Games and Storytelling: Incorporating Fan Feedback

Mass Effect 3's controversy may be extreme, but fan feedback on narrative can be quite useful

Gaming has been called the creative medium that asks the most out of its fans and it's difficult to argue with that. Movies, TV shows and books do not have a "failure state." It stems from the interactive nature of video games - if there is no success or defeat, the game's merely a toy. Similarly, players become invested in these games, not just because their actions dictate whether the hero succeeds or fails, but also because they are vital cogs making sure the story moves forward.

Nowadays, not only are players wrapped up in engaging, fully-voiced narratives that can rival the quality of film, they're also able to give tangible feedback to developers.

GamesIndustry International discussed the push and pull between creators and fans with Paul Helquist, Creative Director of Borderlands 2, and Dan Connors, CEO of Telltale. In particular, we focused on game stories to find out how the fans have helped to shape the stories in the games they've made.

Helquist noted that his team definitely looked at feedback from reaction to the story of the first Borderlands. "I think the majority of the feedback was that it was too light; there was a high level concept in the game, going after the Vault, but it wasn't very well developed. That was the key critique that we took out of the first game," he said.

For the guys at Gearbox, the DLC helped them try out different story concepts. "We wanted to explore how to tell stories and have them be interesting but not intrusive," Helquist continued. "I think the thing we were able to do in The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned and The Secret Armory of General Knoxx is make the story happen during the missions. You could come back to where you got the mission and Claptrap is tied up - we're doing that more of thing in the sequel."


"People want to have the vocal performances as well - we realized that. They want that audio content to draw them into the world, so we explored that in the DLC and it worked well on a pretty outlandish level."

For Telltale Games, user feedback has been a key part of their games since the beginning. "Early on, we realized the power of user feedback, that it's the most important thing," said Connors. "Our writers were able to engage with customers and hear what they like and didn't like - add more about a character, tweak a storyline. For instance, in Sam & Max we were hoping the Soda Poppers would be characters people would like, but they didn't. We ended up killing them and having them be the bosses in Hell. It's the live development we live in that I feel lets us run with these sorts of tangents."

"Early on, we realized the power of user feedback, that it's the most important thing"

Dan Connors

Ironically, Telltale wasn't thinking about user feedback when it made its foray into episodic gaming.

"I really don't think we were focusing on that as a benefit when we started," said Connors. "When the transition to digital content allowed us to make things more bite-sized, that really was our motivation for episodic content. It allowed us to distribute multiple episodes, more like TV. We felt like story was the hook that would keep users engaged. This idea of live development was with us until Jurassic Park, which released all episodes at once. I think it's something that we've benefited from."

While story has always been important at Telltale (as evidenced in the name of the studio) the original Borderlands had a somewhat muted story from Gearbox, but Helquist indicates there will be "way more emphasis" on the story for the sequel, thanks in part to the positive reception to what story was in the original.

"The storyline [for Borderlands 1] was a very high-level thing: 'Gotta go find the Vault.' You're collecting the keys to the Vault - you could easily forget that until it comes together at the end," said Helquist. "This time, it's sending you off in different places and it's more integrated and more involved than the first game."

One thing that isn't going to change is the mixture of odd humor during side missions and relatively serious attitude during story missions. "This has been a big balance during development. Part of our storytelling aesthetic is this dark satirical humor, especially in our side mission content," admitted Helquist. "How serious should it be versus comedic and zany? The plot content is serious but the side content is pretty out there. If you're looking for a space opera you should do the main content whereas if you want something silly it's the side stuff."

The plot of Borderlands 2 will be fully realized when the game ships, whereas the narrative in the upcoming Walking Dead is still up in the air, even though Telltale just release the first episode. It's a wildly different approach.

"As long as we've been doing it, we've been focusing on episode 1 and seeing where it lands and then focusing on the next," detailed Connors. "We start out with a loose outline, the basic character arcs and then we break it down into episodes. We look to get the first show out there, establishing things, and we have a decent amount of details for episode 2, but for after that it's a really rough outline. Basically, it's a loose overview of where we wanted to go, but it doesn't get worked out until the writer delivers the script."

A recent Telltale game was Jurassic Park, which was something of a departure for the company, and the developer learned a lot about itself and its customers from the experience.


"The mission with Jurassic Park was to capture the dramatic tension of the movie," said Connors. "It was our first real non-comedy game and it was based around dinosaurs. We also wanted to engage [the player] in the action, so the many fans of the franchise could be immersed in a world full of dinosaurs and feel like they were being chased, and there were good moments in that, I think. The amount of freedom and exploration... some people liked it and enough people disliked it, but we really went for dramatic pacing in our game and Jurassic Park helped us get to Walking Dead."

"I think with Walking Dead, we knew what we could do from Jurassic Park that was positive and negative," he noted. "We focused on control that let the users feel like they could explore the universe more freely. I liked the timed dialog system in Jurassic Park and we implemented that in Walking Dead and that helped with pacing, and now players always feel engaged because they have to make quick decisions. It's about the mechanics of exploring the world."

Connors admitted that not everything in Jurassic Park met his expectations. "If you're going to do action sequences, you have to nail them. You can't have assets where it doesn't work," he said. "Trying to recreate one of the greatest movies of all time, putting dinosaurs in the game... we've never done anything like that."

Walking Dead's development, on the other hand, has been more in line with Telltale's style. "By contrast, investing in a story that's more like a comic book allows us to be expressive and we didn't have to get every expression completely realistic - it lets us be more creative."

"It also didn't help for us instead of being episodic to have a Christmas launch in the same month as Skyrim. It put expectations on it," Connors said of Jurassic Park.

Stay tuned for part two where we offer a more indie take on storytelling - along with more details on Walking Dead and Borderlands 2.

Latest comments (7)

Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 5 years ago
I still find it strange how little emphasis studios place on story. The job adverts show they are always looking for expert coders with lots of experience, specialists in different programming fields, but when it comes to story and dialogue, apparently anyone can do it.

There are writers out there who already know the things that they are "discovering" in this article. Incorporating player feedback and making the story happen during, not around, the action in the game are things any tabletop RPG veteran knows.
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Kevin Clark-Patterson Lecturer in Games Development, Lancaster and Morecambe College5 years ago
[TTG] Jurassic Park The Game - ROFL!

I dont think you can blame the writers soley responsible for that one, there was so much wrong with that game I find the term 'game' offensive.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 5 years ago
@ Bonnie

Re: Your point about tabletop RPGs. I think it might be a very good idea for game designers and writers to run the stories they wanted to tell within a pen-and-paper RPG scenario before commiting them to code. At worst, it would illustrate any serious story-telling issues (plot-holes, characters with nonsensical dialogue), and at best it gives well thought-out feedback about the story. Player feedback from within RPG groups can run from "That was cool!" to full breakdowns regarding why the player chracters didn't feel the emotions that the writer/GM wanted them to.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 8th May 2012 2:56pm

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Joshua Rose Executive Producer / Lead Designer, Storm Eagle Studios5 years ago
While I've never played the Jurassic Park game, I am a veteran tabletop RPG gamer (World of Darkness, Dungeons and Dragons, 7th Sea), and one thing I always tried to do as a DM was make a story that was both fun and thought provoking for my players. Let the players become truly immersed in the gameplay. Let them do whatever they want. For example, I had one player that wanted a bag of holding in his butt... So I said go for it! But each time you put something in, or take something out, you do 1d4,1d6,1d10, or 1d12 damage based on the size of the object... He didnt last very long, but I digress.

I watched the trailer for the Walking Dead game and it seems like it's going to be quite an interesting game. I'm guessing the storyline is supposed to be in parallel with the TV series, but just a different part of the world. Not sure how the monthly episode installment deal will go, but we will have to see. Hopefully each episode is more than just an hour and a half playthrough. Based on what I saw from the trailer, the gameplay seems to be farily linear, so it doesn't look like it has much room for personalized gameplay. Also, is that the Borderlands engine?
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Joshua Rose Executive Producer / Lead Designer, Storm Eagle Studios5 years ago
@Morville: I think making designers run the story in a pen and paper style game would yield very interesting results, the combat of course would be more or less generalized with the exception of certain events that happen within the gameplay and stuff like that. But from a story creation point of view, that would be a great idea, of course I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if they already did that. I mean, we all grew up playing RPG games, and playing games like DnD in highschool.

Hell, for all we know, they could be developing the storyline to the next big blockbuster videogame in the basement of one of the developers sitting around a card table, drinking beer, and eating cheetos on one of their days off.
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Iain Lowson Writer 5 years ago
@ Bonnie
Completely agree. Any game company setting out to create a world for their game, regardless of genre, could do far worse than looking at the level of immersive consistency and detail found in the best RPG settings. On a side note, I've had a few job offers in the past simply because of the RPG and even LARP stuff I've done in the past. Maybe folks are starting to wake up to the potential of the other games industry.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Iain Lowson on 8th May 2012 3:51pm

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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 5 years ago
@ Joshua

Yeah, I'm sure some writer/developers do run games to test out their stories, but I'm also fairly sure that some studios just don't. A good example would be Mass Effect 3 - either they didn't run the story as a tabletop RPG, or their test group were rather mono-syllabic in their feedback. :)

(Also, <3 7th Sea! :D )
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