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Opening Cinematics

October 15th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 8 Comments · Art, Design

It wasn’t that long ago that television programs had theme songs and opening credit sequences. Some treacly music would play in the background while Michael J. Fox or William Daniels grinned at you. They’d be updated with new clips (and occasionally new names) each season, but the format pretty much stayed the same. Sometime in the last decade, this TV tradition has been tossed aside; more programs than ever jump straight into the plot with credits running in the corner while Dunder Mifflin or Oceanic 187 confront whatever the week’s crisis is. The writers can cram more in this way and precious ad time isn’t used as a bookend for a 40 second song that people mock. You might get a splash screen with the title of the show, but you might not. The opening theme song is living on borrowed time.

So how much longer will we need to put up with opening cinematics in our computer games? I ask this because I noted a press release announcing that the opening video for Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties is available for those sites that want to use it. It’s the type of thing I will watch once and then never watch again. A lot of man hours are spent making animation and music for a film clip that most gamers will skip.

Not that they can’t be cool. The intro cinematic for Rise of Legends, for example, perfectly captures the theme of the game with a dramatic battle between the Vinci and the Alin. I’ve probably let that one play through a few times. I liked Age of Mythology‘s too. I think Warhammer: Mark of Chaos has the best intro film of the last year. Generally these videos are big on pomposity, emphasizing just how grand and epic this new game will be. (I see very few peasants chopping wood in RTS intro videos. Peculiar.)

For all the hours spent making this film clip appealing, how much gamer time is actually spent watching it? I don’t know enough about development to make a case that this time would be better spent doing something else, but it would surely save some money, wouldn’t it? You have animations that don’t have to be made set to music that only plays for a few minutes in the lifetime of a title.

Developers will tell you that they do lots of things that most gamers never see. Editing tools. Multiplayer. Credits. But at least those serve a game related purpose. Watching the opening video doesn’t make the loading progress bar fill any faster. If the intro clip is supposed to put you in the mood for the game, why do so many people skip it?

So, developers and gamers, why do you make these things? And does it bother you when people only watch it once?


8 Comments so far ↓

  • Jon Shafer

    An intro movie can serve as a good marketing tool. You could make an announcement video at a major show, or break it up into bits and distribute it to websites in parts, or some combination thereof. And yes, there are a number of developers that don’t really see the point in making them. ;)


  • Scott R. Krol

    Of course if the game uses cut scenes then the intro animation can be tacked onto this, so you’re not really losing any development time on it .

    Often opening cinematics are farmed out to other studios so the game developer doesn’t need to spend their time on it. And from a cost perspective mainstream developers have so much money to work with that it’s really a drop in the bucket, and if done right, is effective for the various reasons as Shafer was describing. After all, how often have you seen a “preview” demo that is nothing but a cinematic?

  • Alan

    Incidentally, Rise of Legends also uses the opening cutscene as background animation for the menus, so you end up seeing it a lot.

    Speaking of farming out the cutscenes to a third-party studio, this can cause problems if farmed out before the developers write the story. I know of at least one case where the intro cutscenes actually hindered story development because the developer was too cash-strapped to change them. In other cases, developers simply hand-wave the intro events away or otherwise exclude them from the main story.

  • jonathanstrange

    I love opening cinematics and hope they don’t go away. Although, like most people probably do, I tend to skip them after the first couple of times, not having them makes me feel that the developers thought “Ok, guy, here’s the damn game. Go to it.” Especially when manuals are so thin and pedestrian, an opening cinematic may be the only sense (even if it’s only “pretend”) that the game’s conflict matters beyond completing the particular mission. I like the cutscenes for the same reasons. While the developers may save money by not having cinematics, cutscenes, or hell, even a pretty box with the games’ name and artwork illustrating its setting, all of it adds to the feeling that this is an “important game and attention must be paid.”

  • Paul Stephanouk

    We don’t always make ’em – at least not the heavy lifting. In the case of Rise of Nations and Rise of Legends we worked with Blur Studios to produce the video. In fact the process was well documented in a episode of one of the various videogame TV shows (I think it was Game Head).

    I like intro movies. They help me get excited about a game and can help set an emotional and/or conceptual tone. My fav of all time is the intro to MechWarrior 2. It got my blood pumping and put me in a kick-ass-and-take names mood. I always watched it before starting play.


  • Alan

    Ah yes, MechWarrior 2. There are some intros/cutscenes that I enjoy watching even outside the context of a game because they’re just so entertaining, and MechWarrior 2 is one of them. A good intro can really set the mood by giving a player a taste of the action, without first having to explain the game rules and controls.

  • Andrew Lossing

    That’s Oceanic flight 815. *grins*

    I did enjoy Rise of Legends’ cutscene a few times. But I agree with your point, and I think jonathanstrange hit a chord for me – I’d love a nice game manual instead of a cutscene. To veer into RPGs for a moment, Neverwinter Nights: Gold was intensely satisfying straight out of the box precisely because it came with a HUGE manual, which basically taught a very detailed crash course in D&D while putting across some great artwork. Cutscenes may be good for marketing, but the physical presence of a superior manual gives a game a more lasting satisfaction in ownership. It’s there whenever you pick up the box. Oblivion’s collector’s edition with the “Pocket Guide to the Empire” is another example.

  • Krupo

    I had to go online and find the Pocket Guide after reading that last comment – cool stuff.

    I shared this post with a friend who astutely pointed out that Lords of the Realm 2 had an intro movie featuring peasants chopping wood. So there you go…