Ask HN: What is the purpose of the “press any key” screen in video games?
What is the purpose of the initial "press any key" screen that often displays before the main content of a game?
I found some potential answers online, but I wasn't satisfied with them; they often sounded slightly apocryphal ("my brother knows a guy who works in games" sort of thing). I'm hoping there are some folks here from the gaming industry who have firsthand experience implementing these initial screens.
The possible reasons I found included:
- The screen functions as a "book cover" for your game, showing the player what the game is about - It allows for preloading without the user noticing - If multiple input devices are connected, this allows the game to infer which one the player wants to use - Some platforms may require user interaction within X seconds, and the initial screen enables this somehow (?? I am curious to know more about the mechanics of this in particular, if true)
I've been told that the console platform standards required a certain maximum loading time specification to be met. This would have been in the Xbox or 360 era.
Of course, meeting that with a "press any button" screen is easier than for loading the full game, so they do that!
Ahh, I think that is what was meant regarding my last bullet, and I just misunderstood. That makes a lot more sense. I am curious to know what those requirements were!
Hah, classic Goodharts law example
Well one first video games spacewars had you press any button to get started. https://youtube.com/watch?v=1EWQYAfuMYw&si=4Bjvh2TR75JsIEA2
A correlating factor is that it was not viable for quite some time (1995-2015) to make a playable minigames on the loading screen due to a Namco patent.
Companies avoided doing even a basic loading screen chatbox because of that, though I suspect the real reason is something else.
You would load a game from a cassete which woult take some minutes. Then the game has to wait for the player to become available.
<rant> now, thanks to modern game desing, we have the same experience: start the game, wait half of hour to update. </rant>
> if multiple input devices are connected, this allows the game to infer which one the player wants to use
I have played quite a few games on Switch that have a "press any key" screen basically just to figure out which one of the possibly multiple connected controllers you are using for P1, P2 etc.
This might not sound difficult to figure out, but I'll float you a super common use-case: you have a bunch of people at your house and you connected like 8 controllers, but 6 of them end up just sitting on the couch connected but unused because people walked off to get a drink or have a chat or whatever. The games that don't require you to run around and manually connect/disconnect the controllers are the best.
Cultural relic similar to the ending credit roll, easter eggs, ending sequence if you watch all the credits etc...
I wish I could resuscitate the grandparent comment, as it made a point about this being a carryover from arcades that I hadn't thought about when I submitted this.
I suppose all the same reasons for the "attract screen" being present were true of arcade games just as they were games played at home, or in-store demos and the like.
This being present in arcades also makes a lot of sense to me in terms of determining the source of user input, although if memory serves (an increasingly big "if" these days), there were also separate quarter slots for each player in some cases, so that could also be used to determine which inputs are actually driving.
These days, there is often a server-side component to the game (even if it isn't a multiplayer game). When the game "boots", it waits to open a connection to the servers until you "press any key". An idle timer can also send you back to this screen. This lets the publisher save server resources because they will avoid pointless connections to the servers when players just leave the game running.
historically, youd switch on your console, press the key and the game would start...later on it might had the same purpose or just for familiarity
With loading times it makes sense to require user input to confirm you're ready to play after loading is done. Otherwise you'd have to stay glued to the screen during loading so you don't miss anything.
A game like Project Zomboid has fairly significant loading times even on decent machines and you can get killed in no times if you're not paying attention. If there was no "press any key to start" after the loading screen I wouldn't be able to get a cup of coffee and instead have to sit there anxiously for 20 seconds.
It folds together a lot of user cues around input: that the controller that presses start is the one that the player wants to use, that they are present and ready to play(vs sitting back and watching a cutscene, which, uncued, can be confusing if the game subsequently transitions to gameplay). It can also act as the centered calibration for the sticks.
Older games' "press start" messages were tied to the title screens being part of an "attract mode". This is something done both in the arcade and in retail store displays: it's much less eye catching to have the game sitting there wherever the last patron left it, than to have a rolling demo with a little trailer, some gameplay shown, and a "press start" message. The attract mode does the work of a sales pitch, and a lot of older games were big on the concept and invested time into that feature.
Instead of "press any key" or "press start" it was "insert coin".
Thank you! I suspected that the most likely answer was that this feature serves a blend of purposes. I wish I could find some sort of historical record of the different decisions that went into this pattern, but I understand that those sorts of gradual design evolutions tend to come about in the small, and may not have been individually recorded.
Most cases I'm familiar with are from old games with an attract mode or games made by people who grew up with those games and imitated that behavior.
Attract mode serves two practical purposes: drawing customer interest in stores and preventing screen burn in by varying the content on the display periodically. Basically, it's a built-in trailer plus screensaver -- someone just turns on the game in a store and the demo runs itself unless you press a button to start playing.