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From let's play to let's pay: on designing financially successful narrative games

For developers of narrative focused games, let's play videos can be a financial nightmare - but they don't have to be. In this article, I'll suggest three design practices we can use to transform lets play into lets pay.

Imagine you are working your dream job on a genre-bending game that everybody’s excited about. This idea has been locked in your mind, begging to be let out of its cage and you’ve finally – after all these years – decided to bring it to life.

You’ve won over a publisher with a passionate pitch. An early trailer is generating interest among the starry-eyed community. You lie awake at night tantalizing yourself with thoughts of financial freedom that lies just around the corner.

And yet, when it comes to making money, all this momentum might not be enough.

Just ask Ryan Green, developer of That Dragon Cancer. Last month, Green released his passion project to the world, and the world responded with a 78 metascore. When the dust settled, Green’s game generated over 7 million views from Let’s Play videos alone. All these statistics point toward a breakthrough success. But something happened that Green did not expect.

Nobody bought the game.

In fact, sales have been so poor, he wrote an article about it, blaming let’s play videos as a leading cause to That Dragon’s financial meltdown. In the article, Green admits “we underestimated how many people would be satisfied with only watching the game instead of playing it themselves.”

Pwediepie is youtube's most famous creatorLets play videos can be described as a screen-capture video recording of a game, usually with commentary, uploaded to youtube by a third-party without permission from the game’s creators. These videos often generate many views and are extremely popular among the gaming community. Why is this allowed? Ultimately, because research shows that let’s plays lead to increased sales.

But how do they effect linear, story-driven games?

Despite That Dragon being viewed 7 million times, Steam Spy estimates only 15,000 copies have been purchased. In other words, out of every 1000 people that have watched the game, only two paid for it. And nothing the publisher seems to do, including donating a portion of the proceeds to charity, seems to matter.

I’m not here to debate whether or not Let’s Plays lost Green money. If your interested in that debate there are plenty of articles here and here to get involved with. Instead, I want to talk about something much more important, as it affects the livelihood of any developer working on a narrative-focused game.

The simple truth is that Let’s Play videos are a beast that can’t be stopped. If your game is worth anything at all, you too will find numerous videos exposing your entire narrative from day one. So the question becomes, how can we, as developers, design our games to ensure that watching a playthrough isn’t enough?

In this article, I'll present three design practicies we can embed in our narrative games that support the action of turning let’s play into lets pay, and I will do so by highlighting design choices made in the breakout success Firewatch, a narrative game released by Campo Santo that sold 500,000 copies in the first day.

Without further ado, lets dive into narrative design.

Warning: minor Firewatch spoilers ahead.

***

Design Practice # 1: Make each experience unique

When designing your narrative, allow the player to participate in the storytelling experience. This enables them to “personalize” the narrative in a way that is different from other players.

One way we can do this is to give the player dialogue options when responding to other characters. Firewatch does this well. For example, throughout the gameplay you get to talk to your partner Delilah via a walkie-talkie system. Each time she speaks to you, you usually have a few dialogue options to choose from that trigger different responses. Admittedly, these choices are largely meaningless in how they influence the overall narrative structure, but being able to choose whether or not to tell her about your relationship with your wife can have a profound emotional impact that makes a let’s play viewer wish they made the choice themselves.

Another way to build a unique experience is to allow the player to interact with the environment. This also usually has no affect on the story, but in doing so the player can personalize their experience. For example, in Firewatch you can adopt a pet turtle and place it in a nest in your house. You can also interact with objects in your house such as books, cooking materials, light-switches etc. Don’t like books? You can throw them out of your house. You don’t have to create gigantic tree-branching alternate realities for this concept to work. Sometimes, all that’s required is a snarky remark in the right situation to amuse the player. Firewatch proves it’s very possible to design dynamic experiences even within the context of a linear narrative.

***

Design Practice # 2: Choose open stories

A closed experience means that when a player watches a lets play of your game, they’ll get the sense that if they were to play it themselves, they would have the same experience as the “lets play” gamer. In other words, a closed experience narrative pushes your game against design practice 1: "make each experience unique" as it is the result of a story that doesn’t allow any room for the player. This is one of the biggest differentiators between a movie and a game. A movie always follows an experience that is completely set in stone. Each shot of each scene will appear exactly the same way to every person that views it. If people feel this way toward your game, what is the point of playing?

This is likely the great downfall of That Dragon Cancer. The game is based off a real experience that is exceptionally personal to the game’s developers; an experience that has already transpired and is largely set in stone. In fact, the story is so intimate, the player is not even given physical presence in the game. Instead, the player can do as much as control a camera, viewing a scene from different angles. Sure, the player can interact with a few elements, but they are elements that HAVE to be interacted with to progress the story. In other words, the game experience is going to be the same for everyone that plays it.

To make myself clear, the story in That Dragon Cancer is a GOOD STORY. It’s emotional and told in an effective way, but it’s very much a closed experience. For this reason, Green is right in that watching That Dragon Cancer proved to be good enough of a majority of people.

To contrast this point, lets examine The Last of Us, one of the best narrative games released. On the surface, you may think this game offers a closed experience as well. There are no dialogue options and the story between Joel and Ellie is completely linear. But The Last of Us also features fantastic tactical gameplay, and infuses a crafting system that encourages the player to explore the map, building weapons that compliment their play style. Furthermore, many key story moments occur as the player is dynamically controlling the chracters (as opposed to a cut scene). So even though The Last of us doesn’t offer narrative flexibility, the experience is not “closed,” due in large part to the complimentary tactical and strategic gameplay. If your game doesn't feature something like this (eg is a walking simulaator), then you need to find a way to make it work within the context of the narrative. To sum it up, if playing your game offers the exact same experience as watching it, there won’t be much incentive for a lets play viewer to make a purchase.

***

Design Practice # 3: Embed elements of Discovery

Some of the most memorable moments in gaming occur when the player discovers something they almost missed, then uses that something to craft a unique experience. This design practice is at the heart of many popular sandbox-style games, and involves inspired conversations between players on how they survived impossible odds to achieve an objective.

These elements can be constructed in narrative games as well.

My all time favorite moment in Firewatch uses this practice, and the crazy thing is many people might have missed it. But that’s what makes it special.

In Firewatch, it’s your job to make sure that no fires occur in the Wyoming Wilderness. In act 1, that means being the “party crasher” to a group of teens that think launching fireworks in wilderness is a good idea.

As my character argued vigorously with a group of teens, I noticed a boombox blasting pop music. I wanted it to stop. It then occurred to me that I might be able to pick the boombox up, and throw it in the water. To my delight, when I chucked it in the lake, the blaring music stopped – and the teens were infuriated. The yelled at me, telling me that I vandalized their stuff. They were SO ANRGY. WOW, I thought: I caused that reaction. From that moment on I was invested in the game.

The element of player discovery, or testing something out given the tools you have and realizing that your crazy idea worked, is one of gaming’s most unique and powerful elements. This also adds replay value, and allows players to talk to each other about unique choices they made in the game.

***

Conclusion

Ultimately, if we want our games to be financially successful, we need to make sure they offer something that improves upon the experience gamers receive from watching lets play videos. We can do this by embracing what makes games unique: interactivity. This can be achieved even within the content of a linear narrative - by ensuring our game offers choices for each player, features a story that is dynamic and flexible, and embeds elements of discovery throughout. Not only will this encourage people to pay for your game, it will keep them coming back, long after the credits roll.

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