Storytelling in Small Spaces: Practical Narrative Design for Mobile Games
Author’s Note: The following post is a text version of my 2019 GDC Game Narrative Summit talk, “Storytelling in Small Spaces: Practical Narrative Design for Mobile Games” from when I was the Studio Lead of Narrative Design at King working on the “Candy Crush” franchise. The video is available to watch in the GDC Vault, which requires a log in and password. However, I’ve received some requests to make this talk accessible in another format, so I’ve summarized the presentation below. Please note that what I’ve written here may not exactly match the content of the GDC talk due to my giving additional context for reading.
Does a mobile game need narrative design if it doesn’t have a deep story, or even if it’s “just” a match-three game, like “Candy Crush”?
Although we know that many mobile players say they don’t care to read anything when they play mobile games, at King, we conducted user research that shows that the same players also wanted to know more about the story, the context, and the characters for a sense of purpose, motivation, and gratification. So how do we give players a satisfying context without bombarding them with tap-heavy dialogues or drawn-out cutscenes?
In my GDC talk, I showed examples from my work at King and the “Candy Crush” games to explain how we designed simple narratives to contextualize gameplay. I also presented some general best practices for how to optimize narrative opportunities in mobile games.
The primary examples I showed were from three of King’s biggest titles: The original “Candy Crush Saga,” “Candy Crush Soda Saga,” and the newest game in the franchise, “Candy Crush Friends Saga.” All of these games are still live today.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Candy Crush has a story? Candy Crush has narrative designers?
Yes, King has narrative designers. And we actually write stories and characters for the “Candy Crush” franchise and all of our titles.
But of course, writing for mobile games can be tricky. Because, as we know from Steve Krug’s classic book on user experience, users don’t read. They scan… Maybe. This is especially true for mobile players.
In fact, “Candy Crush” players have specifically told us that they don’t play our games to read –– 64% responded that they play our games for entertainment, and 51% said they play to relax and unwind.
Our players are so zoned out that, despite the work we’ve put into the developing the “Candy Crush” franchise over the years, players still didn’t know anything about the characters we created. According to research conducted by King in 2015, of the millions of players who play for countless hours (and spend millions of dollars), very few knew anything about the characters in two of our most popular, top-grossing games, “Candy Crush Saga” and “Candy Crush Soda Saga.” They didn’t even know the characters’ names.
However, despite the fact that our players didn’t know any of the characters’ names, they also said that they wanted to know more about them. 🤔
In a recent survey of 900 “Candy Crush Friends” players, we asked them what they thought would make the game better –– 13% said they wanted the game to introduce the characters and their roles, and 12% wanted more of a story in the game. The players also had other things they wanted in the game, things that narrative design elements could help with, like defining the goal of the game and making the tutorials clearer.
This provided an interesting challenge for the narrative designers…
As narrative designers for mobile games, we of course want to increase engagement for players, and at the same time prevent or reduce any friction that keeps them from getting to crush candies faster.
And we want to try to do this without making them read too much, because we know that our players don’t want to read that much –– they want to relax (51%) and be entertained (64%).
So if players don’t want to read, but they clearly want to know more about the game’s story and characters, how do we do give them those things without making them read? That’s the challenge.
So I came up with some guidelines for approaching narrative design in mobile games in order to create more compelling stories and characters –– with as little text as possible –– and to optimize the narrative opportunities as best as possible.
Because I like alliteration, I call these principles the 4 C’s: Context, Clarity, Consistency, and Charm. There is admittedly some overlap between these, but I’m going to show you a range of examples, small and big things we tried implementing in our games at King.
The first one I’ll talk about is Context. And by “context,” I mean setting up the game world so that players can make sense of the game mechanics, user interface, characters, environments, etc.
As narrative designers, we must think of the game holistically and help connect all the seemingly disparate elements in the game.
Here are some useful questions you can ask about a game’s context:
- Are you explaining WHY things are happening in the game? If anything, as a narrative designer, your job is to simply ask, “Why?” Why are players doing what they’re doing in the game world? Why are the characters what they’re doing in the game world? Why does anything happen in the game world?
- Who is the player? How do you want the player to relate to the world inside the game? Is the player an omniscient being controlling the characters, or are they acting as one of the characters? Do the characters in the game world acknowledge the player?
- Does it all fit together? Are the narrative elements — such as the user interface, the visuals, the characters, and the text –– presented in a way that makes sense in the game world?
Now the irony is that I am going to explain to you how we established context for our games out of context in these next few slides. But I’ll do my best to give you the context around these examples of… context.
Context in Loading Screens
In “Candy Crush Friends Saga,” we took players to a new map area every 20 levels, which required a loading screen. Instead of having nothing at all, or a character image like we do elsewhere in the game, we decided to include artwork of the upcoming map area with a short description of the new location.
Since there needed to be a loading screen anyway, we thought we could add a little context about where players were going next. Of course, It wasn’t guaranteed that players would see it, but if they did, it would add some narrative context and world-building.
This came in handy later when we did a special Valentine’s Day event, where we took players to an entirely new parallel progression map, a separate map from the main progression of the game. Over time, we wanted to continue using these types of loading screens to teach players that this means they’re going to new areas.
Context with Art & UI
In another instance in “Candy Crush Friends Saga,” we were tasked with creating an incentive for players to “chase” something on the map to drive engagement, so we designed an event that had players “chasing” a chest of in-game rewards. Then, once they got to the chest, players had to “chase” the key to open the chest.
But how do we explain this to the player? From a gameplay perspective, we knew what we wanted the players to do, but from a from a narrative perspective, we wanted to justify:
- Why the event appears randomly on the map.
- Why the player has to perform two steps before receiving their reward.
- Why the player loses the reward if they don’t reach it in time.
To give context to this new game feature, we tied it to a character and gave it a logical narrative (in-world) reason.
Dachs the Donut Dog is a dog made of donuts who does dog things, so we had him find the chest. He was also already designed as a character who travels by balloons. So we decided to make Dachs the one who finds the chest, and he drops it randomly on the map with balloons (just like how he travels).
Players could collect the chest by playing and winning the level that the chest is on. However, players still needed to collect the key to open the chest, which was placed a few levels ahead and won in the same way.
We explained to the player that they must collect the key from Dachs to open the chest. But since the event is time-limited, we also had to explain why the key would be gone in two hours. So, working with the artists on the team, we decided that the key should be made of candy, and the player needed to get the key from Dachs before he eats it.
Here are some additional tips for Context:
- Consider the flow and the pacing. Not all players will play the same way, or with the same frequency. Don’t assume that players will play everyday, or even remember what they were doing when they last played.
- Restate and reiterate the context. Don’t make assumptions about what players will understand or what information they’ll retain while playing. Err on the side of being clear about what’s happening (without being too repetitive or overbearing).
- Small cues can go a long way. Don’t forget about visual cues, such as art and the user interface to help give players context. And although to be used sparingly, sometimes a little bit of copy can help players understand what they’re doing from a story perspective.
The next principle is Clarity, which is making what’s happening the game clear, simple, and understandable to players.
Here are some useful questions to ask about Clarity:
- Is the story clear? Does the game clearly explain any information that the player needs to know about the narrative elements? Or is the player confused?
- Are the narrative elements simple? Are they presented in a simple and succinct way?
- Are the narrative elements scannable? Will players still get a sense of the story, or understand what’s going on, even if they skip narrative elements, or just don’t read the text?
Clarity with Characters & Animation
One example of providing extra clarity was in the “Candy Crush Friends Saga” gameplay tutorial. Using these visual “speech” bubbles, Mr. Toffee, a main character, explains how to match Candies in the game and use in-game items. When we tested this with players, they found it easier to understand gameplay concepts visually than with blocks of text. Using Mr. Toffee here instead of disembodied UI also makes it more personable and charming (more on Charm later).
We also decided that the same character, Mr. Toffee, should give the player tutorials throughout the game for any new game mechanics or features. This way, the player learns (knows) that when Mr. Toffee shows up, he’s going to teach them something new. And from a narrative perspective, Mr. Toffee, as Mayor of Candy Town, likes to keep things orderly and efficient, so it also makes sense from a character perspective as to why he’s teaching players what to do.
Clarity with Comics
On the flip side, sometimes we have to be more explicit with text. Here’s another example from “Candy Crush Friends Saga.” During the Valentine’s Day event, we gave story interstitials throughout the 20 levels, because we wanted to remind the players:
- Where they were in the progression of their in-game goal.
- And about the story goal itself. In this case, players must help Nutcracker and his friends collect chocolates in the levels so he could impress his crush Tiffi.
Since 20 levels was a lot of levels for this type of event, we put these single-image story interstitials, or comic panels, after every 5 levels. They were used to remind the player what they were doing from a story perspective, as well as let them know where they are in the progression of the 20-level map.
For instance, in the first reminder after level 5, we tell the player they have just a few chocolates. In the second one, we explain that they’re halfway there, and in the last one, we explain that they’re almost done. (I acknowledge there’s a lot of text here, but our goal for the next event is to do more animations and less text.)
Here are some additional tips for Clarity:
- Don’t give too much information. Be sure to give the right information that the player actually needs about the narrative and at the right time. Be aware of the cognitive load.
- Think visually. If you can explain something visually, instead of with text, do it! Especially if you’re worried players won’t read.
- You don’t have to explain everything. If you set up the context well (see the first “C” principle), you won’t have to explain everything. Players can make sense of the story from the surrounding visuals, UI, copy, and anything they’ve previously seen.
The next principle is Consistency, which is making sure all the narrative elements are cohesive throughout the entire game, and with the other game elements.
Here are some useful questions to ask about Consistency:
- Are all the narrative elements connected? Does everything make sense in the game holistically? Are the narrative elements consistent throughout the game?
- What is the voice and tone of your game? Is the voice and tone used to speak to your players the same throughout?
- What is your game’s vocabulary? Is the nomenclature, lexicon, and style used consistently throughout?
Consistency with Words
At King, our narrative designers work closely with our Localization team to make sure the words we use throughout our games are consistent.
To do so, we maintain a huge “Candy Crush” franchise glossary to ensure that the words and names we use in our games — including character names and in-game items –– are consistent in the way they are used across the 26 different languages the game is localized in.
Consistency with Backstories
And for the past year, the narrative design team at King has also been working on a lore bible in order to make the characters and universe more consistent for the entire brand. This is used as a resource not only for the game teams, but also for external cross-functional teams, such as marketing, public relations, and localization.
Consistency with Characters
The “Candy Crush” lore bible came in handy whenever we wanted to use characters for features across the games. For instance, during a playtest for “Candy Crush Saga,” we tried having Bubblegum Troll, a very popular villain in the game, present a special in-app purchase offer. But he’s known for being kind of a jerk to the other characters.
The playtest results showed that players didn’t trust Bubblegum Troll, so they didn’t want to make any purchases from him.
The good news was that we’ve established Bubblegum Troll very well with players. That meant for consistency, we should present him in the same way that we had previously –– a villain who can’t be trusted. This also informed us on how we can leverage the player recognition with the character for future stories and game features.
Here are some additional tips for Consistency (which often go hand in hand with Clarity and Context):
- Consider the style. Make sure the art, user interface design, and text that appears in a consistent way throughout the game. Not only should all the art be consistent throughout, but it should also align with the styles that have been chosen for the user interface and for the copy.
- Decide the player’s point of view up front. Think about the voice and tone you’re using when the game addresses players, and make it the same throughout the experience. For instance, do the characters talk to the player? Do they use “you” or “we” when speaking?
- Define your game’s vocabulary. For lexicon and nomenclature, decide what certain terms mean (e.g., in-game currency) and what terms are to be used (“continue” vs. “next”) throughout. Then put it in an easily shared document for reference — for yourself and for others on your team. If things change, be sure to update it and communicate the changes and decisions to anyone that may be referencing that document.
And finally, Charm, which is giving the game and its characters some personality wherever possible. This is where you, as the narrative designer and game writer, have the opportunity to truly delight the players.
Here are some useful questions you can ask Charm:
- Does the game have personality? Do the narrative elements convey the personalities of the characters and/or the game world?
- What are visual ways to convey personality? Can you do it with very little or no text? What are ways to show personality with animations or art?
- Are you overdoing it? Is there too much personality that it gets in the way of the information or the gameplay? Is it distracting?
Charm in Dialogue
In “Candy Crush Saga,” we wanted to give players an unobtrusive way to get more character stories without creating any additional art assets. So we added interactive characters on the map that were optional for players to tap on.
Each set of levels contained a character with a problem that needed to be solved by Tiffi and the player. Tapping on the characters throughout the map gave players a tiny bit of background story with short jokes about what was happening with that character. This was something that we were testing with players at the time. If this narrative test was successful, we would add additional art resources to create new animations and characters.
Charm in Art & Animation
In “Candy Crush Friends,” we were able to do more with visuals, since the game launched with 3D characters. The narrative designers worked closely with animators and artists to create visual personalities and character traits in all the animations that you see in the game, particularly in the level attacks and in the win and lose screens.
The animation team also collaborated with narrative designers to create different costumes for the characters reflecting their personalities, and for the various seasons and holidays throughout the year.
Here are some additional tips for Charm:
- Kill your darlings. Test your ideas with others. If something doesn’t work, you’ll know. Not every gag is going to land––and that’s okay! Keep iterating to get those chuckles. You’ll know it when it’s right.
- Use visual gags. Oftentimes physical comedy is easier to land, and it can work across different languages.
- Surprise and delight your players! Little pieces of text, art, and animation can help create something memorable for players. Don’t overlook this, and add these details whenever you can.
Here are some additional tips and examples that can help you implement the 4 C’s, and some other scenarios that may come up in your narrative design work.
Example: Clarity vs. Charm
For instance, there are times when you have to choose between Clarity and Charm. There’s no easy answer, or even a right or wrong answer, but sometimes, as a narrative designer, you have to make the call.
Here is an example of when I chose Clarity over Charm in “Candy Crush Friends Saga.” In the introduction to our Valentine’s Day event, we wanted to give the player more of the backstory and show some cute dialogues to convey the character’s personality. However, it wasn’t crystal clear to players what their gameplay objective was. So we made the call to change the UI from the original one on the left, to the one you see on the right, which nixed the dialogues in favor of the gameplay objective.
Tip: More visuals, fewer words
Another tip would be to use visuals when you can. Admittedly, this can be really hard to do at times, but when you can, it’s really worth it. A bit of visuals can pack a lot of story and charm in one fell swoop.
Example: Video as storytelling
Above is an example of the introductory video from “Candy Crush Friends Saga,” where we gave context to the world of the game and what the characters were doing in that world. We intentionally didn’t use text or dialogue, not just to make it easier for localization, but also just to make it easier for players to digest.
Tip: Keep text short & sweet
However, if you have to use text, use it sparingly, and keep it short and sweet. If it’s too long, no one will read it at all. We definitely break this rule sometimes, but it’s something we always strive to do better.
So now that you’ve seen some of narrative opportunities we’ve capitalized on, I want to explain how we went about implementing them. Here are some other tips for implementation and process, especially for those who are new to narrative design or working on teams without a narrative designer.
Here’s a simplified example of my process on bringing a feature to life in “Candy Crush Friends Saga.” The objective here is to present a star collection quest to a player during a seasonal event:
- Decide how the narrative is displayed. Before this was designed, I knew I wanted the character to be present, instead using a disembodied user interface. So here, Tiffi the Vampire introduces herself and explains what she wants, in character, and gives a light context for this game task.
- Add a dialogue box. This was originally designed without a speech bubble, so I worked with a UI artist to create a speech bubble and fit the text.
- Collaborate on the character art. I worked with character artists and UI artists to create this pop-up screen, including the character’s costume and animations, to add visual interest and character quirks.
- Determine the user interface elements. UX and UI designers added this progress bar, so even if the player doesn’t read the text, the UI here explains that collecting stars leads to a reward.
- Use audio as narrative ambience. I worked with our sound designer to create relevant spooky music and sound effects to go with the event.
But all that is easier said than done, so here’s some advice for narrative designers as far as the implementation process and production goes…
- Attend planning meetings and kick-offs. Or crash them. Be the representative and the evangelist of narrative design. It’s good to be present, even if you don’t have anything to add yet, just to get a sense of how you can create a narrative theme or premise, and the scope.
- Learn the production pipeline. If you understand the scope and the resources of the feature, you’ll know how, when, and where you can fit in some narrative elements. (Crashing meetings helps with this.)
- Partner with other disciplines. Learn and understand what other disciplines do, and partner with them. For example, UX designers wireframe the features, so you can work with them to find where you can add narrative elements. You can also work with UI artists to change how the narrative information is displayed. Collaborate with character artists to bring characters to life, and befriend your producers to help them understand the scope of what you want to implement. Also, don’t forget about marketing and social media partners, who can help you find other great ways to get the story and characters to players outside of the game.
- Ask questions. If no one asks about the narrative design or how it can work within the game, you absolutely should!
The other side of the coin is to teach others and evangelize about narrative design:
- Explain your process. Not everyone knows or understands what narrative design is or how it can contribute to the game. Help your teammates understand what you do and your goals, and it will make adding narrative context to the game much easier.
- Share your work with your teammates, and offer to collaborate. This will give them an idea of what you’re trying to do, and they may even have their own ideas to contribute.
- Build relationships and trust. Create allies for narrative design in your team, as well as external teams. If everyone is thinking about the narrative design, it can make for a more cohesive story and game. In other words…
… narrative design is a team effort!
Everything is narrative design, and narrative design is everyone’s job. I couldn’t do any of what I just showed you without all of these incredible people (and more). Thanks to all my “Candy Crush” friends!
Note: This work was done when I was the Studio Lead of Narrative Design at King in 2018 and 2019. I want to acknowledge the hard work and collaboration of all the amazing team members in the “Candy Crush” franchise, especially the “Candy Crush Saga,” “Candy Crush Soda,” and “Candy Crush Friends” teams across Stockholm, Berlin, London, and Barcelona. Thanks again!
And thanks for reading. You can view the recorded version of this talk in the GDC Vault.