Setting the Scene: The Twenty Hour Intro
It would be quite the understatement to say that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a complex game. With a massive world filled with hundreds of quests, a complex leveling system and an intriguing main story, it takes some time for players to grasp every important game mechanic and strategy. As I navigated Geralt through this sprawling, epic fantasy world, I occasionally struggled against enemies and monsters, yet I would learn something new, and through enough failure and success I became confident enough to proclaim that I understood the game, that I was now capable of meeting the more difficult sections of The Witcher 3 head-on.
Out of curiosity, when I reached this moment I paused my game, to check how long I had played. I knew The Witcher 3 was supposed to be a large game, and yet I was still surprised to see that it had taken me 22 hours to “get” the game. Twenty-two hours in, and now I felt confident enough to, essentially, start the game.
At this point, my free time is split 70-30 between video games and watching sports, and sometimes I watch my pitiful Detroit Lions lose on an iPad so I can keep playing video games on my TV. My point is, I have clearly dedicated my life to playing video games, and even I was a bit appalled by this number at first. Who has 22 hours to learn a game? I have close to fifty unplayed games in my Steam library, not to mention all of the titles downloaded onto my PlayStation 4, Xbox One and the slew of seventh-generation games I never got around to (maybe someday, L.A. Noire). How can any developer justify taking that much time to set up their game in such a crowded market? And is this something developers should aim for?
But the more I thought about it, the more I came around to developer CD Projekt RED’s line of thinking. When warranted, a developer should take their time setting up the world and story of their game, and if done correctly, the experience it leaves with gamers lasts for years to come.
To clarify, I am not suggesting that every game needs a 20 hour introduction – some of my favorite games from the seventh generation can be completed in far less than 20 hours (BioShock, Spec Ops: The Line and BioShock Infinite come to mind). But for games aiming for an epic story, that is more akin to an entire season of a TV show rather than one episode, taking time to set everything up properly pays off in the long run.
An Engaging Early Game
As I mentioned, it took me 22 hours to feel confident in saying that I had a grasp on The Witcher 3. It’s not a particularly difficult game, but the leveling system differs enough from most Western RPGs, and the enemies varied enough, that there is a learning curve. But something must have worked in those hours, because as of this writing, I am 78 hours into the game, and I still have roughly half the story to experience.
The story, up until this point, has shown signs of promise, but it hasn’t been enough to carry me through nearly 80 hours of gameplay. What CD Projekt RED did correctly was use that time to show gamers engaging, varied content that was instantly accessible, instead of hiding it all behind a high level cap. The mistake they avoided (that so many RPG developers make) is to disproportionately distribute this content over all three phases of the game – early, mid and end-game. The Witcher 3 distributes this content evenly – the quests at the beginning of the game are crafted with the same level of detail, and their stories treated with the same level of respect, as those found later in the game. Compare this to nearly any Western RPG that features such thrilling early-game quests as “kill X number of rats” or “collect X number of plants.” In these games, the best quests are all saved for mid or end-game, and the starting quests often have little to zero impact on the world or the story.
From the opening moments, the quests in The Witcher 3 are of a high caliber, and in many instances they rival the main story quests. In the canon of The Witcher franchise, Witchers are monster hunters, and the game opens up with the player doing just that – tracking down a massive griffin, and using all of the tools that Witchers have at their disposal to find and slay this beast. But instead of this being used as a tutorial only, the monster hunting continues, forcing the player to learn as much as they can about their targets, which means plenty of preparation (which, subsequently, leads to plenty of interaction with characters and the world itself). Additionally, the side-quests are also plentiful and meaningful, revealing vital information about the world and characters. Early on, I spent four hours on a side quest involving a witch and an abandoned tower that was once used to carry out some horrific experiments. The entire quest was written and developed with the same care as the main story, and not only was it optional, but it was right there, in the very beginning. As I stumbled through the learning process, The Witcher 3 utilized content that most developers would save for the late stages of their games.
Of course, I did run into enemies that were 20 levels above me, and there are still sections of the map I am too underleveled to explore. However, I know these areas exist because I was encouraged to explore the entire world from the opening, instead of staying on a narrow path until I unlocked some pre-determined level. Because there is so much early-game content, I felt perhaps a bit bolder than I would have in other open-world RPGs, and in those initial hours I discovered long-lost treasures, cleared towns of monsters and fought off bandits terrorizing the countryside. Although I did have to flee from battle a few times, finding these higher level challenges early in the game gave me a goal to focus on, which also helped me get through those initial hours. Not only did I enjoy the high amount of content made available to me immediately, but I took note of enemies and areas I would revisit later on. Giving players a goal to work toward keeps them interested while developers take their time slowly building up the story. All of this resulted in masking the fact that I had spent nearly a day learning how to play The Witcher 3, and it’s what has kept my interest for many more hours.
Tell Me A Story (And Don’t Stop Until The End)
I’ve made the claim elsewhere, but it bears repeating – I think the opening moments of BioShock are some of the best the medium has ever produced. It hooked me instantly, and I was ready to explore every dark, decayed alley of Rapture. But once the game was over, I realized that developer Irrational Games made an all-too-common mistake – open the story with a quick bang, drag the second act out as long as possible, and rush the third act. Once the player gets their first Plasmid (BioShock’s version of super powers), the game slows down, and while the content is engaging (seriously, it never once got old to hit enemies with the fire-electricity combination), the story crawls along, only to very suddenly pick up at break-neck speed for a very rushed final level.
A great story will help keep players engaged by starting on a high note and never letting up. In recent years, developer Rockstar Games proved to be the masters of this form of storytelling, and it was essential in games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption. But the best example of story pulling players through a long opening section has to be their latest, Grand Theft Auto V.
Prior to release, the two most talked about aspects of GTA V where heist missions, which ads promised would get bigger and crazier as the game progressed, and the character Trevor, who represented all of the insanity of the Grand Theft Auto franchise rolled into one character. Both of these elements lived up to their pre-release hype, but what came as a surprise to many is that neither one shows up in the first 15 to 20 hours of gameplay. That’s because Rockstar understands how to pace a story, from the opening cinematic to the very end.
Before robbing a jewelry store, before taking out local meth dealers in the desert, players were introduced to Franklin and Michael, two of the three protagonists. Each character was given a well-crafted backstory and some rather large obstacles to overcome in those opening hours. But more importantly, Rockstar took the time to make Franklin and Michael two very different characters, with wildly different goals and personality traits. Franklin, tired of working dead-end low-paying immoral jobs, aspired to something greater in life, even if it meant embracing a life of crime. Michael was trying to find a purpose for a life that had a feeling of “been there, done that” – he wanted something new, but the only life he knew was the one he was trying to escape from. As players learned about these two characters, and overcame the obstacles in their paths, they were engaged for 20 hours of story, without even realizing it. This was all before they pulled off a single heist, or before Trevor does what Trevor does best.
Staying in the Moment, When Necessary
If a developer wants to tell an epic story, then it’s best they take their time to set up all of the pieces. Video games are uniquely suited for this level of immersion and detail, and developers shouldn’t shy away from letting the opening to their game take 10 or more hours to complete. However, the content and story must be engaging throughout. Far too often these opening hours are loaded up with pointless missions or filler content that simply moves characters from one point to the next, and with a story that rushes through the first act, only to drag for hours to come. If developers put this engaging content up front, while also giving the player glimpses of goals they can look forward to completing later, and if the story engages beyond the opening cinematic, then players will follow, no matter how long it takes. By the time the final credits role, the game will be much stronger, and memorable, for it.