Developing Compelling Game Narratives | Tips from Sam Barlow — Her Story

Sam Barlow, the creator of Her Story masterfully created a narrative that lets the player feel like a detective. The development of the story takes place with a search-engine like database called the “L.O.G.I.C. Database”, where you type search terms and get a row of 5 clips. In each clip we see a woman speaking with the police. Over time you discover more clips, piece together more of the mystery, eventually finding out that… Well, I won’t spoil it for you. The search engine is an amazing way of letting the player solve the mystery over time, without them feeling like the answer was given to them. I interviewed Sam to see how he pulls this off, and what tips he may have for up-and-coming indie developers.

How did you get into mobile development?

I had been making console video games for about 10 years, and I had never done any mobile games in that role. Then mobile gaming took off, and a couple of projects I almost got involved in never made sense from the publishing angle and for the life of a larger commercial developer. The budgets we were used to working with compared to what was available for mobile never quite fit together, or there was the other end, the huge free-to-play thing, which cost millions and millions in terms of acquisition, and was just a whole different world. I started to get frustrated that the economics didn’t make sense for me and a couple of other people to sit and make something really cool on mobile that would stand out from the crowd. I was getting jealous of people who were just two guys making very cool games. So in 2014 I decided to go independent, and gave myself a year to make something myself and prove to myself that you could make something cool in that timeframe. The affordances of the mobile market were something interesting to play with.

Did you prefer working on larger console games or mobile games?

In general, what mobile gaming has done has been super useful to me. What I didn’t like about console games was that there was a certain expectation of there being a fixed number of gameplay styles, and an expectation of game length, and the controllers as well. You’re stuck with making an experience which requires people to be able to play with a modern video games controller, with all the levers and sticks, and buttons. Whatever you put out has to fit into a bracket.

For me, traditionally, whatever games we were making were funded by a publisher and we’d be stuck in a box, they’d be cast around in a big truck and stuck in Game Stop. From a marketing perspective we were like, “We have to be making a shooter, or a platform game, or an RPG”. When I was working on the Silent Hill series, even there you had the horror genre, which was a very strict template. If we were going to make a horror game, there were these expectations that there would be health kits, and there will be puzzles, and it will last this long, and there will be this much stuff to do. So I was always very frustrated at how defined the types of games you could make were, and the barrier entry of the control scheme was always constricting to me. So what was beautiful about the explosion of cell phones and mobile gaming was that suddenly you have these touch screen interfaces, gestural interfaces, that kind of build on top of some of the stuff Nintendo had been doing, and opened up the ability to interact in a nuanced way, with some kind of interactive experience, but to a much broader selection of the population.

And the fact that people buy these things as phones, and have them in their pocket, and that people are using email and the Internet and Google and apps on these phones means they’re heavily educated in how these interfaces can work, and are used to doing reasonably complex tasks through these devices. So suddenly you have something that’s way more useful as a base platform if you want to speak to a large audience and have them enjoy something interactive. So for me that was one of the big things that allowed me to make something like Her Story, because I was like: “Look, there’s and audience out there, who haven’t necessarily been programmed to expect games to be so narrow in scope. You can tell them: ‘Here’s this idea for an experience’, and if it’s cool they’ll be interested.” They don’t instantly break everything down into the specific mechanics and genres they’re expecting. And lengths and types of these titles are very varied, because if you get something off the AppStore for a few dollars, you don’t necessarily have an expectation that this thing is going to last 100 hours and have a season pass DLC. For me, all the rules that were thrown out by mobile gaming were rules I was quite happy to throw out. Even if I had not put this out on mobile, and not seen mobile as being the home for an experience like this, I don’t necessarily think, without that change in the way people think you could make a game like this.

When/why did you decide to make Her Story?

At the start of 2014 I had been working on a big console project for 3 years that was cancelled by the publisher. And around that time it was a very confused time in the console space, especially because the new consoles were on their way, and no one really knew if they were going to take off. The economics of it were starting to get confusing, like the amount in costs to make a AAA game versus the actual audience for these things. So for someone like myself, as someone who’d seen myself on a trajectory of making these narrative driven single player games, and probably one or two of those now that exist, but it’s not a large area of the market, I didn’t really want to be a game director of some huge, sprawling, consistently online multiplayer, open world thing. I like to make these things that are contained and told stories. So around that time I was starting to try and figure out where I saw myself being and how do I continue to make the things I want to make, and how do I more aggressively push to do the things I want to do. I was trying to do interesting things with storytelling, whilst working with a publisher on a $20–30 million dollar project, where there’s a certain pace you can move at. You can’t push every boundary at once.

Around me, the whole mobile thing was kicking off. I was looking at projects and saying: “Well, look. There’re these things that are interesting that have been made by really small teams.” The resistance for me was giving up having a large team, and having large budgets. Not having $2 million to spend on motion capture, can I still tell the things I want to tell, and make interesting, worthy experiences?

I had a vague I idea that I wanted to do something in the police procedural, crime space, and do something with storytelling, and I was just riffing on those ideas and trying to figure out what that looked like. I quickly narrowed it down to doing something around the idea of police interviews. I was really into the TV show “Homicide: Life on the Street” back in the day. That was one of the first things that really focused on that moment, and that was where all the interesting drama happens. When you have the suspect in a room, and you have the master detectives in the room, trying to grill them. It felt like if I did something that was based purely in that moment, that I was being kind of a clever indie because suddenly I didn’t need to build whole cities and have police chases and all the other exploratory bits that would require lots of content to build out. And by focusing on this human thing with lots of dialogue, that seemed like an area that isn’t necessarily, traditionally explored in video games.

So I kicked off and I tried, knowing I’d given myself a year to make this thing. And when I started working on it, it was the the Spring in England, so it was very nice to sit out in my garden, and I gave myself the luxury to do lots of research on the subject and think about it and just write ideas down in notebooks and not jump straight into development. Even on the bigger projects when you have an amount of time and money to spend, usually the second the game gets signed you jump into development. And usually to sign the video game the pitch is not necessarily super extensive. You might have a 1 or 10 page document that says: “Here’s the idea for the game”, and it’s all very high level, because you can’t afford necessarily to put as much effort into these things until they get signed. And then the game would get signed, and now the incentive for the developer is to ramp up to the full team size, get 100 people working on this thing, do stuff you can build a publisher for, the publisher wants to see stuff, they want to see builds and things, content they can show their bosses. So even on those big, multi-year projects you never really had time to plan, especially as someone who was always kind of the director and the writer, lead designer. So at the same time you’re trying to figure out what exactly the experience is, you’re also managing lots of other teams ramping up, or the tech that was being made. So many things are always happening in parallel, and you don’t have the perspective. I’ve done a few talks where, you don’t necessarily have in the traditional video game space the focus on creation that you have in something like moviemaking, where you might have a screenwriter spend a couple of years working on their spec script, and it’s just them and this very concentrated creative act. And they have freedom to play around and make something very special. Then, once that’s happened the teams come in and the whole thing gets very expensive and gets made. In video games, we don’t really have that. There isn’t a spec script market, there isn’t really a big investment equivalent in story development, there isn’t a big investment in idea generation or development, outside of actually making a video game. So I knew going into it that if I gave myself a year I could afford to just have some time to kick about and come up with something that was unique, and worthy of making.

I would run that over to the other VCR and kind of loop it so it records it 3 or 4 times over itself, and you got the generation loss

What tools did you end up using to create your game?

To develop I used Unity, which I’d briefly toyed with. In my old job at that point, it wasn’t as ideal to use if you had a team of 100 people trying to make something. But I liked the fact that it was so easy to crudely knock stuff up and throw in scripts and make things happen and test it. And the fact that it allowed me to deploy it to as many different platforms as I wanted was very useful.

Outside of Unity, I did a ton of stuff in every spreadsheet package you could use, because I had to balance the game. I had these huge spreadsheets that evaluated all the words used in all the different bits of the script. I had all these functions to figure out if the whole thing was nice and balanced. But it used to crash most of the spreadsheet software because it was such a big spreadsheet with so many functions in it. So I tried to use the Numbers on my MacBook, and that would always crash. And I tried Excel, and that would crash. Then sometimes I could get Google Drive to work, because it was all happening in the cloud. So lots of spreadsheets.

I used Fade In to write all the screenplay. And Fade In is really cool. Fade In is an indie competitive to the larger screenwriting software, but it crashes a lot less and tends to incorporate more useful features than the other ones.

I used Final Cut to actually edit all the other video footage, and play around with that. And I bought some old VCR players, and I bought a bunch of different pieces of tech off the internet that would allow me to take the HD video footage off my MacBook and transfer it over onto a VHS cassette. Then I would run that over to the other VCR and kind of loop it so it records it 3 or 4 times over itself, and you got the generation loss. Then I had another card that took it out of the VCR and back into the MacBook so that I could make it digital again. That was one of the more fun things I got to play with.

Do you think the tools you chose affected development time?

All of the pain I had on the project mainly came down to plugins. When I was doing Her Story, the options for playing video in the Unity app were kind of limited, and differed based on each platform. So I had to have a bunch of different plugins for each platform. I believe that soon Unity will soon have a much more comprehensive video system which would’ve been nice to have back then. I think in general, everything worked out reasonably well.

Everything I was doing slightly broke all the bits I was using. So writing everything as screenplay made sense for going and recording it with the actor. But then trying to spit that out in a way that was useful to the game was not always ideal. Then when it came to actually editing all the video footage, which then had to be spat out as hundreds of different mini clips that got imported into the game. Then if I needed to tweak something I had to do that all again. I never actually found a useful way of doing that in Final Cut, because it’s obviously not something people necessarily need to do all that often in movie editing software. These were all things I would just brute force my way through. It’s just one of those things you can do if the scope of the project is reasonably controlled.

Her Story is now available for $3.99 on the AppStore

Do you suggest the paid app type of monetization, or would you have chosen a different type looking back?

Her Story did way better than I was expecting, so it kind of worked. The price it went out for was a premium price on mobile, but on other platforms that was a lowish price. I think in the case of Her Story, there was enough of a buzz on launch that people were willing to just jump in and pay $5. And because there was a buzz around it, and the way people were talking about it with spoilers and twists, and a lot of people were talking about it online. So I think to a lot of people seeing that, they were like: “I need to play this now. If I wait 3 months for this to be discounted, then I’ll have missed the conversation, or I’ll have had this things spoiled for me.”

And I released it a week after E3 as well, so it came out into something of a mini-lull in game releases, so it got a bit more attention. I’m definitely interested in figuring out what the best way of reaching a bigger audience is. If this was free, then you could add a few million to the number of users who have actually played and seen it, and then you just have to figure out how you monetize. The way the piece works, it’s not an easy one to throw the in-app purchase model on or have any of those kinds of mechanics. One of the appeals to me about the game is that it’s kind of like playing and ARG, but it’s all self contained. Any time I’ve tried to get involved in some kind of ARG, it feels like you’re missing out on something. It’s such a sprawling thing, you have to be so committed to actually picking up all the threads and here it was like, this gives you some of the feel of an ARG, being kind of real/not real, it feels like you’re reaching out and discovering stuff within this slightly more opaque setup, but it’s all there. You can download the app, you can go to desert island, and you can sit and you’ll have everything you need to enjoy it.

Pricing-wise it felt that was a more honest way to sell it. For me, when I developed this, it was essentially me doing everything. The barrier of what you need to sell for it to make sense wasn’t too ridiculous. Making apps at the higher, commercial level, where you’d been paid by a publisher, they look at this non-linear revenue for the free-to-play things. Why wouldn’t you do free-to-play if you could actually make millions in a day through this compulsion loop? Whereas for me, if I could sell x-thousand copies then I will have broken even and I’ll be happy and have made something cool. And I think Apple is pushing for the premium price for a paid app to be something that people are more happy with, because I think the audience has an amount of fatigue with free-to-play stuff. I was very excited when Mario came out, and was reasonably honest in it’s price: “Just give us $10 and we’ll give you these really cool Mario levels. That’s the deal.” I think that’s where my heart is, but I’m definitely interested in something that isn’t free-to-play, and isn’t premium.

Obviously there’s a precedent for subscription services like Netflix. As a single developer that’s not something I can do, I can’t just turn around and ask people to subscribe when I’m already putting out one game every few years. But at some point maybe there’s a way of giving people access to games or interactive experiences that are not heavily compromised by the in-app-purchase model, but can bring in more money than they can just by going out and saying to people: “Pay $5 and get the whole thing.” For me now, making things like Her Story, the premium price makes sense. It’s possible that, say I’d brought out Her Story and put in some kind of frictional mechanic that allowed you to look at so many clips per day or per hour and then you can pay to just unlock more, could’ve potentially brought in more money and gotten a greater reach.

But at the same time I think it would not have created as many who’re fanatical about it. I think there’re enough people who bought it, and played it, and loved it, then told other people to go play it, in a way that they wouldn’t have done if it had been free. There’s also the interesting thing you see whenever you have a sales dip. Her Story had incredible word of mouth when it came out, and I think that was partially because everyone who downloaded it, or played it, or bought it, did so even though the marketing was very opaque, the premise of the game sounded very strange, and it was asking you for money. I think if it had come out for free, there would be a lot of people going: “What is this thing I just downloaded.” Whereas someone who paid $5 for Her Story after watching the trailer and reading the 5 line summary saying “This is a game about a woman talking to the police,” was probably someone who was going to like this. So 99% of the people who played it liked it, gave it good reviews, told their friends, and buzzed about it on Twitter. So there’s definitely something useful about perversely not having millions of people download your app on launch, because you get this much stronger positive word of mouth. Once you have that, that kind of sticks around forever.

The 1999 text-based game “Aisle” developed by Sam Barlow

How were you able to initially spread the word about you app?

A lot of random luck, and a little bit of forethought. I had the advantage of having been making games for 10 years. I’d made a couple of Silent Hill games. The last one of those had something of a cult reputation, especially amongst journalists, and people remembered it as being an interesting piece of storytelling and a cool title. When I had Her Story ready, I reached out to 10 journalists who were specifically selected because they had loved stuff I had done before. There was a text game I did in 1999 called Aisle, which every now and then people would write articles about. Then a few people who had liked my Silent Hill game. So I picked 10 journalists, all website people, who I knew loved one of those games, and had a decent audience, and I approached them and I said, “Hey, I’m working on this new thing, it’s pretty cool, do you want to talk about it?” So I essentially setup 10 interviews/previews when I didn’t really have a huge amount to show. There was very little I could show of the game, so I had to hold quite a lot of it back, and it actually worked. So all 10 of those actually turned into really good articles. Boing Boing had an offshoot called Offworld run by Leigh Alexander. I got a huge number of hits on my website from being interviewed on that.

Then I waited. I did one game showing because it was local in London at EGX, which did a reasonable job of getting press people noticing the game and thinking it was interesting. Then I waited until June, and I didn’t set a launch date until I had approval from Apple because I was like: “Who knows what’ll happen when Apple takes a look at this, see if there’s anything I have to inspect.” Once I had the approval from Apple I looked at the calendar, knew I wanted to give myself 4 weeks head start so I could tell all the press about the game coming out and do a launch trailer four weeks ahead of the release date. That would give people time to request review copies, for me to speak to people, and to generate enough interest. But I looked at the calendar, and I was like: “Shoot! Four weeks puts me right in the middle of E3!” And I knew that I didn’t want to release it the week before E3 because that would be a terrible time. During E3 would be pointless. But I didn’t want to wait too long because I wanted to actually get some money. So I picked the week after E3 thinking maybe that could work. And it ended up working quite well. So four weeks out from that I contacted 30 websites and journalists directly, a slightly wider range this time, who were all the main websites, the main mobile sites, the main game sites, the main newspaper columnists who deal with games, and gave them the hard sell for the game. Most of them carried it in their news column that this was coming, or setup interviews or features around the launch, and requested review copies. Then I sat back and waited until launch and I had a launch trailer cut, which was the most of the game I was willing to show that wouldn’t spoil which was still very opaque, but had the most footage in it.

A lot of very lucky things happened. PC Gamer had seen the PC version at the game show and requested a review copy. Because they were a print magazine, they actually ended up running their review slightly ahead of the launch date, so the first review to come out was their review. It was a 90 review, which caused a minor disturbance on their website because all these hardcore PC gamers were like: “Hang on a minute, you gave The Witcher 3 a 92 and this got a 90. This isn’t even a game.” And people got very cross and I think a few people Tweeted that response, so before the game even came out there was this general understanding amongst the U.K. game scene that this game was coming out that got a really high score on PC Gamer and was upsetting the hardcore gamers, so it set a bar for what side are you on. Are you someone who gets how cool this is, or are you someone who does not. I think the Washington Post ran their article slightly early as well, and they gave it a really high score. So going into launch it already had a mini-reputation around it, and then it just got really buzzy. It got featured by Apple, it was in all the download charts, there were a lot of people talking about it, and the fact that it was the week after E3 worked brilliantly because there were no big game announcements. Journalists didn’t have anything else to write about because they had already written everything up, everyone was exhausted after E3 and had a week of crash, bangs, and explosions. And here was this interesting thing. A bunch of journalists got to play it on their flight back from E3, so they had this uninterrupted playing time. It snowballed from there.

Suddenly websites started getting in touch with me, who had sort of acknowledged the review copy and said: “Yeah we’ll look at this and review it when we get time”, and were suddenly going, “Oh, we decided to do a much bigger thing on this, do you want to do an interview as well?” It came out the week True Detective season 2 aired and disappointed everybody, so people were saying: “Hey, if you want to see one dark detective thing this week, skip True Detective this week and see this.” Batman launched on PC, and this was the version that was essentially broken on PC at launch, so that created a real stink around Batman, but in a kind of David and Goliath thing. People were saying, “if you played one detective video game this week, make it the interesting indie-game, not the expensive, broken, Batman game.” So there’s a lot of different reasons.

And the fact that the game was so unique caused a lot of coverage in the mainstream press. So newspapers were doing double-page spreads on the game, just by virtue of the fact that it used live-action footage. If you want us to do a double-page spread in your newspaper you can have a very large picture of Viva, and talk about this woman talking to the police, and it’s a crime story. That’s something that the mainstream can understand. Whereas if you make an endless running iPhone game, no one is going to do a two-page spread about that, because it aliens their audience, and doesn’t look like the kind of thing you’d see in a newspaper. So I think I hadn’t really anticipated how useful that would be, but once one newspaper ran an article about it, then all the others were writing about it. So it really started to snowball there.

And something that I amusingly admired in Gone Home was that if you name your game with a comment and phrase that’s unique enough where you can Google it and find your game, but it’s common enough when some people start talking about it on Twitter you get some freebies. So when I saw Gone Home trending when that came out, half of the stuff when you clicked on Twitter were people saying: “Oh, she’s gone home”, it was just people talking normally, and half of it was people talking about the game. And similarly, for Her Story, half of the people were talking about Her Story the game, and half the people were watching Kim Kardashian and saying: “I don’t believe her story” and stuff. So you got this semi-boost from it being a phrase that people use. So it was trending on Twitter for a couple of days. I think that initial launch trajectory fueled subsequent sales of the game. And a lot of that was chance.

The strangely compelling art of retro

Of all the things when I was conceiving the game, I was very aware that I should spend frugally, because this game could sell no copies. And the only thing I was willing to stake things on was the fact that it was going to use live footage meant that the screenshots of the game, the icon for the game, and if you go to a mobile game review site, and there’s 20 reviews, and they all have a little thumbnail showing the game, the fact that this was using live-action footage of a real person would make it stand out amongst the 3D stuff, and the pixel art stuff, and the beautiful 2D art stuff. When you’re paging through hundreds of things on the AppStore and tons of stuff in charts, or you’re looking at the Steam download thing, wherever you’re looking for games, it’s inundated with screenshots and images and stuff, which was one thing I had confidence in. Whatever I do with this game, the fact that it will have this unique look will be something that will make it stand out. Actually, a lot of people I speak to, that screen presence, what is the screenshot of your game, how does it look when it’s on a website, is actually a super important thing if you want to stand out and get people’s attention. And that’s where you convert people browsing a store to actually go and download your app. That first week buzz is really useful, because so many of these stores now are kind of fed on algorithms, and if you get enough people playing your game, keeping it in the charts, giving it high ratings, then you naturally stay in the spotlight. So being able to pull that off gives you a base level now, that if you get in enough top 10 lists, and enough categories on the AppStore, you’re going to have a foot in the door moving forward.

What is one tip you would give to new indie developers?

Make something that only you can make.

I would definitely encourage people to make something that only they could make. Make something interesting and different. There’s definitely money to be made from taking a formula and tweaking it. But for me, working at the scale I was working at, being a micro-indie developer, I think if you’re working at that scale you’re almost beholden to take risks, because you can almost afford to, assuming you’ve setup your life in such a way that you can take these risks, which you probably have if you think you can be a successful indie developer. Definitely go out there and try and make something that feels interesting and unique, and not necessarily be too worried about whats been there before. So many of the the successful and interesting titles, in retrospect you think, “Of course that was a success for all these reasons”, but going into it people are probably much less bullish. I remember going into a bunch of dev events and explaining what the game was and seeing their attempts to smile and be positive about my idea, whilst also being in their head and thinking: “This poor guy is throwing his life away making this strange thing.” But the thing I got so excited about mobile games was seeing these interesting personal projects, seeing interesting, new, and fresh-feeling things.

It’s going to be easier if it’s genuinely something that’s new and fresh and interesting. It’s going to be 100x easier to get the attention of journalists and the press, and people who want to talk about video games, and get your audience excited. There’s probably less people who downloaded Her Story than who downloaded other successful games, but the people that did and enjoyed it felt like they found something interesting and fresh, and personal to them. Having people truly love and appreciate your game is an incredibly useful thing you can work with. If people play your game and enjoy it, but it’s one of 50 games they played that week or that month and they love it, but it’s not going to be in their game of year list, it’s a lot harder than to transfer that appreciation into word of mouth, into them encouraging friends to buy it, or them buying a copy for their friends or their family. Making something that you personally feel is special in some way gives you much stronger chance that others are going to think the same.

Go download Her Story from the AppStore or Steam. But before you solve a mystery, follow me on Medium so you don’t miss my final 2 interviews with Joel and Jason.