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Building a Story Arc in a Multiplayer Game:
Part 1

Sean by Sean "Day[9]" Plott
on 04 August 2014

This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Read Part 2 »

In our last game design post, I wrote that game design is not all that different than story writing. In a story, the main character faces increasingly difficult obstacles and challenges which build up to a dramatic final climax. Those struggles are what make the story exciting. In a multiplayer games, story arc experiences are equally as critical since you are the protagonist. Have you ever played a game with huge periods of boredom? Where you daydreamed while waiting for your turn? Where the exciting moments have long passed? These are symptoms of a problematic story arc.

Unfortunately, multiplayer games are non-linear — the players make the challenges for each other, not the designer. Since players can make widely different or even unexpected decisions, how does the designer help impose a story arc experience in a multiplayer, competitive game? Let’s examine some core issues and problem areas to provide some structure to our question!


The first and most basic problem is not having enough player to player interaction. Imagine a story where the main character calmly hangs out at home for 300 pages, only to be sucked into a dramatic final conclusion in the last 20. No matter how great those last 20 pages are, we have a mostly dull book. Like a hero in a good story, a player should have many smaller conflicts that build towards an end. In a multiplayer game, players create conflicts and obstacles for each other, so frequent interaction is the only way to ensure many conflicts!

Encouraging interaction is harder than it might seem. In RTS games for example, economy represents a player’s ability to make meaningful choices. If he loses a single battle, a player can fall behind thousands of dollars in army value, making it harder to expand, tech, or win the next battle. Early versions of Atlas were often decided by one big battle. So, players spent most of the game fearfully turtling at home, avoiding a potentially game ending fight and avoiding interaction. No player wants to be forced to do something they don’t want to. Interaction needs to be fun, useful for winning, and not overly punishing.

Prolonged Endings

A second story arc problem is the prolonged ending. Have you ever played a game where you know you’re dead, but the game drags on for another 10 minutes? No player wants to wait hopelessly to be finished off. Early Atlas builds suffered from this — the guaranteed-to-win team had to wait minutes to build enough power to punch through overly strong defensive structures. If a player has made a winning move and there’s no possibility of comeback, the game should end quickly.

Note that this does NOT include games where you’re playing from behind, but still have hope to make a comeback. I’ve played many a great game of StarCraft where I made a mistake early and spent the following 10 minutes trying to battle back. Though I might have eventually lost, I still had meaningful choices that gave real possibility to come back.

Rising Tension

Let’s assume we’ve built a game where there’s plenty player-to-player interaction and the climax always happens at the end. We still have a potential third story arc problem where tension doesn’t slowly increase throughout the game. Without growing tension, it’s hard for players to feel a sense of anticipation. They need to stay engaged because something scarier might be coming! Many of our prototypes for Atlas suffered from this in various forms.

In one prototype, we had players seize “victory points” on the map in order to win. In playtesting, we found that once a player gained a lead, if they played slowly and defensively they were nearly guaranteed a win. In other words, tension was high while points were even but decreased precipitously after one player gained a point lead.

In another prototype, players had to battle over a key chunk of resources early, but afterwards they played relatively passively. The result was a game with a huge spike of tension both at the start and during the final battle but there was a long, boring period in between.

In our most recent prototype, the mid-game is more exciting than the end-game. As a result, many of our players feel disengaged from the game, and they want to stop whether they’re winning or losing! Ensuring rising tension has proven to be one of our toughest design challenges.

Next Time

We’ve identified some of the high level problems for building story arcs in multiplayer games, and talked about some of our own struggles with Atlas. Next week, we’ll take a look at some specific mechanics in a variety of games (including ours!) that do wonders for building beautiful arcs in games.

Continue reading part 2…

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