Mobile Narratives || Platform & Intent
Updated: Feb 16, 2021
How can a narrative-rich game be designed with the mobile platform in mind?
Looking at existing narrative-rich mobile games, it’s clear that many of them aren’t designed with the target platform in mind. Many narrative-rich games on mobile are originally designed for PC or console and have since been ported over; think Limbo, Thomas Was Alone, Life is Strange, The Walking Dead, etc. The mobile ports of these games feel awkward and laborious to play on the fronts of poorly integrated touch controls and the conflict of pacing between ‘sit-down’ consoles and the on-the-go nature of the mobile platform.
Discern an intuitive way to integrate narrative with existing mobile genres.
By exploring at design decisions consistent with successful mobile games and successful narrative games – discerned via both player analytics and case studies – I'm attempting to get to the bottom of what makes great mobile games tick.
Player Analytics: Playtime & Pacing
According to analytics from the Mobile Marketing Association, the average play session of a mobile game lasts about 5 minutes, and the majority of these play sessions occur between 8 am and 9 pm. Tapjoy’s analytics tell us that the mobile market can largely be divided into three personas: working millennials, parents, and high-income workers. From these datasets, we can infer that the majority of the mobile audience is playing during the work day – over their morning coffee, during their commute, on breaks, and when they get home. Successful mobile games are tailor-made for people on the go. Games that can be picked up and played in short bursts work the best for this audience of working – or otherwise busy – individuals because they put the pacing and session length in the control of the player…
The Illusion of Control
…or rather, gives players the illusion that they are in control. While it’s the job of the designers and writers to pace games in such a way that keeps players engaged for lengths of time that make the story flow smoothly, most successful mobile games are designed in such a way that they can be picked up and put down on a whim. Take a casual multiplayer game like Words with Friends for example. A game of Words with Friends might last a total of 20 minutes uninterrupted but doesn't force players to block a 20-minute chunk out of their day to play it. A single, '20 minute' game could last for a week because the game allows for the minimum play session could be as short as one, 30 second turn. 30 seconds vs. 20 minutes is a much more convenient chunk of time for players to dedicate to playing the game. Being given the choice of when within that 1 day turn timer to take that 30 seconds grants the player a feeling of freedom, convenience, and control, even if a barrage of carefully placed notifications and tempting rewards are puppeteering their playtime.
Convenience Meets Narrative
This 'convenience of timing' implies that, with nuanced design, a player can be pulled in for lengthier narrative sessions without feeling restricted to sitting down and playing through the story in one go like they would with a console game. Take Mystic Messenger or The Arcana for example. While both narrative heavy dating sims with around a 7-hour playtime, they can both can be played in sessions as short as 5 minutes a piece. They both fit their narratives into manageable, non-restrictive chunks that the player can pick up and experience over their morning coffee or on their lunch break.
Before we get too carried away in the analytics, let’s look at some mobile games we can learn from...
Case Study: Canabalt
Adam Saltsman, 2009
What is it?
As the game that popularized the endless runner genre, Canabalt hits all the marks of the quintessential endless runner: it’s fast-paced, mechanically sound, and demands increasingly tighter mechanical mastery and reaction time out of the player.
Why does it matter?
Canabalt proved that a game with no real conclusion – one that’s designed to be played over and over again without any goal besides mechanical mastery – could be satisfying and engaging (i.e. the core of an endless runner).
I found while playing the game that, while a run could be shorter than 1 minute, the game kept me continuously engaged for 20-or-30-minute time-spans. While it was convenient enough to play in short bursts throughout the day, I found that the brunt of my playtime was in bed at night before I went to sleep, where I had more time to pay attention to it, because I wanted to play it for longer.
Though the demand of skill got exhausting if I were to play any longer than 20 minutes at a time, there’s something to be said about how sheer, mechanical fun can keep the player engaged in a mobile game way beyond that average 5-minute session length.
Case Study: Alto’s Odyssey
Team Alto, 2018
What is it?
An absolutely gorgeous endless runner about ‘snowboarding’ through sand dunes in the desert. The game is extremely simple to play – the only player actions are tapping to jump and holding in air to perform flips – and its biggest distinction from competitors is the visually distinct ‘biomes’ the player unlocks as they reach different point thresholds. These biomes boast different obstacles and create progressively tighter windows for performing tricks.
Why does it matter?
For being an endless runner, Alto’s Odyssey delivers a fantastic narrative experience. Its story is told entirely through the environment, and – rather than featuring an on-the-nose, structured plot – delivers a meditative, exploration-based experience centered around leaving home to discover the natural and ancient wonders of the world.
Think: Journey on rails – a vague narrative left up to player interpretation with a focus on and introspection rather than being delivered a clearly defined story.
The reason I find Alto’s Odyssey so fascinating is its ability to deliver an impactful narrative a) while being an auto-scrolling endless runner and b) without using any words or dialogue. This is due obviously to the focus on experience over explicit narrative – the more specific your narrative becomes, the more important pacing becomes, which is harder to control in a freeform, 'endless' game. It also, though, is due to the transition between biomes splitting an otherwise ‘endless’ game into levels, which can serve the purpose of splitting the narrative into what resembles ‘acts’, mitigating the pacing issue by increasing the control the developers have.
Case Study: Mystic Messenger
What is it?
Mystic Messenger is a Korean ‘Otome’ – rather, a female-oriented dating sim – made exclusively for mobile. The game revolves around the ‘mysterious messaging app’ the player character installs on their phone, which they use to chat with characters via group chats and direct messages.
Why does it matter?
Though Mystic Messenger has an engaging narrative – if you're into pretending anime boys want to date you – what’s more interesting is how intuitively it delivers the narrative and how well it capitalizes on the mobile platform.
The game is charmingly themed like a messaging app. All of the story is delivered through text conversations you have with the characters, and you receive real push notifications on your phone whenever you get sent a message.
What’s most interesting, though, is how the 7-hour game is paced. While the game does allow for players to set their own pace by opening and closing the app as they please without losing progress, characters will get upset if you don’t message them often enough or within a certain windows. Blowing off a character too much can close off their romantic and platonic paths. While this has no bearing on how long a play session is, it does force the player’s hand as to how often they play the game, which is manipulative, but an interesting take on the pacing of the story nonetheless.
So, what can we take away from looking at these analytics and games to create the perfect narrative mobile game?
From Canabalt, we learn that, while the average mobile play session is 5 minutes long, speed and an emphasis on mastery of mechanics can create a drive for the player to extend that 5 minutes to 20 or 30.
From Alto’s Odyssey, we learn that stories don’t need to be spoon-fed to the player and can be relayed passively through environment while the player is, say, concentrating on honing their mastery over mechanics. We also learn that an ‘endless’ game can be split up into acts to better support a traditional narrative structure.
From Mystic Messenger, we learn that rather than trying to emulate the storytelling devices of traditional media (i.e. movies and books), we can change the way our narratives are delivered with the times in a way that best suits the platform. We also learn that a game with more content (or rather, longer playtime) than some AAA games can be paced in such a way that players can experience the story in time-frames that they feel like they have control over and pull them in when they’ve been away for too long in a way that feels charming and intuitive for the platform.
By putting all these pieces together, we can begin to craft the framework of experimental narratives designed specifically for the mobile platform. Our biggest roadblock in this sector is the notion that all stories have to be delivered in the same ways that they always have been – in the way we see them in books, plays, films, and by extension, other video games – but changing that thinking is the first step in creating this mobile-centered narrative experience. Games like Mystic Messenger featuring a narrative told via text messages is a great example of the kind of thinking we need to adapt to achieve this.
While in some cases, we make the platform mold to the story, in the case of mobile, the best player experience may branch from making the story mold to the platform. I had been wracking my brain to figure out why most mobile ports of existing narrative games out there don’t feel right. While poorly translated controls contribute to the discomfort, the conclusion I’ve reached is that mobile is a platform designed to work on a tight schedule, and we should be looking towards the narrative design of short fiction rather than attempting to shoehorn in the full 3-act structure.
As creators, let's do away with creating the same experiences over and over again. Play around with designing with platform in mind instead of trying to bend the platform to your will. You may be well on your way to crafting an experience that can be both convenient for the player and impactful.
Alto's Odyssey cover image belongs to Jusajellegg on DeviantArt. https://www.deviantart.com/jusajellegg