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Use the GDC 2021 Session Viewer to browse and sort the ever-growing list of sessions by day, time, pass type, topic, and format. All registered attendees will be able to build their personal schedule directly within the event platform, once live early July 2021. All times are listed in Pacific Time.

Free to Play Summit: Ludo-Narrative Goldilocks

David Fox  (CEO, Double Coconut)

Date: Monday, July 19

Time: 2:40pm - 3:10pm

Pass Type: All Access Pass, Summits Pass

Topic: Free to Play

Format: Session

Vault Recording: Video

Audience Level: N/A: I prefer to present live on-site but I am open to delivering a virtual presentation

"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.

There 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.

In 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.

In 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.

In 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.

Trying to have the game goals advance both the math model and a cohesive narrative model is pretty much impossible to do well.

And yet, some people have pulled it off.

Looking 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.

On the plus side:

Gardenscapes and its Ilk: How a sprinkle of narrative revitalized the Match-Three category.
Idle 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.
Obvious wins like Episodes and Choices which really are hella light on interactivity and mainly pure narrative with light branching.

And on the negative side:

Telltale's experimentation with free to play on mobile and why it utterly failed.
Hyper-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.


In the end we'll try to actually chart the economic value of story in a free to play core loop, and figure out how 'story' can be structured as 'content' -- trying to really lay out the flavors of narrative that are appropriate or possible in free-to-play ludo.

Intended Audience

Anyone looking to embrace narrative strength in their titles but do it effectively, not just for 'art's sake.'