ANDY: Hello! I’m Andy Collins, lead writer for Undead Labs. Welcome to part 1 of the Moonrise Dev Diary series!
IAN: And I’m Ian Adams, content designer and writer. I’ll be joining Andy for the rest of the articles in this series, where we’ll talk about the hows and whys of quests, narrative, cast, setting, tone, lore, and all the other things that fall under the umbrella of “story.” I’ll be a little scarce during this first bit though, since most of it happened before I joined Undead Labs.
ANDY: The first step in creating the story of Moonrise was imagining the world that would contain the core game activity: battling strange beasts in order to assemble a team of loyal creatures. At this point, I wasn’t worrying about what story you might follow during the game, I wanted the backstory that let the gameplay make sense and feel reasonable.
(It’s an ugly secret that when you strip away the cuddly veneer of story from a battle-collection game, you’re left with something resembling dogfighting...and that’s REALLY not the game we wanted to make.)
Some might ask, “Why bother with story? I just want to fight monsters.” I’ve always believed that good story can only help a game, even for players who don’t consciously pay attention to it. A cohesive, compelling world seeps into your unconscious mind, making the game more immersive, more intriguing, and ultimately more fun to hang out in for hours and hours.
This is NOT the same thing as saying “Any story is better than no story.” Bad stories pull your players out of the flow and force them to slog through unwanted exposition. Story-friendly players hate badly crafted worlds because they represent missed opportunities, and players who don’t think much about the “why” of your game get angry at the annoying interruptions. It’s really a lose-lose situation.
The studio knew it wanted Moonrise to be more than just “tap button, collect loot.” We wanted this game to have some of the immersive depth of a classic JRPG, and that meant we needed REASONS for what happened. It’s fine to make a “no-story” game that doesn’t try to answer such questions. (Does anyone know why these puzzles can defeat those dragons? No, and you don’t care.) But once you’ve decided to explain some parts of your world (“Why do people battle and collect Lunari?”) you can’t stop halfway and yadda yadda the rest.
The first questions revolved around the creatures themselves. These beasts are the core of the game, so we had to get them right. (I use Lunari and Solari to refer to these creatures in the article, but we were still a long way from these names.)
- What are these creatures called?
- Why must you fight these Lunari?
- Where did these Lunari come from? Are they old or new?
- Why is it okay to collect these creatures and use them to fight each other? (This answer should satisfy both the in-world observer and the actual humans looking at this game.)
- Why do defeated Lunari fight for you? (Are they friendly companions, loyal pets, or dominated servants?)
Also critical to our story was the identity of your character. Your avatar takes part in the fighting, so your character needed to be someone who existed in the world.
- Who is your character? (Age, societal role, etc.)
- What makes you special? (Why are YOU the one fighting these Lunari?)
- Why are all these other characters here? (The eternal problem of the massively multiplayer game...if I’m so special, how can there be thousands of others just like me?)
And of course, there were plenty of other questions to tackle.
- What’s the tone? Friendly? Scary? Hopeful? Grim?
- What genre does the world resemble? Traditional fantasy, gritty sci-fi, urban fantasy, post-apocalypse, etc.
- What’s the key conflict? (In other words, “Why is now an exciting time to be a Warden?”)
- How does the story start? (Fortunes are won or lost in the first few minutes, so you think about that time-frame even before you’re ready to build it.)
My first task for Undead Labs was to craft several different proposals for this world. Each proposal sought to answer a set of core questions, drawn from that laundry list you see above. My goal was to show the Moonrise team a variety of approaches. Hopefully, one of the proposals would make them sit up and say, “Yes, that’s the kind of game world we want!”
Of course, that never happens. Instead, if you’re lucky, the team likes part of your first proposal, and a name from your second proposal, and this-concept-but-with-a-twist from your third. (If you’re unlucky, you get to start over from scratch.)
So my four proposals morphed into three, then went for review to Kabam, our publisher and partner, which resulted in more notes and discussions, which led to expanding one of the proposals to answer more questions, which resulted in more notes and discussions, which led to another draft that focused on the details that folks liked best, which went back to Kabam for more feedback, which resulted in more notes and discussions, which led to a rough “world bible” for our game.
That last paragraph, by the way, took about FIVE MONTHS of real time. It’s not the ONLY thing I was working on, but it definitely occupied a big chunk of my attention.
By the end of our world-creation process, we had Wardens (and their guild), a backstory that explained Lunari, reasonable logic and imagery for the battle/recruit process, and a world with several different regions with unique visual, geographical, and cultural identities. We’d tweak details for months, but our framework was in place.
IAN: Which is when I joined the team and immediately started work on our next big set of questions: If this is our world, what kind of stories can we tell in it? What themes can we explore? What tropes do we want to play with, and which do we want to avoid? What actually happens, and why? Which is conveniently the topic of next week’s diary.