First Time User Experience: Why it Matters, and How to Get it Right

Nov 24, 2021

You only get one chance to make a good first impression; this statement is just as true for a mobile game as it is for yourself! 

It’s something that every developer knows, and yet tutorials continue to be a developmental afterthought, often lacking in execution. This can lead to significant losses of both players and revenue.

80-90% of games are abandoned after the first use, due primarily to a bad First Time User Experience (FTUE).

That’s a statistic that Kristina Miles, Lead UX Designer at Electric Square, (A Keywords Studio) just isn’t going to stand for. Speaking recently at Develop: Brighton, she discussed the importance of building a great FTUE, and shared some great practical tips on how to do so, which we will unpack here.

Kristina’s definition of FTUE is: “A primary tool to enhance user retention by minimising entry barriers and increasing the quality of experience/players enjoyment”

That’s quite a lot of words to use instead of ‘tutorial’, but there’s a lot of nuance to FTUEs that ‘tutorial’ doesn’t quite encapsulate. Teaching the game’s mechanics is an important function of a FTUE, definitely, but the FTUE itself is a much broader concept, with a range of other roles. It needs to establish the game’s world, introduce the story and characters, showcase the game’s art style, and sometimes more besides. It is, in short, absolutely crucial. 

With introductions out the way, Kristina went on to cover 5 core tips for designing a great FTUE for your game:


1: Get Players into your game as quickly as possible

This one makes a lot of sense, and yet time and again you see mobile games that fail to accomplish it. Basically, once a player downloads your game, they want to play it; anything they have to do before that is likely going to annoy them, possibly to the point of uninstalling the game. Things like waiting for additional downloads, clicking through text pop-ups, being asked to rate the game on the app store before even having played it; these are all small annoyances that are amplified if they’re the first thing the player sees in your game. Moving these elements deeper into your game’s timeline is a great way to improve your FTUE.

Of course, sometimes these elements are unavoidable; as mobile games get larger, additional post-install downloads are becoming more and more common. Miles recommended integrating these unavoidable elements into your game’s world in order to minimise their impact on the FTUE. For example, surrounding an ‘additional content downloading’ bar with some key art from your game will at least introduce the player to your art style and characters; Small tweaks like these will ensure that you’re using every second of your FTUE effectively.


2: Teach the game by Playing the game

Another fairly conventional bit of game design wisdom, but one that many games still routinely ignore nonetheless. It’s well-documented that humans learn best through practical application rather than reading about how to perform tasks, and yet tutorials in games often boil down to a series of text prompts that tell you how to play it, some of which completely freeze the action to ensure you’ve read them. This is the opposite of compelling game design, and can make your player feel like they’re in a university lecture rather than starting a grand adventure. 

As with the first tip, there are some caveats here. Some gameplay concepts are difficult to convey in a textless way, particularly in complex genres such as Strategy or RPG. In these cases written tutorials are acceptable, but it’s a good idea to stagger them out; both to keep players interested, and to avoid overwhelming them with too much information all at once. Just as boring players can lead to drop-off, overstimulating them can have the same effect.


3: Teach Gradually through the Experience

An expansion of the second tip, Miles’ next piece of advice was to stagger out your tutorialisation process, teaching players in stages; starting with basic actions, moving into the core gameplay loop, and finally teaching additional, more complex mechanics. This makes a lot of sense, and avoids overwhelming the player, as mentioned before. It also draws out the learning process, which is a part of playing games that many find extremely compelling, even if they don’t consciously realise it. 


4: Boost Involvement with a Narrative Layer

A great way to make your game more meaningful at any point is to infuse elements of your gameplay with the game’s narrative, thus giving the player more than one thing to latch onto, and increasing the chances of keeping them engaged. This applies equally, if not more so, to content in your FTUE, since it represents the crucial point at which the player decides whether to keep playing your game or to uninstall it. 


5: Give Players good reasons to come back

This is a crucial tip, especially in the world of mobile, where shorter play session lengths are the norm. Ideally, your player should end every session with a goal accomplished, and a new goal in mind for their next session. Miles summed this idea up beautifully with the idea of short-term, mid-term and long-term goals, giving examples from the original Super Mario Bros.: jumping over a pit (short-term goal), finishing the level (mid-term goal), and rescuing Princess Peach from Bowser (long-term goal). With this set-up, the player is always working towards something, frequently achieving small goals that bring them closer to their ultimate goal.

These are all excellent tips which will undoubtedly make your games better at retaining new players. FTUE is the time where you draw players in, hooking them on your game and its mechanics, and also where you establish the rules of your world; how things work, what things look like, and how you should expect things to go as you progress.

This idea of establishing rules is also applicable to InGamePlay brand advertising. 

Since ad placements are built directly into your game, a lot of game design rules apply that just aren’t relevant with traditional banner or video ads. InGamePlay ads feel more natural than their traditional counterparts, but this can be to a greater or lesser extent depending on how well they are implemented, introduced, and consistently shown to the player.

For example, if InGamePlay ads don’t appear until around 30 minutes into your game, they’ll likely stand out immediately to the player no matter how well they’re blended, and perhaps even feel out of place if done poorly. If you introduce InGamePlay ads earlier, then the player will consider them part of the experience and future appearances of in-game advertising will be better received. Keep this in mind when planning your InGamePlay ad integration, and consider designing your ad strategy and FTUE in tandem to maximise the effectiveness of both.

In summary, a good FTUE isn’t just the difference between 50,000 players and 500,000 players; it’s also the difference between a good game and a great one. It’s a section of your game that has huge commercial and artistic implications, and as attention spans worldwide grow shorter every day, it will only increase in importance.

They say you never forget your first time; with a good FTUE, neither will your players.


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