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World-building for a better game experience

Does a game need a story? Better yet: does a game need a world where players tell their stories? This is my take on it.

Joao Beraldo, Blogger

November 13, 2013

9 Min Read

There is little more empowering than creating a living, breathing world. One of those things is watching real people delve into this world and create their own stories in it.


For the past seven years I have worked almost exclusively as a content designer for games. Mind you, that doesn’t mean I’m a glorified writer (though, yes, I do have some published novels). I’ve worked with everything from creating weekly itemsets for a pet care social game to leading a team of game designers for an MMO. And what I learned during all this time is that the story you got to tell will never be as powerful as he story players will experience. Playing Geralt of Rivia deciding if the witch should burn or not is cool, but surviving an unexpected cougar attack while stalking an escaped criminal in Old West California is even better.


What seems to escape most traditional writers who I met working for games (or trying to) is that been a game writer is not the same as writing a novel. I could bring up points in which a game differs from a novel, like the fact that it’s visual instead of imagined, or that in games the player is the protagonist. This is all true. But the main point is that games are a shared authorship experience. You will better remember that time you managed to evade cops opening fire at you by diving into an air duct in Deus Ex than the fact that one of the bosses was an ubercyborg with an accent.



During the last year I had the opportunity to work in a number of game projects, each with its own particularities. One of these games was Shadow Heroes: Vengeance in Flames, a game that could be described as a RTS, but still couldn’t if you took Starcraft as a model.


When I was first contacted by Allied Games, an indie studio in Canada, they had in mind hiring a writer to create the game’s backstory, and that was it. The idea was that the game would cater for an audience that focused on competitive player vs. player experiences first and foremost. Story, they believed, was just a reason to tie the artwork together and justify why you were attacking someone else.


But is it enough?


Many would argue it is. You might say I just said it myself! My story is the one where I’m beating my friend in a battle with a massive army of paladins and archangels!


Well, more or less.


What makes a huge different in the experience is the implied world. You are not just shooting zombies; you are one of four survivors trying to escape. You are not just a pilot, you are an X-Wing pilot fighting for the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire.


Could a story (and, more to the point, a world) improve the experience in Shadow Heroes?



You see, Allied had “choice” as a pretty strong concept for their game. Players in Shadow Heroes could decide on how much micromanagement they wanted during battles. Instead having players control each individual unit, deciding where they go, what to use, select and split groups, they would decide what troops to send in each wave and what sort of equipment they would carry (active or passive) and let the AI handle the rest. A more tactical player could equip his exorcists with activation items that would do the more damage if activated just in the right time. Someone who preferred a more strategic view could equip that same unit with passive buffs and just let them do their thing.


So, I asked them: If you want to empower players with choice, why not weave story into it? Why not allow them to take meaningful choices before each battle? Why not give them a world where choice and consequence are a fact of life?


For an year now I have acted as Lead Writer for Allied Games, first creating a world, then a story, then everything from game mechanics to single-player level design and script.


This is how it worked: I first offered them 10 different ideas, each made up of two paragraphs: a scenario (what was the world like) and a character (who was the player and what did he want). Each team member gave his pros and cons on each idea. From that I create 5 world proposals, each half a page long.


One world came out of that exercise, one so alive that it already had a dozen story ideas attached to it, a context for PvP and a number of possible game features. It also helped direct the art team since now they had a good idea of who were those creatures they were creating.


Of that world and story came the possibility: could we have one moral choice before every new battle (in the single-player campaign) in which choice will have both immediate and lasting consequences?


Well, we could. Suddenly that time just before a battle had its own moment of decision. Should we dig in and fortify our position or assault the castle? Should we use the prisoners as cannon fodder or escort them to the next camp? Decisions were not just story elements. They affected the level itself. Accepting to use an experimental magic device might mean the enemies would need to deal with traps. Returning to help a pinned down garrison could mean they were available in a future battle.


It lead to more.



Could we have the player interact with the battlefield in some way? Well, if he chooses to use the magical traps, why not let him place them on the map? Release the prisoners? He can do it himself by locating cells and breaking the locks. Got artillery? Tell us where to shoot, sir!


The story helped make the experience of Shadow Heroes better by working as surgical glue, bonding everything together in a seamless way. You were now the commander of an army, not an invisible god’s hand. Commanders don’t command troops like mindless minions. They give orders, they equip them, they plan and prepare. Then they win.


Shadow Heroes: Vengeance in Flames is currently seeking funding at Kickstarter. Be a part of this story.

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