In a post explaining the purpose of IntroComp, Stephen Granade wrote
I think IntroComp has benefit beyond people turning specific intros into games. Neil deMause started the competition because so many games’ openings were terrible, and he wanted people to think more about how they hook players.
In practice, it feels as though IntroComp is used this way less than I’d like. Many of the entries turn out to be alpha-tests of one kind or another: the author is showing us an unfinished system that doesn’t have its narrative in any kind of shape, because he wants to know whether the mechanics work or whether the setting strikes people as interesting.
It would be useful if IntroComp were more of a referendum on Writing a Good Hook, because we need some more of that. IF hooks have to accomplish two separate things:
1. Make the player interested in what happens next. (Like other fiction.)
2. Give the player a place to start: a goal to work on, and some idea of how to go about doing it.
Actually, 1 can be broken down further:
1a. Make the player interested in what happens next in the story. (Plot hook.)
In the most recent crop of games, “Storm Cellar” probably did best there: despite my gripes about the pacing and construction of the first part of the game, it does set up a clear problem — that the protagonist is stuck in a creepy hotel — and promises that more creepiness is to come.
Smoother handling would make this work way better, though. “Anchorhead” has a great plot hook. (Gentry is good at this kind of thing in general — I didn’t think “Little Blue Men” worked perfectly, but where it fell down was not any lack of compelling writing.) But back to Anchorhead: the player is given something to dread, and something to be curious about, while the setting suggests that there are hidden aspects to everything around you.
At first glance it might seem as though, on those terms, just about any mystery or horror premise ought to be sufficient, since the player always has a question in need of answering (who killed this character? what is making the noises under the bed?); but the game also has to convince me that the answer to the question is going to be something unusual, something worth following through for. That’s where strong writing and atmosphere become especially important.
1b. Make the player interested in the interaction. (Game hook.)
Prove to me that what I’m going to be doing in this game is something interesting and novel. “Nine-tenths…” did that (at least for me) by introducing the mechanism of possession. Immediately I was tantalized by the idea that I might spend the game possessing other protagonists and trying out their skills and abilities. “Phoenix’s Landing” suggested that I was going to have a large, rich world to explore, one with lots of characters with conflicting goals and desires. (I think what appealed to me most about PL was its obvious ambition — which is also the thing that makes me most worried that it won’t be completed.)
The interaction hook of “Bedtime Story” is the back-and-forth that the player has with the other narrator of the game — and that is actually a very interesting core idea — but the presentation and content of it didn’t work for me, I think because I couldn’t convince myself that there was anything at stake about the story itself.
“An Act of Murder“, “Ad Verbum“, and the old “Enchanter” and “Wishbringer” all (in very different ways) brought me in on the basis of the interaction. In “Act of Murder”, I was excited about getting to do some real detection; in “Ad Verbum” I liked the concept of wordplay-based interaction; in the Infocom spell-casting games, I was tantalized by the promise of being able to use magic to do memorable and unexpected things to my environment.
If the cool thing about your game is the interaction style, then you want to showcase that right up front — probably with several small, easy puzzles that nonetheless give the player some idea of what awesome possibilities lie beyond. (One of the things I didn’t do well enough in Savoir-Faire, I think, is set up an easy prologue: a number of players have told me the first part of the game was already too hard for them, and it took them a while to get to any transformative events. Partway through testing, my beta-testers commented on the challenge of the opening part of the game, and I added a small puzzle to that area to make it easier — but it would have been better with a little more of that sort of thing, to ease the player in.)