Point, badges, and rewards can motivate players.
Do you know what else can motivate players?
Hatred, fear, lust, love, shame, greed, pity, pride, jealousy, bravery, sympathy, empathy, passion, appreciation, awe, infatuation, romance, revenge, ego-gratification, arrogance, agony, ecstasy, apathy, resentment, disgust, rage, regret, guilt, grief, frustration, terror, anger, joy, optimism, idealism, antagonism, faith, forgiveness, self-hatred, envy, timidity, embarrassment, bitterness, boredom, curiosity, shyness, kindness, devotion, vindication, valiance, vanity, wrath, and wonder.
If you are new to writing game stories you may think in terms of genre or plot. However if you really want to unlock the power of story, try thinking in terms of emotion and emotional conflict between sympathetic characters.
For a good reference for thinking of emotion as mechanics for motivation, I suggest the book The Emotion Machine by Marvin Minsky, co-founder of MIT's AI laboratory.
Here are a few tips on dramatic design for non-writers.
1. Drama is about emotional conflict in social relationships.
Behavioral primatologists have observed that the most primitive unit for humans is the household or band. When you wrap your narrative around a small close group you are triggering over 85 million years of evolutionary social instinct.
To write a compelling story, conflict is everything.
One of the most influential genres informing game story is the RPG. The RPG tradition is based on naked exposition, where the game master provides all the necessary information about the game world. Writers from this tradition will freely down load paragraphs of backstory on the player.
2. The stronger the social relationships, the stronger the drama.
The founder of Social Psychology Muzafer Sherif theorized that optimal social group is three people. The strongest social/dramatic design you can offer a player is a core household of a mate and a child.
"Me and my brothers against my cousins. Me, my brothers, and my cousins against the world."
The next strongest layer of dramatic design is kinship bonds and kinship networks aka family drama. The closer the family the stronger the drama. Closer family bonds between characters gives you higher stakes to work with and gives you a deep background filled with complex emotions to draw on. What are the sibling rivalries? Who is the favorite? Who always gets their way? Who is the snitch? Who is the cheat?
The next best thing to family relationships is pseudo kinship bonds and pseudo kinship networks. A best friend for life or a "partner" is a surrogate brother or sister. Workplace drama or gang drama is family drama. A boss functions like a parent on a deep psychological level. War stories are about bands of brothers. The stronger/closer the relationship the stronger the drama.
3. Make people care.
Your characters should be likeable. If people don't like your characters, there is no drama if they live or die. Who cares what they do? Your stories will have no impact and your quests will not motivate players on a dramatic level.
There is an old Hollywood silent film technique you can use to establish an emotional bond between the players and your characters called "pet the dog/kick the dog." When you start your story, have the good characters do something lovable and the bad characters do something horrible. What would make you say "I want to be friends with them" or "I want to kill them."
This is even more important with love stories. The audience should fall in love with the love interest before any danger enters the story.
Here is a quick examples in closing.
One of the most common quest structures is the Gather Quest: "Fetch me 10 ____." It's a boring mission but it encourages exploration.
Dramatic ingredients that can make this quest more compelling are:
- A passionate love interest and / or close family member
- Devastating consequences
- Ticking time bomb (a count down)
- Hatred, fear, lust, love, shame, greed, pity, pride, jealousy, bravery, sympathy, empathy, passion, appreciation, awe, infatuation, romance, revenge, ego-gratification, arrogance, agony, ecstasy, apathy, resentment, disgust, rage, regret, guilt, grief, frustration, terror, anger, joy, optimism, idealism, antagonism, faith, forgiveness, self-hatred, envy, timidity, embarrassment, bitterness, boredom, curiosity, shyness, kindness, devotion, vindication, valiance, vanity, wrath, and wonder.
The archetypal gathering quest comes from the Grimms' fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel, where two children gathering berries wander deeper and deeper into the woods.
The most compelling versions of this story describe Hansel and Gretel as peasants who come from a family that is starving to death. This set up has all the dramatic elements I described above including sympathetic characters, close family bonds, devastating consequences and a time limit.