Crash meetings, keep a lore bible, and other narrative design tips learned at King
Storytelling and world-building are important tools game makers have at their disposal, but sometimes only have limited space or assets to build out either.
During the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this week, King’s narrative design lead Tracey John addressed just that, and offered some advice on how narrative designers can work within those limitations to increase engagement and reduce friction (with as few words as possible).
If you’re curious about what King, the studio behind the game Candy Crush Saga, has to offer on the topic of narrative, you’re not alone. John opens the early moments of her talk with that exact same thought: “People wonder ‘How does Candy Crush have narrative design?'”
It’s a question John discovered Candy Crush’s players were asking as well. She shared an image of a survey King conducted with 900 or so members of its playerbase and highlights that 13 percent wanted characters and roles introduced in-game and 12 percent all around wanted more of a story in their Candy Crush games.
But, as John points out, Candy Crush does have an established cast of characters and a cohesive narrative throughout, so the question becomes how does the narrative design need to adapt to make that information more readily apparent to players. On top of that, mobile players tend to skim and quickly tap through prompts, rather than read every word of text that pops up.
“If players really don’t want to read but want more story, how do we give them more?”
John offers up four guidelines to help narrative designers ensure they’re getting the most out of the resources they have: context, clarity, consistency, and charm.
They’re fairly straightforward guidelines but still important for narrative designers to keep in mind. Context gives designers a way to make mechanics and events mesh with the world and characters. John says this means not making assumptions about what players will understand, considering flow and pacing at every turn, and remembering the usefulness of visual cues and strong copy.
Clarity ensures that narrative elements are presented in “a simple and succinct way,” and John says this boils down to being sure to give the right information at the right time, and to not feel the need to have to explain everything. "If you can explain something visually instead of with text, do it!"
Consistency tasks developers with establishing, documenting, and sticking to narrative elements introduced in the game. Players will pick up when something seems out of character or unusual for the world. John says that she and the localization team keep a lore bible for this reason that’s “huge and takes forever to load but is awesome” for keeping narrative consistent across different games and even across localizations.
She offers some tips for keeping things consistent like making sure the visuals and text match the game world, choosing the player's point of view up front, and deciding on (and documenting!) a lexicon and nomenclature up front.
Charm is something the characters and examples John brought during her talk seem to ooze, and something that can be difficult to project when working with limited resources. For Candy Crush Saga, John wanted to give players an unobtrusive way to give more personality to characters, but had to do so without any additional art. The solution was to scatter existing characters across the map and let players tap to see small blurbs that offered up mission hints or light background.
Visual gags can be a great way to carry charm into a mobile game, with the added bonus that there's not text to localize down the road. It's important, she says, to test your ideas and jokes, but narrative designers and writers need to know when to kill their darlings.
“There’s no easy answer or even a right or wrong answer, but as a narrative designer you have to make tough choices,” said John. Sometimes that means cutting charming dialogue in favor of just UI elements that communicate that information with more clarity.
But the biggest tip that John has for designing narrative in a tight space like a mobile game is to make sure that you stay involved in the development process. As she suggests in a slide, “attend or crash meetings!” Learn the production pipeline, make sure you know what other disciplines do, and ensure that your team knows what a narrative designer does.
“If everyone is thinking about narrative design, no one will forget it.”