Last week, Ninja Theory said that story is the most important aspect of game design. This caused quite the stir in the comments that I was unable to participate in. So, I shall post my thoughts here.
First I will say that I don't completely agree with Ninja Theory. I don't think that story is the most important aspect of game design. But it's importance is growing.
For me, gameplay is the most important aspect of games design. You can have the best looking, sounding game with the best story ever, but if the gameplay sucks, it will destroy any other good will it may have had with gamers.
So where soes that leave story in the ranking? Personally, I would toss it in the same level as art direction and audio. All of which falls behind gameplay.
To help explain this, I will be looking at the 5 W's: Who, What, When, Where, Why; and the H: How. Each of these is impacted by one of the main factors of games design in some way.
This is two fold. First, we have "Who will be playing the game?" This is the first question you may ask yourself when designing a game. This will often determine the type of game you make. This will also determine the controls you use in the case of platform specifics.
Next is who the player will be represented by in the game world. There will not always be a clear answer to this as the player will be some disimbodied persona that is not referneced in the game (ie Tetris, Bejewled) Yet, there will often have some kind of avatar representing the player (id any FPS, RPG)
Is it necessary for the player to have an avatar representing them in the game? No. But having one can often help the player immerse themselves in your world. Having a good story for the game can help in designing the player's avatar.
What is the goal of the game? What is the player shooting for?
These questions can have a variety of answers ranging from "to get a high score" or "save the world"
Gameplay will often define short term goals and at times define the end goals. So for a puzzle game the short term goal will be "use the pieces to match 3 like shapes" or for an RPG "use your abilities and equipment to win the battle"
But just like with who, a story provides context for these goals. What type of enemies are you fighting? What abilities are the players going to have? What equipment?
This is a little more abstract. There are two possible ways to address this point. The first is "What is the time frame for completion of the game goals?" It is also "What is the timesetting for the game, future, past or present?"
Gameplay will always determine a time fram for completion. In racing, the goal is often to get the fastest time on a track. In a puzzle game it is to get the most amount of points in a set time.
But when you add story, you can often add to the setting of the game. So an RPG or FPS will be able to expand on the setting and provide further context to the gameplay. Story can also help define why you have given time frame. (ie the enemies have set a bomb and you have 10 minutes to escape.)
This is where the player will be spending their time while playing. Gameplay will often define the abstracts such as a gameboard or battle arena.
But just as we have seen in the other points, story expands upon those locations. So we can place the player in a variety of locations such as a Mars base, or a fantasy kingdom. Having a location also helps define the who and what of the game as it gives greater context to the player's avatar and the enemies they fight.
This is state of mind that the player needs to be in to play the game. Why are they playing? What is their motivation. Along with What, this point helps define goals of the game. If they are playing to get the most points, why are they doing it? Are they doing so to be number one on a high score list?
It can also define those other goals such as "Why is the player fighting these enemies?" Are they doing so to take over the world, save the world, or protect their home? Having a story to define the why, you can give the player a stronger motivation to complete the goals of the game.
Finally we have how. This is the most basic aspect of game design. How will the player be interacting with the game world? I would say that this is the most important of the six points. This will be strongly defined by the game play. How will the player manipulate the peices in the game area? How will the player access the abilities of the avatar and use them on the enemies?
This is the least likely area to be strongly influenced by story as it deals mostly with input and UI.
So in the end, you can create a great game while completely ignoring story. You can create any game from a puzzle to and FPS to an RPG and completely ignore story elements. But having a story to add context to a game can provide the same or possibly greater impact of the art you put in the game.
For one last point, let's look at one of the most successful games ever made, Madden NFL. At its very core, this is just a football game. Its gameplay is defined by the NFL rules. You can create a very good football game without needing the NFL tema names and stadium. But when you add certian story elements such as who, when and where you give the player a greater immersion into the game. This has added to the success of the franchise.
There have been other football games that did not use the NFL trademarks, but none have been as successful. It is when you provide the player the ability to select their favorite team and players and put them in familiar settings that you gain that recipe for success.
So while you can create a great game that has no story to add context to the player's actions, and ome games don't need it at all (ie puzzle games), adding context through even a minimal amount of story elements can greatly influence the player's ability to enjoy the gameplay, just as art and audio does.