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Narrative tips for mobile games

Veteran multimedia narrative designer Christy Marx offers key takeaways from her experience with Zynga's CastleVille for telling stories in mobile games, with all their challenges and limitations.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

March 3, 2015

5 Min Read

Zynga principal narrative designer Christy Marx has an extensive background in television -- notably the Jem and the Holograms animated series from the 1980s -- as well as comics, games and nonfiction. But how is that experience relevant to mobile games? 

"I see them all as a very similar form of visual storytelling," Marx says. They're all extremely collaborative art forms, and operate across similar genres, like science fiction, fantasy, action and adventure. And in terms of writing, they all require a concise, pithy style of storytelling. 

Although she had worked on Zynga's Facebook games, CastleVille Legends was Marx's first attempt on mobile. As in the Facebook version, the mobile CastleVille casts the player as a hero driving back a sinister gloom and liberating heroes from crystal prisons to build a new kingdom. It's a basic "invest and express" game loop, based on building, crafting and then selling in order to gain resources to build further. 

But there were challenges in trying to build a comparable mobile experience. In the Facebook edition, Marx's room to create the world depended on the size of the map and the rate at which the player expanded into new areas at higher levels. But mobile is an entirely different environment: The most significant difference on monbile, she says, is that physical space is limited. Quest text, too, will be even further limited -- could you tell a story given just the length of a Tweet? 

The original CastleVille was set up with an ultimate player goal of defeating a wizard. "The problem with that was, if you ever defeated Falgrim, the game was over. So if you have an endpoint, what you have to do is keep continually moving the goalposts, and I didn't want to do that."

So Marx crafted a more modular, episodic structure for the mobile game. Players interact with and rescue different heroes, each of which has his or her own arc or objective. "In my mind, it was like hopscotch : Each hero would get to have a story, and at the same time, another hero would have an arc, and you can jump between them. You'll always have some hero's arc that you can be engaged with, so you're never left feeling like you don't have anything. And because it's episodic, you can add another arc onto that hero, and keep going." 

Working with multiple hero arcs allowed her to implement "breadcrumbing" -- sprinkling a trail of story elements across the modular quest chains, with the intention of having them add up to an over-arching whole. 

Another way to work with limited text is to be unafraid to repeat yourself: "In fact, I think repeating is a good thing, because repetition is what gets information across. Find diferent ways to say things, and make it interesting, but repeat-repeat-repeat is an important part of mobile, especially when you can only give little pieces of information at a time."

Castleville is a "god-view" game, with no player avatar, and hero NPCs are charged with carrying the story by assigning quests, offering suggestions or having narrative arcs of their own that the player helps fulfill. Marx decided to re-use a couple of iconic characters from the Facebook version, but mostly invented new heroes to refresh the experience. When the player discovers a hero, they can unlock different zones and crafting, get new quests or valuable rare objects -- the heroes drive player immersion and the extended core loop. 

But Marx says mobile CastleVille encountered some challenges when it came to balancing the story with the game progression. "Since we were really experimenting and learning, we didn't take into account how long it would take the players to come up through the levels," she says. "So there were not enough quests."

Crucially, the player must have a sense of continual movement and achievement, she advises: "A really silly mistake I made was that there were three tasks per quest, and tasks that would require the player to level up twice to complete that quest. You realize... you just have a player sitting there stuck on one quest for a really long time, which is a bad idea. You want to keep them engaged and keep them going. There were places where all three tasks required the same workshop, and you've locked up that workshop; you've locked the player on that task." 

The game also involves events that occur from time to time to encourage and entertain players; these require a wide funnel so that the lowest-level players aren't barred from participating. But since CastleVille's heroes get unlocked by player progression, events accessible to most players would have only a few heroes unlocked or available. It made it harder, says Marx, to make diverse and interesting events using only the three characters avaiable to beginning players.

Marx's key learnings from CastleVille mobile includes the idea the open-ended narrative is essential to evergreen games, and episodic or modular storytelling serves persistent worlds. Game writing, she says, is the "haiku of storytelling," especially for mobile, and writers should concentrate on what they can do with a limited amount of text. 

Create enough quests to keep players from being stuck and being aimless, and use the "breadcrumbing" technique to make players feel that their smaller tasks are leading to a larger whole. And don't be afraid to repeat, so that players will always retain the information. 

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