Introduction to Game Design: Don’t Start with a Story

Don't Start with a Story

Want to make a game? Don’t start with a story!

Wait, what?

You read that right. Don’t start with a story.

A story is an important part of game design, but it is not the part that should be tackled first. In fact, for many games is it done at the end. Of course, many games suffer because the story was done at the end of the cycle. While it should not be the last thing to be done, it definitely should not be the first thing to be done.

Let’s say you have this wonderful story already created. You have envisioned how this story will be told through your game. You get other developers or artists involved in your project (or do it all yourself) and expect the game to be a great game because of this great story you have.


If you want to write a great story, write a book, graphic novel, movie, short story, or something else. A game is not to be written because you have a great story. This is why so many games based on movies fail so hard. They try to design game play around a story. Games that have game play designed around a story rarely succeed.


Games are meant to be fun. Most games are played to be enjoyed. Part of the enjoyment is the story. That is why I really like many games I play – because it has a great story. But as an indie game developer, you can’t START with a story when making a game. Even successful AAA studios don’t start with a story.

So are stories not important?

Stories are important. Every game should have a story, even if it is a simple one. The point here, isn’t that stories aren’t important, it is that stories are not the starting point when designing a game.

I think of games like Alan Wake, Batman: Arkham City, the Mass Effect series, Dragon Age and the Assassin’s Creed series.

Alan Wake

These games all have excellent stories. But I don’t believe that they all fleshed out the story before working on the game. Game design is about solving problems – about completing challenges. It is interactive and while a story is definitely part of it, it isn’t the central part. Narrative on the other hand is a central part of game design.

Narrative vs. Story

You should have a narrative though. A narrative and a story are not the same thing. A narrative helps you determine what emotion or idea you want to explore with the game. When designing your game, the emotion and the idea of the game are most important to nail down early on. The details of the story, level design, sound, general aesthetics, etc. can all be fleshed out as the game is being created. However, it is critical to know what emotion and idea your game wants to convey.

If you start with a story, then it will lead you in a world of hurt. You will be locked into a specific set of locations and places. What if the technology can’t pull off elements in your story? What if you can’t have but so many items in your scene and your story is really dependent on that? There are ways around it, but it is good to prototype that part of the game to begin with before locking it down in your story. Prototyping is another topic I’ll save for another article, but for now know that prototyping and play testing are keys to having your game be successful.

How many games have you grinded through just to see how the story ends? Sometimes, that story can make up for bad game play, but most of the time, no matter how good the story is, if the experience to get that story told to us is unsatisfactory, then it puts a blot on the story as well and we don’t appreciate it as much as we could have.

How many games have you played that had excellent game play but the story was mediocre at best, but you still enjoyed going back to play the game? It is hard to create a great game that also has fantastic story.  But it was actually done as far back as Space Invaders.

Space Invaders could have just been a triangle shooting at blocks. Instead, it used a story to make it more exciting and easier to understand. Originally, Space Invaders was going to be about a human army the player was shooting. They changed it to aliens for a couple of reasons. Violence against aliens was assumed more acceptable than violence against other humans, even opposing armies. Aliens also aligned itself well with the “high-tech” computer graphics of 1978.

If Batman Arkham City had terrible controls, then it wouldn’t matter how good the story was, the game would have been a disaster. But the controls were done so well that it rarely, if ever, felt like grinding in the game. The game play itself was fun on it’s own. The story was just a bonus – but, of course, a fantastic bonus.

All aspects of making a game is important, but if you start with a story instead of a narrative you will be locking yourself in and most likely never get your game off the ground. Instead, don’t get too attached to a story, or to an idea for that matter.

Now What?

So if you aren’t supposed to start your game design with a story, what should you start with?  Well, I’ll get to that in my next post. Stay tuned.

Better yet, let me know in the comments what you think is the first thing you should start with when designing a game.

15 thoughts on “Introduction to Game Design: Don’t Start with a Story

  • Posted on 2015-03-02 at 5:57 pm

    What to start with first hm… I would say the games genre perhaps?

    • Posted on 2015-03-03 at 9:43 am

      Oh please don’t! The concept of genre we have in the videogame world is highly flawed. A genre is essentially a list of checkboxes with mechanisms and features your game needs to have. It’s basically a finished game design already, where you then tweak a few knobs and maybe add a gimmick or two.

  • Posted on 2015-03-02 at 10:15 pm

    Deciding what kind of game will be made is better than writing all the stories and tit-for-tat details.

    Once you’re limited in the design, you can’t escape from the development hell and there are only two choices: to continue with either broken down story or unchanged story and roll the painful, limited development, or cancel the project.

    My two cents.

  • Posted on 2015-03-02 at 10:34 pm

    The first thing I think about when coming up with a game idea is the time length I want to spend on it. I tend to want more fast-paced development since I am used to Game Jams. Alot of games fail to meet deadlines because they don’t think out the time needed.

  • Posted on 2015-03-02 at 10:56 pm

    Can’t agree more. I finished my first game because I didnt thought of the story. I ever tried to make game start from the story and I havent finished yet until now since I aimed to have a great storyline .

    Start with what kind of game you want to make. Is it a top-down RPG? a platformer? what features you want to put on the gameplay? Once you’ve decided, make the prototype.

  • Posted on 2015-03-03 at 5:21 am

    Read “The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses” and write about football in your next post.

    • Posted on 2015-03-03 at 8:05 am

      @Riccardo, thanks for the feedback. You should check out my other posts on Game Design , where I quote Jesse Schell. I don’t believe anything that is written here disagrees with him. He talks about experiences first, then he mentions his famous elemental tetrad, which has story as one of 4 elements. The point of the article definitely is not to shun story – it is just to get people to realize that a game doesn’t have to start with a story. I’ve just met so many people who have flushed out a story to the n-th degree and never got started on the game.

      Oh, and I’m afraid everyone would be much worse off if I wrote about football, however, since I really don’t follow that or any other sport. 🙂

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  • Posted on 2015-03-03 at 11:38 am

    At least, You need a base story to decide what gameplay should be designed. You have a ghost story so your gameplay design with flash light. You have assassin story so your gameplay designed with hide, run, climb.
    I don’t believe they design gameplay on the fly then write story for it.

  • Posted on 2015-03-03 at 3:20 pm

    yes, a story should adapt to the game not the contrary

  • Posted on 2015-03-03 at 5:51 pm

    I almost always start with the game mechanics, I just think about something new or mix mechanics from other games and start from there

  • Posted on 2015-03-04 at 12:11 pm

    ¡Not convinced! And I pledge and hope you remove this “instructions” from here. This page holds quite a few falacies. Please, be careful on writing to convince others.
    I searched this page and outside this entry for arguments and data on game developing toghether with storymaking for games. What I found is that storytelling for videogames is pretty different from linear stories from which movies or books are developed, and found no arguments, just opinions, on videogame-storytelling develop processes within this text.
    You should not tell students or fellow poeple to stop imaginating/creative processes to occur under the assumption that gameplay and game mechanics must be first be made.
    It is understadable that videogame completion is difficult, because stories diverge, they might modifiy game mechanics. However, you must see that storymaking can also change game developing, and it is normal. A story should not be subject of mechanics, they must go along. Stories are iniciatives for game developing, and are quite resilient on being molded for a cubic concept of a videogame mechanic. A story is equally important to communication, as the mediums, as the way, as the music and the choices in bringing a brain-concept to the real-physical world.
    Yes, of course, developing videogames for the money requeris you to ditch storytelling, to put it aside. However, games that are beloved, well-made, those cult games, they tend to be developed around an incredibly well put story.
    I am wrong, perhaps, but I read this entry of yours, and believe that your storytelling is not as great as your mechanics developing.
    I am not trying to criticize your capacities, but I have to say that you might be telling something dangerous, as you tell people to stop telling stories, like if them were noting AS important as other aspects of videogames.
    Besides, movies lack the vieogame intrinsic entanglement of weblike-stories, and must force them to be linear.

    I really think that there must be new words to describe differences in games and stories alike. Maybe these videogames you develop could be called ab-storygames (before), which require no story to be made beforehand. The games which are developed at the same time as videogames can have another name or description.

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  • Posted on 2015-04-08 at 11:22 pm

    Brilliant. I also think that one of the first decisions made by designers is whether or not their game will have a story. If they decide that it should have a story then is it going to be a complete story or are you going to use a narrative element, like plot or setting and nothing else. And finally think of what the story brings to the game, not what the game brings to the story. Avoid “storytelling” unless you are creating a piece of interactive fiction, which is not a game, but a art form in its own right.


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