[This is the first in a series of articles about narrative engineering: design, organisation and writing. They are aimed at people making quality-based narrative games, and especially our StoryNexus beta testers.
Small and finished stories are much, much better than huge and half-done stories. Your stories might be beautiful or exciting or original, but if they’re not finished you’ve already lost most of your audience. ‘Finished’ is about the most important thing that your stories can be. Finish one story before starting the next one.
Don’t set out on some vast open-ended project on your own. If you’re doing something big, it will be much easier as a team effort. Recruit friends, or helpful people from the forums to help you out.
Design before you write
You’re a game designer as well as a writer. Before you put finger to keyboard, you should know the design of what you’re writing. And that means knowing what the qualities are, how the content is structured and how the character moves between one storylet and the next.
There’s no need to do everything at once, though. Plan your content in chunks of six or ten or fifteen storylets, and have a plan for how these chunks fit together and which qualities are common across the chunks. If you have ‘resource’ qualities that are built up and then spent, figure out how much each is worth, and whether they can be exchanged. Work out how many actions you want this chunk of content to take up.
Doing this will save a lot of time in the long run. And it will save you having to discard a bunch of great prose that is suddenly useless because the old structure didn’t work and there’s no place for it in the new structure.
A good way to work is to ‘skeleton’ out content before writing. Create all the storylets and branches you’ll need, and set up all the quality requirements and changes. This means you can playtest the structure and make sure it all works before you sit down to write the fiction. Also, if you’re working as part of a team, you might find that you have a good designer and a good writer. There’s no problem with someone designing the structure of content and someone else writing it, if they communicate well.
Playtesting is king: playtest everything. And then get someone else to playtest it. And then playtest it again.
Any system more complex than a stick can exhibit surprising behaviour. There’s a fair chance that any chunk of content that you write for StoryNexus games will do something that you didn’t intend. You catch this stuff in playtesting. And it’s much, much better to have your playtesting character suffer being stuck in a contentless wasteland, or having all their treasured possessions suddenly vanish, than it is to get the bug reports about it from angry players. Any time you spend in playtesting is time well spent. Try to get at least two sets of eyes on any content before you throw it open to unsuspecting players.