The Importance of Story

I recently attended the Mobile Games Forum, a conference held for the first time in Seattle. There was a lot of interesting content, and even more analytics and advertising vendors, but there were a few key moments that stood out to me.  I’d like to talk about one of them.

Among all the vendors hocking their tech and services, there were only two actual demoing games: Technical Illusions CastAR demo game (an augmented reality headset) and Cascade Game Foundry’s “Infinite Scuba”. Scuba is a visually impressive game, and the team has done a lot of work making a technically accurate experience. I saw it a while ago at the WIN Reactor (a Seattle incubator site), and was happy to see it again at the MGF. I even received a free download card while at the conference.

When I was at the IS booth, I spoke briefly to the woman attending the demo, and she told me how the group was working with a famous diver to expand the dive regions, put in some missions around things like monitoring invasive species, and how there would be more content coming. I told the story of what SyncBuildRun is doing, and mentioned that perhaps there could be some synergy between our companies where our tools and pipelines could provide story-based content for future downloads. “Oh, I don’t think we want stories here,” the attendant told me. I asked how her company planned to keep players engaged. “Well, these are the ocean reefs! Our lives depend on their health. People should care about it!”

Should. It’s a funny word. There’s an implied intent, that motivation is unnecessary, and it’s just the thing that will happen because we know it’s good for us. We should eat right. We should exercise. We should recycle.  We should concentrate on our job and do what’s best for our company, maybe not what’s best for ourselves in the shorter term. But do we? No, of course not. If everyone did what they should do, we would have a world without problems, everyone would be a superstar, and no one would bother reading this blog because there are more important things that we should be doing.

Yet, it’s incredible how important story is as a motivational factor, as well as a methodology to teach a memorable lesson.  In his book “Influencer”, Joseph Grenny (who I worked with at the World Business Forum in NYC) tells the tale of a factory team who observed an overseas site that outperformed the site they lead. The team could have gone home and said “we should work harder, because they’re doing better than us.” Of course, the team realizes that such an approach would fall flat, so instead, they tell a story. The team describes their own skepticism that pacing can be any more efficient, then their amazement at seeing how the overseas factory operates, how impressed they were with simple changes that actually make work easier and faster, and then how they’re on board an know their site can do even better. The story sells the factory floor, and soon there is a turnaround.

Twitter also has a related hashtag: #ExplainAFilmPlotBadly. It’s a funny tag, where descriptions like “Meryl Streep gives the kid she likes least to the nazis” go for a cheap laugh or a bit of shock (“someone made a movie about that?!”), but while the tweets are easily forgotten, the experience of watching “Sophie’s Choice” is something that will stick with a viewer forever. It’s the story that drives home the lesson, imprints the tale on our subconscious, or keeps the viewer or player coming back.  We live for the tale because, as humans, we can empathize with other people, place ourselves in their shoes, and visualize what we ourselves might do in that situation. This visualization becomes a memory, tied up with emotion, as if we had actually performed the action ourselves, and that has staying power.

When I talk to other people about SyncBuildRun, I always start out by saying “We’re making Episodic Games,” but I know the conversation never ends there. I don’t expect people to care because they should. It’s a hook. The inevitable followup is “what’s that?” This is when the story is told. I talk about how so many games are one shot deals, you play them and they’re over. Or how some games dole out meaningless trinkets at $0.99 a day. I describe that while there are existing games where the story is released in parts, those releases are so infrequent, so haphazard, that remaining engaged is difficult. I’m weaving a tale, one of frustration, of letdown. Then I tell the story of our aspiration. “We want to release new story-based content every week, Tuesday, at Five O’Clock. Then again the week after, on Tuesday, at Five O’Clock. We want to be there with new story every week, like great shows on AMC. Like the Walking Dead, or Mad Men, or Breaking Bad.” This is the story to which people can relate, sitting on their couch in a weekly clockwork ritual to watch characters and plots that are engaging. “Ohhh!” they say, “That sounds really cool!” And then I know I have a potential customer.

Story is so important. Even at Amazon, there were skeptics about buying books online, but the customer stories of “I ordered X, it was so easy, and then it just showed up on my doorstep two days later!” are what made the company. Stories about what people searched for and found on Google made that company. Facebook is all about sharing stories, constantly, and the ease of doing so made that company a hit. The successful products and companies all have a story to tell. Stories compel us. Stories drive us. We act on the information in stories not because we should, but because, every day, we’re rewriting our own story, and we get to be the hero. What could be more compelling than that?

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