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Session Name:

Free to Play Summit: Ludo-Narrative Goldilocks


"Ludo-Narrative Dissonance" is a well-worn trope among game design geeks. The term, coined by Clint Hocking, refers to how actions a player takes during gameplay (Ludo) often don't line up with the story (Narrative) the game is trying to tell. nnThere has and always will be a chasm between the tools and mechanics used to challenge players and achieve fun and those narrative techniques necessary to setup environments and characters to craft a quality story. Most AAA games solve this by masterfully advancing plot and character during cut-scenes that occur between bouts of twitchy gameplay involving an avatar that happens to look just like the story's protagonist.nnIn free-to-play games, trying to roll out meaningful and connected story elements often becomes even more dissonant. In F2P, the gameplay structures, the system math, and the gating of content is designed around the player's immediate compulsion and continual long-term retention, often with unpredictable cadence and length of sessions -- some as short as one minute.nnIn good storytelling, world-building and character-building are done at a deliberate, careful rate where the writer carefully doles out bits and pieces to advance a plot and keep the audience engaged and surprised. It's why storytelling is usually done in a linear fashion on proven timetables such as the 30-minute sitcom or 90-minute three-act screenplay.nnIn free to play, the usual method to monetize is to charge players to speed systems up... So time itself is always exaggerated, either hyper-slowed or hyper-sped-up. Many free to play games also offer non-linear choice to try to keep players engaged, gating and surfacing clear short, medium- and long-term goals and allowing different types of players to arrange their gameplay around their level of general mastery and how much free time they have each day to check in and play. nnTrying to have the game goals advance both the math model and a cohesive narrative model is pretty much impossible to do well. nnAnd yet, some people have pulled it off.nnLooking at examples of hits and misses, we'll try to play Goldilocks and articulate the "just right" amount of narrative to make free to play successful.nnOn the plus side:nnGardenscapes and its Ilk: How a sprinkle of narrative revitalized the Match-Three category. nIdle Games: How games like Trailer Park Boys Greasy Money figured out how to gate narrative via small bite-size "episodes", using it to structure levels, drive events, and actually increase monetization beyond the point when a player may have gotten bored by the mathy mechanics alone.nObvious wins like Episodes and Choices which really are hella light on interactivity and mainly pure narrative with light branching.nnAnd on the negative side:nnTelltale's experimentation with free to play on mobile and why it utterly failed. nHyper-casual titles trying to deepen themselves with meaningful story and pretend they are anything beyond a cynical exercise in rewarded-ad arbitrage and existential compulsion.

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