Speaking with designers at a 2008 ION Game Conference session, Spacetime Studios’ Brandon Reinhart, lead designer on the developer's forthcoming space MMO BlackStar
presented his ideas for storytelling techniques in game design in a session titled “Narrative Design for MMOs: Using Storytelling to Craft and Convey Vision.”
Ineffective Design Documents
Reinhart began the session dismissing design documents as massive productions that poorly convey their message: “The reason I think these ‘visionary designers’ are different from us ordinary designers is that they understand the design doc is not a good way to get people to believe in what you're doing.”
He continued, “Design docs are great for making plans and scoping projects, so we can't throw them away entirely, but when you're telling your buddies -- or team mates -- about the game, you tell them about it in a story, not a wall of text.”
Allying Concepting and Design
On the idea of “narrative design,” Reinhart suggested designers work with a concept artist to more effectively communicate their vision and to limit future designer communication errors. He explained, “We already know what we're talking about, so it's easy to skip the most important elements when we tell stories.”
Reinhart went on to suggest that designers put together a 'concept request package' which references narrative material, much like a wiki. That way, the scope of the story will scale with the scope of the assets. He recommended, “Go ahead and care about little details -- don't tell a hundred stories about all the different kinds of blasters in the game, but maybe write ten stories, maybe one about the company that makes the blasters.”
Tools For Large Scale Projects
Discussing tools for keeping teams focused on large scale projects, Reinhart first advised that designers use a 'concept pyramid' to tailor their delivery by breaking vision down into its fundamental concepts and compartmentalize complex ideas.
“Start with the basic concept - space war! Then, the two parts of that - humanity and demonic aliens," he said. "When your audience is familiar with those first two tiers, move down one more level. Tech vs. magic, with idealism and destiny on one side and religious prophecy on the other. Don't use this graphic in your presentation, but keep it in mind when you're talking.“
To further tailor the delivery and also engender buy-in, Reinhart again told designers to work with concept artists and production artists to illustrate 'key moments,' images that tell a story with a single image. Pointing to comic book covers, he emphasized, “There's nothing more critical than giving your players a sense of characters. Your concept art can do that -- and it's critical in games the player doesn't already know the memes for.”
Reinhart then described a third tool designers can use to tailor delivery -- 'aspiration driven character design.' Using character art from BlackStar
as examples, he stressed, “You need to make characters that players want to be.” Designers should convey the character's values without relying on words, possibly tying emotional aspects of the aspirational elements into the visual elements of a character.
The Great Law Of Conveying Vision
On conveying vision, Reinhart concluded the session by describing the concept of conveying ideas as a fundamentally social and political activity. He told designers to avoid defensiveness and admit when an idea isn’t working: “You can't afford to be a primadonna. Show confidence in your abilities, but also be humble and open to new ideas, especially when dealing with foreign partners.”