MAG’s Alice Bowman on how narrative can help UA, retention, monetisation and more


MAG Interactive product lead Alice Bowman took to the stage at Develop 2023 this week to outline how mobile studios should think about adding narrative into their games to help with UA, retention, monetisation and player satisfaction.

First off, it’s an extra edge a competitive product might not have, and could give your UA a boost, said Bowman. “If you can’t target specific users, you can at least make sure that your adverts are going to appeal to users you think will really enjoy your game, stick around and maybe spend a bit of money,” she said.

“Story as a player motivation is really easy to convey in adverts, since adverts are sort of just little stories. So you even see a lot of mobile game adverts even using story when the game doesn’t actually include one.”

The light narratives seen in Lily’s Garden and Homescapes all share ‘fresh start’ characters and endless to-do lists.

Narrative can give games a longer retention tail, too. “Story can help build up loyalty in the player base and keep your players waiting for the next update. I’m willing to bet most of us have watched TV shows with more than five seasons, or waited years for the next book in a series to come out – on a smaller scale, that’s the kind of loyalty and anticipation you want between play sessions or between content updates.”

Developers making game stories should be aware, however, that narrative comes with risks and rewards.

Risks include the heavy content pipeline required to maintain a good yarn – art, script, implementation, testing, localisation – all for each update.

Job-based stories like those found in Chrome Valley Customs and Project Makeover are more closely linked to progression.

“You can minimise this work by, for instance, doing less frequent story updates, or simpler stories with fewer art assets. But the risk there is how much value are you losing? Could more regular content updates or a higher quality story make you way more money than it costs to make? And are your players going to move on to another game that updates more frequently?”

Outsourcing story or using AI to plug gaps risks lowering the quality of the narrative: “If you end up with a story so low quality that your players don’t engage with it, was it worth the cost of the outsourcing?”

Narrative can help with UA, though, giving your game a ready-made set of hooks for your ads. “A story pipeline usually generates loads of assets for creatives and loads of narrative ideas too,” said Bowman.

RPG-style stories found in midcore games are basically vehicles for progression.

Mobile-specific narrative design should also take lower attention spans into account, with Bowman referencing ‘the Starbucks test’: can you play the game and order a coffee at the same time? “If the answer is no, it’s probably too complicated,” she said.

Keep wordcounts tight and the cast of main characters modest – around six is good. The story should also reflect the core game loop – “for instance – you wouldn’t want to have a sci-fi story with a core where you’re matching candies,” said Bowman.

Games like Choices and Episodes gamify the story entirely by hiding narrative behind gating or IAP.

Learn from soap operas to write a story that’s open-ended and continually updated, and remember that you can look at player response to improve your story.

“One fairly extreme example is Garden Affairs, which completely rewrote its story a few years after launch, and then relaunched with a big advertising campaign to show off the new story,” said Bowman.

Keep across the data to spot if there’s a certain point in the storyline where players begin skipping cutscenes – this tells you it’s not compelling enough and you could start to lose players later on.

Next, it was into case studies on three of the best examples of storytelling in mobile: Homescapes, Merge Mansion and Lily’s Garden.

Bowman noted that Homescapes originally had an opening cutscene, but it was later removed so we can assume it was not engaging players enough. As with many of these games, you’ve got the ‘fresh start’ or ‘clean slate’ setup, some mild drama, a love interest and a never ending to-do list to get on with.

The story is shown to the player through animations on the map, characters popping up to chat, Austin talking to himself and through each task.

UA ads for Homescapes are all focused on mini-games, Bowman noted, perhaps a sign that story is less important in this game overall; it’s more a vehicle for decorating.

Merge Mansion has got a bespoke opening cinematic, and Maddie is a typical ‘blank slate’ and ‘fresh start’ lead character. There’s more interpersonal drama in this one – family secrets, romance, breakups, and of course an endless to-do list.

The story is told in a similar way to Homescapes with map animations, character chatter, Maddie talking to herself and through tasks.

Bowman noted that the story is still being reworked three years after launch: “When the series of ads with the granny in the police car blew up, the story was adapted to incorporate that,” she said.

Lily’s Garden also has a lavish opening cutscene, with Lily as the classic blank slate, fresh start protagonist. But this has “buckets of interpersonal drama,” says Bowman. The story is told in the same way as Homescapes and Merge Mansion, with additional occasional illustrations during cutscenes.

“Historically the advertising for Lily’s Garden has been overwhelmingly story-focused, but recently they have moved towards some mini-game style ads as well,” said Bowman. “The story ads have super dramatic situations and lots of risqué humour…out of all the examples I’d say Lily’s Garden has the best set up with a fairly large set of characters, all with exaggerated traits and flaws making them perfect for long-term storytelling.”

Bowman concluded with some quickfire tips around retention and monetisation:

  • Use live data to look at where retention drops off and see if they line up with particular plot points
  • End each update with a soap opera-style cliff-hanger
  • Recap what’s happened and give players reminders to keep them on track
  • Think about special storylines for end-of-content players, something lighter with fewer assets
  • Gate side stories behind an IAP – give your most engaged players something extra
  • Line up your best cliffhangers with harder or more expensive tasks

And also some more thoughts on how to execute storytelling long term:

  • Look at how soap operas and telenovelas stagger their cliffhangers, use multiple storyline strands and deploy character tropes
  • Always have one major storyline left open: the player shouldn’t ever come away feeling like all their questions are answered
  • If you close off one big storyline, have the groundwork for the next one in place
  • Have chaos-creating characters in your line-up. Edwina from Love and Pies and Lily’s mum in Lily’s Garden are always creating problems

Wrapping up, Bowman had a handful of more technical tips and tricks:

  • Get an experienced narrative design person on your team early in development
  • Lean on data and UA testing with your story concepts
  • Try and work out how much each story update costs and how much value it brings through metrics
  • Recap the story: this continually provides value by keeping players engaged
  • Each line should be succinct and snappy – look at every single word and decide if it’s necessary or can be cut
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