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.
- The story is what the player does, not what he watches.
- 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.)
- The only significant actions are those that affect the player’s ability to perform future actions. Everything else is bells and whistles.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Alternative paths, recoverable errors, multiple solutions to the same problem, missed opportunities that can be made up later, are all good.
- Don’t introduce gratuitous obstacles just to create a puzzle.
- 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.