For Harmonix, a sharp focus on storytelling played a key role in propelling the studio from relative obscurity as developers of Frequency and Amplitude to big success as the purveyors of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, a pair of Harmonix developers explained at GDC Online's Game Narrative Summit on Tuesday.
The critically well-received music games Frequency and Amplitude "just didn't connect with the public," said Helen McWilliams, senior writer at Harmonix who has worked on the Rock Band series.
What was missing is a narrative that that the players could relate to. With the creation of the Guitar Hero franchise (now developed at Activision), the studio added a light narrative about being a small-time guitarist trying to rise to fame, and people began to connect more with Harmonix's games. Players began to connect with the experience.
"We came to the realization that there might be more story in our game than we realized," said Harmonix designer Chris Foster, a five-year Harmonix veteran who was lead designer on The Beatles: Rock Band."
What Foster encouraged developers to implement is "structural narrative," or gameplay that supports story progression. With Rock Band, progression in the game relied on skill, money and fame. All of those components tie together the gameplay with a story about players' rise to virtual fame.
He said that Harmonix's games aren't the most obvious choices as candidates for story, but adding narrative did a lot to give gamers an experience they attached to.
Foster said that developers who are doing games that don't have stories to "reconsider." He explained, "revisit your standard mechanics … to reinforce that story. Think about if there's a simple metaphor that resonates with the rest of your gameplay. You might get some narrative power out of that."
Lessons Learned With Rock Band
The key to Rock Band and Guitar Hero's success seems simple now: it's wish fulfillment for people who fantasize about being a rock star. But Harmonix was surprised to see when its games began attracting more casual players.
Foster said that the goal for Harmonix's games became a focus on the player-driven story. But that wasn't so easy, said McWilliams. "The trick was with that was that we couldn't really define what the band was too much, or what the band's career progression would be. … People would have to project it through their own fantasy lens."
This meant that Harmonix had to avoid making any assumptions about the players, if the studio's games were to project individual fantasies. Writers would have to reword parts of the narrative as to not make assumptions about race, gender, class or sexual orientation. "We don't assume that we know the players," she said.
Immersing players in the experience of being in a band also meant being true-to-life, to an extent. McWilliams explained how research for Rock Band came from Harmonix's designers, many of whom are in real-life bands – the designers would sit around at their local watering hole, have some drinks and record all of their "hilarious anecdotes" about being in a band.
"If you get the authenticity right, then your story is… pulling in the same direction that your player wants," said Foster.
With Rock Band 3 due this holiday, Harmonix has pushed the idea of the player-driven, structural narrative even further with a greater emphasis on featuring player avatars through cut-scenes and loading screens, and having narrative progression proliferate through all modes of the game.
"We're not doing story-based games," said Foster. But without carefully-applied narrative, Rock Band would essentially amount to "'look you're on stage, isn't it cool to be in a band?'"