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Story in Social Games

by Justin Nearing on 01/27/11 11:48:00 pm   Featured Blogs

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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.


Republished with permission from

Story in social games is different from that in other game mediums. In hardcore games, the story is closer to the classic narratives of yesteryear: The player takes the role of a protagonist who drives the plot of the story. Character development is presented by sequence of non-interactive cutscenes, broken up by interactive gameplay sessions- gameplay sessions where the player drives major plot events of the Story.

Story in social games, however, is slightly different. In social games, the story is light, presented in small chunks, and specifically designed to drive the user to rewarded behaviours. How can Story in a social game drive growth?

Story and Acquisition

Initially, the Story gives the player a frame of reference, telling them who they are, what they’re doing, etc. This initial backstory is usually very light and simple. In most social games, the story is presented in one/two-line sentences.

“You are the leader of a Space Empire, seeking to expand across the stars.”

At this point the Story becomes the tutorial. The user is given their first mechanic to learn, framed using the tone/language of the story. (Some games personify the tutorial via an in-game “Advisor”; a non-playable character that gives you the directions in the game. This Advisor is the developers voice to directly communicate to the user)
Spaceguy McAdvisorman:

“Your first task as Supreme Commander of the Omniverse is to collect 30 space sheep”
–> [Collect Sheep Button] <–

After the task is complete, the user is given a reward, and the next task  is presented. Each core game mechanic is introduced in this fashion. By using Story, the user is taught the core gameplay mechanics in a fun and unobtrusive way.

Story and Retention

Using the tutorial, the user is natively taught that the game is driven forward using this task feature. Each task is framed through the Story, (and delivered through the Advisor) giving a set of criteria the user must complete. The user complies by doing each step in the task and is rewarded. Each step of the task should be laid out, using the language of the Story, so that the user constantly knows how to go forward and be rewarded.

Trigger Tutorial
–> “You must defeat the evil Gathbof in Battle, but to do so you need a Silver Spear”
–> Button leading to Store
–> “Welcome to the Store, young warrior of the twilight, the Advisor notified me of your arrival”
–> Button to Buy Weapon
–> “You are learning quick, young warrior, now face Gathbof in Battle!
–> Button to Battle
–> “You defeated Gathbof and received GOLD!”
–> Receive Gold
–> “There is too much loot for one person, SHARE the bounty!”
–> Push Viral

As the user learns the core game mechanics, naturally they can start to learn more complex and unintuitive game mechanics- especially if they are taught the same way the core mechanics were. Tasks makes learning new, complex mechanics easily, because the user is guided at every step.

As the mechanics become more complicated, the tasks become more complicated, however the user is never overwhelmed because each step is always laid out, and the flavour of the Story continues to drive them forward. To put it simply- Story allows the user to have fun learning game mechanics!

The Task/Quest mechanic becomes especially useful when new features are added to the game, as users are already trained to do as the tasks direct. As new features are introduced into the game, they are done so via the Story. As the player progresses to the later stages of the game, the Story becomes less about teaching users mechanics, and predominantly becomes a way to continue pushing the user forward and reinforcing learned/rewarded behaviour.

Story and Monetization

How can the Story directly monetize a social game? CLASH: Rise of Heroes does this well in their Campaigns.

After the initial tutorial, the user is directed to play through the first “free” campaign. Each campaign is a narrative driven by the user, presented much like traditional AAA stories: Cutscenes are broken up by gameplay sessions- the cutscenes develops the characters and sets up major plot points; the Gameplay Sessions allow the user to interactively act out said plot points.

After the campaign is finished, they must purchase additional Campaigns (Stories) via premium currency. Users are only willing to pay for the additional Campaigns if they are sold on the story. CLASH does this very well because of the old super-hero comic book style it adopts.  Target users (anyone that read comics as a kid) are filled with a sense of nostalgia, and are given the opportunity to do exactly what they did as a kid- pretend they are a super-hero like in the comics.

Wrapping Up

Currently, story in social games are short, non-obtrusive ways to drive your players to learn or reinforce rewarded behaviours. Few, if any games really have stood out and implemented a compelling narrative in a social game. I feel that as this genre matures, games will come out where there is more emphasis on Story. Until then, Story will be little more of a side-note in social games.

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