Story games - Designs on a free-to-play future

Story games - Designs on a free-to-play future
Sam Barlow

By Sam Barlow

July 29th 2013 at 10:00AM

Climax's Sam Barlow on how a strong narrative can drive user retention and monetisation

[Sam Barlow was the writer and designer of the acclaimed Silent Hill Shattered Memories. He currently works at Climax Studios as a game director where he is focused on the next generation of interactive storytelling.]

“THE PRICE IS ZERO”

In the near future, people won’t pay for content. We already have one foot in this inevitability and see that the $60 boxed product’s days are numbered. Thank God.

Bang-for-buck has always been the elephant in the room for narrative heavy videogames. We’ve become accustomed to charging niche prices for content we’d like to argue has a much broader appeal.

Sure, Opera tickets are expensive when compared with a Netflix subscription but we get that Opera fans are subsidising an art form that lacks the mass-appeal to sustain itself otherwise. It would be depressing to many of us in the videogame industry to think (or admit) that videogames are a niche art form like Opera.

If we want to speak to large audiences, the business side of things needs to be sorted out. We need to price things accordingly. We need a price that makes sense in the future. That price – inescapably – is zero. There’s no getting around this: if narrative videogames are to have a broad appeal future, we need to give them away.

EXAMPLE:
YOUR HARRY MASON IS NOT MY HARRY MASON
In Silent Hill Shattered Memories we found a way to combine self-expression and a story that moved you. As players created “their Harry Mason” they explored – without realising it – the themes of the story. But their creation was always part of the story and never overshadowed the key messages we had to share.

Now, anyone paying attention will know that this doesn’t mean “making games for nothing.” We still need to get paid and turn a profit.

As a creator I take a pragmatic view here – if you can’t make something and not lose money, perhaps the world isn’t ready for what you’re making? There’s a level of fiscal responsibility required when conceiving of a narrative video game! This is where free-to-play comes in. Here’s a concept that that allows us to give the game away for free, but charge money for other things.

Free-to-play is in its early days, but already it’s demonstrating some characteristics that are hugely exciting for a creator of interactive narratives. Ignore the example set by the subset of F2P games that are re-skinned arcade machines – the virtual coin guzzlers that aren’t fun without paying.

Instead, here’s my definition for successful free-to-play. It’s exciting for narrative game designers because it forces us to engage with the essence of what we’re making:

Recipe for a free-to-play game

• Give the game away for free
• Make it so the vast majority can play the game for free and ENJOY IT
• Make your title inherently viral so that you don’t have to pay lots of money to reach an audience
• Focus on making your game more interactive, more fun so that you CREATE a hardcore group of players who are happy to pay to engage deeper with your game

This last point is key - paying players are not a breed of their own. They’re hobbyist, fans or evangelists for particular games. A game needs to nurture its players and create its own hardcore.

“REMEMBER THE IDIOT BOX?”

F2P narrative experiences are nothing new. This ground was broken earlier in the human cycle by something we now take for granted: commercial television.

When TV first arrived it had the same detractors as F2P does now. It was seen as a lesser form of entertainment. A lowest common denominator medium, one ruled by commercial imperatives. When compared with the higher art of movie making, television narratives had some ugly impositions on their structures and quality:

• Stories had to be built around advert breaks
• There was a necessity for cliff-hangers
• Run time meant you couldn’t explore deep narratives
• Low budgets and short production turnaround meant low quality

Cheap, disposable content. Shallow and lacking higher artistic merit. Sound familiar?

Of course, in time some of these impositions actually improved the work: short run times and the necessity of ad breaks forced a level of precision and structure on the writing of TV and those low budget production values fostered craft and creativity over excess. But ignore that for now. Instead, let’s think about what TV and only TV could do – its secret weapons:

• TV was a social experience. Everyone watched the same shows and could come together for water cooler moments or those huge “events” when hit shows featured plots that captured the hearts of an entire population.
• TV was a dynamic experience. Audience reaction directly drove the ongoing development and not just which shows got canned or not. TV could be topical, ride the zeitgeist.
• TV had a low barrier to entry. They sat in your living room, waiting for you. You don’t need to go out, book a babysitter or make plans to turn on a TV.
• TV had scale and new funding models. The breadth of a TV audience allowed for alternative monetisation: advertising. And this was driven by data – even from the early days TV advertising was ruled by statistics about audiences for particular shows and allowed specific demographic sections to be targeted
• TV could go on forever. As long as there was an audience for a show a TV creator could fully explore their concept - have the concept grow with its audience. A show could create characters who lived entire lives alongside their audience. Where movies compress and focus, TV could unravel and have novelistic explorations of characters. In Soaps, we’ve seen characters go through school, grow up, get married and have children of their own!

Free-to-play is the commercial TV of videogames. It brings with it some commercial considerations that can come off as crass. But it also has secret weapons - possibilities that will make us better game developers. With this in mind, let’s sketch out the kind of shape a F2P narrative game could take.

EXAMPLE:
A SERIES OF INTERESTING CHOICES

The team at Choice of Games are doing a lot for the concept of personalisation and deep data when it comes to story telling. Their works are text-only and could never satiate a visually minded Arsenal-Man gamer, but some of their explorations of a broad selection of genres are very compelling. They have a dedicated fan base of users who like to play and re-play to explore the different facets of a story and they’re experimenting with a number of different ways of monetising a deep choice game.

“A BETTER STORY GAME”

Think about the paying players for our story game. They’re the tip of the player iceberg and the people who really LOVE our game. Drill down and think about what the core proposition is for them. What is the gameplay they want to go deep on? It’s not levelling up swords, getting high scores or creating an amazingly well defended base. If we go and look at existing narrative games, what do the hardcore do with those games? What aspects - fundamental to the games - drive these players?

I’m going with CHOICE. The interactivity. If we want to easily separate the casual story game players from the hardcore, the easiest way to do it is to ask: “Do you replay the game to achieve a different ending?”.

Our light user plays once, takes the choices they want and enjoys their personalised ending. But the hardcore want to see every angle – these are the players drawing flow charts, uploading to - or downloading from - GameFaqs. They want to try every choice, maximise their outcome or gain a deeper understanding of the game. They’re the ones uploading playthroughs to YouTube showing each and every ending. Some of them just buy the strategy guide up front to enable them to go deep, not miss a thing, but skip the hard work for a cost.

Simple then. To make narrative games work as free-to-play, let’s focus on what makes a narrative game different from a static story - the choice, the game’s interactivity. Let’s give our players more choice, make those choices deeper or richer. Then we will have created an experience that certain players will want to go deep on.

“GIVING CHOICES VALUE”

Energy mechanics get a bad rap. And they can be used as a lazy crutch for a game which doesn’t have any other way to monetise - or which would grow bland if consumed in anything other than bite sized pieces.

But let’s consider how an energy mechanic might add to the experience of this game with more choice and more interactivity. Traditionally games with an emphasis on choice have struggled to make player’s actually feel the weight of those choices.

Everyone’s favourite example is Bioshock: saving or sacrificing the Little Sisters never felt real. Whatever I did nothing much seemed to change as the consequences of either choice seemed balanced - I’d be rewarded with Adam sooner or later.

Well here’s where energy comes in. Let’s make energy represent the ‘effort’ required by an action. If you expend too much energy you run out – and have to wait or pay (with money, or via social actions, etcetera). This way some actions have more weight. If my character has a decision with an “easy way out”, perhaps one that might not produce an ‘optimal’ outcome for the story - let’s make that cheap, even free perhaps.

But if there’s a choice that could lead to a much better outcome and requires that character to dig down and really draw from their inner strength - an action that requires them to be painfully honest or draw on a part of themselves they’ve kept hidden – we can price this action much higher.

Now we have a real world pressure in sync with the narrative pressure. Whether I’m a casual player, one of our hardcore, or somewhere in between, each of these choices has an extra weighting - a genuine value attached to it.



EXAMPLE:
DEAD MEN WALKING

The success story for full on story games – Telltale’s episodic The Walking Dead - was a great marriage of an IP with an experienced group of innovators. The constraints of the zombie narrative enabled Telltale to drop some of the baggage and focus on choice and character. Their end-of-episode stats are a great example of the water cooler element – and could be taken so much further in a game with deeper choice.

“MAKING A SOCIAL STORY”

So we have our rich, deep story game - one where choices have a value enhanced by an energy mechanic. What’s left? We need to bring the social dimension in to grow and enhance our audience. A way of dragging the water cooler into the digital age.

In an earlier time it was hard to imagine ways of drawing other players into a story experience without breaking the illusion – nothing breaks a fourth wall like a co-op player hamming it up, or having to stop to take a drink off his mom.

But now social means so much more than just playing together. We want to enhance the experience by drawing on that concept of ‘water cooler’. With a game running off deep stats and choices there are a multitude of opportunities to compare and contrast players. How similar is your story to your close friends? How do your choices stack up next to the other players in the world?

When you see that your friend saved a character that you killed, or perhaps fell in love with a character where you merely become friends… not only does this make the individual experience more apparent, but it potentially exposes you to ways of playing you missed. And it changes the experience fundamentally.

When you take deep personalisation of a story and then share it, expose it on the social stage, it becomes self expression. Everyone cares about self expression. An empty experience creates content that is worthless. But the opportunity to make things happen in a story, to mould it, to express yourself by immersing yourself in a story? That is worth paying for.

[Interested in contributing your own article for Develop's readers? We're always on the lookout for industry-authored pieces on development-related topics. Email craig.chapple@intentmedia.co.uk for more details.]