Guiding players with story-driven events in live games using 'breadcrumbs'

King's Abigail Rindo shared how the studio uses “narrative breadcrumbs” to guide players through story-driven events.

In the live games world, there’s a number of key tools and metrics game developers rely on to keep player interest over a longer period of time. At GDC 2021 Abigail Rindo, an associate director of narrative design at King, gave a short breakdown of how the studio uses “narrative breadcrumbs” to keep players interested and engaged in these live events.

Rindo’s talk (which will be up on GDC’s Swapcard platform for the next week), covers games like Candy Crush Saga, but can help developers working on all types of live games. As more titles like Apex Legends or Fortnite use story to fuel interest in their events, it’s worth taking a moment to break down what core components can help developers use these events to drive player investment.

A Sourdough Starter for Story

Rindo’s story began with—of course—the COVID-19 pandemic. Hired to work at King right before the Pandemic struck, Rindo found herself stuck at home, learning how to bake bread. In that period, she let her mind wander, and began to reflect how narrative “worked” in games like Candy Crush.

“I’ve always thought of live games as more of a journey, rather than story with an ending,” she said. “I was trying to figure out what that Candy Crush journey might be.”

She detailed how prior to her arrival, King’s narrative team had already make a lore & story bible for Candy Crush Saga, making a central reference document for character backstories, conflict, and relationships.

And of course while thinking about journeys while breaking bread, a thought slipped into her head: players’ experience with that tome of storytelling took an entirely different form: the form of breadcrumbs.

Across 9 years of in-game events, players’ understanding of the base universe had changed, with new story details dripping in at each event.

“On first glance, Candy Crush is a whimsical and sweet world,” she said. “but as I looked deeper at what we were offering players on a day-to-day basis, that world became less clear.”

Rindo learned that following a typical player experience in a week, it became apparent that the team was “throwing a lot of narrative at players with events and features—but we weren’t necessarily doing it in a strategic or coherent way.”

She said that players tended to be “confused” by the game’s messages—they’d often just decide to ignore the story altogether.

A sugar rush of sequential events

Rindo noted that this isn’t an uncommon problem at many game companies. “There’s this misunderstanding between narrative design and putting text up on a screen,” she noted. “We’re often given an event or feature at the last minute, and asked to fill in the blanks with flavorful and brilliant copy.”

Even after data showed that over 80 percent of players couldn’t identify any facts about Candy Crush’s characters, plenty of folks at King apparently saw this as a non-issue. Rindo said she saw an opportunity—and eventually pinned down several core ingredients to add story to live events: blending context, characters, and conflict with Candy Crush’s core mechanics to help players better grasp the game’s story.

She gave one example using Candy Crush Soda. The game was about to undergo a graphical style, moving from 2D papercut graphics to 3D graphics. “We decided to ground it within a deeper narrative context. To do this, we used live events spanning multiple months.”

“First, we built anticipation around the event by having a mysterious Soda Storm hit the Candy Kingdom. By bringing the Soda of Candy Crush Soda into the game world, we were able to contextualize the moment-to-moment fluid dynamics of the puzzles players had been playing with for any years.”

Soon, the storm flooded over the land, and the characters faced a choice—give up, or rebuild.

With the choice to rebuild, players were incentivized to help them in this task—giving them the chance to help reveal the new 3D graphics, and then “free” characters from their 2D backgrounds, making t hem more vibrant and animated.

Players said the event allowed them to feel “hopeful and connected” during the pandemic, and that this simple connection with characters gave them something to latch onto.

Rindo gave a second example from Candy Crush Saga, to help reinforce players’ connection with the Lollipop Hammer and Color Bomb (tools that can be used to solve Candy Crush’s Match-3 puzzles). Players have to recover an experimental Color Bomb after a character named Troll uses Bubblegum Pop Blockers to blow up Mr. Toffee’s vault.

“By building a conflict around these rewards built into the game world already, we were able to build a foundation of understanding around these power-up boosters,” Rindo said. “And we could motivate players to earn them.”

Rindo gave some other (candy-coated) narrative examples, but reminded developers to remember her core ingredients—Context, Characters, and Conflict. “Experiment with these, and find the right blend that works for you game, and your mechanics."

"Once you do, experiment with your gameplay integration, and come up with a solution that upholds the strength of your event, and that will hold all those pieces together.”

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