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Rich storytelling and 'the new episodic' in the mobile space

Rich storytelling and 'the new episodic' in the mobile space

October 10, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

October 10, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Programming, Art, Design, GDC Online

How do you re-interpret AAA storytelling techniques for the mobile age? Alex Seropian, formerly of Bungie and Wideload, is now the founder and CEO of Industrial Toys, and John Scalzi has been writing science fiction books since 2005, most recently authoring the New York Times bestseller Redshirts. The pair is now collaborating on mobile games for core audiences, and storytelling will play a significant role.

Scalzi and Seropian -- who actually went to college together -- now share values around the power of epic storytelling to enrich the lives of gamers, and see it as a priority for game designers even if they are not writers.

However, storytelling in games is, of course, a different proposition than it is in other media where the story is processed through observation versus interactivity: "Players inherently are active participants in what's going on, and this is important," says Scalzi.

Many people who don't make games think the primary vehicle for storytelling in games is the cutscene, a linear form of storytelling. "Self-service" lore databases are good vehicles for players that are engaged and want to read, and combat dialogue involves the delivery of information related to the ongoing action. "Using a little bit of game logic is a cool way to make the experience feel like it's the player's own," says Seropian.

In an action game, "magic moments" and memorable scenes can play strong roles. In Heavy Rain, the scene when the character is being goaded to sever his own finger was interesting to players, to where Seropian felt satisfied by his choice even when he pressed the wrong button by accident: "I never felt like I wanted to go back and replay it, because that was my story -- to go back and re-do it would invalidate what had happened," he explains.

The challenge in the mobile space is that players' engagement cycles are much shorter. "People may sit and play for a long period of time, but the way people have been trained on these platforms... is that things are very immediate, things start instantly, you get to the action quickly, and you only have a few cycles to get that engagement," Seropian explains.

How do you translate that AAA, deep experience to a platform when you can only be certain of getting about 60 seconds of someone's time? Moreover, it's common for people to play mobile games with the audio off, so it's best to assume sound isn't going to help.

Neither is the lush app selection -- there are an overwhelming number of games available, many of them free. This fosters what Seropian calls "app promiscuity": There's no penalty for downloading a lot of apps and giving each one a quick try before moving on to the next.

So what are some of the strengths of mobile as a platform for rich play? First, everyone has a phone, and today's devices are always online, giving the developer a constant avenue to communicate with the player. "Similarly, every one of these devices has a store, and has a way to deliver content directly to it, so the friction [of providing] an experience to a customer is the lowest on any platform," Seropian notes.

In Seropian's view, any game can be an "RPG," from the perspective that engaging content contains relatable characters with which the player can grow with over time. Scalzi notes this concept applies to any sort of story, with the basic "hero's journey" monomyth beginning with a character who doesn't necessarily begin as heroic, but ends up that way.

This means one way to capture audiences in a crowded field can be to create a character that is relatable but nonetheless stands out. The problem is there are such a wide array of iconic characters existing just in gaming alone, says Scalzi.

"There are the war heroes, the mechs, the superheroes, any sorts of archetypes, and so every time you go to design a character or try to build that into what you're doing, not only do you have to make that character interesting in his or her own right, but you're also up against every single character that exists, that your players have played before -- every single person they can imagine themselves to be."

So how can you define personality in 15 seconds? The pair demonstrated how many traits you can glean about characters and the relationship they have by only four lines of short dialogue between two people. "We need to hit these things early and often," says Scalzi. "You need to draw people in and immediately you give them context."

The "D&D Method" of world-building involves creating a massive, developed world with a lot of detail and rules, and then running a campaign through it, a la Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones.

The other option is to create the story first, and then build the world as such that it accommodates the story but not too much outside of it. Any game on a rail is an example of this, where the only physics of concern are the ones that apply specifically to the necessary moments in that experience.

There are benefits to going "full-on D&D," says Seropian. When you start asking yourself questions about your universe, it builds a framework that answers a lot of the questions that surface about content.

It also helps with the cross-media ecosystem that naturally is more possible in the mobile market, which supports books, video, and apps that can tie in. Without a universe designed beforehand, you end up needing to recruit others to build out that content.

For their own current collaborative project, the pair is going beyond gaming to add in something that resembles "something like a book." But how to include the audience in that narrative? "The audience's expectation is not just to be taken along for the ride, but to be part of the ride," says Seropian.

To him, this forms a "reinterpretation" of the meaning of episodic games, which used to be conceived as something analogous to the television programming model, an approach that didn't broadly catch on for games. But as an overall idea, the pair remains interested in viewing the game-making process as an ongoing one that includes the customer in its iterative loop.

"We learn a lot when a game comes out and it doesn't end there -- we continue to refine, add content and features and update the game by using information we're getting from the customer," says Seropian. "To me that is really what episodic game-making is about, now."

Better than community tools like forums, build tools into the app from the beginning to encourage the gamer to take part in the process. "Mobile is a platform that was born out of the 'killer app' of communication... so building those kind of tools, for us, was kind of a 'duh'," says Seropian.

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