In a series of posts over the next month, we are exploring the creative workflow process for designing playful and interactive narrative experiences that blur the lines between the real and virtual worlds. Our experience coming out of the UKRI "Audience of the Future” project has informed a lot of what we’re doing but we’ve gone further in the last year and we wanted to share some of our findings.
Lots of different tools but some shared process.
As we build out Fictioneers with the goal of creating a platform for digital transmedia experiences, we held dozens of interviews with the storytellers, game makers and creative technologists. From them, we’ve learned that everyone uses different tools but they largely follow a similar process with distinct stages.
This process can be divided into three stages: Create (pre-Production), Collaborate (Production), and Operate (Launching and running these experiences for an audience).
The Create stage begins with ideation, narrative design, and setting the goals for your experience. This is where you will come up with your core concept, develop your story, and define what you want your participants to feel and do. For the most part, our interviews showed that this was initially a solo or small group activity. Too many cooks at this early stage would often ruin the soup.
Some key principles for making digital immersive experiences that work:
- Your experience should be a journey. Each step of your story is uncovering more of the big picture and expanding on your themes and you need to keep them moving through it. Even if the story is non-linear, it should always been exciting and fun to turn the next corner or the next page. If your experience takes place over multiple times or locations, leave the player or visitor on a minor cliffhanger to encourage them to keep going.
- Tell one aspect of your story at a time. Your experience should have a clear and engaging narrative that participants can connect with even if you are being mysterious. Avoid trying to cram too much story into each step. Let people absorb each one before you throw a new concept at them. At this stage, you are sketching out the shape and the schema for your story. You probably aren’t writing specific scenes or completing characters at this stage. Get the themes right initially and when you re-write, it will be easier to flesh out the characters and locations.
- Let audiences connect. Give players an easy way into these experiences and meet them halfway. They should be meaningful, leaving them with a sense of accomplishment, empathy or learning. If your experience isn't relevant to their interests or experience, you are going uphill. Think about the points of entry to your story and them. Understand how you reach out to invite them to play with you.
Here are some tips for creating a playful and interactive narrative experience:
- Start with a strong core theme for your experience. What is the central idea of your experience? What makes it unique and special? What do you want your visitors or players to FEEL? Most of our interviewees do this with a mood board or have a clear but broad theme for emotional connection. Even before they start thinking about characters or story or plot.
- Develop a compelling story. Every experience has a narrative. Even if that narrative is non-linear or disjointed. What story do you want to tell? What are the stakes for the players or visitors? Why are you the one to tell this particular story? What makes it authentic?
- Remember that Agency = co-creation. How will participants interact with the story and each other? What challenges will they face? What rewards will they earn? If you give a player or visitor agency, you are inviting them to co-create the narrative with you. Be ready for that to go in places you don’t fully expect but reward them for playing with you.
“I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained.” - Walt Disney
2. Collaborate Photo by Nasim Keshmiri on Unsplash
Once you have developed the core concept and narrative for your experience, unless you are a solo artist who can do everything, it’s time to start collaborating with a creative team. This may include writers, designers, visual artists, developers, and producers. Experience design is a team sport.
The Collaborate stage is anchored by strong content strategy, user experience design, and digital media asset production. Keeping everyone on the same page is tricky and understanding everyone’s clear roles and responsibilities is critical. Consider holding an early alignment meeting where you present your pre-production vision and get the team to collaborate on a shared tool like a Team Canvas or a whiteboarding session.
This is where you will work together to bring your experience to life.
When collaborating on a playful and interactive narrative experience, it is important to keep the following principles in mind:
- Establish trust early. Make sure to communicate regularly and clearly with your team members. Share your vision for the experience and get their input at all stages. Remember that the ideas that come out of a room are more powerful than the ideas that went in if you are truly collaborating.
Establishing psychological safety in your actions and ways of working is the strongest way to make sure you get the best out of your group. Teams that feel safe will take the creative risks that make great work and wont be afraid to fail.
- Be open to feedback. Be willing to listen to feedback from your team members and make changes to your experience as needed. Get it from the team and from early playtesters you trust who are in the target audience. We’ll cover more about playtesting in a future post in this series
- Take risks early and often. If your team feels safe in their collaboration and you’ve earned their trust, there will be room to take creative risks and try things that won’t work. The earlier and faster you do this the better. Every failures to feedback into your process and you may find that the seeds of a great breakthrough came out of something that didnt work at first.
Here are some tips for collaborating on a playful and interactive narrative experience:
- Agree on how often you will meet and collaborate. The cadence of your collaboration is a rhythm and it is like dancing. You have to flow together to make it work. Adjust this as necessary
- Use the lightest form of project management you can. While you need to stay on budget and on deadlines, too much process will kill your collaboration.
- But no project management is just as deadly. Creativity flourishes with the right amount of constraints and structure. Deadlines and milestones help you measure progress and keep people motivated.
- Create a style guide or a creative North Star document. You or your creative lead should own this document or moodboard or bible. It’s the tool you use to keep everyone aligned on the goals of the experience, the key themes and the feeling/vibe that you are after. It should have the coffee stains of your collaboration with other and post-it notes all over it. It’s a living document.
“You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don't try to forget the mistakes, but you don't dwell on it. You don't let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.” - Johnny Cash
3. Operate Photo by Sieuwert Otterloo on Unsplash
Once your experience is complete, it is time to launch it and start running it.
This stage is all about live operation and measurement. This is where you will monitor your experience and make adjustments as needed to ensure that it is running smoothly and meeting your goals. Rebalancing parts of the experience where players have shown you there is a problem.
When operating a playful and interactive narrative experience, it is important to keep the following principles in mind:
- Provide support to participants. Make sure that participants have someone to turn to if they need help or have questions. For experiences with live performance, you’ll need to think about performer and audience safety. If you are sending someone out in the world with a device or headphones, be sure to think about where you are sending them and encourage them to be in safe places if you want them to concentrate closely or look at a screen.
- Monitor usage and engagement data. This data can help you to identify areas where your experience can be improved. Be sure to collect qualitative and quantitative data. Quant tells you what happened, Qual tells you why.
- Make adjustments as needed. Don't be afraid to make changes to your experience based on feedback from participants and usage data. Your original plan for how people will move through your experience will be confounded at times and you should learn to find the paths that work. There are desire paths in immersive experience design too.
Here are some tips for operating a playful and interactive narrative experience:
- Create a Live Ops support destination. This can be a knowledge base or a wiki where people can get help and understand how to get the most out of your experience.
- Use analytics tools. This will help you to track usage and engagement data that becomes insight you can use to iterate on the existing experience and inform what you build next.
- Conduct surveys and interviews with participants. Nothing beats a human conversation and actively listening to players and visitors to your experience. Create a simple and consistent questionnaire that players can answer after your experience to identify areas for improvement.
“We spend a lot of time saying, ‘Is it a game? Is it theatre?’ I think we could say it’s an experience — because it’s probably as much theatre as gaming. So what’s the space in the middle? Maybe we haven’t got a language for that yet because we’re still trying to work out what it is.”
- Felix Barrett, Artistic Director for Punch Drunk