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How to Storyboard Your Game

Game Design Storyboard

No, storyboarding is not holding someone down and reading them your story until they beg you to stop, drowning them from your outpouring of words. Storyboarding is not another form of torture (or shouldn’t be!), but rather a powerful tool to use in game design. When you storyboard your game, your are creating a set of interchangeable cards that will make a simple representation of your scenes in logical order. It's a visual way of designing your game's story with a series of “cards” or other visual elements, to encapsulate characters, scenes, items, tone, actions, gameplay functionality and more—it can be a great tool to use in the design process of your game!

Why Storyboard Your Game?

Storyboards can help give you a better visual overview, which is especially useful when building a game with a lot of steps or with a focus on a particular visual presentation. It's a very quick way of getting a perspective into what the game will look like prior to production or even before a game prototype is tested. Through storyboarding you also see where there are gaps in your gameplay actions, quest progressions or a particular story and easily fix or add depth, which will of course translate into a richer experience for the gamer.

Some games can survive off the merits of their mechanics alone with a story barely existing in the background, if at all, but the story can also make the difference between a game capturing the heart of a player forever or losing their interest quickly. In a gaming environment increasingly dominated by microtransactions for continued returns off of players, this can spell doom for indie development studies. That's why it's important to take the time to focus in on the details that will help your project stand out. When you storyboard your game lore and your various gameplay interactions, it can be an easy way to unravel problem areas before they arise at the expensive development stage.

Creating Your Game's Story Cards

The first step in storyboarding is creating "cards" that hold plot points and events. Each individual card might be a few lines of script, a scribbled-down idea, or a sketch of a scene. Big budget film companies like Dreamworks will usually storyboard each scene in preparation for their animators.

Here are some tactics to use when creating your cards:

  • Primary Event Cards - The plot points that define your universe and can't be scrapped or modified heavily without major impact. These can be assets like levels, main characters, items that drive the plot, etc.
  • Secondary Event Cards - The assets on these cards help give the story legs. Dialogue, character meetings, exposition, and other scenes that are more malleable. While many of these events are sometimes not needed for the game to be shipped, they are vital to add depth to your story and characters.
  • Gameplay Event Cards - These cards help illustrate action sequences, quick-time events, tutorials, and anything else that has more to do with gameplay than story.
  • Bonus Idea Cards - These are the things that sound great, but the game's story and play could survive without it. But have fun with these cards--you might find yourself creating a very cool idea and later finding a place for it in your game.
  • Character Or Asset Tabs - It can be helpful to use a sticky tabs or color marks for when a character is in a card. When the card is applied to development or a story later, all you have to do is reference the tab to understand the elements in the scene. It will also help keep track of all your characters and other assets and how much they are involved in the game scenes to provide a healthy balance for character rich stories.

Organizing the Board

Once you have all the story cards that you want, it's time to start putting them into order. What the correct order is will depend on the precise goals of your storyboarding session. The important thing in this first run of organizing is to get the cards down in some order, even if you're not absolutely sure. Storyboard cards are intended to be moved around over time, as additional cards are created and inserted between the initial cards. This inevitably unfolds as the important details are flushed out. You may start with only 5 primary cards, and then within a few days each of those primary cards could have completely rearranged and 10 secondary cards inserted in between each of primary cards.

Chronological Order

If you're starting with the story of your universe, then the order will likely be chronological: the world was created, good guys made a home, bad guys blew it up, millennia pass under their rule, they create super-soldier slaves, and then a hero is born who rebels and wins the day. Most boards that walk through a storyline are set in a predefined chronological order.

State or Sequence Order

If you're working on the script that a player will experiencing through the course of the game or a specific quest line, then the order of the elements will focus on state of the game and current step or entry point for the gamer. Action sequences may trigger when the user has achieved a prerequisite goal, or have a series of forked paths based on user choices.

Review and Revise

With your cards in some semblance of order, you can now step back and view your creation. Reading through it can highlight key issues, like a character ending up in a situation that is in conflict with their personality, or steps missing in a sequence. Since it's all on cards and not hard-coded into the game, you can just slide them around, make edits, or insert entirely new cards as needed. You can also reuse the resources when switching between major storyline crafting and player storyline crafting.

Go Boarding!

While storyboarding is not a requirement to game development, it could be a be a tool that you'll love using. Your lore can greatly impact the adoption and popularity of your game and should not be overlooked. And sharing and reusing cards can be even easier with digital storyboarding tools that are accessible and collaborative, like Plot or Canva.

For deeper dives into storyboarding tactics, check out these resources.

500 Storyboard Tutorials & Resources – Now, 500 is an overwhelming number and there is likely too much content to digest in one sitting, but this site provides you with a ton of info on storyboarding (primarily from a cinematic perspective, but the translation to game development is comparable).

Drawing and Composition for Visual Storytelling – This lengthy page provides a fairly comprehensive approach to storyboarding and visual storytelling. You might need to take some notes as you read this!

Now that you have some basic understanding of process, go start storyboarding on whatever medium you can find. When you’re at a restaurant or something, grab a few napkins and start doodling stick figures and action scenes. These could lay the groundwork to your next triple-A quality sequence!

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