How to Onboard Players

We have all been in this scenario: we want to explain and sell our game as quickly and efficiently as possible to our players. It can be through a trailer, trying to reach new players and boost acquisition, or in person at GDC, having a crazy short amount of time to pitch our game over a 10 minutes long demo. It can also be when players bought, installed, and are actually playing our games, to contain the day-1 drop and boost retention.

And it’s tough!

With the sheer amount of games flooding the market every day, our window of opportunity is negligible and players have the attention span of a puppy in a toy store. For you to picture just how bad it is, a free to play or mobile game is considered performing well if it only loses 70% of its players on their first day of playing it. Only 6% of players will still be playing after a week!

As game developers, we do not fight for our players’ money anymore, we fight for their time.

So, naturally, plenty of factors are to be taken into consideration, from the price-point (or absence of) to the release window, game’s quality, target, or marketing efforts. But as designers, what interests us today is pretty specific: How to onboard players. How to make your players project themselves accurately on their next 10, 100, 1000 hours of gameplay, in as short a time as possible? How to make sure that they get what your game is about? How to get them excited about what the game promises?

What I’m offering to you in this article is a simple, straightforward methodology. A check-list of some sort of all the items you want to showcase to your player, that will help you design trailers, demos, and games’ introduction (often referred to as Onboarding). Based on your game’s specificities you may want to bend these rules, or on purpose go against them, but this approach has proven itself useful more than once, as we’ll see in the rest of this article.

Onboarding with trailers

Trailers making is an art-form in itself, and talking about what makes entertaining and engaging video game trailers is way beyond the scope of this article (and my abilities). But while some trailers focus on a mood, an emotion, or even an art-style, some manage to do a lot more: compress the core of the game in less than 5 minutes.

There are 2 particular examples that, to me, act as very strong onboardings, to the point these videos even became the opening cinematic of their respective games.

Left 4 Dead

This is a very long video (trailer speaking), but notice the sheer amount of information that is passed in it:

  • The game is played by 4 players cooperating.
  • Every single enemy and its ability is represented: from Hunters lurking on isolated survivors, to Witches reacting to light and Tanks following hordes.
  • Most systems are there: car alarms triggering hordes, pipe bombs attracting zombies, safe zones, cooperative rescue on downed players…
  • The dialogues describe the core experience precisely: stay close, be careful, run, shoot.

What makes this trailer so good to me is that this video describes precisely what players will experience during every single one of their play sessions. These players may have never heard about the game, they will still instantly understand the game, and all that without even showing gameplay!

Assassin’s Creed

You know the drill: watch this trailer (a lot shorter this time), and try to note every little thing you learn from it.

** Elevator music **

Done? Well, to me this is a near-perfect trailer. It once again showcases perfectly what the core of Assassin’s Creed is about. Remember that when this trailer came out in 2007, the world didn’t know this IP, so a lot of groundwork was necessary compared to the most recent entries. This trailer is not only putting the base setup for the game (location, backstory) but also introduces all the elements that will become the trademarks of the franchise: hidden blade, parkour, blending in, high-ground recon, the hood…

These 2 trailers haven’t been chosen randomly. They represent to me the golden era of meaningful design trailers: trailers that were focusing on the entirety of the experience and not only on big “wow” selling moment. I also chose these 2 trailers as they are cinematic ones, to highlight the fact that gameplay trailers aren’t the only option when explaining a game.

That being said, what interests us here is everything these 2 trailers decided to highlight as they will answer an important question: what are the big topics that should be tackled while dealing with onboarding players, be it through trailers, demo, or games’ first contact? Let’s try and create a cheat-sheet for us to challenge our work on.

Onboarding Checklist

Let’s cut to the chase right away: I personally believe there are 6 topics that must be showcased as clearly, and as early as possible to our players. Some can be avoided on purpose, as we are going to see, but failing to consider them will dephase your players, lead to frustration and drops, create friction in gameplay expectation, or simply make you miss on players that just “didn’t get it”.

These 6 categories, in a far from random order, are the following ones:

  • The Role / The Fantasy
  • The World Stakes
  • The Goal(s)
  • The Gameplay Pillars
  • The Core Systems
  • The Primary Emotions / The Tone

In most cases, if your players understand these 6 items, then they understand your game. The fastest it will happen the better.

Let’s dig a bit in each of these categories.

The Role / The Fantasy

This part must answer the question: “Who am I playing?”. As simple as this question is, it is easy to answer it the wrong way. The title of this category isn’t “The Hero” for a very good reason: names, visuals, and backstory are secondary here, and the picture above is thus a trap. What is critical to answer here, and probably a way better question to ask ourselves, is the following:

What Role will I be playing?

You are Geralt of Rivia, a silver-haired badass with two swords” isn’t projecting on anything more specific than “I’ll probably do some sword-fighting!”. We need the Role to be an enabler: for stories, for consistency, for systems, for the gameplay. “You are a Witcher: an elite, magically engineered, monster-slayer for hire” is a much better answer! It hints on the legitimacy of this character’s existence in the world. It anchors the fantasy.

“I am Dovaakhin, a mortal imbued with a divine soul to slay an evil dragon god.”

“I am a simple Courrier, caught up in a delivery bigger than me, and left for dead for a chip.”

“I am a goose, and I’m an a******.”

The World Stakes

Presenting the world in which a game is taking place is on the top of the list of most developers. While it is important, I believe it needs to go deeper: present the stakes of this world.

Remember that this onboarding serves as an enabler, as much for the game setting than it is for players’ expectations and fantasies.

The action takes place in the floating city of Columbia, a steam-punk dystopia!” isn’t enough for example. it doesn’t frame the setting of the game enough. A better version would instead be: “The action takes place in the floating city of Columbia, a steam-punk religious dystopia corrupted by institutional racism and elitism on the verge of a revolution opposing the working class and the governing “Founders”!”

Highlight the conflicts, the breaking-points, the tensions, the points of unbalance…

The Goal(s)

This one is very straight-forward and is naturally connected to the Role and the World Stakes: What is the end goal players are trying to accomplish? In Skyrim, the goal is to kill the legendary evil “World Eater”. In Journey, players need to reach the top of that mountain. In Bioshock Infinite, they need to locate and bring back Elizabeth.

A very interesting point to note here: as with the previous points, this goal isn’t here to clearly state what will the player actually do, but instead, once again, to enable the player to project on the game: drive the player actions and approach of the game, sell a unique fantasy to encourage a purchase, etc.

Journey‘s mountain is the real goal of the game. Elisabeth in Bioshock? Well… It’s complicated, but it’s ok, players do not need to know that during their first contact with the game.

The Gameplay Pillars

So, at this point we start to have a pretty solid structure: players know what role they will embody, their official goal reinforcing their role, as well as a global understanding of the structure of the world (and thus project on the difficulties that will arise). Now it is time to start talking about gameplay.

Your game is revolving on strong gameplay pillars (hopefully) and it is critically important to expose them to your player as early as possible.

An interesting example to take is Assassin’s Creed II. The 3 core gameplay pillars of this game are the following: Combat, Stealth, Navigation. The entire gameplay of the game is made of features based on these 3.

But is the game’s onboarding really emphasizing on them early on?

On one hand, the first real animus immersion is perfect in that regard: starts with a fight, then a race to the top of a tower using parkour… All the ingredients are here. On the other hand, this segment happens almost 20 minutes in, after long narrative present-day segments. In my opinion, this is way too late, and leads to a confusing start.

The Core Systems

Once the gameplay pillars are identified, you want to showcase the way they will actually translate into the gameplay, and you will do that by introducing your systems.

But most games will have way too many systems for you to introduce them all. Your goal is to identify what are your core systems. Several attributes can make a system part of the core of a game: how prominent this system is in the experience, how defining for the game it is, or how many pillars this system answers to.

It would be unimaginable to have Assassin’s Creed not showcase its hidden blade to the player, and for good reason: not only it is a key-differentiator system for the IP, but it also sits at the crossing of all 3 pillars of the game: Stealth (you need to stay undetected), Navigation (it is a melee ability) and Combat, of course.

A very good example to take would be the opening shot of the latest God of War.

Cutting down a tree. A very smart way to introduce immediately the famous Axe in a narration heavy, mood-setting, non-combat segment.

The Primary Emotions / The Tone

At the core of your experience sit emotions. Be it fear, joy, wonder, or anger, triggering them early on will put players in a very particular state of mind to appreciate the game and engage them.

This part can be difficult to achieve, as many complex emotions require a fair amount of build-up (grief, anger, ecstasy, trust…), but this shouldn’t prevent designers to at least tint the onboarding with the tone the game is going to follow.

The Borderlands series is particularly good at that, opening their game in explosive and goofy ways, with the help of memorable bosses and the now legendary Claptrap.

So here we have them, the 6 core items that must be your introduction’s priority when onboarding players:

  • The Role / The Fantasy
  • The World Stakes
  • The Goal(s)
  • The Gameplay Pillars
  • The Core Systems
  • The Primary Emotions / The Tone

The order of these items is for me what leads to the most understandable flows, each of them bouncing on the previous ones (the last one being transverse), but each game may want to approach this order differently. This is only a checklist, not a storyboard, and there is a lot more than one valid answer.

Another point to note is that it is valid to voluntarily omit to treat one or more of these items. Journey avoids presenting the Role precisely as it is part of the Goal (discovering who you are, and what are your motivations) and hide completely one of their main pillars, collaboration, for a more personal first contact.

This checklist exists to give you a framework to work with. The way you will build your demo, trailers, or game’s first contact is so vast and so personal that it would be reductive trying to give a one-fit-all approach.

But we certainly can look at some successful ones!

Efficient First Contacts

I’ve always been very admirative of games that manage to showcase their entire experience in less than 10 minutes. And one of them is Forza Horizon.

Forza Horizon onboarding happens twofold: a macro approach during the first 5 minutes and a detailed approach during the following 5. Have a look at the introduction of the game with, in mind, everything we talked about in this article, and try and identify everything that you learn during the first 5 minutes.

This is personally one of the most efficient onboarding I played: everything you need to know is contained in this segment, embedded in a natural and elegant form:

  • The Role / The Fantasy: you are a rookie driver, entering the Horizon festival to prove yourself and become famous.
  • The World Stakes: the Horizon festival is the biggest racing event. It is both a competition and a show and the best drivers in the world are represented.
  • The Goal(s): Beat the champion Darius Flynt, win Horizon, become famous.
  • The Gameplay Pillars: Driving, progression, competition.
  • The Core Systems: upgrade your cars, purchase new ones, raise your renown.
  • The Primary Emotions / The Tone: Excitement, tension, heat, pride, competitiveness.

Another particularly well-done game first contact is the first 10 minutes of Resident Evil 2 Remake. I let you see by yourself:

Getting your players in the right mindset, bonding with heroes, caring for their goal, feeling immersed in the world, wanting to discover more, wanting to buy your game… All these steps will depend on your ability to craft compelling onboarding through your different mediums. Again, this article won’t give you the magic formula, but now you hopefully have a strong checklist to challenge your designs upon.

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