Game Design

How to Create Immersive Stories For Your Players

Written by
Tom Hammond
October 29, 2020
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A mobile game is more than just a game - it’s an entire world that exists within the imagination of your players.  As a game designer, it’s your responsibility, no, your calling to make that world as real and engaging as possible.

A mobile game is more than just a game - it’s an entire world that exists within the imagination of your players. 

As a game designer, it’s your responsibility, no, your calling to make that world as real and engaging as possible. 

When you create a game, you’re creating something that a player will interact with and have a relationship with. By understanding the player, the game and the relationship between them, you can build deep and meaningful connections. 

This is the absolute key to creating games that players will be OBSESSED with - and will think about long after the game has been completed. 

Why Storyline Is Important in Mobile Games

Humans care about stories. 

Ever since the beginning of humankind, every culture around the world has been captivated with myths, legends and stories. 

Narrative and storyline makes games more immersive, engaging and enjoyable to play. Even games like CandyCrush have a complex lore and backstory! 

We expect players to invest a lot of time into these games. So, why not invest the same amount of time into making them as awesome as possible?

That’s what Abigail Rindo advises in this Superstar Game Maker Insights session from Pocket Gamer Connects Helsinki Digital 2020. We’ll summarize her main points here in this article - and you can watch the video to learn more

Understanding the Player

When it comes to building an engaging mobile game, the focus should be primarily on the player themselves. 

The big question: Why on earth should the player care about your game?

I know it sounds flippant - but there are SO many other distractions out there vying for your player’s attention. Instead of playing your game, they could be checking their Facebook notifications, or scrolling through memes, watching cute puppy videos on YouTube or chatting with a friend. 

So, how can you capture their interest?

The key is to understand their motivation for playing and how the game fits into their day. 

When do they typically play? What time of day? Are they typically playing the game on their commute or during breaks at work? Or perhaps they usually play in the evening, or right before bed?  

These insights can help you to understand whether the player sees the game as an exciting challenge… or a chance to chill out. 

Leaning In vs Leaning Back

Let’s take a closer look into the distinction between these two different motivations for playing a mobile game: leaning in or leaning back. 

The mood that the player is in while they are enjoying the game has an impact on how they play it. 

A study by Tapjoy Research found that the most common emotion reported when playing mobile games is “relaxed” - with the second most common emotion being “interested.” Players also described themselves as feeling “focused”, “engaged” and “happy”.

Interestingly, the study found that players felt happier, more relaxed and more engaged while playing mobile games than they did when using social media apps. Even though some games, such as action or fighting games, put players under stress - it appears that this is the positive type of stress that players seek out and crave. 

Even if a game is very casual and only used as a way to unwind and kill time, it can still have a strong narrative. This can be done via strong characters, a coherent narrative and exciting story elements. 

No matter what style of game it is, you’ll always need to create the rules and the framework for the players to play within. The most effective narrative systems are fully integrated into the game design. 

Onboarding and Tutorials

When you’re onboarding your players, your tutorials are a great way to show the player what they can expect from the story. Don’t use a character as a host who “shows you how to play the game” - as this destroys the illusion of the game and might come across as condescending. 

Instead, immerse your player in the world immediately and let them learn about their surroundings as they explore. 

If you can have a success or fail aspect to your tutorial, you’ll make your game more engaging. Many developers are worried that if their player fails in the tutorial, the player will be discouraged and not want to come back. 

However, if you can make that failure fun and entertaining, you can engage the player, raise the stakes and make them more interested in continuing the game. 

Also, when they fail later in the game they’ll remember that moment in a way that is positive rather than negative. This will keep them going, even when the going gets tough.

Narrative Breadcrumbs

Because storytelling is bite-sized in mobile, you can leave small breadcrumbs for your players to help them discover the story. These story elements need to be small and digestible, so that it fits the medium of mobile gaming. 

The player is searching and gathering clues, and you can leave digestible story elements that they can tie together in their minds. This grants them agency and also allows them to experience the game on their own terms. 

Your players can walk into a room and find messages scribbled on the walls, secret letters or other hidden sources of information. They can find out information through eaves dropping, or deciphering clues. All of these hints are not only fun to discover, they also advance the story. 

Pacing is important here. Your players should have a steady flow of story breadcrumbs, so that they don’t go through the game too quickly before you can release more - or so slowly that they lose interest in the story. 

Think of your story like an iceberg. The initial story that you reveal at the beginning of the game is the tip of the iceberg. However, there is far more lore and backstory within the game beneath the surface - like the majority of the iceberg lurking under the sea. 

Character Design

Characters are the best vehicle we have for the emotional motivation of players. Players make an emotional connection with the characters within the game. So, the more they care about them - the better. 

Here are some important points to remember about character design:

  • Characters can and should be complex. The same iceberg metaphor applies - your characters should have more backstory than they initially let on. 
  • Slowly reveal their personalities, backstory, etc. to the players as the game goes along. 
  • Use the Narrative Breadcrumbs strategy to integrate information about your characters into the story. 
  • Don’t forget to think about the character’s relationships with OTHER characters, both good and bad. 
  • Flawed, imperfect characters are interesting and more realistic. Nobody is perfect! 
  • Understand the deep-held believes and values of each character, as this will dictate how they will react to any given situation within the game. 

Let Your Players Make Choices

By making choices throughout gameplay, your characters will be enhancing their experience and increasing their emotional investment. 

When you let your players make choices during the game, they’ll be more invested in playing and want to come back again and again. Throughout the game, your characters can make choices about rewards, progression and other aspects that drive the story forward. 

The more choices you can allow for your player to make - the more they’ll feel like they are “part of the story”. They won’t feel like they are simply observing the world of the game - they’ll feel like they are an essential component of it. 

Also, don’t be afraid to let your player fail! A game environment where there are no bad choices and no failures starts to get quite boring after awhile, as there are no stakes. If you can allow them to fail in a fun, positive way, they’ll be encouraged to build up their skills and try again. 

Plot and Emotion Mapping

Plot is the vehicle that drives your story forward. It is the foundation of the game and it is what leads the player from one level to the next. Even the most simple mobile games need to have a plot and a clear narrative. 

You’ll want to think hard about the emotional moments in the story that pull people into the game. Build a tight story that contains many points of dramatic tension and release. Really reach right through the screen and GRAB their attention. 

Then, think about how you can build the plot around those important moments. For example, level design is a great delivery tool and narrative vehicle. 

Plus, if you are creative with the way you use story breadcrumbs and plot, your story doesn’t have to follow a linear progression. You can create a story that is complex and branches off in different ways, depending on the choices the player makes throughout the game. 

Cut Scenes and Dialogue

When it comes to cut scenes and dialogue - a little goes a long way. 

If you rely on long portions of dialogue or drawn-out character monologues, people might skip them because they are used to poorly done, boring cut scenes and bad dialogue. After all, haven’t we all hit the SKIP button when it comes 

Unfortunately, this creates a divide between the gameplay and the story. You don’t want the players to resent the storytelling, you want to make sure that the content is even MORE compelling than the content of the game. 

Use humor and charm, drama and intrigue to hold their attention. If it isn’t compelling, you should cut it. Otherwise, you’ll train them to skip the cut scenes - and by the time they get to the end of the game they’ll have missed out on the story you are trying to build.  

Conclusion: Tell Stories to Make Your Games Irresistible! 

Using compelling narratives to enhance the gameplay experience allows you to create something your players will absolutely LOVE and want to share with others. 

Retention is absolutely crucial for the survival of any mobile game - let alone its success. You can try to retain the attention of your audience by releasing new content, having flashy graphics or offering promotions. However, the MOST effective route to keeping players engaged is to tell a good story. 

After all, the proof is in the pudding. You can look closely at event completion rates and other KPIs in split testing to see how a strong narrative creates a more compelling (and therefore, more successful) game. 

In other words - stories get your players HOOKED and make your game irresistible!

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