Game writer Susan O'Connor has a long history of collaborating with great game designers to tell incredible stories in video games.
Now she wants to help you tell better tales with her December 4th GDC Masterclass.
We've previously given you a look at what O'Connor will be teaching in her advanced seminar. But what if you could get a taste of her teaching style for herself?
For a better understanding of how O'Connor will be handling her lessons, we reached out to do a quick Q&A from the perspective of a hypothetical student. We wanted to know how she'd help out a game developer working in a particularly unusual genre that doesn't see a lot of success in narrative: the world of free-to-play. It turned out she had a lot to offer.
Take a look:
Hey Susan, I’m a writer working at a free-to-play game company. We make a lot of games where you collect unique characters from randomized drops and use them to solve puzzles. For our next game, we’ve been given the green light to build out a LOT of original narrative. We’re in the early stages, and want to figure out how to do it right. We want to keep our audience interested and make sure we don’t overscope.
What are some of the practices we can do now with our design team so that we can start working on story and characters that can make it into the game?
Hi! Great question, thanks for asking. The best place to start (and end!) is with the player - deciding who your target audience is, and why they are going to like playing this game, and then figuring out how story/characters can make that gameplay experience even more fun. No game is for everybody. Knowing who is going to be drawn to YOUR game - and who isn't - will make your life a whole lot easier.
So as weird as it sounds, you start figuring out your story & characters by not thinking about story & characters at all. You start by thinking about the game. In this case, we'd need more gameplay details. For example, is it a match 3, or a mobile RPG, or an invest-express game like Homescapes? Those different genres deliver different types of fun. For example, in an invest-express kind of game, self-expression is really important.
So you know you want to create story & characters that allow the player to express themselves. Great! You've got your narrative guardrails/measuring stick, and you can go from there.
Thanks Susan! This is kind of an invest-express type game. We anticipate that players will want to align themselves with certain factions, so the collectible characters are a means to that end.
OK great! So then the next thing to think about is, "What kind of relationship will the player have with the characters?" Which seems weird, I know, because the characters aren't real! But what I mean is, How do you want the player to FEEL about the characters? Do you want the player to think of them as little green army men? If so, then you wouldn't want to give them too much personality - gets in the way of the gameplay experience.
Or maybe the player is just separate from the characters, just watching their dramas play out. In which case you could create intense conflict between characters that never actually leads to anything happening (soap operas are great at this). Or maybe players could be in charge of creating dramas, like little girls do when they play with Barbies. (I'm pretty psyched to put army men and Barbies in the same paragraph.)
One concern that our designers have brought up is players being frustrated by repetitive line firing—every time they tap on a character, we want something interesting to happen. What else do you think players in the invest-express genre are looking for that can help us build out content for them?
Your designers are right! There's nothing more annoying than hearing the same lines over and over again. To figure out a good solution, we can think about the player. (You can see a pattern here - it all comes back to the player.) I'd be curious to know WHY they are tapping on a character. Are they trying to accomplish a goal, or are they just doing it to see what happens? Players love feedback loops, it's all about figuring out what they expect, and then meeting that expectation in a smart way.
Years ago, I heard an Uncharted talk about how the designers were stressed about what to do with Nathan Drake when he reached the Tibetan village. Up until that point in the game, when player hit X, Nathan would throw a punch or take a shot - and they didn't want Nathan to punch monks!
So they changed the mechanic, just for this level. In the Tibetan village, when the player hit X, Nathan holds out his hand for a shake. The team was REALLY worried that players would hate this change. But they loved it! It still gave the player a satisfying feedback loop, and it kept Nathan in character.
So to get back to your question - players in an invest-express game want to be entertained. So you want to create interesting characters - people with personalities, and goals, and relationships with each other, and SECRETS - and then once you've got those interesting characters, you can combine that with "what player expects" and then create a narrative design that gives the player what they want, when they want it.
It may involve zero dialogue, if it turns out that's not what the player wants to hear! If the goal is to "make something interesting happen," that could mean a lot of things. Could be animations, could be a musical stinger, could be a thought bubble with images from the character's last dream...This is a great thing to brainstorm with your designers!
That's really helpful Susan! I can't wait for your class next month.
If this seemed like the kind of insight you'd like for your next narrative game, make sure to sign up for Susan O'Connor's Masterclass before it fills up!