Game Design: Support the Story Experience

More than once I’ve been asked what advice I have for people who want to design games, and everytime my first piece of advice is make sure everything in the game supports the story/experience.

I have usually just said “story”, but not every game’s main thrust is the story–hence, story/experience. What does that mean? Even if your game is open world exploration or a MOBA fighting game (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) or an FPS, and not an adventure game (as is my wont), there’s still a specific experience you want players to have. A mood, a frame of mind, a social interaction, or whatever else. I would add that I believe most people unconsciously add their own story to games that don’t lay out a specific one (ask me sometime about the narrative I’ve decided to paint when my husband plays World of Tanks!), but even if they don’t add their own, there is still the experience.

That’s what it means in theory. In practice? It means don’t add anything to your game that doesn’t support the story you’re telling. Don’t do it because when you do, you waste your time (and money and resources) and you waste the player’s time on something that is superfluous, unimportant, and may even remove them from the gameplay experience. This is why you should never add a puzzle for the sake of a puzzle. Only add a puzzle if it reinforces a point about the characters, the world, or the plot. If it’s there just to kill time, then that is all you’ve done. Killed time. And with the modern game audience, that’s all it takes for them to move on to the next thing.

My favorite examples of these are, of course, from adventure games. In that community, it gets called “moon logic” a lot, or puzzles where your true goal is to “figure out what the designer was thinking.” At the peak of this in my book are three¬†puzzles from King’s Quest V: cheese in the machine, pie at the yeti, and emeralds in honey.

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24 Hours, $1 Million: This Changes Everything

Yesterday something amazing happened.

The mere promise of an old school adventure game — the genre I love and work in, and the one that has been called “dead” uncountable times since it lost golden child status in the late 90’s — was launched on Kickstarter, and in under 24 hours, it raised $1 million.

To give you perspective on that, I offer not only Kickstarter’s blog post recounting the groundbreaking 24 hours, but my own breakdown of the facts:

Double Fine Adventures: actual overnight millionaires
  • The Kickstarter campaign, brought us by Double Fine Adventures, had a goal of $400,000. This in and of itself is almost four times the total amount of money raised by ANY video game project on Kickstarter. The Kickstarter we ran for Phoenix Online raised a little over $34,000, and is the 8th most funded video game project there right now (9th, once Double Fine’s campaign closes).
  • They reached that amount in 8 hours.
  • The highest amount ever raised, when this began, was $942,578 by the TikTok project, an iPod nano-compatible watch.
  • Yesterday, this total was surpassed by Elevation Dock, an iPhone dock, which was just finishing it’s run. This project also, yesterday, became the first project on Kickstarter to ever break $1 million.
  • Within hours, Double Fine also breaks $1 million.
  • Currently, Double Fine stands at over $1.3 million, is already the most successful Kickstarter ever, and may very well break $2 million before it’s done, since it has until March 13th. It also now holds the records for fastest growth and most backers.

There are a slew of obvious reasons why this is ridiculously amazing. The speed at which this happened, the incredible goal it has hit and continues to hit, the reach it has, all speak for themselves. What’s important to me about this? Four words.

Maniac Mansion: How do I get out of the dungeon? I still don't know!

Old. School. Adventure. Game.

This is the genre that, as the Double Fine video points out, publishers will laugh at. Dismiss as bound to fail. We got so few adventure games for so long because of this attitude. Great series’ died out ungraceful deaths because of this. And while the genre has seen a resurgence in recent years, it hasn’t been big like it once was, either. So the fact that an independent developer said they want to make one and within 24 hours raised $ 1 million and broke records left and right doing it is frakkin’ off the charts fantastic!

Some due background on Double Fine: the studio has produced some amazing and very popular games (Psychonauts, Brutal Legend), and the two big names working there and attached to this are Tim Schafer (Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango) and Ron Gilbert (Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion). Their achievements back in the hey-day of adventure gaming were and are beloved classics and games loved almost universally by the fans. Monkey Island is the only adventure game franchise to see a successful and well-received commercial revival (from Telltale Games). So their reputations and achievements have a lot to do with this success; but hot damn if they didn’t also execute a well-oiled PR campaign to get this thing going.

The Secret of Monkey Island brought us the best and truest thing about pirates yet: Insult Sword Fighting.

Still, it’s just plain not possible for even a fantastic PR campaign to the media to account for this. Yes, there were posts and tweets from Kotaku. Joystiq, Gamasutra and more as this thing got on its legs and launched. But the thing that made this work, made it happen so fast, so well, so overwhelmingly above and beyond?

Fan word of mouth and social media.

Is it any surprise? Social media has shown how it’s changed the world already. Political protests, uprisings, petitions, news, bullying, emergency responses — good and bad (often depending on where you stand), social media has changed how the world works. It’s the next step in the evolving way in which communication directly affects how the world grows and changes. One voice, on its own, may not be heard by many. But when one voice becomes thousands in a matter of minutes, when one voice can be heard and amplified by peers, one voice is suddenly deafening. One voice becomes many, and many can change what happens. One change becomes many and…you get the idea. The point is, one voice has power, and that is undeniable.

This seems like just one game. It’ll be fun, it’s a great story of triumph, the little guy won, huzzah. And it is that, but that’s not all it is. It’s a moment we can point to. Where it became clear that things were different, that things can be different. On the gaming business side of this moment, this development, this is something that won’t and can’t be ignored, not by the wannabes, not by the independent developers, and not by the publishers. Will the industry change over night? No. But the relationship is changing, and those of us who only had one voice know we’re being heard. What’s more, everyone else hears it now, too — and everyone knows it.