October 1, 2018

Jam City VP, Narrative Ryan Kaufman Discusses How To Create Compelling Stories For Casual Games


Every other Wednesday, Jam City hosts a Lunch and Learn where employees from every studio have the option to conference in to a discussion that provides forward movement into their personal and professional development. Past Lunch and Learns — led by either a Jam City executive or a professional in a specific field — have included helpful topics like Photoshop Basics, App Store Optimization 101, Acquiring Immigration Visas, and Boosting Game Teams with AI and Data.

Jam City’s VP, Narrative, Ryan Kaufman, led a session titled “How to Create Compelling Stories for Casual Games”. It was a talk that offered employees guidance on how to build narratives that capture and retain an audience while building plots that rest atop an emotional undercurrent.

Ryan Kaufman has worked in the games industry for over twenty years, serving as TellTale Games’ Director of Narrative Design for the last eight where he provided design and writing leadership on some of the biggest video game releases like Wolf Among Us, Walking Dead, Minecraft and HBO’s Game of Thrones. As VP, Narrative, Ryan helps Jam City’s creative teams build out the processes and methods to deliver world class narrative design.

“I could talk about stories for hours,” begins Kaufman. “Whether it’s Panda Pop or Harry Potter, it all comes down to emotional storytelling. Fans of Harry Potter don’t want to just visit Hogwarts and see Dumbledore and Snape; they want to interact, and really have a personalized relationship with them.”

He continues, “Panda Pop is a bubble shooter, but it actually has really relatable values — like a mother’s relationship with her cubs. Finding relatable stories, like raising mischievous kids, enhances the amazing gameplay.”

The Basics of a Good Story

His first advice to those starting with a blank canvas is to center stories around personal experiences. The casual audience has limited time and attention span and a good narrative has to be immediately engaging and compelling, and that’s easier when it is emotional and relatable.

Step one is figuring out the emotion you want players to feel. “Write it on a post-it note and stick it to your monitor where you can see it every day. Watch it grow like a seed,” Kaufman explains. “The story is the way in which you explain your emotion. Why am I angry or fearful?” Decide what you want to say about that emotion, then find a new twist you can bring to it.

Step two is to discover what characters in your story are relatable. He reminds the employees, “Just because a character isn’t likable, doesn’t mean they can’t be relatable.”

Emotional Storytelling

We experience a story on many levels. A great story is almost never about what it seems like it’s about. “Your favorite stories are always about something deeper than the plot,” Kaufman told the conference. “It’s what keeps you coming back to it.” He then uses J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” to illustrate his example.

“Lord of the Rings is not actually about the epic journey from Hobbiton to Mt. Doom. It’s about leaving home and safety for the first time. It’s about taking on adult responsibilities. And it’s about the scars that life will give you along the way.” The emotional journey is the real story.

Players come back to Jam City games because, among other things, of the exciting gameplay. So what happens when we add stories and characters to it? And in the case of Panda Pop, what happens when we provide a familiar experience with a family? Giving players a compelling story adds another reason to return to the game as well as reason to invest your time and interest.

The Creative Process

When it comes to the creative process of emotional storytelling, Kaufman offered guidelines for success.

First, focus on one emotion. A good practice is to think about something that happened to you in real life — something truly memorable. When you recall that memory, don’t just recall the event. Remember how it made you feel. That memory is anchored in that emotion. See if you can bring that real-life feeling to the game story.

Second, cement what you want to say about that emotion. What new insight or twist do you have to contribute? If you don’t have something new to say, you run the risk of being predictable or boring.

Third, engage and retain! If you have good answers for the first two steps, you’ll have an audience learning forward. They want to know more, and look forward to what’s coming next.

Make Room for a Creative Space

As game developers, you should create space for players to express their OWN feelings in the narrative. Create choice moments where relationships can shift and progress. Or action moments that have fallout and consequence. Strive to give the player a personalized version of the story.

“Jam City is lucky to be working in an interactive medium, so there is so much more we can explore,” Kaufman says. “Games nowadays are just as much about the experiences players have as the stories themselves. Games allow you to really LIVE the experience. Players can tap and swipe the screen, or complete a challenge, and start to really earn those emotional payoffs.”

For Jam City games, interactivity, puzzles, and choice mechanics continually solicit player investment. “Encourage ownership and engagement by tying mechanics into the narrative,” Kaufman concludes. “Investment and ownership are very powerful feelings.”

Jam City would like to extend a huge thank you to Ryan Kaufman for taking the time to sit down and educate our employees.