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Category: Narrative

Can effective teaching inspire narrative design?

I love to teach. Every time I am allowed to do it, I do it. It can be videogames, it can be Computer Science, or math. I love to put that seed inside of people. And I honestly think I am pretty good at that.

I was reading an article on effective teaching that appeared on The Guardian some while ago. I am doing it because I am taking a language course in Catalan and I believe that the teacher is really good. And I am asking why is that good to me. So I need also to make my mental model, as always. Designer professional deformation, I guess.

I am also taking a 3 week intensive course on narrative design with Kim McAskill these weeks. It’s very interesting, so my mind makes analogies and connections of course.

Telling stories

Although narrative design is different from storytelling, the purpose is always the same. It is actually the same as game design. Telling something, telling a story. If you want, we always want that. We always want to tell a story, our job and profession is one way of doing it.

And teaching is also telling a story, but you need your students to learn. In games you need your players to have fun. And having fun means, at the end of the day, to learn. That’s the spark of my idea on how to import things from teaching to improve narrative design.

Ideas for a better narrative design

I will grab the points describe in the article linked above and adapt them to narrative design. That is a branch of game design that puts in relationship the systems with the stories, creating settings, worlds, people, characters and the way of deliver them (dialogues, cutscenes, set pieces, and so on).

Narrative design is game design, and game design always creates narratives.

Let’s go:

  • Know your subject -> Have clear how Players can reach their goals: the most important quality of a teacher is, of course, to know what he’s teaching. The most important quality of a good narrative design is to know what the players need to reach their goals.
  • Praise can do more harm than good -> Giving too many rewards early make the Players skip some important step for learning. Players may feel frustrated later and quit, as well as students that may suppose that the teacher will be good with them.
  • Instruction matters -> Stories matter: the quality of teaching has impact on the students. The same is valid for a story. Games do not need a story, but games with a story may literally change lives.
  • Teacher beliefs count -> Designer beliefs count: there is something personal and unique in every teacher and designer. Our way of seeing how to teach or how to create fun influences the outcome. There is no best practice or rulebook, there are beliefs. It’s personal, it’s unique,
  • Think about student-teacher relationships -> Think about player – designer relationships: the interaction of the teacher with the students have a tremendous impact on the climate of the classroom. In a similar manner, designers especially in small realities have the opportunities to create relationships with students.
  • Manage behavior -> Manage behavior! Study the characteristics of your students and the data of your players to be more effective.

About storytelling

When we use the word storytelling, very often we mean “telling a story”.

Storytelling is the process of communicating through a story. The goal is to give emotion, to persuade, and also to sell something inside of the game.

Game design offers many tools to build the story to reach this goal:

  • Gameplay (or UX) design helps leaving to mechanics some story outcome. We saw the other day the critical success/failure
  • System design identifies resources, rewards, and balances to give proper meaning to each action
  • Narrative design offers concept, worldbuilding, characters, dialogues, cutscenes
  • Level design enables the learning of core concepts (skill atoms) and arranges the environment.

The storytelling process:

– starts from concrete goals to achieve

– identifies what is measurable and how*

– creates and implements the story to excite, persuade, and sell.

When your game is silent, still offers a narrative. Still tells a story. Dozens of games are published every day. The way of communicating through the story is one of the keys for the Players to choose us.

* Not everything should be measurable, that is a common misconception. Not everything that cannot be measured should stay out of the equation. But that’s another post.

Narrative matters

I hear too often “Nobody gives a darn about narrative in games”. Or “no one reads on mobile”.

But every successful game I know has a strong narrative component. Narrative is not the line of text, it is the sequence of events that creates a story together with the players.

use a star -> dialogue -> select decoration -> room upgrade -> dialogue -> new tasks -> new level

This is narrative.

swipe -> match -> explosion -> cascade -> match -> special tile -> … -> TASTY!

This is also narrative.

arena overview -> goal -> countdown -> GO! -> move character -> spot enemy -> hide -> collect gem

And this as well.

The story stack

Often we stuff a mediocre game with readable content in hopes that players will get hooked “for the story”. In this case, the risks of having an expensive and poorly thought-out product increase. A story should always be seen as the last step of a good game.

  • Fantasy comes first
  • Then come the actions that can be performed on the fantasy
  • Then comes the system of resources, rewards, and the game economy
  • The world is built on this
  • Stories can happen in the world.

If we start from the other side, however, it works for visual novels but not for mechanic based games.

Existence and storytelling

Yesterday I have finished watching a great Netflix show called “From Scratch”. Very suggested to anyone reading.

One of the topic of the series is death, still a romantic/casual audience may appreciate this kind of series.

Think in casual snackable games. What about creating some narrative to make the people reflect on existential topics?

Will that work?

Those topics are not comfy, but something very powerful may please our love for great stories.

How to use Twine for Player Experience Narrative

Play Lilys Choices in your browser here.

Game writers use Twine to write stories. It’s a great tool and pretty easy to learn. I have learnt during my certification course at The Narrative Department. This week I am prototyping a new feature for Lily’s Garden, so that I decided to use this new tool to test its effectiveness also in terms of feature prototyping.

You can play the Twine prototype here: we have the feature, Lilys Choices.

Final thoughts

  • Twine is a great tool to create a proper Player experience narrative for a new feature.
  • The idea of having an extra resource to start extra Dramas is not new, but it is very important that the dramas end up with a surprise for the Players. Also in terms of concrete rewards!
  • It is important for this kind of games not giving to the Players choices that exclude specific branches. First of all, produce all this content has a cost. Second, some Player may feel frustrated and may want to try the other way around. This thing is not possible in those games.
  • The narrative should be focused on a true fan of the game. At this stage other profiles in the team will probably find risks and flaws to the designs, so be prepared! It is very important to push things forward boldly.

Devlog

From the idea to the prototype

This week I am prototyping a new narrative system for a puzzle-renovation game like Lily’s Garden. I generated lots of ideas and then I selected the best ones. Now it’s time to translate those ideas to a prototype.

Goals and features

Before of starting sketching a flowchart for our Twine prototype, it’s important to understand why to prepare a prototype in first place. A prototype is not something ready to go out. It is not a product. A prototype is useful to:

  • Persuade the stakeholders that this step is necessary and invite them to think in its ROI
  • Align the vision of all the team members that will work on the feature
  • State all the assumptions, useful to prove with data and analytics the feature’s success
  • Inspire roadmap updates to fix the feature’s development in the pipeline.

I have very few time to do a proper prototype, I am doing this exercise for “ikigai” (= to do something I enjoy for the sake of it). I need to put some limitations, so that my prototype will feature:

  1. Only 1 event to show how the Player’s journey changes meaningfully thanks to the feature
  2. Player’s development across the journey
  3. Maximum 3 valuable binary choices, in order to avoid too many outcomes. In fact with 3 choices we will get 2^3=8 endings.
  4. The prototype should not be minimum. I am against minimum viable things. The prototype should show all that’s necessary to truly unleash potential, instead! That is why I will use the main idea and the two secondary ones described previously.

Prototype definition

Important for this kind of games is to keep things very linear and straight. Those are not RPG games full of options. The only options that the Player has at every moment is either to start a new task or play a new level.

Glossary

  • Lilys: the new feature will be called Lilys. Lilys are a resource that the Player accumulates based on creating special tiles (combining 4+ tiles) and/or getting and using power-ups, which are special tiles at the end of the day.
  • Lily Branches: every Day has a set of choices. Some choice are cosmetic, those are already present in the game. Some other choice can be meaningful story branches. In order to take some of the options, the Player should use Lilys.
  • Choice Points: Every time the Player makes a choice gets Choice Points which are useful to unlock extra rewards at the end of the day.
  • Variable Rewards: every time the Player completes one Lilys branch, there is the chance of getting a power-up. Variable rewards are useful to foster engagement. The Players in this way will have reasons to make Lilys Choices.
  • The Player can choose to Play a level or start a Task
  • During the Level, the Player will get and use power-ups
  • At the end of the Level the power-ups and special tiles will be counted and converted in Lilys
  • During a task, the Player will have to make a meaningful choice
  • One of the branches will involve the use of Lilys
  • All the branches will give choice points, useful for the end of the Day to get extra rewards
  • if the Player uses Lilys, a random reward will pop-out: 30 minutes infinite lives. It is important that the Player feel that there is a random factor there.

Now I can proceed in developing the proper prototype!

How to map and select ideas

This week I decided to prototype a new narrative system for Lily’s Garden using Twine. After deciding the right problem statement, which is:

How can we engage more the Players more interested in the story, rewarding every effort they make to reach better outcomes during the puzzle part?

I passed to generate a lot of ideas on my notebook. Then I filtered out the best of them.

Ideas classification

Now it’s time to map the ideas in a proper chart. The X axis will represent the engagement, the metric to improve. Engagement is measured with session length and average sessions per day. Those are the KPIs.

On the Y axis consider the motivation to stay longer and open the game more during the day. This article by The Games Refinery will help us.

The two main motivational drivers for this genre are Mastery and Expression. So that we have two possible charts to map out the outcome of our brainstorming.

I classify the ideas in both those maps and see if we spot something in common. Usually this process is a team process and takes time and discussion. Again, in my case is just a quick exercise.

Against mastery we can see that we have 3 possible ideas to build:

  1. Choose your Story: creating and using special tiles/power-ups during the puzzle match, you get points to invest in story branches.
  2. Day Perks: Once a Day ends according to what you used you can get extra rewards (boosters, power-ups, infinite lives, ingots)
  3. Rewards Missions: playing the game and performing positive actions such as buy lives, get extra movements, return every day, you unlock a special currency which can be converted in boosters and power-ups.

Mapping ideas with expression in mind, a single idea is in the hot spot.

We have then selected our main idea: Choose your Story. Secondary ideas: Day Perks and Rewards Missions. On this base we can build our prototype!

New narrative system ideas

This week just for the sake of ikigai I am prototyping a new narrative system for Lily’s Garden. Today I focused my efforts to the idea generation. I wrote down hundreds of ideas and preselected just some of them, which will be shown here.

The narrative of Lily’s Garden

The story is divided into large day arcs with subplots. Each day involves renovating a specific location. In order to do that, the Player has to beat puzzle levels earning Stars. Stars are useful to start tasks.

In the course of the game’s renovations, Lily collects items like keys and photographs, builds her relationships with other characters, and discovers more about the estate and her family history.

We will use those terms in this post:

  • Day: set of specific tasks that complete a story arc. We can consider a day like a sequence of an episode in TV series.
  • Positive action: use power-up/boosters, lives refill, use extra movement, complete a goal also if not beating the level, and so on.
  • Perks: boosters, power-ups, infinite lives, stars, ingots.

Reviews analysis

In order to better select the ideas, I’ve spent 1 hour reading reviews. Data.ai allows you to filter favorable and critical reviews.

The game let’s you decide the style of your house and decorations. It is fun and easy to play. The perfect experience for when you just want to relax. Engaging and full of power-ups to beat hard levels that you can create on the board or get by using ingots and completing tasks. The main character Lily reacts to everything and completes tasks.

The new system should be built on those strengths. Maybe it is better to have something more specific towards power-ups and tasks completion.

Many levels are hard to beat and some Player feels stuck. The day’s storylines have not always the same quality, probably because of different kind of writers involved in the project. Players lose what they got at the end of some event. Some Player may feel that the game is too greedy in monetizing the puzzle part (extra movements and boosters).

Our system should be able to mitigate the puzzle limitations. The Player should not feel stuck and if they are doing all the efforts to beat a specific level, that should be rewarded somehow.

References

I took some notes on things used in other games with a narrative component. I didn’t looked at top competitors, I just took notes on type of games that I already worked on in the past. This because one of the requirements of this task is agility.

Episode: Choose your Story: Premium choices for premium paths. Great for re-playability, usually something that is not considered in puzzle-renovation games because the days cannot be replayed.

It is interesting to be able to unlock an extra path during a Day, also if some Player may want to get to other outcomes. Branches should always connect again before of the end, to avoid this effect.

Tales: Choose your own Story: Trials and paths according to stats accumulated during the Story like in a roleplaying game. It would be great to connect the puzzle and the story somehow. Maybe associating each character to every level and let them accumulate statistics according to the power-up used and more in general to the positive actions done.

From the other side, this can complicate too much the system and it may become hard to balance and monitor the Player’s progression on the long term.

Fallout Shelter: There are characters to whom the Player can assign specific tasks to get more points and currency. What if during a specific day you can put your characters performing extra tasks to get extra perks?

This adds an idle/farming layer which may be not suitable to the core audience of this kind of games.

Project Makeover: Customize the aesthetics of avatars in order to make them successful for the end of the episode (day). Maybe the characters of a specific day set can strive to arrive perfect to the end of the arc, in order to the ending be more satisfying.

The risk is to fall in the trap of misogynic and racist narratives, thou. While makeover is great, it should be carefully designed to not offend anyone. Especially when something works out and translates to UA creatives it enters in a dangerous territory. Is that what we want as designers? I don’t think so.

Survivor.io: Complete missions and get an extra currency, useful to be exchanged with other resources during a season. It’s a pretty common practice among casual games and gives lots of agency to the Players.

The problem comes when the event end because Players may accumulate a resource and then they lose it or it’s automatically converted in something not valuable to them.

Selected ideas

I wrote down hundreds of ideas and, since I am doing this alone, preselected some of them. The format I use is: title, wireframe and short description. It is the best way of taking them the day after and decide what to do.

Remember the problem statement decided in the previous article.

How can we engage more the Players more interested in the story, rewarding every effort they make to reach better outcomes during the puzzle part?

Accumulate perks during a day and collect them based on the positive actions done at the end of the day. Each day has a limited numbers of perks that can be achieved and unlocked at the end.

Everytime you create and use a power-up (selecting it in level intro or creating it during the match), you accumulate points useful to take specific paths. If you want to take a specific path, then, you should create use more boosters in the puzzle game.

Start specific tasks by performing positive actions and get extra perks on completion. If the day ends, all the tasks are immediately completed.

Achievement system for positive actions with special resource to collect and use for special choices during the story.

Obtain extra personalization options if you manage to perform a certain number of positive actions.

At the end of an event, recount all the positive actions done and give extra perks according to the milestone. Giving the premium currency can be extremely valuable for the Players, but it may influence the monetization.

If the Player uses X boosters/power-ups/extra movements to beat a level and still loses, he is allowed to postpone that level for a while.

Conclusion

In a real context with a real team, all this process would be a workshop. Also, the study of top competitors is very important. This exercise is good to keep my mind fresh and to quickly play with narrative techniques I learnt in past weeks.

New narrative system for Puzzle-Renovation games

Puzzle games with renovation mechanic are on top of the charts. They success is tremendous and they are clearly a red ocean market. Many companies try to swim that ocean, so that this week I have decided to make an experiment to celebrate that I got a certification from The Narrative Department.

hooray! I did it! 🙂

The narrative system of Puzzle-Renovation games

The experiment consists of a design iteration to improve the narrative of puzzle-renovation games. I will consider this experiment completed once I have a playable prototype made in Twine featuring the result of this process.

One of the reasons why the Players churn is that they get stuck at some point. The progression curve of levels always goes up, so that with the time the puzzle part gets harder and it’s more difficult to progress through the story.

The issue comes because those games consider a positive outcome the fact of beating a level, but they do not consider all the efforts the Players make at all.

  • At the start of the level, the Player may decide to use a power-up to get help for the level. The first time, the Player will not know how is the layout. Which is why new games warns when there is a hard level.
  • The Player needs lives to start a level. In case they have no lives they should wait or get a lives refill. In order to mitigate this friction, most modern games use lives as an engagement tool. Give the Players infinite lives for X minutes and you will get longer sessions.
  • Puzzle levels are based on a limited number of moves. When they end, the Player can get 2-5 extra moves to beat the level. There is strategy here, in fact the Players study the status of their goals and decide. When the Player is near to the win condition is generally more willing to get extra movements. In order to reach the sweet spot, the number of moves is data driven.
  • During the level the Players may decide to use boosters which are like power-ups but “live”, because they can be got and used on the fly. The Players know the status of the board when they decide to get and use a booster. Boosters add deepness and strategy, they a great driver for monetization.

The Lens of Problem Statement

When the Player completes all the goals, the story continues and the house can be renovated. If we study this flowchart, thou, we can see that the Players can do a lot of things that can be considered positive toward that goal.

They can use a power-up at level start. Get a lives refill. They can get extra moves if they are near the win condition. They can use boosters. All those things are hardly rewarded by the renovation narrative of those games. This is the problem statement for this week:

How can we engage more the Players more interested in the story, rewarding every effort they make to reach better outcomes during the puzzle part?

  • Target: puzzle renovation Players more interested in the story
  • KPI engagement: average session number/day and average duration / session
  • What: create new rewards that help the Players get interesting story outcomes based on puzzle efforts

The game I will use for the exercise is Lily’s Garden, by Tactile Games.

New narratives for mobile casual games

I loved this NoClip documentary on the making of Dishonored.

I believe that in terms of narrative there are a lot of interesting aspects that can be taken from this concept. Take the match-3 with decoration genre for a moment. You earn a star beating a level and you use that star to complete the next task. A cutscene with dialogues is shown and then new tasks are opened. You have to play more levels and see how the story goes on.

What if:

  • we can make the environment speak more about what’s happening
  • we can let the Players explore better and interact with environment discovering where to use the stars to fix things
  • we can deliver the story reacting to the Player’s actions instead than stop it to show a cutscene or a dialogue