The vast majority of casual games have no semblance of a story: just a simple but addicitve mechanic and a hefty list of microtransactions.
Plenty of games have attempted to introduce a more narrative focus, of course. Puzzle Quest famously transformed what could have been a Bejewlled clone into a strategic RPG, a move that several studios have attempted to copy. And many licensed games, such as Disruptor Beam's Game of Thrones and Star Trek titles, have added adaptive storylines designed to engage fans – and, to an extent, they have worked.
Wooga is attempted to take this one step further with today's release of Futurama: Game of Drones, a match-three puzzler that aims to deliver a long-running story that will ultimately be akin to a new series of the show.
To achieve this, the game's plot has been penned by no less than four writers: Patric Veronne and Eddy Webb, long-running writers for Futurama; Jonathan Myers, who has worked on Game of Thrones: Ascent; and veteran games writer Dave Grossman, perhaps best known for The Secret of Monkey Island.
We caught up with this talented quartet, plus other members of the Wooga team, to find out now they hope to surpass all previous attempts at weaving a story behind a steady stream of matching gems.
Why add a story to a match-three puzzle game? These titles are often heavily mechanic-focused, so what’s the benefit of introducing a narrative?
Sascha Hartmann, Product Lead: There’s a few reasons we did this. Firstly, regardless of the IP, there’s no point adding a story component to a match puzzle game if it doesn’t fit. The way we’ve implemented the story into Futurama: Game of Drones through the animated comics adds something new to the match genre and works really well in tandem with the 3D Futurama world maps.
Secondly, we wanted to do justice to the Futurama world and felt that going the way of your typical match game wouldn’t have done that.
What are the biggest challenges in doing this? How do you introduce a story that works with, rather than feels tacked on to, the match-three mechanic?
Hartmann: I think it was matching the core gameplay and the map screen that really bridged that gap. As you fly through the Futurama universe you’re advancing the plot, and that’s a good experience for the player.
I should also add it only works if your story, if the writing, is good. And the writers have done an amazing job. They have managed to capture the Futurama humor that people love with some clever ‘meta’ digs at the mobile games industry to keep us on our toes as well.
Other games have tried wrapping a story around a match-three game – most notably Puzzle Quest. What lessons have you learned from these previous examples? What worked and what didn’t?
Tom-Colin Horn, Game Designer: Puzzle Quest is a really good example, actually. In that game the narrative elements give meaning to the match-three gameplay and the use of a connected storyline really helped to add immersion to the game. It drove players forward, and that’s definitely something we’ve tried to capture in Futurama: Game of Drones.
In our game, everything has emerged from the story. The narrative always played a huge part in any decisions we made in the development process but we also didn’t want it to interrupt the flow of the gameplay. Therefore, the dialogues and texts were something that constantly had to be fine tuned.
The writers did an amazing job, but it was also important to keep everything short and snappy so that it worked with the mobile format. We thought about how many taps the player needs to input to progress through story segments, when to deliver the punchlines and tested all this with users to make sure that people enjoyed the narrative elements and found the jokes funny throughout the actual experience of playing.
The narrative always played a huge part in any decisions we made in the development process but we also didn’t want it to interrupt the flow of the gameplay.
What does each member of the writing team bring to the team? Could you expand on your roles?
Patric Verrone, writer: I was in charge of the space bar and the delete key.
Jonathon Myers, writer: We all handle writing at the various stages of the process, but some roles have emerged. We consider Dave to be the lead writer because he came up with the original concept, he's done the bulk of the script writing thus far, and he's great at facilitating the changes in story that occur when gameplay implementation requires that type of update.
Patric was involved in story development from early on and we have regular rewrite sessions with him in order to improve upon first draft weak spots or inconsistencies. He's incredible at polishing dialogue and improving the jokes, which is natural because he was involved with every episode of the TV show.
My involvement was heaviest at the earlier stages with narrative design, which is where story and writing meet the mechanical system of the game design. As it became clear that we needed more writing help, Eddy came on board to support our writer's cabal. Eddy has a very fast turnaround and helps everyone to stay organized, so in addition to the story duties we all share for the script writing of chapters he has spent a large amount of time on level barks and Twitcher writing.
Fans will recognise if something feels off, even if they can’t articulate it, but as writers we need to be able to articulate it.
What lessons have each learned from past experiences and how is this being applied to Futurama?
Myers: I've always worked in social and mobile games, where the powerhouse developers have only recently begun to notice that story is valuable for engaging the audience of players. The conventional wisdom in the industry was that people didn't want story, and would neither read text on a screen nor pay any attention to the plot and characters, which is completely false.
In my prior role writing for Indiana Jones Adventure World for Zynga, and then in developing the story system and adaptive writing for Game of Thrones Ascent I sought to overturn that conventional wisdom. The success of those games is proof positive and along the way I learned a lot about how to handle this interactive and episodic medium that is different even from triple-A game storytelling.
The truth is that it does make things a little more difficult and rigorous if a team commits to telling a good story in this type of game, but the reward is that the audience cares much more deeply about the game. I'm very glad that Wooga and the Game of Drones team recognized this potential value. They respected our experience and opinions, and in turn we proved to them that as writers we didn't have to be long-winded and indulgent.
We worked within the constraints of the medium. Perhaps casual game audiences experience their fun with a shorter attention span, but if story and characters are implemented properly in bite-sized pieces with innovative techniques, then players take notice and follow along. Everyone loves a good story.
Eddy Webb, writer: Most of my professional career has been working in established franchises, ranging from Firefly and Red Dwarf to professional wrestling and vampires. While it’s important to be respectful of any property you’re working in, the key isn’t to be slavish to the material, but to sound authentic within it.
When you switch from a non-interactive medium to an interactive one, you have to make changes to adapt, but those changes should all be made with an eye toward striking to the heart of the material. Fans will recognise if something feels off, even if they can’t articulate it, but as writers we need to be able to articulate it. Working with a wide variety of established properties really helps me to know how to get at the core of something and making sure that core is authentic in everything.
The conventional wisdom in the industry was that people didn't want story, and would neither read text on a screen nor pay any attention to the plot and characters, which is completely false.
Why present the story through animated comic book panels? What are the advantages of this?
Riana McKeith, Art Director: Pretty quickly, comic books emerged as the best and most logical format to use for Game of Drones’ story. They’re a great way to communicate the narrative because they allow the player to read and interact with the story at their own pace, something that very much suits the mobile experience which is laden with distractions.
There’s also a crossover of sorts with the Futurama media already out there; there are Futurama comic books still being produced and so we also knew that the Futurama humour the fans love already works with the format.
And lastly, it works visually. At the start of development we very seriously considered using animated videos but most users would play the game in portrait mode, something that never works for video, and you would lose that interaction that we were striving for.
The game’s story is more of a serialized epic, like a funny version of Battlestar Galactica or Downton Abbey.
Do you think we’ll see more match-three and other casual games adding story elements in future? What would you like to see from them?
Hartmann: I think there’s already a trend emerging there but I don’t think many match games, if any, have implemented story to the extent we have in the experience. If the game is a big success, we hope that it would be seen as a kind of benchmark for the way story can be integrated.
But as I mentioned, there’s already a trend. Games are adding quirky characters, short little sequences of dialogue, little attempts at world building and drawing your audience in through characters. Of course, that’s a massive plus point when working with an IP, that your audience already knows the characters and the world you’re entering into, you’re able to immediately create new stories within that universe.
Dave Grossman, writer: It’s a long-form story, with large and small arcs that begin and end at different times. This is a different approach than the one taken by the TV series, which had limited continuity from one episode to the next. The game’s story is more of a serialized epic, like a funny version of Battlestar Galactica or Downton Abbey.
Also, some of the people involved – me in particular and Earplay in general – are known for making games where the story varies dramatically depending on what you do in the game. It might be worth reassuring the public that Futurama: Game of Drones uses a more traditional approach that they’re used to seeing in other games, where, apart from some dialog that changes depending on how well you’ve done at a particular point, you get to see everything we wrote the first time through.