The Art and Science of Onboarding- Part 1

Getting players to stay with your game is one of the most important challenges facing developers. Combining player analytics, game design principles and good old fashion storytelling techniques you can dramatically improve the number of retained players.

“I’ve Pressed Play… Now What?”

Every player in every game has exactly that question. It’s the most important question they will ever ask – and as the game maker, it is your job to answer it, and answer it clearly via the game itself.

Now a small proportion of game makers have the good fortune to receive enough pre-release attention and press coverage that they already know that their players will understand what to do in those first 5 seconds – but for many of us, it’s not so simple.

Convince Me!

You should be familiar with a 30 day retention curve. Here’s a typical one. It shows the terrifying drop-off in player numbers from the very first use of the game. (see note 1 at the end of this post)

Jogosity 30 day

50% of your players don’t come back after the first day… Every few minutes, even every few seconds of your game, you can be haemorrhaging players.

Now whilst that graph is typical of mobile games, where the player drop-off is truly something to behold, it’s going to be a similar story for most non-AAA games. This is the vast middle ground of Steam and Bundles and App Stores where most of us live and where the competition is incredibly fierce.

So your job in the first minute of the game is to convince your players to keep playing. And I really do mean “convince” them because the world is a bafflingly data-rich kaleidoscope of distractions and time-sinks, unfinished novels, twitter storms, Netflix and “better” things to do. And your players are probably already starting to wonder if their time wouldn’t be better spent on Destiny 2, PUBG, shouting at people on League of Legends or working on that life-sized Death Star they are building on Minecraft.

Long Read


The biggest mistake that developers make when designing their onboarding? They teach the player how to play the game. That sounds ridiculous. But it is totally true. The absolute primary objective of your onboarding is to allow players to learn why they should play the game.

New players are not engaged, they are not committed; they are interested, possibly intrigued but they are also wary and even suspicious. Think of it this way: you have around 30 seconds to give your player an emotional reason to stay around. If you’ve already taken £40 off them then you can increase that to around 30 minutes. Drop that price to less than a tenner and you can perhaps stretch to 10 minutes. In 2020, people have more cash for disposable entertainment than they have time to play the games they buy. This is why we all have a Pile of Shame.

And if your game has arrived on your players’ PC via a Humble Bundle or Steam Sale or if you’ve landed on their phone as a free download, then yes, 30 seconds is about right. After that, you start losing BIG numbers of players.

Storytelling Techniques

Videogames are stories in which the player is the lead character. That is probably a whole other article, but for now let’s consider how traditional Greek/Hollywood monomyth-style stories are constructed.

  • Hero/Heroine encounters an inciting event.
  • Hero/Heroine is confused or lost.
  • A Mentor character arrives and explains the nature of the world.
  • Hero/Heroine realises they have a greater destiny.
  • Hero/Heroine realises that they have already taken their first step towards that destiny.

For example…

  • Neo answered the phone.
  • Dorothy ran away from home with Toto
  • Luke went after R2-D2.

All of these characters took these actions in ignorance and THEN discovered that they were already on the road to their destiny. This is storytelling at its most basic and fundamental. It’s not the only way to tell a story but by Jiminy it’s effective.

Your onboarding should follow the same pattern.

  1. Opening Image: Some visual to let the player begin to build a mental-model of your game.
  2. First Action: Get the player to perform some very simple action – they don’t need to understand the context yet. Do not let the player stray from the path. Not an inch.
  3. First Context: Via a non- or partially- interactive tutorial sequence, explain the Context and show the player how their success has already changed the (game) world – and how much more change can be achieved via your Meta-Game.
  4. Second Action: Invite the player to engage on a second action, which might not be a repeat of the First, but that does clearly contribute to the meaning outlined in the First Context. You can loosen the reins a little bit in Second Action, start teaching a little but more of the How and let some actual Play enter the equation.

First Action is certainly important. It’s really, really important. It’s always good to give the player something that feels good.

  • Select your Starter Pokemon
  • Design your Guardian
  • Place your first buildings
  • Complete your first delivery

But First Context is the real big one. This is where you give the player something they will remember. In storytelling terms we are Stating The Theme.

In Lumo Deliveries Inc. we did this..

Lumo Deliveries First Context
  1. Opening Image
  2. First Action
  3. Intro to First Context
  4. Actual First Context – Stating the Theme

You don’t remember actions, you remember emotions. This is why you need to make an emotional connection with your players as soon as possible. For Lumo Deliveries, we appealed to the players’ competitive nature and stated and then immediately re-stated the global business domination angle of the game.

An emotional connection does not need to be particularly complex. In fact, the simpler the basic premise the easier it is to connect with the player.

  • You can save the World from Lord Darkthought!
  • You can be the World Champion sport star!
  • You can rescue the Sleeping Kitten from the Very Hungry Alligator!
  • You can grow an entire Forest!
  • You can help Juliet through her first year at University.

These are all very simple notions that can be understood by the player without any further explanation. Furthermore, these are all intrinsic objectives, exiting wholly within the game world. Alternatively, your game might have an extrinsic goal, more fuelled by the player’s own personality and self image.

  • You are number 1,757,452 in the world – get to no.1!
  • You can build your own Death Star if you want to.
  • You can dress up as Ford Prefect – including the battered satchel.

But whether you are using an intrinsic or an extrinsic motivation for your players, you need to do 2 things.

  1. You need to explain the Meta-Game objective (State the Theme) in a single sentence – players don’t want to read your text. No, they really don’t.
  2. You need to have the player already on the pathway to destiny before you tell them (playing the Meta-Game).

This last point is a very, very powerful way to ensure the support of your players. This is because humans absolutely hate futile actions. If you ask a player to do a simple task, then tell them that it is just part of a 100-step goal to Huge Success, then they should now understand the context of the game.

That First Action is now meaningful.

If the player now gives up, they become responsible for reversing that First Action from meaningful to futile. If the player continues, they are reinforcing the meaning, adding value to their actions and commitment.

BUT – if you fail to establish meaning for that First Action. Then it is already futile, asking the player to engage in more futility is asking for trouble. Your players will leave in their droves.

30 Seconds

The Deeper World

It is really important to keep your storytelling and game design on a very tight leash during the First Context moment of your onboarding. I’m sure that you have got an incredibly deep and complex game for me, but in the first 30 seconds I probably won’t care.

First Context is a headline. A piece of graffiti. A punchline that makes you wonder what the joke was. It is not a Long Read.

All the detail in your game – be it secondary mechanics, narrative complexity or even monetisation should hold off until the player has a grasp of the Meta-Objective. You are pointing out the destination, not describing the journey. Let the player go through the game loops a few times, building their understanding, seeing how their progress is leading to the goal outlined in First Context.

Then drop them in the deep end.

This is inevitable. It’s still something to be extremely careful about, but sooner or later you are going to need to let the player off the leash and let them loose on the whole game.

  • Unveil the whole, bafflingly huge map.
  • Show them that Lord Darkthought is just misunderstood
  • Make them lose a game because that Red Cube just never appeared.
  • Introduce the Upgrade Tree/Magic System/Sock Exchange.
  • Offer to sell them a casket of Tree Seeds at a knock-down rate.
  • Explain that the Very Hungry Alligator is the last one alive.
  • Have Juliet suddenly get another, better, friend.

All of these things can happen over the course of your first session, but ideally not during First Context. If it takes more than 10 words to explain, leave it for later and drip feed.

By all means spend a bit of time – 15 seconds in a Free-to Play game, 60 to 90 seconds in a paid game, reinforcing why the Theme is so important during your First Context. But do not complicate matters. State the Theme, show how the Meta-game relates to the Theme, then get the player back in the game, making a bit of progress.

Primary objective

A Matter of Judgement

After a few loops of the game, the player will be building enough knowledge about the game to make a Judgement Call whether the Cost (their personal time) is met by the Reward (which is in itself complex equation that balances momentary fun with sense of progress and meaning within the Meta-Game).

If you’ve done your First Context correctly the player will now really hate Lord Darkshoes, or really love that Sleeping Kitten, or associate with Juliet, or just want to make those numbers get bigger until they are the worlds No.1 Sportsballist.

Remember, you are not trying to make the player reappraise their whole lives (unless you are, in which case, good for you.)

You are trying to establish meaning within the context of a piece of entertainment. This is why a simple, obvious First Context is so important and so valuable. A good First Context will get the player to complete their first session and to come back the next time they use the device. It will also lay very important foundations for the player’s whole experience with the game.

You can’t get the player to stay with you for the whole game thanks to a good First Context, but you definitely can get them to leave. So do it right, do it early and iterate, iterate, iterate.

Good Luck!


Note 1: 30 day retention graph based on data from Lumo Deliveries Inc, rolling retention from 1year after release. Day1: 40%, Day7: 20%, Day14: 15.5%, Day30: 11.5%

Note 2: You can read about story structures literally anywhere on the web, but Blake Snyder’s beat sheet is a good intro.