Narrative Design Case Study: Dark Manor
Previously on the blog, we gave you an inside look at the fast-wheelin’, high-stakes world of narrative design! OK, so we gave you some examples and explained what we do. But wasn’t that fun?
We know you’re hungry for more. We know you’re craving an in-depth look at one game put through the narrative design machine - a case study, if you will. And here it is.
Sometimes we’re called in to triage a game that producers and other key stakeholders (Big Fish brass! Important types!) think is sadly lacking in the story department. This was the case with early versions of Dark Manor. (I know. You’re shocked. Didn’t that game just come out of the game grinder, like totally perfect? Um, no. That never happens. Trust me.)
Big Fish Producer Max Thornton asked me to help his team fix some things early reviewers saw that could hurt the game’s chances out there in playland: 1) there was too much story material competing with game play, 2) the game was a bit heavy on text, 3) the Southern accent for one of the characters didn’t work for on-screen text, 4) the intended humor and language play weren’t always translating in the right way on-screen, and 5) the tutorial needed some streamlining.
In tackling the above, I also saw some ways to create stronger ties between the story beats and the game-play tasks and objectives.
You can see what the designers and producers both here at Big Fish and at Tomozaru were trying to do in the beginning. In person, they have an awesome sense of humor! But it’s not always easy to translate that to a game. Here’s the original opening game sequence:
All from a pre-launch version of Dark Manor. Big Fish Studios and Tomozaru.
Working with early feedback and analytics on the game, we cut and rearranged many frames throughout, reducing the six frames above by half. I also shortened the amount of text players would have to read on-screen in each frame, getting players into the game more quickly.
But it’s not just about shortening and removing. You have to essentially do more with less. As a writer, that can be a heady challenge! So I tried to hook players right away with the idea that they have the unique ability to see ghosts, added a fun antagonism between the two ex-wives, which many players have said they enjoy, and gave players an immediate goal tied to the characters’ drama:
The next area we tackled was the transition from setup to further game play. Early in our testing, we realized we were losing players at crucial moments of the game. The transition and tutorial weren’t as streamlined and direct as they could be, and there was an awful lot of text on-screen for the “deed” that grants you a mansion:
That deed just isn’t very exciting to look at, no matter how cool it is to get your own mansion, free-of-charge. So we built the Facebook integration into the game in a different way, moved the introduction of the lawyer character to a later quest, dispensed with the deed, and went right to the gypsy wagon quest instead:
These changes made for a better game – and we learned a lot in the process. But we’re still learning. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Dark Manor story!