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Storyboarding for Games User Research

February 13, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next


Our examples have shown that UT reports can be very useful to game developers if done right. However, there are many purposes for employing storyboards to convey a narrative behind several aspects of game development, such as gameplay, art, animation, marketing, and the actual game narrative (Joe Gingras from Ubisoft Montreal gave a great talk at MIGS 2012 about finding a shared vision for developers using storyboarding in all these areas).

Before we revisit how storyboarding can improve our UT reports, we will discuss a little bit about the theory of storytelling, as there is a pattern behind great stories. To be entertaining for example, stories need to have the right dramatic cues and tap deep into an audience's collective psyche. (See fig. 1 for an example sketch of a story arc)

Fig 1: Story arc sketch.

On the other side, storytelling is at the heart of the human experience. Once we experience something great, we often cannot wait to tell someone about it. Stories help us shape our perceptions and consolidate our feelings. User experience researchers have leveraged the power of storytelling to drive observation-based and focus group research for improving websites and interface designs (see here and here for more).

For example, in scenario-based design (aka SBD -- see here for more) textual narrative descriptions of an imaginary situation are employed in a variety of ways to guide the development of an interactive system; in video game development the data gathered during UT sessions can make more persuasive stories (or scenarios).

In this feature, we focus on stories that have the goal of describing and communicating player experience aspects to the game development team.

Storytelling is one of the most natural and powerful ways to share information. As part of user experience, stories help designers to put the work in a real context and show design concepts or connect ideas. But more importantly stories help to keep users in the center of the design process. This is critical when developing for video games as the success of the final product directly depends on it being used (played and enjoyed) by users (players). Stories can be a way to keep players a center of game development process, even if they cannot always be part of development team.

Game development includes many disciplines, each with its own perspective, rhetoric, and formalities. By providing examples and a common vocabulary for everyone in a development team, storytelling can bridge these disciplines together and help in building a shared vision and interpretation (or a "visual consensus", as Ubisoft's Joe Gingras called it). We can use stories to gather, share and distribute information about players, tasks and goals (e.g., their motivation for playing a game). Stories can be a powerful tool in game development for encouraging collaboration and innovation of new design ideas across the whole design team (from programmers to publishers).

The limitations of stories -- if they are not data-supported -- can be that they are a personal and subjective account told from a consumer's perspective. Therefore, recording and assessing experiences can have fairly intangible results when they're simply subjective narrative accounts. However, stories can become useful when player stories generated based on data collected during UT sessions.

For example, these data may include player comments, observational notes, gameplay metrics, and biometrics. Analyzing large-scale or high-resolution player data can be daunting, and presenting results from these studies is often not straightforward. Using stories would facilitate understanding the human aspects in these data. These data-supported stories would help game developers to understand and interpret GUR reports better.

Biometric Storyboards

We are promoting the use of storytelling (or more specifically storyboarding) to point out UT findings and their impact on player experience. Storyboards could also visualize the impact of an improved design on players' feelings. For example, we could use storyboards to visualize positive and negative player emotions during gameplay as well as player engagement. Matching UT reports to these observations can provide a powerful overview of game levels and help uncovering game design weaknesses.

We also see storyboarding as a powerful tool for triangulating or combining different data sources, bringing together the power of quantitative data as well as the depth of insight gained from qualitative inquiry and observation. Our storyboarding approach aims to help games user researchers to visualize game design intentions, player experience reports, and physiological responses (biometrics).

We are currently experimenting with the integration of biometrics annotated by player-defined experience points in the game. We call these integrated storyboards that annotate physiological data: "Biometric Storyboards". They can help with visualizing meaningful relationships between design intentions by measuring a change in the player's physiological states (emotion) respective to game events.

The design of Biometric Storyboards went through a number of iterations based on feedback from game developers. In the first iteration we divided each level up by time; however we realized that time is not always meaningful for some games, and "beats" (or thematic areas) were considered more representative. The current iteration, (see fig. 2), is simple to read and understand as it couples behavior (the text along the bottom) with the associated player experience (the line graph).

Fig 2. Example screenshot of Biometric Storyboards prototype. Click for full image.

From these iterations we learnt that: (1) each level should be divided into thematic areas, as this would make the key sections easier to compare; it also could include the time it took the player to complete that area. (2) Green or red dots can be used to pinpoint the moments of positive or negative experience. They are key to providing context and establish cause and effect. (3) It is important to couple behavior (the text along the bottom) with the associated player experience to make the diagram easier to read. (4) The experience graph should go down (negative gradient) to indicate and isolate negative player experiences and to better represent the emotional change.

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