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Story in games, what we can learn from other story telling media

The importance of story in games is often controversial, especially in F2P games/GaaS. The decision of adding stories or not to a F2P game often pits designers against Product Managers (PM’s) on the same team and data vs. intuition.

The importance of story in games is often controversial, especially in F2P games and GaaS. The decision of adding stories or not to a F2P game often pits designers against Product Managers (PM’s) on the same team. However, the debate usually focuses on story vs. no story, instead of on how the story is used and deployed. 

Data vs. Instinct

From memories of when we are playing games as children and internet forums on certain games, seems what we remember most after playing a game is the story in it. Often the main reason we want to continue to play a game was because we want to find out what happens next in the story. We are even willing to put up with very grind-y and repetitive parts of a game to find out a story’s conclusion. So based on our instinct, we would think that story in games should lift retention. (Since most GaaS is very metrics driven, almost all features should have a metric goal.)

So designers write the story, and PM’s set up the experiment. Often the story is told in a video or a comic strip at the beginning and between chapters. Sadly, in multiple games across different genres, we see a big drop in the FTUE (first time user experience) funnel at the point when the story video/or comics strip is displayed. FTUE completion and D1 retention are highly correlated. Day 1 (D1) retention for the version with story is also much lower. Since the Retention curve ultimately is a funnel as well, it follows D7 and D30 retention would be lower also. Even if the story indeed reduces the decline of the retention curve (takes a lot longer to get statistically significant data), it may not compensate for the initial loss of the D1 users.

Furthermore, when we have option for skipping video or comic strip between chapters, surprisingly large amount of people do skip it. 

So how do we reconcile this data with our instinct? 

Learnings from Novel Writing: Exposition vs. Action

When I was writing an novel that was later published under a pen name, I often received advice from experienced writers to avoid Exposition and use more Action

Exposition is when you are telling user information. This could be character background (including backstories), explanations of science or technology, descriptions of the fantasy world, or history.  Action is what is actually happening: the main character slams a door, a ninja star is thrown, or a hero leaps across a building. 

The Star Wars Movies started with exposition; remember those big yellow letters flying away telling you the back story? Nowadays, you almost see no movie that does it. Why? Because people’s attention spans are shorter. To many people, exposition is boring. 

Many of the intro videos at beginning of a game trying to explain the backstory are just expositions. For a fantasy game, it could be, “600 thousand years ago, a demon arrived on earth, and the world is split into 3 factions. Blah blah..”

In games, the analogy is that your gameplay is the “Action”, and anytime you pause the “Action” to show a video or comic strip to explain backstory is basically Exposition. If you look across the entertainment industry, novels (other than literary novels), movies, or TV shows, they all start with Action: a mysterious man is murdered, James Bond jumps out of a plane, etc. 

The hypothesis for the cause of the drop in D1 retention and FTUE funnel: it is not the story; it is the exposition.

Techniques to borrow from modern TV/Movie writers. 

Should we avoid expositions all together? No. Exposition, through world building or a character’s background (e.g. the hero is protecting this little girl he just met because his own daughter died years ago), can add a lot of depth to a story. Sometime, it is even absolutely necessary if some science or technology is instrumental to the plot of your science fiction world. Thus, almost all stories has exposition. 

Again, we can learn from many modern novels, movies or TV shows on how they make expositions less obtrusive and more interesting. 

One technique is often deployed is using conversations. CSI does this a lot (and often laughably obvious.) Some clueless detective ask a dumb question, and the CSI agent goes on this long explanation. There are plenty of movies and TV shows that deploys this technique a lot more subtly. We can having backstory revealed through conversations between the characters in your game that players care about rather than this long disembodied narrator telling the player. 

The slow reveal is another technique. In many movies, the background story is not revealed until 1/3 or 1/2 way into the movie, like when the heroes escaped the initial danger. So once your user got into the game, and familiar with the game mechanics, you can start tell user the background story. This will add interest and depth to the gameplay at this point. Users don’t want to learn about backstory when he is still trying to learn about how to play your game.

Another technique is having backstory in very small doses, and interlaced with action, i.e. gameplay. Example, you after defeat a boss, a tidbit of the backstory is revealed; as part of a quest description, add a sentence on why you are killing 20 wolfs; In a card battler, when you collect a new card, a tidbit about the story is card description. Key challenge is to keep it cohesive. This is when a story bible helps. Write out all the backstory, and then drop a sentence here or there through out the game. This would make your dry instructions, prop objects, and quests more colorful.

Another one is to make user want to find out what the background story is by introducing mystery or name dropping. For example, when you find a piece of crystal (perhaps a premium currency), say “congrats, you found a piece of crystal that was shattered during the War of Magicians.” But do not go into what the War of Magicians is right away. When user see enough mention of this so called, “War of Magicians”, the user will seek out the back story on it, perhaps trying to find out why this piece of crystal is such a valuable currency. 


Some modern console games or paid games still start with a long intro sequence with back stories. A veteran game designer who I respect greatly once told me this analogy: console games are like movies, you already paid for the ticket, so even if beginning of a movie is boring, you are going to stick with it; F2P games are like TV shows, where people are flipping through the channels quickly.  If you don’t grab their interest right away, you lose them.  Modern players’ attention spans are very short. We are competing against a lot of media. In terms of story telling, other media do a much better job. So we should learn from their techniques. This article just scratches the surface. Story is good and can add a lot of value, but just have to be used properly.

About me: I worked for Zynga and Microsoft Game Studios as Executive Producer and Producer. Currently, I'm the co-founder of Moesif. 

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