7 min read

Building a narrative out of push notifications in Lifeline

3 Minute Games set out to make a simple text adventure. They ended up hitting upon a killer app for gaming on the Apple Watch.

When Apple’s new Watch debuted earlier this year, most of the predictions about its future killer apps were focused on the health and messaging options, or possibly integration of NFC technology. What no one could have anticipated was that within days of its launch, one of its first mobile game apps, Lifeline, by 3 Minute Studios, would shoot to the top of the app store rankings.

Lifeline's success, buoyed by both word of mouth and coverage of its time-delayed storytelling, marked both a potential shift for the impact of premium narrative games in the App store, and was a big design success for 3 Minutes Games and its publisher Big Fish.

If you haven’t heard of 3 Minute Games before, that’s not entirely a surprise. According to Lifeline’s lead developer Mars Jokela, the company acts as sort of a Skunkworks division for Big Fish Games---prototyping game ideas and experimenting with mechanics that can be folded back into the company’s huge portfolio of self-described “casual” games.

3 Minute Games' other Apple Watch title, Poll Party, was another experimental project based off that mission of innovation and experimentation---and when it comes to the success of Lifeline, its origins, in fact, weren’t tied to the Apple Watch at all.

Trading text messages with a doomed astronaut

"What makes notifications compelling enough to draw a player back into the game is when they're tied to making meaningful decisions. I think a lot about Sid Meier's quote about core gameplay being ‘a series of interesting choices"

For those who've played Lifeline, be it on watch or phone, you’ll recall that its story and gameplay emerge in part from the notification system---whether it’s on the iOS version or the just-released Android version. The game's notifications mimic real-time text messages to replicate an incoming broadcast from Taylor, a potentially doomed astronaut.

When Apple announced the ability to interact with notifications on the lock screen for iOS 8, 3 Minute Games’ lead programmer Colin Liotta was intrigued by the idea of a game that could be played in that interface. By swiping left on the notification, different apps give different functions that let users or players quickly deal with notifications without loading into the app. Liotta realized that this function could serve to let players make binary choices from the lock screen, a mechanic which fed both into Lifeline and Poll Party.

“From that constraint came the idea of a choose-your-own adventure game where you're getting messages from somebody and you're making responses with these binary A/B choices,” explains Jokela. “So, that got built into a prototype using the back end of the Twine tool, just because it's perfect for building branching storylines, And Liotta wrote a prototype of the game with a friend of his doing the writing.” 

But Liotta’s friend wasn’t able to finish building out that prototype’s story, so the project slipped by the wayside temporarily as 3 Minute Games worked to finish other projects. When the Apple Watch was announced, the company took note of the explicit focus on notifications, and enabling users to respond to notifications without pulling out their phone. That sent them into motion to develop Lifeline, and shortly after Jokela joined the team, he was able to bring Fable's co-author Dave Justus onboard to finish their story of a college-age astronaut barely scraping by on an alien planet. 

Jokela points out that Lifeline runs exclusively on dialogue, so producing a game like this meant relying on someone with Justus’ dialogue-heavy background. The exposition and description skillsets that might be familiar to designers working in tabletop backgrounds or game localization don’t necessarily lend their strengths as well to a system designed to mimic text messages sent from a college-age character. According to Jokela, most of the decisions on how frequently the texts would arrive came from Justus himself, not anyone on the design or programming side. 

“I almost never had to send him notes, I was honestly waiting on the edge of my seat to get new story. For the frequency of messages, Justus tried to make it feel natural, the game is emulating a real person on the other side, so the delays came from what would feel natural for how long it would take to perform a given activity.”

For example, after Taylor the astronaut wakes up, they see the ruins of the Varia, their crashed ship, in the distance. The delay from that first conversation to Taylor’s second check-in is one hour, which establishes for the player that there will be space between their engagements. It also helps set player expectations for how long it takes for Taylor to accomplish tasks. Later in the game, shortening these delays helps to establish Taylor’s frantic fight for life, while lengthening them adds tension and possibly even some hesitation when it comes to making big decisions. 

Lifeline works because there are life-or-death decisions in the text messages you trade

Jokela’s design philosophy for these messages comes down to 2 big design pillars: Short encounters and meaningful choices that can all be made from the watch, or the phone lockscreen.  “What makes notifications compelling enough to draw a player back into the game is when they're tied to making interesting decisions. I think a lot about Sid Meier's quote about core gameplay being ‘a series of interesting choices."

It's crucial that every time that you get pinged by the game, it's asking you to engage with it in a meaningful way. Your response may be a piece of advice that may lead to Taylor's death. That makes the consequences of your choice weighty. The player has investment in Taylor's well-being.”

For the unfamiliar, some context may help establish how those choices stay ‘meaningful’---Taylor doesn’t just talk with you back and forth and relay what’s going on in their environment, they specifically ask you for help and advice based on the current situation. A few prompts even nudge you to do a little research on the internet about whether a specific scenario might be fatal or harmful.

Sometimes, the game just gives you the option to mess with Taylor, who responds with either indignity or sarcasm. Creating a scale of responses helps drive narrative progression and rewards the player for experimenting with dialogue options presented on the notification screen. 

Lifeline keeps the player off balance on which choices might pose an immediate threat, and which ones might have long-term consequences, though by this design philosophy, it means that watch-based text adventure gaming is immediately one about high-stakes scenarios, with more specific opportunities for slow-burn character growth taking place on the sidline. (Strangely, this may give Lifeline plenty in common with the upcoming Adr1ft or Tacoma in terms of using astronauts in danger to explore character limits in the harsh conditions of space.) 

Based on Lifeline’s success, Jokela and 3 Minutes Games are working on sequels, (Though not necessarily direct sequels involving Taylor), and he believes that more watch-friendly adventure games will pop up in the market soon. The biggest obstacle to their production is the long writing process that they needed on Lifeline, and in a an environment that favors free-to-play, Jokela believes these follow-up games need to share the premium model that Lifeline did, or else find a way to innovate on a free-to-play model that doesn’t interrupt the flow of play. Excited by Lifeline’s 81% day 1 retention rate, Jokela looks forward to pushing more boundaries with 3 Minute Games---and hopefully paving the way for new kinds of experiences for mobile phones in general, as well as the Apple Watch and Android Wear devices in particular. 

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