Thursday, September 15, 2011

Good Indie Games Need a Good Hook

The hook is possibly the most important part of any game, because that's what determines if a player will continue playing past the introduction. The hook is supposed to intrigue the player with the premise, give him a sense of goals and directions, and set the stage for things to come. Above all, the pointy end of the hook is supposed to be the lure that compels you to keep playing this game, when you could be doing something else.

All games need to have a good hook, but I've found that it's especially true for these free indie games just because there are so many of them out there, and you haven't invested any money to justify your time with them. For examples of good hooks and further explanation, continue reading the full article after the jump.

When you're paying $20 or more for a mainstream game, you want to get your money's worth. Mainstream games are also a lot longer; you have to play for an hour or two before you get a good sense of the gameplay, and quitting before then is senseless. The result is that you'll probably end up playing a lot more of a big-budget, mainstream game regardless of how good (or bad) it actually is. 

With these free indie games, however, you haven't spent any money, so you don't have that as a justification to continue playing a mediocre game. If the game's not fun or interesting, then the only thing you've wasted is some of your time, so it's better to quit early so you don't waste any more of it. Considering there are thousands of free games that you can play instantly in your browser (or download and be playing in a matter of minutes), if you don't like one of them you've got plenty more options to choose. 

It doesn't help that a lot of these indie games are basically the same. They tend to be retro platformers, puzzlers, adventures, or some combination thereof. You can only play so many indie platformers before you just get sick of them. No matter how unique the "twist" is, it still boils down to a platformer. Unless it's really, really good, the only reason to keep playing is if it has a good hook.

Take Saving the Company for example. I wrote a teaser about it yesterday, or you could just go here and play it. It's another one of those "free indie platformers" that even goes for the usual platforming cliches of spike traps, lava pits, and "stay inside the spotlight," (I'm surprised there aren't actually pits of death), but its hook is enough to make it stand out a bit.

Not only does it immediately intrigue you with the unique premise of saving a financially failing company, but the beginning tells the player exactly what you'll be doing. It establishes what the game is about and gives you expectations for what's to come. Then once you start playing, the gameplay gives you specific tasks that guide you through it. "Get to the next room" is a simple objective, but it gets you doing things instead of just wandering around aimlessly, and figuring out the "puzzle" in each room is engaging enough for you to keep playing, like eating popcorn.

A lot of these free indie games suffer from not having a good hook. They just dump you into the game without much of an explanation of what's going on or why you should care. The objectives may not always be clear (except for the understood rule of "go to the right"), and they don't always create rewarding feedback loops for the gameplay that you can appreciate within the first couple of minutes. So unless you're really patient and committed to some of these games, they just don't hook your interest.

Sometimes being dropped in the middle of the game with no understanding of what's going on can actually be a pretty good hook, like in the case of Hide or The Infinite Ocean. This aspect alone creates a sense of mystery and intrigue as you wonder what's happening and try to fit the pieces together. This approach, however, requires a deliberate effort to make it actually intriguing and compelling. It works with Hide and The Infinite Ocean because they're supposed to be mysteries, but it doesn't work with some of these platformers that give you no indication from the start that there's any kind of backstory to be explained later. 

With mainstream games, you have more justifications to continue playing, whereas these free indie games are so fleeting and transient that they really, really need a hook in order to ensure players will stick with them. Otherwise, it's a lot easier to get a bland, mediocre first impression and move on to the next one. Of course, having good gameplay and a unique, interesting premise always help, too.

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