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Making everyone feel like a star in a multiplayer game

Interactive fiction author Emily Short shares some of the lessons learned while developing an 8-player interactive story, the most important of which is keeping each player feeling like the star of their own adventure.

Frank Cifaldi, Contributor

October 9, 2012

3 Min Read

In many ways, we still don't know how to tell a proper interactive narrative. Sure, our video games can tell great stories. They can make us challenge our perceptions and weep openly as we experience some of the most beautifully poetic dialogue ever written. But the actual art of telling those stories in a way that is unique to games -- as a series of decisions and interactions -- remains elusive. That challenge is hard enough in a single-player game, but add in multiple players and it becomes even more daunting. That is what interactive fiction author Emily Short (pictured) -- along with cohort and AI specialist Richard Evans -- set out to do with their joint venture Little Text People, which was acquired by Linden Lab earlier this year. At a talk at GDC Online on Tuesday, Short shared a few of the design lessons she's learned from the experiments Little Text People has been conducting, mainly through an 8-player simultaneous text-driven game she and Evans have been working on and playtesting for some time now.

1. Everyone's a star

Even in a multiplayer game, every player has to feel as if they are playing out their own personal, unique story. They cannot feel as if they are in a supporting role, or their investment in the narrative will fall apart. One simple solution is to simply write around it. In Short's game, every character has a different arc through the overall group narrative. They also have a personal prologue introducing the character and its personal goals, as well as an epilogue -- separate from the shared story ending -- that summarizes how things went for the character. Even all that is likely to feel a bit tacked on, so to further emphasize each player's starring role, the game is constantly watching out for moments in the story that could relate to a specific character. A developing romance could, for example, trigger an inner monologue seen only by that player.

2. Meaningful decisions

Players have to feel like their decisions matter -- even if eight people are playing at once. One good trick is to have players make small, personal decisions early in the game that, by the end of the narrative, will have had a deeper impact on the rest of the story. In fact, it turns out small decisions leave the player feeling more empowered to have fun and make bolder reactions later. In playtesting, Short found that when players were given constant opportunity to do dramatic things, they just wouldn't. They needed those small decisions to make the big ones more meaningful.

3. Buttered lobsters

"You can never have too many opportunities to throw a buttered lobster at someone's head," read one of Short's slides. What she meant by this was that players should have adequate opportunities to have strong reactions, even if they're unrealistic, because "in the fight between realism and fun, fun always wins." "Buttered lobsters" are also moments that just can't be ignored. If a player makes a bold move to another player, they have to react, perhaps escalating (or deescalating) a social situation and possibly even taking the story in a different direction.

4. Joint decisions for special occasions only

Short's game has opportunities for players to make decisions together, as a group. This can be a wonderful dramatic tool, but use it too often and it loses its impact. Joint decisions should only come at rare, key moments, otherwise you risk making your characters feel like they're not the star, and you risk making the game feel repetitive.

5. Lots of content

Finally (and unfortunately), Short says making interactive narratives on a Little Text People scale requires a lot of content to work. While writers were helped a bit by the game's underlying AI (they didn't have to, for example, write dialogue trees), in the end Strong says the game required a lot of brute force in the form of a lot of written content in order to provide a sense of narrative richness. Gamasutra is at GDC Online in Austin this week. Check out our event page for the latest on-site coverage.

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