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Story in Social Games
by Justin Nearing on 01/27/11 11:48:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Republished with permission from

Story in social games is different from that in other game mediums. In hardcore games, the story is closer to the classic narratives of yesteryear: The player takes the role of a protagonist who drives the plot of the story. Character development is presented by sequence of non-interactive cutscenes, broken up by interactive gameplay sessions- gameplay sessions where the player drives major plot events of the Story.

Story in social games, however, is slightly different. In social games, the story is light, presented in small chunks, and specifically designed to drive the user to rewarded behaviours. How can Story in a social game drive growth?

Story and Acquisition

Initially, the Story gives the player a frame of reference, telling them who they are, what they’re doing, etc. This initial backstory is usually very light and simple. In most social games, the story is presented in one/two-line sentences.

“You are the leader of a Space Empire, seeking to expand across the stars.”

At this point the Story becomes the tutorial. The user is given their first mechanic to learn, framed using the tone/language of the story. (Some games personify the tutorial via an in-game “Advisor”; a non-playable character that gives you the directions in the game. This Advisor is the developers voice to directly communicate to the user)
Spaceguy McAdvisorman:

“Your first task as Supreme Commander of the Omniverse is to collect 30 space sheep”
–> [Collect Sheep Button] <–

After the task is complete, the user is given a reward, and the next task  is presented. Each core game mechanic is introduced in this fashion. By using Story, the user is taught the core gameplay mechanics in a fun and unobtrusive way.

Story and Retention

Using the tutorial, the user is natively taught that the game is driven forward using this task feature. Each task is framed through the Story, (and delivered through the Advisor) giving a set of criteria the user must complete. The user complies by doing each step in the task and is rewarded. Each step of the task should be laid out, using the language of the Story, so that the user constantly knows how to go forward and be rewarded.

Trigger Tutorial
–> “You must defeat the evil Gathbof in Battle, but to do so you need a Silver Spear”
–> Button leading to Store
–> “Welcome to the Store, young warrior of the twilight, the Advisor notified me of your arrival”
–> Button to Buy Weapon
–> “You are learning quick, young warrior, now face Gathbof in Battle!
–> Button to Battle
–> “You defeated Gathbof and received GOLD!”
–> Receive Gold
–> “There is too much loot for one person, SHARE the bounty!”
–> Push Viral

As the user learns the core game mechanics, naturally they can start to learn more complex and unintuitive game mechanics- especially if they are taught the same way the core mechanics were. Tasks makes learning new, complex mechanics easily, because the user is guided at every step.

As the mechanics become more complicated, the tasks become more complicated, however the user is never overwhelmed because each step is always laid out, and the flavour of the Story continues to drive them forward. To put it simply- Story allows the user to have fun learning game mechanics!

The Task/Quest mechanic becomes especially useful when new features are added to the game, as users are already trained to do as the tasks direct. As new features are introduced into the game, they are done so via the Story. As the player progresses to the later stages of the game, the Story becomes less about teaching users mechanics, and predominantly becomes a way to continue pushing the user forward and reinforcing learned/rewarded behaviour.

Story and Monetization

How can the Story directly monetize a social game? CLASH: Rise of Heroes does this well in their Campaigns.

After the initial tutorial, the user is directed to play through the first “free” campaign. Each campaign is a narrative driven by the user, presented much like traditional AAA stories: Cutscenes are broken up by gameplay sessions- the cutscenes develops the characters and sets up major plot points; the Gameplay Sessions allow the user to interactively act out said plot points.

After the campaign is finished, they must purchase additional Campaigns (Stories) via premium currency. Users are only willing to pay for the additional Campaigns if they are sold on the story. CLASH does this very well because of the old super-hero comic book style it adopts.  Target users (anyone that read comics as a kid) are filled with a sense of nostalgia, and are given the opportunity to do exactly what they did as a kid- pretend they are a super-hero like in the comics.

Wrapping Up

Currently, story in social games are short, non-obtrusive ways to drive your players to learn or reinforce rewarded behaviours. Few, if any games really have stood out and implemented a compelling narrative in a social game. I feel that as this genre matures, games will come out where there is more emphasis on Story. Until then, Story will be little more of a side-note in social games.

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Tadhg Kelly
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I feel that you're trying to conflate Story to games (as many do) as a way to express something else, namely some sort of higher artistic sentiment. I applaud this, but "Story" is a bad framework to try and do that with.

Justin Nearing
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Here I am trying to describe how you can wrap Story elements around game mechanics in a way that directly grows your game. Specifically, I am demonstrating ways in which you can directly train your player on how to play the game in a way that does not break the players immersion.

Do note that Story, in this context, is broken down into its component parts- A Character, for example, is the "Advisor" used to tell the player what their next task is. A better way to put it is that we are Personifying a game mechanic- in other words making the task "Go to X and do Y" a much more engaging activity by giving it character.

I think most Story components, from over-arching plotline, to character development, to expressing a theme, can be injected into many game mechanics found in Social Games. Game developers have just started to touch on these components, and currently lack the subtly of true narratives. However, the first step is to start thinking about Story in Social Games- and I'm glad we have started.

Lincoln Li
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Hey Justin,

Sorry, one thing wasn't clear to me, but could you define Social Games in the context of your post? It sounds like you're trying to encourage the idea of narrative/story driven game-play in games that are created on Facebook or other social networks, not specifically social games themselves.

From my understanding and view of social games, isn't any game that requires and also internally encourages the formation of social groups and bonds considered a Social Game? In that case, MMO's, such as World of Warcraft, would be a social game. Also, in mmorpg/mmo's, the presence of story is already often used to compel players to socialize and play together.

So, I guess my next question is, if you were to take the game FarmVille, for example, how would that game benefit from using your support of narrative driven design? And how would it be different from pre-existing MMO's already based around the design of rewards/advancement for cash?

Justin Nearing
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For the context of this article, I purely meant game such as FarmVille. Calling them "Social Games" is a bit of a misnomer, but thats another article altogether. And yes- most games are inherently social.

FarmVille doesn't really do this, however Zynga's recent entry CityVille does. The game uses Characters to frame tasks that keep compelling the user to keep playing. The characters are personified by the type of task that has to be completed- if the task requirement is harvest crops, the "Country Gal" Rita is the one giving the user the task. Likewise, the business mogul looking type gives you franchise task requirements.

The thing I want to stress though is that by applying a Persona to the task system, it adds a level of immersion, making the task "fun".

Alan Jack
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But does it? Does it really add that much fun?

Farmville is infinitely more popular than Space Empires.

"Story" in a game means a lot more than a solid pre-existing world and a well-written protagonist. The concept of interactive narrative is such that there's an element of story in all interactivity, however abstract that story might be.

In something like Farmville, "story" is strong, but abstract. It exists mostly in the nature of the game - the story of the interaction is little more than "open, click, click, click, click, close". The compelling element isn't a grand character back-story, but the set of rewards, the context given to those clicks. So on the next level, it is "open, grow, grow, expand, share, grow, share, grow, share, grow, close". The final level of the story, wherein I acknowledge my character as a farmer building his own little world, is not what drives me to play.

So when the user is learning the game mechanics, I would argue that the more important thing for them is to see the immediate benefits of their actions, not that they have a narrative drive to push them onward.

As someone who wants to move into narrative-driven games design, its a strange dichotomy - I want to support story in games, but in most cases it is used superfluously.

Justin Nearing
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I think one of the problem is here is that we assume all Social Games as a city/farm/empire building game. There may be room for narrative-driven gameplay in a game that doesn't revolve around building a city/farm/empire.

Just like you have to build a freemium game with monetization/virality hooks from the ground up, you can make a game with narrative-driven gameplay- however it has to be implemented from the beginning.

For example, leading up to the release of Dragon Age, Bioware released a "prequel" game that was a browser based, narrative-driven adventure. With some viral/monetization hooks, this type of game could easily be a contender on Social Networking platforms.