written by
Cate Lawrence

Your Game Needs Drama in Ways you Might not Have Thought of

Game Developer 3 min read

The Pivot model: Understanding Drama in games

Gaming is predicted to bring in nearly $200 billion in revenue next year, according to research from IDG Consulting, with others predicting it will reach over $300 billion by 2025. More people are playing (and watching) a game than watching terrestrial television programs, and more people watching other people play video games on digital screens than live sports.

Games need drama to attract players, maintain interest and empower players. At this year's Codemotion in Madrid, we were joined by Eskil Steenberg, who has spent a decade developing a model he calls The Pivot Model for understanding and constructing games that naturally produce drama. Let's take a look:

Interactive storytelling is an oxymoron

Eskil notes that some of the principles behind effective game development as inherently contradictory, for example, storytelling in practice is someone telling you things, it's not 'story dialogue' "and if you try to make it interactive you're sort of ruining it."

In the game, you are really being controlled

Baldersnatch is a movie meets game where you choose your own adventure
A movie or choose your own adventure game?

In reality, those who creative narrative-driven games spend a lot of time controlling the players. Hands up who watched Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror movie Bandersnatch? It's an interactive movie in 'choose your own adventure' style, requiring the viewer to make a decision between two options to continue watching. Each decision — whether to die or let someone else die; what breakfast cereal you preference; or whether you decide to attend a medical appoint or go with Colin, for example, leads to a series of possible twists and turns and different endings.

The most memorable parts of the game might not be what you think

According to Eskil, "a really good game is not a game where he said this thing happened in the game.  it's something where we say  'this thing happened to me. I did this thing right', when the player creates their own stories within the game, that's where it becomes more powerful. It is in this way that games are fundamentally different to linear media.

Why do we want to simulate reality? Reality is boring and mundane.

With the trend towards hyperreality and a simulated world that mimics reality, Eskil cautions will the temptation might be, "what if we just like simulate everything and we'll make this really complex world where anything could happen and then everything will be amazing. But if we have reality, why would we play video games?" The popularity of 8-bit video games shows that complexity and details aren't everything and somethings we want simplicity. He continues: "it's nice to be in a world where you know all you need to get a date is just get to the castle"

Games need to have goals and acceptable failure

Under the Pivot model, people need goals to create meaningful and motivation. People hate to fail but will accept a certain degree of failure.  Noth of these factors should be built into any game. Eskril gives an example of how Monopoly could be tweaked:

monopoly as a game of chance

Monopoly is a fairly broken game, because the mechanics are so limited,
and the acceptable failure rate to too high. (The dice control the
game). One way to re-balance this a bit would be to let players roll the
dice twice and then select one of the two outcomes.

The game lacks a pivot state, so let's add a bear/bull market state:

  1. In a bull market, all the normal Monopoly rules apply.
  2. Add the ability for players to somehow initiate a crash, that turns the game into a Bear market lasting for a set number of rounds. In a bear market if you land on someone's street they have to pay you, instead of the other way around.
  3. This completely upsets the normal strategy of “buy everything” and lets
    the game twist and turn making it far more dramatic, and players try to
    switch the market into their advantage.

Subgoals and situation pivots keep things interesting

While games need control they also need unpredictability. What if a character is trying to control the gear of a car using a gear stick? What if a monkey appears? What if the character is not only trying to control the gears but also stop the monkey controlling the gears. In games, anything can happen.

Take a look at some of our articles specific to game development in our Codemotion Magazine.

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