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Ask GR Anything: What are ‘Press Start’ screens for?

Ask GR Anything is a weekly Q&A column that answers questions submitted by readers (as well as questions we're particularly curious about ourselves). Got a burning question about games or the industry? Ask us in the comments below and you may just get it answered!

In practically every console game you've ever played, a gorgeous splash screen popped up on your television, announcing the title and logo of the game you're playing. Wait, what? Why would you feel like you need to tell me what game I'm playing? I know what game this is. I saw the disc when I put it in the console! And I sought out that disc on my shelf before I put it in!

Above: I KNOW IT IS

Reader R200Reviews asked a couple of months ago (we're very sorry for the delay), "What's the point of having a ‘Press Start’ screen in modern video games?" This struck us as a wonderful question, because seriously, what could possibly be the point of that?

So we turned to our programmer friend, Martin Caine, who also helped us out with a question a couple months ago (Ask GR Anything: What is pausing anyway?). "On most modern games, that screen is used to identify the player," said Caine, who is lead programmer at Retroburn Games, which develops Xbox Live Indie Games like Positron and Accelerate.

"Imagine playing on an Xbox, for example, and I have two signed-in profiles in controllers 1 and 2. Whichever pad presses Start determines which player has signed in to the game, and which controller is being used to play the game. Even on older consoles, this was the case, as the player could have their controller plugged into any of the ports, and the game had to detect which controller was being used."

Caine said there's an added bonus when you're dealing with modern games, as well. "When programming for Xbox, it also provides a convenient location to query the player for their storage device selection (most games will ask which storage device you want to use immediately after pressing A/Start)."

It makes a lot of sense for console games, but we also wanted to know a little bit about why we sometimes see “Press Start” opening screens on PC, where there's no need to identify the player. Cain couldn't give us an exact reason for why that happens.

"I assume it was really just a crossover from the early console-dev days to the PC mentality, when devs made the move to PCs," Caine said. "Most modern PC games don't have those screens anymore, since they'll have intro animations and then drop you straight into the game's menu. It's obvious it served no real purpose, so it's being phased out."

"In the game I'm currently working on, Positron, I'm using the same base engine and game code for versions across various console, mobile and computer platforms, and on all those I have the screen where it says 'press A / press a key / touch to play,' since the game was directly ported between platforms."

So the most likely answer is that it was cross-pollination from a different development culture. Cross-platform games could have brought the idea over from the console to the PC. From there, it could have spread to new developers, who included the Press Start screen as a foregone conclusion, like our version of the cover of a book or the title screen of a movie. Similarly, it's possible that they first came into practice on consoles as a holdover from the arcade days, when there needed to be an "Insert Coin to Play" screen.

Submit your own questions in the comments (or Tweet them to @sciencegroen) and we may tackle them in a future Ask GR Anything.

26 comments

  • r200reviews - April 6, 2012 4:35 p.m.

    Hey, thanks for answering my question!
  • Darkhawk - April 5, 2012 7:59 a.m.

    Why do so many games pull you out of the experience during save screens? I'll be in the middle of some brilliant narrative, hit a save point, and BAM - the generic PS3 XMB menu comes up asking me to select a save slot. Used to be games had custom built save screens catered to the game.
  • Sjoeki - April 5, 2012 7:35 a.m.

    Not just for this site but pretty much every gameswebsite and games magazines, but why keep giving scores to games when it is a personal opinion, and it's about the story in the review?
  • Andrew Groen - April 11, 2012 11:02 a.m.

    Most game reviewers revile the need to give scores to games. But it's necessary because readers demand it. Sites have experimented with writing reviews without scores, but readers leave in droves. The fact is that most people who click on a review just scroll to the bottom to see the number, then move on.
  • TheFabricOfTime - April 5, 2012 6:10 a.m.

    How do replays work?
  • Tispower - April 5, 2012 5:23 a.m.

    Why is it on every single Pokemon game then? You don't need to identify a controller, and they're definately not ports.
  • gopikmin - April 8, 2012 6:56 a.m.

    maybe to do some background loading. That's another reason to have a start screen, stall for some loading.
  • PopeBenedictXVI - April 5, 2012 1:31 a.m.

    Where is Jes Bickham?
  • joeycrump - April 5, 2012 1:01 a.m.

    It's to set the mood and to ensure that the player is in the mindset of the game world when they start playing the game. Yes you know what the game is CALLED, but a first time player might know nothing about the world contained within, and certainly hasn't experienced it. Having the title screen helps put the player into the right frame of mind as they start. The other reason is because if the game started on its own, it could be frustrating and feel pushy. Video games are all about control over your actions. Being the one to actually choose to start the game is a part of that, and it ensures that the game only begins when the player is good and ready. I'm sure this article is correct on the technical side of things, but I also know for a fact that the reasons I stated are the primary reasons title screens still exist, if only on a psychological/meta level. TL;DR - Putting the player in the right mindset to enjoy the game, showing that they are in control, and ensuring that the game only starts when the player wants it to. PS: Movies have a similar reason, but without the player control part. Instead, films are much more likely to be seen without knowing the title, even if it's from the very start. It makes sure anyone watching from the start knows what it is, even if they didn't put in the DVD themselves. Otherwise it's the same - to help set the mood for the experience to follow.
  • beemoh - April 5, 2012 8:29 a.m.

    "The other reason is because if the game started on its own, it could be frustrating and feel pushy." ^this. GTA IV annoyed me for that- it was cool and all, that first time when it loads straight into the intro sequence, and again the next time when it loads you straight into your save point. Later, it became annoying when you just wanted a quick blast on multiplayer and you had to wait all day for the game to load so you could get at the menu to select mutiplayer and wait all day again for the lobby to load and wait all day again when it inevitably failed to connect you to the game and wanted to dump you back into single-player and so on. I can also imagine that the auto-load would have been really annoying on a game with less of the 'downtime' GTA has.
  • psycho ninja 4 - April 5, 2012 12:43 a.m.

    I still wanna know why talkradars ben cancelled.
  • Redeater - April 4, 2012 8:30 p.m.

    er....that was @ncurry2
  • Redeater - April 4, 2012 8:32 p.m.

    Damn iPhone!
  • RedHarlow - April 4, 2012 8:24 p.m.

    When a studio begins work on a new video game, what does a worker (Artist, animator, programmer, etc) do if they think the idea of the game is dumb? What if they think the direction their product is taking sucks? Are they allowed to speak up, or do they get 10 lashes from the publisher?
  • garnsr - April 4, 2012 8:14 p.m.

    Why do some games require us to press the actual start button to start, and some will start will X or other buttons? Why do we have to watch the 5 minutes of various engines and developers in the game EVERY TIME we start up a game? Will this go away once games are tied to one player in the next generation, when you won't be able to play games that have ever been played by someone else, so the game knows you already saw all that crap?
  • BladedFalcon - April 4, 2012 10:01 p.m.

    "Why do some games require us to press the actual start button to start, and some will start will X or other buttons?" Pretty sure there's no mystery behind this one. Some developers have grown used to mapping the fuction in the start button, others find it more comfortable mapping it to "A" or "X" or whatever. "Tom-ei-to" "To-mah-to", basically. "Why do we have to watch the 5 minutes of various engines and developers in the game EVERY TIME we start up a game?" Most likely because most games use this time to start up and load the game, and what better thing to put in that time if not the logos of the companies involved? In the same fashion you always see the logos of the production companies at the start to a movie. Basically, pimp out your brand whenever you can, because you can. "Will this go away once games are tied to one player in the next generation, when you won't be able to play games that have ever been played by someone else, so the game knows you already saw all that crap? " Preeeety sure that's a no.
  • meagaman45 - April 4, 2012 7:40 p.m.

    how does co-op work such as being able to have two people on the screen sharing or spliting it without computer confusion.
  • Fuzunga - April 4, 2012 7:31 p.m.

    Actually, yeah, books and movies do it too when you obviously know what you're reading or watching. Never really thought about it before. I guess it's just kind of a tradition.
  • Evanesco - April 4, 2012 7:29 p.m.

    GTA IV didn't have a start screen. Not sure why Red Dead did. recaptcha: fahing yourself?
  • samsneeze - April 4, 2012 7 p.m.

    I noticed that pushing start on a specific controller identifies the controller that is the leader a long time ago, I just never knew that's why the start screens existed.

Showing 1-20 of 26 comments

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