I've been playing a bunch of old DOS games as of late (instead of working on a game I might add). As you might expect, they're a mixed bag, and that's not because of their age. But even in games that are still fun to play — and trust me, there are quite a few — I couldn't help but notice certain problems that show up again and again. Worse, they show up before I even get to play the game proper. It makes you wonder, didn't they play each other's games back then?

Neon-colored letter outlines spelling the words: see intro / no options / demo mode / don't play / don't quit.

And then I realized why these problems seemed so familiar: because I still routinely encounter them, e.g. in Flash games.

We focus so much on gameplay, HUD and control issues that we forget a player's first impression of a game, and that's the intro, title and menu screens. So we end up repeating the same mistakes. How often has your experience of a game gone like this? Take a sip every time:

  1. It starts with an intro screen. Then another. And another. Luckily you can click through them, but since they fade in and out sooo veeery slooowly that hardly makes a difference.
  2. The title screen shows up, and you're assaulted by LOUD ANNOYING MUSIC (or a loud annoying demo mode) which you can't turn off.
  3. You scour the menus frantically for some way to turn down the sound. Whew! Wait... how do you get back? Oh, you're supposed to press Escape. Repeatedly. It's a good thing you don't suffer from any learning disabilities.
  4. Finally you start the game... and die before you can even get your bearings. After several attempts, your succeed in surviving the first screen by frantically smashing the controls, but the second screen is unbeatable. And there is no manual you could read, or else it's useless.
  5. By that point you're mad, and can't wait to get out of the game. But the developers made this, too, difficult. After all, they can't let you go before you know where you can buy the sequel, and how you can contact them to let them know how much you loved their piece of...

Luckily, you were playing in an emulator or browser tab, and you can just close that.

What game developers just don't get is that games aren't movies. The player isn't sitting back in his chair, munching popcorn and watching the pretty colors. He's grasping his mouse and keyboard, aching to do something. Any moment he spends idle merely increases his annoyance level. Especially as most players nowadays don't have all the time in the world. Also, I'm playing at home, which I share with a cat and another family member, and neither of us likes sudden loud noises.

Look, how hard is it to follow a few simple principles?

  1. Don't waste my time. I want to see the game, not your self-praise. I'll look later at the official website. After I play. If I like your game.
  2. Either start out with the sound at low volume, or else provide an "M" key that works everywhere, including the menus.
  3. Provide an explicit way to exit menus, and generally make sure that the menu system is crystal clear. I want to solve puzzles in the game, not on my way to it.

I won't insist on the player's very first contact with the game proper, because that's actually outside the scope of this article. But when point 4 above comes on top of everything else, the bad impression will be made that much worse.

To end on a positive note, remember my previous article where I complained about gamepad support in Linux? Turns out, a lot of DOS games offered as much, even very small and modest efforts. And it must have been much more difficult back then, without any help from libraries and the operating system. What excuse do we have?


One of John Carmack‚Äôs basic tenets in the DOS era was that one should be able to just wail on the spacebar or enter key and start playing with all defaults without having to think about it and parse a lot of crazy menus. He laments that these days there are so many forced-intro movies that are required by the publishers and technology licensors that get in the way of just playing the game. — fluffy

And still, Doom suffers from problem #2. None of the others though, so I guess Carmack was onto something. — Felix