would be invisible and controlling would feel natural, like a holodeck. However, what the games typically have available, is a game console standard controller, or a computer’s keyboard and mouse. Hence, especially the complex manoeuvres, such as combination attacks and aiming and shooting have to be learned by the player. Typically the first episodes of these games mostly concern learning this. In Assassin’s Creed, the first missions are simple and easy, requiring only basic actions. Then, during the next few missions, more and more actions are taught and required by the game. Not all of these are even available in the very first missions, even if you knew the key combinations. In Skyrim, as you develop your character, you get new available actions, and you are shortly described how to use them. This is “onboarding” (to the game).

Onboarding is an established term in game design research, used especially by Yu-Kai Chou. According to Yu-Kai’s definition: “Onboarding is about teaching users the rules and tools to play the game. Onboarding starts as soon as the user signs up, and ends when the users have mastered the fundamental skills needed to play the game and achieve the early stage win-states.”

Onboarding is required also for immersion through imagination – through the story, as following the story also requires active participation from the player. In the beginning the player can be expected to know the name of the game and the theme. The player may have read more about the game in reviews, but essentially they don’t know much anything about the game world, the story or the characters. This is often the biggest challenge in onboarding the player into the game story: The player should take upon the role of the main character, but they can only guess what the character and their background is like. How to give the background information to the player without it being long, boring and altogether tedious lecture? There are many techniques for this – for example in Skyrim the player can self choose the background of the main character, for which the game them adapts a little to. This is an old and common technique – introduction through creation.

A lot has been written on onboarding and there are lot of good design patterns available to implement. However, what is missing, is something that I am now calling back-onboarding.

Many games such as Assassin’s Creed and Skyrim have a story that takes typically months for the player to finish. With “modding”, especially Skyrim out of these two, is essentially infinite – players create their own content to the game world and other players can download this content and play it. Things happen in the player’s life (or as seen through Frans Mäyrä’s Contextual Game Experience Model: there are events in the player’s Immediate Personal Context) and the story can get interrupted. Like, if you were watching a movie on a DVD, but then had to leave for somewhere in the middle. If this pause is long – like several moths, in which time it is easy to forget what was going on in the story and how the controls work. The game is in the intense middle phase, and often there is no more instructions available, as a player who has been playing regularly is familiar with it all already. There’s no going back.

The two new terms proposed here, are “re-onboarding” and “back-onboarding”. Re-onboarding is similar to onboarding, but occurs when a player decides to start playing the game again from the beginning. Back-onboarding is also similar, but instead of restarting a game, it concerns continuing to play after a significant pause.

This problem of back-onboarding is not there for the sensory immersion. The game looks and sounds as amazing as always. The only possible difference is that the technology around the game might have evolved and the player may have been exposed to even more brilliant stimulus, after which the old game may already appear as clumsy and less appealing. (Unless there’s the nostalgic appeal, such as with the 8-bit games these days.)

With the imaginative immersion, the back-onboarding can be helped with auto-journaling. When all the plot lines can be found inside the game in an automated journal that explains what has happened and what needs to be done, the player can quickly revise that part of the story and continue with the mission.

The challenge based immersion could be helped, if the tutorial mode could be restarted in the middle of the game. This would be an extension of the feature, how in several games the player can switch the tutorial mode off at the beginning – this is intended for players who want to play the game through again with still remembering all about the controls and mechanics. Essentially, the player can switch off an annoying re-onboarding, if it is not perceived necessary, but this is typically only available at the first missions of the game. For a proper back-onboarding, the player should have to option to have the game teach the mechanics again at any point of the game. This feature could be practical also, when one is demonstrating the game to a visiting friend, and letting them try out the game. One can, of course, be the human tutor for the guest and tell them what to do with the controls, but the game could be also switched into a mode where it does all this work, and one could concentrate on talking about other possibly more essential points about the game, or go prepare some snacks, for example.

Of course, as time passes, more and more interesting games appear to compete from the player’s attention, and basically all attempts to attract them back to play the game are more and more likely to fail. Also the creator of the original game wants to rather sell new games to the players for further profit.

Re-onboarding is an issue of “replayability”, which has been given plenty of attention, and has techniques developed for it. For example, the whole beginning scene of X-Com 2 is different when a player starts the game for the first time, and when the player starts the game over again. Several games even offer game modes that are not available until the player has finished the game once. This way the game encourages the players to replay the game.

The perspective of back-onboarding has not been discussed so much, and it can be that the potential players that fall into this gap without ever returning to finish the game, get silently lost from the player community of these games. As game companies are eager to have players replay the games, they should be also looking into how to reach these players. One would assume that a person is more likely to replaying a game if they have played it through, rather than if their last experience is having gotten lost and forgotten in the middle – although, it is also possible that a person might be eager to try over all anew with a game that was once left unfinished.

Back-onboarding is something that seems to be missing from games. Perhaps I will find an opportunity to do research on it. For certain, its lack is one thing that keeps me from returning to Assassin’s Creed III.

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