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Storyboarding for Games User Research

February 13, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next


Our examples have shown that UT reports can be very useful to game developers if done right. However, there are many purposes for employing storyboards to convey a narrative behind several aspects of game development, such as gameplay, art, animation, marketing, and the actual game narrative (Joe Gingras from Ubisoft Montreal gave a great talk at MIGS 2012 about finding a shared vision for developers using storyboarding in all these areas).

Before we revisit how storyboarding can improve our UT reports, we will discuss a little bit about the theory of storytelling, as there is a pattern behind great stories. To be entertaining for example, stories need to have the right dramatic cues and tap deep into an audience's collective psyche. (See fig. 1 for an example sketch of a story arc)

Fig 1: Story arc sketch.

On the other side, storytelling is at the heart of the human experience. Once we experience something great, we often cannot wait to tell someone about it. Stories help us shape our perceptions and consolidate our feelings. User experience researchers have leveraged the power of storytelling to drive observation-based and focus group research for improving websites and interface designs (see here and here for more).

For example, in scenario-based design (aka SBD -- see here for more) textual narrative descriptions of an imaginary situation are employed in a variety of ways to guide the development of an interactive system; in video game development the data gathered during UT sessions can make more persuasive stories (or scenarios).

In this feature, we focus on stories that have the goal of describing and communicating player experience aspects to the game development team.

Storytelling is one of the most natural and powerful ways to share information. As part of user experience, stories help designers to put the work in a real context and show design concepts or connect ideas. But more importantly stories help to keep users in the center of the design process. This is critical when developing for video games as the success of the final product directly depends on it being used (played and enjoyed) by users (players). Stories can be a way to keep players a center of game development process, even if they cannot always be part of development team.

Game development includes many disciplines, each with its own perspective, rhetoric, and formalities. By providing examples and a common vocabulary for everyone in a development team, storytelling can bridge these disciplines together and help in building a shared vision and interpretation (or a "visual consensus", as Ubisoft's Joe Gingras called it). We can use stories to gather, share and distribute information about players, tasks and goals (e.g., their motivation for playing a game). Stories can be a powerful tool in game development for encouraging collaboration and innovation of new design ideas across the whole design team (from programmers to publishers).

The limitations of stories -- if they are not data-supported -- can be that they are a personal and subjective account told from a consumer's perspective. Therefore, recording and assessing experiences can have fairly intangible results when they're simply subjective narrative accounts. However, stories can become useful when player stories generated based on data collected during UT sessions.

For example, these data may include player comments, observational notes, gameplay metrics, and biometrics. Analyzing large-scale or high-resolution player data can be daunting, and presenting results from these studies is often not straightforward. Using stories would facilitate understanding the human aspects in these data. These data-supported stories would help game developers to understand and interpret GUR reports better.

Biometric Storyboards

We are promoting the use of storytelling (or more specifically storyboarding) to point out UT findings and their impact on player experience. Storyboards could also visualize the impact of an improved design on players' feelings. For example, we could use storyboards to visualize positive and negative player emotions during gameplay as well as player engagement. Matching UT reports to these observations can provide a powerful overview of game levels and help uncovering game design weaknesses.

We also see storyboarding as a powerful tool for triangulating or combining different data sources, bringing together the power of quantitative data as well as the depth of insight gained from qualitative inquiry and observation. Our storyboarding approach aims to help games user researchers to visualize game design intentions, player experience reports, and physiological responses (biometrics).

We are currently experimenting with the integration of biometrics annotated by player-defined experience points in the game. We call these integrated storyboards that annotate physiological data: "Biometric Storyboards". They can help with visualizing meaningful relationships between design intentions by measuring a change in the player's physiological states (emotion) respective to game events.

The design of Biometric Storyboards went through a number of iterations based on feedback from game developers. In the first iteration we divided each level up by time; however we realized that time is not always meaningful for some games, and "beats" (or thematic areas) were considered more representative. The current iteration, (see fig. 2), is simple to read and understand as it couples behavior (the text along the bottom) with the associated player experience (the line graph).

Fig 2. Example screenshot of Biometric Storyboards prototype. Click for full image.

From these iterations we learnt that: (1) each level should be divided into thematic areas, as this would make the key sections easier to compare; it also could include the time it took the player to complete that area. (2) Green or red dots can be used to pinpoint the moments of positive or negative experience. They are key to providing context and establish cause and effect. (3) It is important to couple behavior (the text along the bottom) with the associated player experience to make the diagram easier to read. (4) The experience graph should go down (negative gradient) to indicate and isolate negative player experiences and to better represent the emotional change.

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Dennis Kappen
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Great article!!. This is an exciting area of research and has immense potential.

Typically a storyboard is a representational process of visually depicting the structure of a story. A sequence of visuals helps to communicate the progression or build up of the story. Storyboarding has always been used by designers and concept artists to flush out their ideas in the ideation phase of a project in the fields of industrial design, multimedia, animation, web development, game design and films to mention a few. The storyboarding activity is a means to create a tangible expression of an intangible collection of thoughts by a designer or a team of designers.

In my mind, storyboarding is a quick, iterative and a visual representation of a collection of ideas, which together communicates the overarching schema or the design intent of a proposed solution. The visual representation can be in the form of sketches, flowcharts, or mind mapping bubble diagrams on a simplistic level. In the process of design, the storyboarding process has been a brainstorming method whereby expensive production costs can be saved by investing time in storyboarding concept designs in various phases of any project in the above mentioned fields.

Hence, in storyboarding, all one needs is an idea which is then transcribed into sequential visuals, which then communicates the essence of the scenarios being conceptualized or designed. This activity has been used in all the three stages of the concept design process namely; ideation (the creative and brainstorming phase); design creative (act of transferring concept ideation into tangible visual elements); and design validation (testing the functionality of the design being conceptualized to ensure that the creative solution adheres to the goals set out in the design brief). The concept design phase is then followed by an iterative loop interconnecting future phases; design and development; prototyping; validation and testing.

My point here is that, semantically, storyboarding is an idea representational tool or a scenario representational tool in the process of concept development.

In the above article, the term “storyboarding “has been used by the authors’ as a means of representation of data visually. The question that bothers me is that if the data generated in the UT is already a tangible element, is it still appropriate to use the term storyboarding to visualize data? If the data is being represented visually, then, is the representation semantically, a data visualization interface as opposed to being a storyboard? In my humble opinion, the term storyboard in “Biometric Storyboards” may not be appropriate in its usage, because the representation is of finite and defined data as opposed to ideas. Perhaps, in my mind, the term “storyboards” adds confusion between idea representation; and representation of data or multiple permutations and combinations of data visualizations.

On the other hand, if Biometric Storyboard as a tool would help designers to build “what if” scenarios from the collected data to project or simulate future responses, then it lends itself to being a concept/scenario generation tool as opposed to being a data visualization tool.

Simulations of new scenarios based on mapping between the intended, the perceptual and the actual interactions would create a better understanding of users’ needs and interaction challenges.

In my humble opinion, the question we need to ask is while a storyboard is a visual representation, is every data representation a "storyboard"?

Lennart Nacke
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Dennis, this is a great question that we actually thought about close to the end of the development of Biometric Storyboards. Really, what is being generated by the user research and biometric data is a visualization of game structure, much like a plot graph of important game events. So, following your definition of storyboarding as an ideation tool, I guess we are closer to a filtering tool than an ideation tool. I think part of the understanding that we still have to gather is whether storyboarding itself is a useful term for this kind of data representation or whether there could be better terms for quick insight tools that visualize big data for gaming. I think storyboarding and ideation is where our approach started, but it would be interesting if there are more appropriate terms for this as we go toward visual data analytics.

Rina Wehbe
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The article was well written and clearly outlined a problem. Biometric storyboards were purposed to help game design teams communicate ideas effectively by using physiological inputs to get information about the user’s emotional state. However, physiological methods are proficient at determining the valence of the arousal. Is gameplay behaviour enough to determine the valence of the arousal? Could you further talk to this point? I would also be interested in hearing more about you ideas concerning using psychographics to determine motivations and patterns of behaviours. Overall great article!

Pejman Mirza-Babaei
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Hi Rina, glad that you liked the article, also interesting thoughts and questions. I don't think we are that advanced to be able to determine user's emotional state yet. In Biometric storyboards , the graph represent user's level of arousal (excitement or frustration) and qualitative data (post-gameplay interview) are used to determine their valence. These player experience information would be more useful when compared to designer's intended experience. Also, I don't think gameplay behaviour is enough to determine player experience (see the heatmap example in the first page), and that is why GURs use triangulation of methods. Also have a look at this article regarding your question about using psychographics to determine motivations and patterns of behaviours

Dennis Kappen
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Thank you Lennart, not getting bogged down by semantics, this is a great article and I am also reading the CHI2013 paper to understand interrelationships between player experience, intended, perceptual and actual interactions and get more clarifications on physiological methods.