Designing Narratives for CTV Games: Crafting Compelling Stories for the Big Screen
1. A Monument for Hypercasuals: CTV in Gaming History
Video games have come a long way. Even though the first personal computers were sold in 1971, it was not until 1973 that the first commercial game made its debut—on a console named “Atari”, no less.
Since then, personal computers and consoles have had a long history of rivalry, constantly competing for gamers’ attention. Consoles evolved through generational releases, whereas PCs were constantly supplied with new components; this allowed for constant gaming breakthroughs in both worlds. However, this polarity did not last so long, as in the 2000s, mobile joined in. At first, it was a niche category, mainly popular with students. Now, in 2023, there are almost 2 billion mobile gamers, and it is one of the biggest gaming industries.
It seemed like all the gaming space was taken up, with each medium conquering its own audience. Competitive enthusiasts and graphics maniacs remained with their personal computers; couch gamers and party people bought consoles; and casuals used mobiles on the go to have a quick gaming break.
Yet one niche was unoccupied: hypercasuals. People were eager to play games if it meant unobstructed, easy-to-grasp gameplay with no intricate rules, demanding system requirements, or complex setup processes. Sure enough, some mobile games provided just that, but these games were few and far between. The answer came in the form of CTV gaming.
Connected TVs presented a perfect digital medium for hypercasual gaming. With over 60% of people in the US using CTVs, these games were sure to find a responsive audience. What is more, connected TVs provided every tool necessary for success: big screens for immersive experiences, ease of use in the form of simple menus, familiar remotes as intuitive controllers, and TV placement in relaxing environments like living rooms.
Now, CTV gaming is continuing to evolve, and most streaming apps can already boast a vast library of content with hundreds of titles to choose from. The precedent is set, the audience is readily available, and there remains only one challenge for CTV game developers: crafting an immersive, captivating narrative to engage and keep players.
How can it be done?
2. A Big Story For A Big Screen: How Storytelling and CTV Intertwine
The aforementioned first commercial game for “Atari” was the famous “Pong”. As simple as games can be, they feature a competitive element and a score for each player. Just like this, the scene was set for the early gaming industry: a simple gameplay loop, a counter to show your progress, and a simple visual.
Along came all-time classics like “Tetris”, “Space Invaders” and “Pac-Man,”, all of which focused entirely on gameplay and high scores, setting the arcade gaming genre in stone.
The audience was happy with what they were getting, and it was not until four years later that people demanded something more complex, with a story to tell and a narrative to show.
This is how the first narrative games came into being: text adventures. What seems natural to modern gamers was a groundbreaking innovation at the time. Game developers have shown that their creations can rival the likes of books and movies, and the era of story-focused games has begun.
Now, it is hard to find a game that does not feature at least some kind of story. Narrative has become an integral part of virtually every video game, and the audience, longing to be immersed in the process, wishes for a plot that explains in-game events. It affects each medium; be it an AAA+ PC release or a mobile gacha-game, it must feature some kind of story with engaging characters.
Of course, the same goes for CTV gaming. Even though the gameplay loop itself may be simple and easy to follow, people are rarely sold on the game mechanics alone. If you want players to keep being engaged and intrigued by your game, a masterful story must be crafted.
Luckily, CTV gaming has an advantageous, alluring tool when it comes to immersing customers in your narrative: a big, premium screen. Connected TVs were designed with cinema in mind and, as such, usually include immense resolutions, resonant colors, high refresh rates, and features like motion handling. All of these aspects are valuable when it comes to enjoying movies and may be considered priceless for CTV gamers.
With big TV screens in mind, developers can create a game with astonishing visuals, intricate designs, and cinematic cutscenes and ensure that customers will see all of that in its full glory. There will be no graphics sliders to downplay the experience, and simple gameplay will give users more opportunities to appreciate all the illustrations.
CTV takes the best from both worlds, combining traditional TV storytelling with the captivating interactivity of video games. As a result, customers are met with an experience seldom felt in other mediums: immersive and beautiful story-driven gameplay that does not require learning a complex set of rules and controls to enjoy it. This can be seen as the very definition of modern CTV gaming and the reason it may gain more popularity in the following years.
With the narrative seen as the main ingredient for success in the CTV gaming industry, let’s delve further into how exactly a good narrative is written.
3. Five Elements For Success: Crafting A Compelling Narrative
Writing a story-driven game is different from writing a novel or even a plot for a movie. Here, the most distinguishable trait is interactivity. In movies and books, you only show scenes you want to highlight; in games, it is usually up to the customer to discover the plot and interact with it. And since it is the player who chooses what to focus on, game developers cannot approach their game half-heartedly. In the worst case, missing crucial details when creating your world may break players’ immersion.
Here are five important aspects to keep in mind while developing a narrative in your game. While the list is not exhaustive, just keeping these in mind will improve the quality of any plot you may be fleshing out.
A plot cannot be driven without characters, and as drivers, characters may be one of the most important aspects of your creation. Without likable, engaging characters, even the most wonderfully crafted world and story will fail to capture the attention of players; they simply will have no personas to relate to.
While books use expositions to flesh out characters, games are more similar to movies, using the “show, do not tell” approach. However, this does not mean that looks come before everything else. Just like in real life, people are attracted to personalities, and your characters should have depth first and foremost.
The difference between games, books, and movies is how exactly that depth is given. In the case of books, it can just be described through backstories or actions, while in movies, it can be shown on screen. Characters in games, however, are flexible and ever-changing; the non-linear structure of games can be used to present different aspects of their personalities depending on their choices, and the choice to explore characters’ depth is up to the players.
In the case of CTVs, the gaming experience can become even more complete. Combining the gaming and TV approaches to storytelling, it provides depth in both the narrative and visual departments. On high-end TV screens, game developers can utilize technology to show even the most minuscule facial expressions, portray body language, and fully utilize facial animations. If done correctly, the cast of characters in the CTV game comes to life—even more than it can in just games or movies.
With the actors present, it is time to move onto the background—the world. An integral part of any story, it is responsible for the immersion and emotional response of the players. With a crudely crafted world, customers will have no choice but to suspend their disbelief, and should your universe fall apart, no amount of characters and stunning visuals will fix it.
Again, the game world is vastly different from the universes shown in books and movies. In the latter, authors can afford to skip details and entire parts of building a world; it is they who direct the attention of the viewers, and uncomfortable parts can just be omitted and never highlighted. In games, players explore the world themselves, and every detail built there must be carefully checked for imperfections. In other words, it is far easier to notice a misshapen world in games than it is in movies and books.
In this way, player control often becomes the biggest pitfall of narrative-driven games. Yet, by coincidence, this very control is also the ultimate tool of game developers; instead of a partial view of the canvas, players are always met with the full scenery. Experienced developers take advantage of this and present customers with a masterfully painted canvas of the world, turning the pitfall into a blessing.
In the world-building department, CTV games once again enjoy the advantage of the TV medium. With big resolutions and bright colors, it is easier for developers to present a thriving game world full of little intricacies and breathtaking landscapes. Just like this, the world itself may become a fully fledged character, with players eager to explore it.
Pacing And Tension
Just a few decades ago, episodic content was often only applicable to TV series. Games were released with a full story already included, and the only way to continue it was to release a sequel.
This trend remained unchanged until the 2010s, when mobile took over the gaming market. At the time, it introduced a brand-new gaming model: a never-ending story with regular little updates to keep players invested. This approach proved to be successful, and games could go on for years with customer interest never waning. Combined with in-game transactions, the strategy meant that games like these were not only self-sustaining but also bringing in constant profit.
CTV games may be called direct descendants of mobile, with some streaming platforms even featuring smartphone applications for connected TVs. Hence, CTV games may successfully apply the very same model that brought immense success to mobile.
Here, developers can regularly decide how many new features and plots they want to introduce. Walking a fine line between delivering exciting content and overwhelming their players, developers can endlessly build tension the very same way it works for series: with cliffhangers, tasteful reveals, twists, and new side plots.
This model makes even more sense when we think of the CTV gaming audience as hypercasuals. Hypercasual players do not dedicate their lives to playing games and usually login for short gaming breaks several times per week. For them, constant little updates provide a breath of fresh air, keeping the game exciting each time they play it. Their login patterns are often enough to follow a slowly unraveling plot and rare enough to make them replay old levels and content.
What makes this model even more alluring is the fact that customers utilizing CTV are already susceptible to the episodic nature of content by virtue of CTV itself. Streaming applications are best known for their numerous series, and customers are familiar with and happy with this type of content. For them, the episodic nature of CTV games may seem just like another TV series they enjoy.
Choices And Consequences
The best part of modern games is their non-linearity. In this aspect, games are a unique medium; they are able to show you different versions of the same story or even branch off on an entirely unique path, changing the plot completely. This sense of interactivity, the ability to affect the story in your own way, is the trademark of popular games; players enjoy walking off the beaten path, choosing something unusual and different from everyone else, and seeing the results of their actions.
For CTV games, it does not have to be a complex and branching universe where each action has far-reaching consequences. It can be as simple as the choice of an in-game guide or companion with their own unique commentary. Developers may go further and introduce a heartfelt story with choices that will impact an important character. Finally, there is the option of community polls that influence the outcome; features like these give players the opportunity to impact a major, developer-written story and the feeling that something major was decided because of their vote.
The social aspect is important for CTV games, and a sprawling, branching universe also makes players share their own miniature words. Each account can become a unique amalgamation, full of different companions, world details, interiors, and experiences—and who does not want to show off their proud collection to other players?
The game’s visuals do not stop with just the aforementioned scenes and characters facial expressions. It can go much further, blending the border between traditional television and CTV gaming.
The CTV medium can provide a seamless transition between cinematics and gameplay, giving players the feeling that they are watching a whole movie that they directly participate in. CTV gaming is perfect for building immersion and encapsulating players into its own world.
Another good example of this are cinematic levels, a gaming experience akin to a movie where the player does not take active control but makes some kind of choice at regular intervals. It can be an option in dialogue or a choice of a path; just remember to keep it simple to give players time to appreciate the stunning visuals you have crafted.
Connected TVs are also good for environmental storytelling, a practice where little world details can give players answers to in-game questions, a better understanding of the universe or tell a little fun anecdote. With the visual supremacy of CTVs, the environmental storytelling may take the full advantage of modern graphics.
4. Crazino: A Perfect Cocktail of Gameplay and Narrative
When we are thinking of narrative-driven games, classic genres come to mind: role-playing games, action adventures, quests, and sometimes platformers and simulators. In reality, there is no genre that cannot benefit from a well-crafted narrative design, and today’s example fully illustrates that.
Crazino, at its core, is a social casino game. In gameplay terms, it offers all the casino classics: blackjack, roulette, and slots. It seems like casino games do not necessarily require an advanced plot or meaningful narrative choices, and yet Crazino focuses entirely on that.
Themed gameplay environments and character-driven interactions open up a new dimension in what seems like a simple casino game. Players take joy not only in trying their luck in popular classics but also in influencing the game world around them, contributing to an ever-growing universe with each of their actions. As players grow their virtual fortune, the characters and world in Crazino grow with them, providing a sense of uniqueness and progress.
What is more, there is a thriving community of like-minded players around, sharing their own achievements and developments. With a larger story developing all around, Crazino almost seems like a game with a community-driven narrative and a tight-knit social network.
At the same time, the game is as non-demanding as it gets. Players themselves choose whether to actively follow the story and invest their feelings or to just chill and play at their own leisure, enjoying the casino games and not worrying about the unraveling plot. Crazino provides comfortable alternatives for each type of player out there, closely developing both gameplay features and the narrative at the same time.
Crazino is a perfect example of a CTV game of the future, taking the best from each entertainment aspect. A game-like non-linearity, cinematic visuals, and book-like, in-depth universe make for an unforgettable experience.
CTV Gaming Is Here To Stay
CTVs were able to topple smartphones, and analysts predict that half of the worldwide population will have a connected TV in their household by 2026. It may very well become the most popular digital entertainment medium in the near future, with streaming never decreasing in popularity and manufacturers continuing to invest in the development of high-end CTVs.
With this will come better technical specifications and visuals, giving more opportunities to CTV game developers in terms of system requirements and graphics. CTV gaming is still in its early stages and can hardly compete with PCs, consoles, mobiles, and even tablets. The medium itself is not at fault here; CTV gaming is a very young niche with few developers working on exclusive CTV titles.
As the popularity of connected TVs rises, so will the number of games and developers in this niche. For now, it is only a matter of time for the gaming industry to catch up and start providing customers with a plethora of exciting releases.
In this regard, games like Crazino can be considered pioneers of the yet-to-hatch CTV gaming genre. In a few years, they may obtain a worldwide following or be regarded as classics. For now, they may be seen as showcases of CTV capabilities, as a future yet to come.