It's not often I have a big breakthrough in game design in the middle of a video arcade, but I guess there's a first for everything. Interestingly, I wasn't even playing a video game when it happened. I was watching my eldest daughter, Rachel, being paid off in licorice. Let me rewind a little bit.
Once a year, my family takes a trip to an indoor water park. It's also a hotel, about an hour and a half away from our home. In addition to the water park, there are other kid-friendly activities in the hotel, including a rather large arcade. As is pretty typical in arcades these days, many of the "games" (I put this in quotes as a lot of these are far from actual games, more glorified means of randomization that you may or may not have a little influence on) give away tickets which can be traded in for various prizes.
The ticket-to-prize ratio is rather poor, requiring you to get an obscene amount of tickets for anything of any real value. Mostly, kids end up getting tiny pieces of candy or small party favor-like toys. All three of my kids always get caught up in the tickets, and instead of focusing on playing the most fun video games, they play a lot of "games" that have the potential to win a lot of tickets. Usually, my kids get 100 or so tickets and end up with some toy they'll forget about tomorrow (if it doesn't break before then) and a handful of licorice. Today though, Rachel, wins the jackpot.
I can hear her happily screaming and walk over to see the counter on the game ticking down from some high four-digit number spitting out infinite tickets. Modern arcades tend to use cards that the "tickets" go on, but this one hasn't switched over yet, so you still have to feed endless reams of tickets into a ticket counter to claim your prizes. Rachel goes on to do well at some other "games" and ends up with more tickets than she's ever won before.
Once she's run out of money, it's time to turn in her tickets. Even with all her winnings, she's still far away from the amount she'd need to get any of the real prizes. She's able to get some low-end stuffed animals and various middle-realm prizes. She looks at all her options and then does something I did not foresee. One of the low-end prizes is a single piece of cherry licorice individually wrapped. She asks how much it costs in tickets. The answer is something like ten tickets. Rachel says, "Okay, I'd like all my winnings in licorice."
The woman repeats the request to make sure she's heard Rachel correctly, as it's a lot of licorice. Rachel assures her she has. The woman says okay. She needs to go in the back room to get more licorice. Rachel ends up getting about two and a half giant boxes of individually wrapped licorice. She's smiling ear to ear as we leave the arcade.
As we're walking back to the room, I'm thinking about what Rachel just did. There was no way for her to eat all the licorice she just won. In fact, I know we have a bag of licorice in our house that Rachel could have eaten from at any time, but she hasn't touched it since we bought it. That's when I realized that it wasn't about the licorice, it was about the story of getting the licorice. Rachel had something happen to her that had never happened to her before (winning the jackpot) and she wanted to maximize the experience, to heighten the story when she tells it.
Getting a random stuffed animal that she would have forgotten about 2 hours later wasn't a good ending to her story. She wanted to do something that made this event end memorably. Thinking back, I now realize she took a selfie with all the licorice and posted it to her favorite social media account. Her prize for the day was the story, something that would have value both immediately on social media and later in life as she got to retell the story.
This incident made me think of a memory from my own life. In my youth, I played softball. (Softball is like baseball, but with a larger, softer ball. It's often played by kids in place of baseball.) I was an okay player, but I never particularly excelled at the game. As a hitter, I got to first base about half the time, most often because I got walked (the pitcher threw enough bad pitches that I automatically got to go to first base). I probably hit ten or so doubles during my entire softball career.
It was near the end of the season, and our team had already been eliminated from contention for the championship. We began playing for the fun of playing, and I somehow managed to make an amazing hit and send the ball deep into the outfield. I ran to first base. The ball was still in the outfield, no one had gotten to it yet. I ran to second base. I saw a player on the other team running straight toward the ball, but it was far away, so I ran to third base. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that the player I had seen running had picked up the ball and was about to throw it. My gut told me to stop, but I ignored it, briefly touching third base as I headed for home plate.
Strategically, I was making a huge mistake. A triple is a good hit. My team had no outs, which means my chance of getting to score on another batter was really high. Why did I run? I ran because I knew that this was the one and only chance in my life to hit a home run. I'd never hit a triple before, and my chances of it happening again were slim. I knew I'd gotten lucky. In that moment, I decided taking the chance for a home run was more valuable to me than winning the game I was in.
As I hadn't slowed down at all since leaving second, I arrived just as the ball got to home plate. The throw was a little bit off, giving me the second I needed to touch the base and score a run. And that is how I scored the only home run I ever had in my life.
What do these two stories have in common? In both, Rachel and I prioritized having an experience. Our personal story carried enough value that it influenced how we behaved. It was an interesting concept, that people will give weight to choices based upon the ability to later tell a story about it. I call this idea "narrative equity."
The next step for me was applying this idea to game design. What does narrative equity mean to a game? Well, games are built to create experiences. I talk all the time about trying to tap into emotional resonance and capture a sense of fun. Narrative equity should be one of the tools available to a game designer to do this.
After thinking it through, I came up with seven things a game designer can do to help maximize narrative equity in their game:
#1 – Create components with enough flexibility that players can use them in unintended ways
The first trick in promoting narrative equity is giving the players enough flexibility that they have the means to craft moments where they get to do something that feels uniquely their own. Usually this entails them using a component in a way that feels counter to what the designer had in mind. Repurposing game content is a great story to tell. "The game (designer) assumed people would do thing A, but I did thing B."
The key to accomplishing this is to make your mechanics focused so they clearly imply how they're supposed to be used, but leave enough open-endedness that it allows players to find other uses. Magic's mechanics make this trait pretty easy to accomplish. My favorite example is a card from Tempest, my very first set as a design lead. In that set, I designed a card called Hand to Hand.
The idea behind the design was that it was meant for a deck that ran larger creatures but didn't have a lot of combat tricks. You would play this enchantment as a means to say, "Enough with the tricks, let's just fight." The name and card concept clearly implied that it shut down combat tricks.
The way it ended up getting used in tournaments though took advantage of an interaction that had nothing to do with combat tricks. The deck that used it was a mono-red deck, and it had a lot of problems with a white enchantment called Circle of Protection: Red. Anytime a red source would deal damage, the opponent could pay one mana to prevent all the damage. As it was an enchantment, the red deck had no means to destroy it. Because Hand to Hand's effect works through all of combat, it's also active when damage is assigned, which is traditionally when a Circle of Protection is activated to stop the damage (well, it was at the time), so it ended up being the perfect answer.
The person who discovered this loophole (I don't know who it was) had a great story to tell of them "breaking the system." They got to use the card in a way that it wasn't intended. That gave them a unique sense of ownership in the game and empowered them to feel as if anything was possible. As a game designer, this is a great thing to build into your game.
#2 – Create open-ended components that can be mixed and matched in unforeseen ways
This second trick is really just a variant of the first. Instead of making a single component do all the work, you use the interaction between multiple components to create a similar effect. The advantage to this version is that it's easier to get the player to feel ownership because they had to choose to put the two components together. Again, Magic is designed to do this very well as its base units are cards that, by the nature of the game, must be combined.
The key to making this work is designing the individual components to be as open-ended as possible, allowing the greatest overlap of abilities. Usually within sets, we maximize the combinatorics by focusing on sub-themes we want to overlap. However, the biggest stories tend to come through the interplay across sets, as it's assumed that things within a set are built to work together.
My favorite Magic example of this happened many years ago in Ice Age when we made the card Illusions of Grandeur.
It was a top-down illusion-flavored card designed as a means for blue to defensively stall the game. (I should point out that the card's effect is no longer in blue's color pie.)
Five years later, in Urza's Destiny, I designed this card.
I created Donate because as a Johnny, I liked building decks where I would give creatures with a downside to my opponent because they didn't have decks built to properly deal with the downside. Well, it didn't take long before someone (who, if memory serves me, was a player named Michelle Bush) figured out that if you gave Illusions of Grandeur to an opponent, you granted them the ability to lose 20 life without any means to gain it first.
The deck, called Trix (back in the day, combo deck names were funny like that), went on to be a major powerhouse, and Michelle got to forever share the story of making this discovery.
I should note that I never intended Donate to be used with Illusions of Grandeur specifically, but I knew that the open-ended ability of giving away your things to the opponent would work well with the many downsides we build into cards. I made a tool that I knew players would find clever ways to use enabling them to create stories of discovery.
#3 – Design in unbounded challenges that allow the ability to create memorable moments
The next trick is to make components that have unlimited potential. What I mean by this is allowing the player to do something as many times as they're able. It's fine if in a normal game they can't do it much, just that when the possibility arises, they can do something spectacular in scope.
In Magic, this usually means giving them an ability that they can activate as many times as they like. Ideally, it should be an ability that gets proportionately stronger the more times you activate it. My Magic example actually ties into one of my own personal stories.
In 2007, I attended the World Championship. One of my responsibilities was to play in a free-for-all multiplayer game and subtly show off a preview card from an upcoming set that no one knew I had in my deck. That card was Chameleon Colossus, and, as it turned out, I wasn't particularly subtle.
In the middle of the game, I managed to equip it with two Loxodon Warhammers (lifelink stacked at the time) and through many shenanigans, including doubling its power eight times, I attacked with my Chameleon Colossus for 27,648 damage and gained 55,296 life. Did I win the game? No, we didn't even finish it as the top two advanced to the next round, but it didn't matter. I've told this story hundreds of times and how the game ends never comes up. (You can read the whole story here if you're interested.)
Chameleon Colossus is a great example of the kind of unbounded challenge I'm talking about. Every time you activate it, it doubles its power and toughness. That means each extra use becomes more and more powerful. Most of the time, you're just making it a little bit bigger, but as with this story, the card leaves open the possibility for something epic in scale.
#4 – Create near-impossible challenges that can become a badge of honor
This next trick is similar to the last one, but a little different. Instead of making something that you can do every game but do a lot one game, you make something that is very hard to do ever, so if a player ever manages to accomplish it, it's an instant story to share. The key to this trick is making sure that most players are aware of the possibility even though the majority will never accomplish it. Note that the difficulty is on a scale. The easier you make it, the more players that will get to accomplish it, but the harder it is, the greater the story when someone does it.
My Magic example comes from the second Un- set, Unhinged. The set was playing around with fractions, so I made this card:
Little Girl is not a particularly strong card. A ½/½ creature for half a white mana is actually pretty weak, but it did throw down a challenge. Here's a flavorfully and mechanically weak creature—can you win with it? Note that I made the challenge pretty open-ended. I made a flavorfully weak creature, but left it up to the players what to do with it. What does winning with a Little Girl mean? Does it mean she deals at least a ½ point of damage? Does it mean she delivers the final damage needed to win? Does it mean all 20 damage has to come from the Little Girl? I allowed the players to self-determine what they wanted the challenge to be and then let them reap the rewards when they completed the challenge they set out for themselves.
Back before I joined Wizards, I was known in my Magic circles as the Johnny deck builder who tried to win in the craziest ways possible. A lot of my stories are about how I took a feat that sounds impossible and actually managed to win with it. Little Girl was just me setting up other players to do the same thing.
#5 – Create alternate ways to win
Another way to set up your players' narrative equity is by creating a way to allow them to win your game outside of the normal win condition. Like the last trick, this won't, and probably shouldn't, be particularly easy. It just has to offer the promise of doing things differently than normal. Usually being very flavorful is a big plus for this kind of stuff.
My example from Magic is poison counters. Back in 1994 in a set called Legends, there were two cards that introduced a new way to win at Magic:
Normally, you win by lowering your opponent's life to 0, but poison won by instead giving your opponent counters. Give them ten poison counters and you win. I remember opening up Pit Scorpion and having my mind blown. The card was horrible, but that didn't stop me. It presented a challenge that I hadn't seen before, and I was instantly smitten. I attribute poison counters with being one of the things that most pulled me into the game. This trick is so potent, in fact, that Magic tries to build in an alternative win condition every other year or so.
#6 – Allow players opportunities to interact with other people where the outcome is based on the interaction
One of the best ways to create stories is to force your players to interact with other people. Humans love telling stories about interacting with one another. The key to this trick is making sure that the interaction has an impact on the game, even if only in a minor way. That way, the story gets to be about both the people and the impact it had on the game.
My Magic example for this comes from last year's Un- set, Unstable. I was looking for ways to bring more randomization into the game, and it dawned on me that people were a good source of randomness. So, I made a series of cards that used what I called outside assistance. In each case, you had to involve someone who wasn't in the game to make one or more decisions about the game.
There was a lot of debate within R&D at the time about including these cards, but I was insistent that they would lead to wonderful storytelling moments. And it turns out I was right. There are only seven outside-assistance cards in Unstable, and I've told stories about all of them.
#7 – Give players the ability to customize, allowing them opportunities for creativity
My final trick is to make effects in your game that allow some customization by your players. Let them pick anything (or anything within a large group of choices) so they can craft their own experience. Player's need for narrative equity will push them to make choice that are uniquely their own.
My Magic example for this trick is also from Unstable.
We needed a common blue card to deal with creatures, so I decided to make a Dehydration variant. The trick was Unstable is a silver-bordered product, so I had to add in some component that we wouldn't do in black border. In Un- sets, blue has a small theme of having verbal components, and I realized I was low on that in Unstable.
What if there was a word that you could say that would tap the enchanted creature? Something similar to it not untapping, especially if there was no cost involved other than saying the word. The question was what should the word be? I tried various words but ultimately realized that no matter what word I picked, it wouldn't be funny for everyone who used it, so instead, I made the caster of the spell pick the word. Having watched this card played many times, what I found was that the player tried hard to pick a word that specifically their opponent would find funny.
By allowing them ultimate freedom in picking the word, I increased the possibility that they would choose something that would create a fun moment between them and their opponent, the kind of thing that would lead to a story.
As the Story Goes
Narrative equity isn't a lens you have to view every game component through, but it is something you should view some of them through. When putting your game together, be aware that you have a lot of control over what the end experience will be. By making certain choices, you can maximize those choices that lead to your players forming stories, which in turn will change how your players emotionally bind with your game.
I don't get to do these types of articles often, so I'm always extra interested in the feedback when I do. You can email me or send me your thoughts through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).
Join me next week when I let you question someone you've never questioned before.
Until then, may you have many stories to share.
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