Designing story-based games

Eons ago, in 1996, Next Generation magazine asked me for a list of game design tips for narrative games. Here’s what I gave them.

Reading it today, some of it feels dated (like the way I refer to the player throughout as “he”), but a lot is as relevant as ever. I especially like #8 and #9.

  1. The story is what the player does, not what he watches.
  2. List the actions the player actually performs in the game and take a cold hard look at it. Does it sound like fun? (Resist the temptation to embellish. If a cinematic shows the player’s character sneak into a compound, clobber a guard and put on his uniform, the player’s action is “Watch cinematic.” Letting the player click to clobber the guard isn’t much better.)
  3. The only significant actions are those that affect the player’s ability to perform future actions. Everything else is bells and whistles.
  4. Design a clear and simple interface. The primary task of the interface is to present the player with a choice of the available actions at each moment and to provide instant feedback when the player makes a choice.
  5. The player needs a goal at all times, even if it’s a mistaken one. If there’s nothing specific he wishes to accomplish, he will soon get bored, even if the game is rich with graphics and sound.
  6. The more the player feels that the events of the game are being caused by his own actions, the better — even when this is an illusion.
  7. Analyze the events of the story in terms of their effect on the player’s goals. For each event, ask: Does this move the player closer to or further away from a goal, or give him a new goal? If not, it’s irrelevant to the game.
  8. The longer the player plays without a break, the more his sense of the reality of the world is built up. Any time he dies or has to restart from a saved game, the spell is broken.
  9. Alternative paths, recoverable errors, multiple solutions to the same problem, missed opportunities that can be made up later, are all good.
  10. Don’t introduce gratuitous obstacles just to create a puzzle.
  11. As the player moves through the game, he should have the feeling that he is passing up potentially interesting avenues of exploration. The ideal outcome is for him to win the game having done 95% of what there is to do, but feeling that there might be another 50% he missed.

Posted on Nov 8, 2009 in Blog, Games, Making Games | 25 comments

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  1. 11-9-2009

    This is a great list! I find #11 the most fascinating…do you think that games today still consider this direction? I get the impression that the trend now is more to create actual supplemental avenues of exploration and not just the illusion of them. What do you think?

    • 11-9-2009

      Lisa — Those percentages would be very different for a sandbox game like GTA, but I think the concept still holds true: It’s a good feeling if, having finished the game, the player is left with the impression that the unexplored portion is greater than it actually is.

      Conversely, if a majority of players finish the game not realizing or even supposing that certain unexplored avenues exist, that means they don’t get the benefit of the designers’ hard work, even in their imagination.

      • 11-9-2009

        i get the feeling of missing something after playing sands of time, although i’ve gone through the game multiple times. i’m planning on majoring in game design, so this is amazing information. thank you for posting this up.

    • 1-19-2011

      i don’t think this is a “one size fits all players” plan of attack.

      One of the more popular ways to approach story-based game design is to offer the player choices. If i choose path A, that eliminates path B. This is one way in which designers hope to make their otherwise linear games replayable.

      A lifelong gamer, a father of two, and an entrepreneur who runs his own games studio, the “free” time i have to play games is rapidly declining. i ALREADY don’t have enough time to play a game like Mass Effect. i gave it another stab recently, and it absolutely killed me that i was forced to make choices that excluded me from seeing other content in the game. i suppose a gamer with more time just says “i’ll have to play through again and choose the other path next time”.

      As a gamer who fights to find the time to play through even once, i gravitate towards games that i know i can play through without worrying i’m missing anything.

      i think what you’re saying is better applied to world-building – giving the player the sense that there’s a big, wide open world to explore, and many more stories to tell. The best worlds do this (and reap the benefits in sequels and spin-offs!)

      – Ryan

  2. 11-9-2009

    Thank you very much for posting this, it’s a fascinating list!

    I’m also intrigued by #11, in that it would seem like providing the impression that a percentage of content exists even when it’s not so potentially leaves the player with a sense of unfulfilled potential.

    For example, Assassin’s Creed provided a series of rich environments but very little to do in them, outside of collecting items for which there was no in-game reward. The hub environment of the game was especially guilty of this, in that it was beautifully designed but ultimately served as nothing more than scenery between points. Once the ability to fast-travel between cities is introduced, the player appears to have no significant incentive to return to the hub environment at all.

    I can see the benefits of leaving the player with the impression that there’s more to do that they haven’t seen, as this encourages replay, but if there’s the impression of content without actual material to back it up, it strikes me as hollow.

  3. 11-9-2009

    How does number 7 apply to the dream sequences in The Last Express? I always thought they never added to the game, but maybe I didn’t understand them.

  4. 11-9-2009

    I’ve been working on a Choose Your Own Adventure graphic novel for the past three years and this is priceless information. Thanks so much for reposting!

  5. 11-10-2009

    The only significant actions are those that affect the player’s ability to perform future actions. Everything else is bells and whistles.

    That’s why I LOVE all Zelda games!!!

    Thanks for this interesting list

    • 8-30-2010

      Zelda = FAIL

  6. 11-10-2009

    This list seems very insightful, but I’d point out that the most recent PoP game fails at #1 in a way you might not have envisioned in 1996. When you press ‘jump’ in that game, the Prince chooses the next appropriate moment for a jump, and executes it when that time comes. Sometimes this can mean that there’s a gap of a second or so between your button press and the actual motion.

    Just as the illusion of foley sound effects is broken when the effects are out of sync with the action by more than a half-frame, the illusion of agency is broken when the action in a game is out of sync with the input.

  7. 11-11-2009

    I’ve been feeling number 11 playing Dragon Age, I think… definitely a well-designed “sandbox”

  8. 11-15-2009

    Nice tips. Very useful for my new(old) game project.

  9. 11-24-2009

    I don’t design games but this information was excellent.

  10. 12-13-2009

    You were absolutely right. Deus Ex was a great game, and it’s because it followed #6 and 11 better than any game I’ve ever played.

  11. 12-26-2009

    Codswallop. When I play a game the second time (which should be a rule, don’t bother if you never want to play it again even once) and expect to experience the 50% I think I’ve missed, you’re damn right I’m pissed off when it takes one tenth of the time I expected.
    Jeez, that would be as bad as The Force Unleashed.

  12. 1-11-2010

    Nice tips..

  13. 2-8-2010

    HellO! I found this website by chance and I’m really surprised with your list. An brief overview is enough to see your point (or get closer, at least :)

    I felt nostalgic about games – I used to play compulsively since 10/11 years old. When I was 28, and I felt interested about games again (btw, Me and my English are “Made In Brazil”, so I’m sorry if I make weird grammar mistakes).

    I start looking for the classics from MSX and Amiga games. I easly found perhaps ALL the games made for these machines, and a “new technology” called “emulators” turned out my PC into an old computer perfectly.

    Anyway, to make it short, the nowadays games and it’s blockbuster productions just make it worst. I was shameful about playing games that even my two kids could call it “too childish”.

    So, I decided to start a game from “ground zero”; maybe it was the challenge of been able to make a good game without cliches (or almost no cliches). I googled for “point and click guidelines for dummies” kind of stuff. Thinks like “Examine every location for clues, ‘cos developers wouldn’t make these things for nothing.” I avoid puzzles, magic stones that opens secret places with no connection with the story at all.

    I called it “Mature Games” because it’s suppose to mean, well, erotic…

    Hmm, I’m afraid that the comment have a limit of characters, so I wil finish it on another post (sorry for the size of that, but I think you may understand because it the first website I found that is pretty much about the kind of games I make…

  14. 2-8-2010

    The first one is about an decadent lawyer (the player) who had a job offered by a rich businessman from the country-side. His son is the primal suspect for the crime of rape and kill his ex-girlfriend.

    It’s a snall city and there are three days only to understand the city and have a glimpse about it’s mysteries, search for clues, talk with people, make useful friens, do illegal things like looking for drugs (he is an addict), to lie, to be persuasive, black mail people, etc.

    There’s no way to be stuck on a certain point because you don’t know exactly what you need to get through this, so I tried to solve it by giving more than one option to the player at almost every point.

    Another thing is when your character evolves in the game and sometimes you find yourself in the middle of something that you feel like taking a nap during a movie or “accidentaly” pick some item or choosing the right answer/question. I find a way to make sure that the player cannot find/solve something by accident.

    The 4 day, is the trial. I think it is the best of the game, since I found a way to put pretty much everything from novies, like objections, evidences, testimonies, jury’s perfil and the hability to manipulate then, etc.

    Oh, like I said, there are no score system – it kinda take away the suspense specially if it’s about investigating a game with no predefined “Game Over” or “You Win”. I like it because it gives diferent ends based on the player’s choices during the game and the personal sense of justice, so the end is different for each personality.

    For instance, players can see VICTORY if he wins the case, regardless what he discover during the game. Other may think that find out what really happened is more important than win the case with some doubt. You know, the oposite ideas of professional ethics and moral ethics.

    Well, that’s enough. I’m very sorry, you can delete it if you want. Anyway, the game is free and if interested, you can download it on the company’s website: “Beware The Ladybeetle”

    Thank you and I hope you keep this great website to support the indie developers.

  15. 2-28-2010

    ’ve been feeling number 11 playing Dragon Age, I think… definitely a well-designed “sandbox”

  16. 3-24-2010

    You were absolutely right. Deus Ex was a great game, and it’s because it followed #6 and 11 better than any game I’ve ever played.

    • 8-30-2010

      “because it followed 11″

      Are you kidding? #11 is just a cheap trick, and it doesn’t improve a game’s quality AT ALL.

  17. 10-25-2010

    Do you mind if I repost this over to my blog? I just want to make sure credit is given where it is due. Have a great day!

  18. 4-1-2012

    All the steps listed here are very good tips indeed. But #11 is kind of a 50-50 shot. It mainly depends on the the story. Example: Final fantasy. Those type of games have super long storys.It is hard enough to get the final level on games like those and then you want them to go back and do it all over again to see “what could have beenn”. Probably not. On the the other hand, using step 11 could be a good thing. just look at the geame “Infamous”. that game has alternate options to the game and how you beat it. This is just an opinion of mine

  19. 5-9-2013

    yeah i agree with nick, Deus Ex was really a great games. and #6 #10 and #11 will be my take.

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