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Making everyone feel like a star in a multiplayer game
Making everyone feel like a star in a multiplayer game
October 9, 2012 | By Frank Cifaldi

In many ways, we still don't know how to tell a proper interactive narrative.

Sure, our video games can tell great stories. They can make us challenge our perceptions and weep openly as we experience some of the most beautifully poetic dialogue ever written. But the actual art of telling those stories in a way that is unique to games -- as a series of decisions and interactions -- remains elusive.

That challenge is hard enough in a single-player game, but add in multiple players and it becomes even more daunting.

That is what interactive fiction author Emily Short (pictured) -- along with cohort and AI specialist Richard Evans -- set out to do with their joint venture Little Text People, which was acquired by Linden Lab earlier this year.

At a talk at GDC Online on Tuesday, Short shared a few of the design lessons she's learned from the experiments Little Text People has been conducting, mainly through an 8-player simultaneous text-driven game she and Evans have been working on and playtesting for some time now.

1. Everyone's a star

Even in a multiplayer game, every player has to feel as if they are playing out their own personal, unique story. They cannot feel as if they are in a supporting role, or their investment in the narrative will fall apart.

One simple solution is to simply write around it. In Short's game, every character has a different arc through the overall group narrative. They also have a personal prologue introducing the character and its personal goals, as well as an epilogue -- separate from the shared story ending -- that summarizes how things went for the character.

Even all that is likely to feel a bit tacked on, so to further emphasize each player's starring role, the game is constantly watching out for moments in the story that could relate to a specific character. A developing romance could, for example, trigger an inner monologue seen only by that player.

2. Meaningful decisions

Players have to feel like their decisions matter -- even if eight people are playing at once.

One good trick is to have players make small, personal decisions early in the game that, by the end of the narrative, will have had a deeper impact on the rest of the story.

In fact, it turns out small decisions leave the player feeling more empowered to have fun and make bolder reactions later. In playtesting, Short found that when players were given constant opportunity to do dramatic things, they just wouldn't. They needed those small decisions to make the big ones more meaningful.

3. Buttered lobsters

"You can never have too many opportunities to throw a buttered lobster at someone's head," read one of Short's slides.

What she meant by this was that players should have adequate opportunities to have strong reactions, even if they're unrealistic, because "in the fight between realism and fun, fun always wins."

"Buttered lobsters" are also moments that just can't be ignored. If a player makes a bold move to another player, they have to react, perhaps escalating (or deescalating) a social situation and possibly even taking the story in a different direction.

4. Joint decisions for special occasions only

Short's game has opportunities for players to make decisions together, as a group. This can be a wonderful dramatic tool, but use it too often and it loses its impact.

Joint decisions should only come at rare, key moments, otherwise you risk making your characters feel like they're not the star, and you risk making the game feel repetitive.

5. Lots of content

Finally (and unfortunately), Short says making interactive narratives on a Little Text People scale requires a lot of content to work.

While writers were helped a bit by the game's underlying AI (they didn't have to, for example, write dialogue trees), in the end Strong says the game required a lot of brute force in the form of a lot of written content in order to provide a sense of narrative richness.

Gamasutra is at GDC Online in Austin this week. Check out our event page for the latest on-site coverage.

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Maria Jayne
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Everyone's a Star

"Even in a multiplayer game, every player has to feel as if they are playing out their own personal, unique story. They cannot feel as if they are in a supporting role, or their investment in the narrative will fall apart."

I would like more games to explore the supporting roles in an epic tale to be honest, you don't have to be the hero or the savior to have a compelling story and it might be quite refreshing to witness and judge the flaws in the heroes character, opting to reveal or cover them up to outsiders. Influencing your leaders decisions through your friendship, respect or feud. Books and movies have explored the "sidekick" character a bit better than games.

Maria Jayne
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Agree, Oblivion was quite a nice diversion in that regard. But it is conspicuous in the absence of further examples.

The old "hero/heroine" is so over used now that I think for me at least, it carries no meaning at all.

Ardney Carter
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While I understand what you're saying I don't think it's quite on the same page as what Ms. Short was trying to get across.

Of course, I haven't played the game in question so I can't be 100% positive, but I got the impression she was saying to make each player a star in the sense that they felt that they MATTERED not so much that they were a "hero" in the classical sense.

Regardless of the player character's relationship to the world or the events in it, it's necessary for the player to feel that there is something at stake for that individual and that the decisions they are called on to make will have an effect relative to those stakes either positive or negative.

I felt that the subsequent mention of giving each player growth along a personal arc lends credibility to this interpretation.

Maria Jayne
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@ Ardney I wasn't criticizing the author of this article or their game, it was more an observation that when you're a hero in all games, you may as well be a hero in none of them.

The act of feeling heroic requires the distinction between commonality and something extraordinary. If we begin every game being extraordinary what are we comparing ourselves to that we feel heroic?

Nevertheless, this was a tangent and not intended to derail the article.

Justin Meiners
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We wouldn't want to make anyone feel bad in a competitive game now would we? Got to make sure nobody's self esteem is hurt.

I hate this mentality, the reason why it feels so good to be the star is that it doesn't happen everyday. If everyone feels like the star than nobody is the star.

COD is one of the best games at doing this. You can get in a game and get rocked 10 deaths in a row, and then another game your the one getting 20 kills in a row and feeling like the king of the world. That high moment pushes you to try again and improve so you can get that more often.

Jason Lee
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I think what's being discussed here is quite different. Emily is talking about narrative, group storytelling, and effective interactive fiction techniques. What arises out of a stressful and fulfilling game of CoD, LoL, SC2, etc. is more about emergent personal experiences (which can be used to create a kind of narrative of defeat/victory), which is totally different than the kind of scripted storytelling that . I agree that we need to be a bit more punishing towards players, but I think that's an entirely different point than Emily's focus on narrative experience.

Compare what Emily is talking about with a finely run session of D&D: everyone plays a role, a good DM lets everyone be a star, and while the whole group told a story each person felt meaningful. Your CoD example I'd say is more like the experience of a set of chess matches or tennis duos.

Christopher Plummer
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I think there is a difference but not what Jason describes. In Call of Duty everyone is a star - it's a First Person Shooter! You get to make the movie. You get to choose whether the script is about failure, survival, or domination to some extent and the skill of your opponents adds unpredictability (if the matchmaking is good).

You also can create a deeper group narrative on the level that Emily is dealing with by choosing whether the story contains attempts at cooperation (Team Deathmatch, Demolition , etc...). This can result in being ignored, backstabbed, let-down, overrun, or a true vision of a battle of wills involving multiple characters and personalities.

What I get from her article is that these are principles to adhere to when you are trying to make cooperation an enjoyable experience. And although it's very simple and not being applied to traditional graphical experiences, I find it to be on point none-the-less.

Justin Meiners
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@JasonLee good call, I think it would be good if more context was provided in the article.

Mark Venturelli
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It's always interesting to see people trying to deepen interactive fiction and I'm very curious to play this, but if there was something that Day Z taught me this year was that we can do interactive *truth* - that's the real unique trait of video game storytelling.

Roger Tober
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This article seemed vague to me. I think some examples other than buttered lobsters would have helped. I have no idea after reading the article how the game works.