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Writers, Stop Obsessing Over Three-Act Structure in Games
by Sande Chen on 08/11/14 09:26:00 am   Expert Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

[This blog entry originally appeared on Game Design Aspect of the Month for the topic, Story Frameworks.]

If you're a writer, you probably know about the Three-Act Structure.  It's a popular yet arbitrary format for Hollywood screenplays.  It's a great framework to learn, especially if you want to know more about screenwriting, but it's not a One-Size-Fits-All solution.  Video games are not always going to be like Hollywood screenplays.  That's like trying to hammer a square peg into a triangle.  If game designers don't use the same design pattern for each and every game, why should every video game be written like a Hollywood movie?

The latest console blockbuster shooter isn't going to be designed like a free-to-play Mahjong Solitaire social game.  There are different target audiences, different genres, different technologies, different play patterns, and of importance, different business models.  Many times, the business model does inform the aims of the game designer.  Coin-operated arcade designers back in the day knew that the goal was to get customers to plunk in quarters.  Episodic game designers naturally want players to keep on buying episodes and free-to-play game designers would like to maximize sales on virtual power-ups and goods.

This situation is not unique to the game industry.  Writers, too, understand the whims of the market. TV writers use cliffhangers to entice viewers to return after commercial breaks.  Charles Dickens often wrote his novels in monthly or weekly installments and would even modify plot and character development based on reader feedback.

My point here is not to slam the Three-Act Structure, but to get people to realize that the needs of a game writing project may not be the Three-Act Structure.  There are plays with 5 Acts and screenplays with 4 Acts.  Evaluate each game writing project carefully and understand how the writing fits into the overall scheme.  The Three-Act Structure is useful, but there's no need to apply it to everything.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose experience spans over 10 years in the game industry.  Her credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus and the 2007 RPG of the Year, The Witcher.  She is the chapter leader of the IGDA Game Design SIG.
 


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