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7 Apr 2015

PSA: Developing Story-Driven Games? Remember That Gameplay Comes First

I’m a big fan of bad entertainment: terribly filmed movies, ridiculous music, and of course badly-made games. There’s something about badly made entertainment that appeals to me – perhaps I’m drawn to the ‘so bad it’s good’ aspect of it all. At any rate, I played one of my most prized possessions over the weekend: Mad Dog McCree for the Wii. It’s so bad and cheesy that it’s provided me with more hours of entertainment than a lot of AAA games (it’s an FMV game at that – which along makes it worth of playing). Maybe that’s what the developers were going for when they made the game in the early 90’s. Whatever the case may be, the developers know it’s bad and have begun releasing it for as many platforms as possible over the last few years.

It’s also apparently available for iOS for a few bucks. Do yourself a favor and play this gem of a game and tell me about it in the comments below.

As I was playing Mad Dog McCree, something dawned on me about this game, FMV games like it, and other games that have tried to be more like a film than an actual video game: the reason these types of games flop is because they place emphasis on the story first and the gameplay secondly.

Folks, this is always a recipe for disaster.

Think about the best story-driven games that you have ever played – where was the emphasis on the game? Sure, there was an emphasis on the story more than the norm, but the central focus was always on gameplay. I like to use the original Deus Ex as an example for awesome, story-driven games done right. Deus Ex contains one of the greatest stories in the history of gaming in my opinion – gritty dialogue, a cyberpunk world that feels amazing yet bleak, and one of the first successful attempts of melding an RPG with an FPS – Deus Ex is the perfect example of how to incorporate solid gameplay and make it the central focus of your game, all the while ensuring that the game naturally progresses the story simultaneously. It’s a vicious balancing act, but when it’s done to perfection? It’s a beautiful thing.

If you are developing a story-driven game yourself, be sure that you do the same. Place an emphasis on your gameplay first while implementing your story into the game. This can be a killer: especially because you are going to find instances in which you can’t incorporate parts of your story without sacrificing gameplay. Even so, it’s essential that you do this. Remember: develop your game around gameplay – not the other way around.

I think about the best story-driven indie games I’ve played over the last few years, and most of them have this one thing in common. Take Papers Please as an example. The game could stand on its own without a story, but by implementing a narrative into the gameplay – by way of desperate people asking you to let them into the country, a radical group wanting you to help them in exchange for cash your family needs, etc. – the game introduces morality choices that makes the game excel even further.

Hotline Miami (and its sequel, Hotline Miami 2) does the same thing. The gameplay is solid on its own, but by incorporating quick cutscenes between levels that progresses the psychotic, psychedelic story forward, the game becomes even better. Story and gameplay that coexists (rather than competing with each other) ends up complementing one another and thus, raising the quality of the game.

It’s a balancing act that is much harder to pull off successfully than you would think, but when it works? It’s magical. Do you have any questions about developing story-driven games? Let us know in the comments below!

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