Felipe Lara

Game Storytelling: 3 Rules of Thumb That Work

By NYFA Instructor Felipe Lara

Adding storytelling to your game can help you connect emotionally to your players, add meaning to the experience, and increase long-term engagement. But stories can become more of a nuisance if not implemented properly. Following a few rules of thumb will help you add storytelling that does not clash with the rest of the experience.

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Why Story

As I mentioned in a previous article, a combination of good art and fun game mechanics is a very effective way to attract players and create immediate engagement. But even good game mechanics can get repetitive and tedious over time unless they are accompanied by a larger meaning or drive, which is often provided by other elements like story and social connection.

Events are much more meaningful if they are tied to a larger story. When playing basketball, scoring a basket is fun, but the experience is much more meaningful and powerful if that basket is the winning basket at the end of a game against a long-time rival team, even more if winning will let us get a scholarship to a renowned college … and will make us the first in our family to get a college degree … which will eventually let us to help our family get out of poverty and … you get the idea.

What is so powerful about stories is that they can wrap up the combination of ideas and emotions that form our experiences in ways that we can easily understand and link to our values and other experiences in our lives. A story can turn an abstract goal into something that relates to our values and views of the world.

Here are three rules of thumb to help you determine if you have a story that works to make your game more compelling without annoying players:

Rule of Thumb 1: Start with a Clear Conflict

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There is one single element that fuels a good story: conflict, says Evan Skolnick in his excellent book “Video Game Storytelling, What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques.” He is right. Story is not a lot of blah blah blah, it is not fueled by details about characters, feelings, and places, it is fueled by conflict, by someone wanting something and not being able to achieve it because of something else. Make that conflict clear as soon as you can in your game.

The more your players can relate to the story’s conflict and to what is at stake, the more compelling your story will be for them. The faster you can introduce your players to that conflict and why it matters, the easier it will be for them to find meaning in the activities and goals they need to complete.

The conflict you show your players first doesn’t need to be the only one. It doesn’t even need to be the main one, but it should be the one that helps the player makes sense of what he/she needs to do in the game next.

Rule of Thumb 2: First Do, Then Show, Then Tell

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There is an old axiom in Hollywood that says: “show don’t tell.” If you want to communicate how courageous a character is, don’t say it: Instead, show the character doing something courageous.

In the same book for video game storytelling I mentioned above, Evan Skolnick says that in games, where the players are active participants, this axiom can be modified to: “do, then show, then tell.”

If you want to communicate how courageous and powerful a character is, give her powerful abilities and give her big challenges to face. Instead of telling the player the attributes of her character, let her experience them herself.

If you cannot find a way to communicate story through actions, then use visuals as a second option — and only if there is no other way of conveying important information that your player needs in order to make sense of what she is doing, say it through dialogue or text.

Rule of Thumb 3: Keep It Simple and Minimal.

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The right story makes the game more intuitive, but to do that it needs to be simple. It can get deeper and more complex as the game progresses, but the primary goal is to make your game’s goals and rules easier to connect with and easier to understand. If the story is not making it easier to play, chances are it is not the right story.

The story should also be kept to a minimum.

One of the main mistakes that game developers make when adding story is trying to communicate at the beginning of the game all the background of the story to the players. Players generally do not care about your story details or your characters until they are more invested in the experience as a whole. It is important to provide meaning, but you don’t have to provide the player with more information than the bare minimum to make your immediate goals and activities make sense.

The worst thing you can do is present your player with a bunch of information that they don’t yet care about. Long dialogues and explanations are usually skipped and all your work will be in vain.

Start simple, and add complexity only if the rules and goals of the game require it.

Evan Skolnick divides story facts into three categories: first, facts that you need to know right now to understand what you need to do in the experience; second, facts that will be important later in the experience but you don’t need to know yet; and third, facts that maybe add flavor but are not essential at any time in the experience to understand what you need to do.

As a rule, the only information you really need to give the player is the one related to the first category. Save the rest for later and even then try to convey it first through actions and visuals.

Chess

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Let’s look at chess as an example. It may be an extreme case but it exemplifies the points I am making.

The conflict is simple and easy to understand: you are a king with a court and an army, your enemy is another king with his own court and army and you need to defeat him. There are other details in the story about who is in your court, which characters are important and powerful, how big is your army, etc., but all that information is communicated through actions and visuals:

  • You know who your enemy is because your team is one color and your opponent is the opposite color.
  • You know that there are different characters because your pieces have different shapes.
  • You know who is in your court and how powerful they are because your different pieces have different attributes and behaviors, and some of these attributes prove to be more powerful.

The story in chess is simple and minimal. It helps us make the rules and goals of the game more intuitive; like the fact that only knights on horses can jump other pieces, or that the most important piece is the king — but the game does not give us additional information that is not essential to understand what to do next.

Conclusion

Story is an important tool to help us add meaning and connect emotionally to an experience. But the wrong story could turn into an annoyance to the player. By following these three rules you can avoid wasting time and resources developing stories that don’t help your game:

  1. Introduce a clear and easy to understand conflict as soon as you can.
  2. Communicate your story through actions first, visuals second, and only as a last resort through dialogue and narration.
  3. Keep the story simple and minimal, give you player only the information than helps him/her understand what he/she needs to do in the game at that point.

A Roadmap to Make a Successful Game

By Felipe Lara, NYFA Los Angeles Game Design

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We all want to make successful games: innovative, loved by players, and profitable.  The question is: Is there a path or recipe to let us make successful games more consistently? I think there is, but to find it we need to define more clearly what is a successful game. Once we clarify our goal we can better figure out how to get there.

Defining game success in terms of profits is the simplest, but thinking about profits does not help us much to figure out what ingredients and processes we should use to make a successful game. What art style will bring me more revenue? It is hard to know and hard to test. Furthermore, in some cases success might not even be about profit but about teaching something, calling attention to something else, or about creating a change in behavior, like in educational games, promotional games, and other transformational games.

To find a path to game success that is useful to game developers, it is better to define success in terms of player engagement. Player engagement is in most cases highly correlated to game success, but the important thing here is that engagement is something that we have more control over as developers, and it is something that maps more directly to the ingredients and decisions we deal with during game development. Asking what particular story will bring more revenue is usually unclear and hard to test. On the other hand, asking what story will be more engaging for our target players is not only more clear, but also much easier to test.

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What Does a Successful Game Look Like In Terms of Player Engagement?

A successful game needs to do four things in a sequential order:

  • STEP 1, STAND OUT: The game needs to stand out or be noticed. If nobody is aware of your game, nobody will play it.
  • STEP 2, CONNECT: The game needs to connect with players and make them interested in finding out more. Somebody yelling in the middle of the street will get noticed, but the act of yelling itself won’t get people interested. People will only respond if they connect or resonate with what they hear. The same happens with games that get your attention in the app store or in the first couple of minutes of free-to-play game.
  • STEP 3, ENGAGE: The game needs to engage players and keep them playing for a while. This may not be true for all games, but in most cases, the longer players stick around the more profitable the game becomes: more chances to monetize, more chances to get subscriptions, more chances to get recommended to friends, etc.
  • STEP 4, GROW: Finally, the game needs to find a way to scale or grow its player base.

What is useful about defining this sequence is that now I can look at the different ingredients I need to build my game (art, mechanics, story, social features) and figure out if they are working to help my players go through the engagement sequence or not.

But First Clarify the Why and the Who

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Of course, none of the previous stuff matters if you are not reaching the goals you were trying to achieve with your game in the first place. You might be attracting players and keeping them around, but if you are trying to make an educational game and your game fails to educate you are not succeeding even if you have tons of players sticking around.

The same goes for monetization: if you have hundreds of thousands of players but you are not monetizing or reaching the profit you were looking to make, you are failing. You need to make sure that, as your game connects and engages, it is also teaching and/or monetizing. That is a big part of the trick, but I’ll save that discussion for another article down the road. For now let’s stick to the basics: you need to have a very clear idea of your goals for your game. Make sure that everything you do revolves around those goals.

It is equally important to have a clear picture of your target player. The things that I need to do to stand out and connect to kids are very different from the things I need to do to stand out and connect to young adults. To identify the right ingredients to use, you need to know your target audience.

The Ingredients of Player Engagement

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In the many years I spent developing MMOs for casual gamers, I saw how there are four basic elements that be combined very effectively to get the attention of players and have them stick around: art, fun mechanics, story, and community building:

  • ART: Art is what first catches your players’ eye and makes them want to take a closer look at your game. At first, players won’t know much about the specific mechanics and stories in your game. They decide to pay more attention after experiencing visuals that resonate with them.
  • FUN: Art by itself, no matter how cool it is, won’t keep your players for long. Finding fun stuff to do that is easy to understand, with clear goals, is what makes players want to stay more than a few seconds.
  • STORY: Even fun activities get repetitive unless there is a larger meaning and purpose behind them. Having a longer-term purpose or story that players can relate to is what makes them want to keep coming back. Shooting hoops is fun, but doing it everyday for hours can get boring quickly unless the activity is part of a larger story — like training to defeat an old rival team.
  • COMMUNITY: All good stories need an ending, but the meaning and purpose that you get from being part of a community can last for years. The games that we keep going back to over and over are the ones that let us form connections with people that we care about.

All these four elements are important to create a successful game that follows the sequence:

  1. Stand Out
  2. Connect
  3. Engage
  4. Grow

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The importance of art, fun, story, and community may shift from one step of this sequence to another. For example, standing out depends much more on the art and how things look like than on the details of the story. Then again, engagement depends much more on the mechanics and story than the art, and growing depends heavily on the community building aspect. I’ve seen many good games that don’t succeed because they lacked one or more of these important elements.

It is also important to notice that most games, from free-to-play mobile games to VR experiences and educational games, will benefit from having all these ingredients. If you decide that you don’t need one of these key ingredients — if you think you don’t need a story or you don’t need community building mechanics — at the very least, you should have a very clear reason why not. You should also have an idea of how you are going to get your game to stand out, connect, engage, and grow with the ingredients you choose to include.

There are other elements in a game that are very important that I’ll mention quickly.

  • Montetization
  • Marketing

Monetization is essential to make the game development sustainable. Marketing can help your game get noticed. Even more important than the marketing promotion itself, is defining and thinking about your target market, and getting feedback from your target players all throughout the development process. Then, your art, mechanics, story and social mechanics will resonate with your players, and your marketing will be embedded into your other elements.

Conclusion

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Defining 1) your goal and 2) a successful game (in terms of specific steps around player engagement) are the most important first steps in creating your roadmap toward making successful games.

As a second step, you need to look at all the ingredients that can help you find the right recipe: art, mechanics, story, and community. When you put those things together in a game or experience — art that resonates with your audience, mechanics that are fun and have clear goals, a story that adds meaning and context, a community makes you feel part of something larger than yourself — your game experience becomes more engaging.

It is important to point out that finding the right mix of ingredients is a big part of the challenge. What art style should I use? What about mechanics? What is my story and how much of it do I reveal? All these questions need to be tackled and tested during development, and using the right processes makes it easier to find the answers.

Another important thing to notice is that these ingredients are much more effective when they work together. A cartoony art style might not be the best match for a scary story. Your ingredients need to match and support each other to make the overall experience better.

Ready to learn more about game design? Check out NYFA’s game design programs!

Avid gamers can also check out more of our featured instructor Felipe Lara’s writings here