Too Much of a Good Thing: Avoid Overstuffing Your Games and Stories

A zombie on a dinosaur on a shark with a laser beam.

Yes, that is a zombie riding a T-Rex on a shark with a laser beam on its head, great, but where are the pirate ninjas?

Like J, I am a longtime devotee of World of Warcraft, and like her, I am loving the new expansion. Between all the new factions, the pet battles, the rare monsters, the huge amount of raid content, Achievements, farming, secret treasures, scenarios, finding transmog gear, rare mounts, new race, new class, and dailies dailies dailies, there’s so much to do!

Too much, sometimes.

Mists of Pandaria, for all that I love it, is an excellent example of the adage, “too much of a good thing.” There are so many plot threads, questing options, and things to do that it’s easy to get utterly overwhelmed and, in the end, not end up doing half of it. Worse yet, some of it ends up being “forced” on players, meaning that some barely have the chance to skim the surface of the other content before they have to, you know, go to bed or do some work or something stupid like that.

Too much of a good thing is something we encounter in all kinds of geeky media and experience; you can probably name a few off the top of your head. The movie that shoehorns in a social commentary and a romance into a plot already bursting with sci-fi concepts. The GM who wants to cram in every single plot idea he’s ever had into one campaign. The video game that can’t decide if it wants to be a shooter, stealth-action, or tower defense game, but whatever it is, you’re going to spend 100 hours playing it. The anime pilot episode that has motorcycles transforming into mechs while mystical priestesses cast magic via kissing each other. The fantasy novel that spends fifty pages going into loving detail over the world’s intriguing politics only to add, “Oh, and did I mention that they all have animal familiars? And there’s a war going on. And there’s this elite group of mages. Who cast magic using sex.” Sometimes, this can all work, but in others, it ends up feeling overwhelming and badly executed.

Of course, many of us geeks are also writers, game designers, and GMs, and as such, we have to be aware of these pitfalls as well. How do we make sure our games and stories don’t end up overstuffed with “too many” awesome ideas? Let’s take a look at some points to consider, with poor longsuffering World of Warcraft as an example of What Not to Do.

 

ZOMBIE NINJA SPACE PIRATES WITH MAGIC DINOSAURS. What do you mean it’s not awesome?

So, you’ve just come up with a great concept bursting with story hooks and ideas – a campaign with a cast of thousands and fifteen different cultures, or a novel that combines a hundred different known magic systems into one world, or a video game that mashes FPS, RPG, block puzzles and sports elements together. Here are a few things to think of before putting your baby (or babies) out in the world:

 

Break it down

First of all, try to identify all the different elements that are going into this work on a conceptual level, i.e. all the stuff that had you go, “You know what would be cool? A campaign where the players can fly/video game about Shakespeare/novel where chainmail bikinis are unisex/a way to catch cute pets in World of Warcraft/etc” Once you’ve got them all in mind, do two things:

- evaluate their individual strengths, particularly whether they’re strong enough to stand alone. A lot of your ideas might be great foundation for the next game/campaign/story, rather than having to compete for space with the twenty other strong ideas. Don’t be afraid to look hard at your darlings and say, “This should probably be its own thing,” and set it aside for future use. In World of Warcraft’s case, Blizzard is reasonably good about this, but let’s face it, certain elements they introduce – e.g. the pet battles, the farming, etc – are probably strong enough to support an entire game with a bit of tweaking.

- evaluate how the concepts are related to each other and how well they support and strengthen each other Sometimes, having unrelated game or story elements is intentional – for example, World of Warcraft doesn’t want pet battle players to have to raid if they don’t want to! – but at the same time, you run the risk of coming over as “idea soup” or creating a disjointed partition in your world – in previous example, how DOES the pet battle system really connect to the rest of WoW in a meaningful way? Be honest and ask yourself whether your ideas really go together, or whether you just threw them in because HEY IDEA. “I want the players to be caught in some sort of steampunk-ish tower,” might be better followed by, “I want to have some sort of rare fluid used for SUPER steam, perhaps the tower is related?” rather than, “I also want to have the players be turned into animals!”

Use the “camera”

So, you still have a concept bulging with too many ideas that you can’t get rid of? Time to use your characters to your advantage… specifically, the characters that your audience plays or reads about, and the limitations of their perspective. Think about which of these ideas the PCs or main characters are likely to be exposed to naturally, and stick the focus on those elements. There’s nothing saying you can’t have a multi-tiered noble family straddling the entire world, each with its own unique inbred magical talent, but as far as your heroes are concerned, they probably only need to know about the local branch… at least for now. World of Warcraft actually does a decent job of this, but even it diverts into weird asides about, “Meanwhile, back in Kalimdor…” Keep the rest of your notes happening “off camera” as it were, only revealed as needed, and please resist the urge to dump info or concepts. We’ve all had that campaign where the GM spends half an hour in the Western Kingdom of Aralor, having two NPCs talk to each other in front of the PCs about the politics in the Easter Kingdom of Efillnis. Don’t be THAT GM.

 

Allow your audience time to savor

Take your time revealing new concepts, gameplay mechanics, stories, and other content. Put something out there, then for the love of Joss Whedon, let it digest first. This is one that I swear World of Warcraft messes up ALL THE TIME; I get about halfway through one patch only for Blizzard to suddenly announce, “Well, that was fun! Now here’s a new raid, new questing hub, new faction, and if you’re bored, here’s this extra thing you can go do.” Bored? I haven’t even finished your first giant mountain of things to do! I also am having this problem with my first readthrough of Game of Thrones: “Okay, see those nobles? Think you are going to remember them? If not, tough; here’s fifty more to remember.” Obviously, “digestion time” is different for everyone, but if you are going to stuff your game, comic, or story with that much awesomeness, let us finish enjoying one before throwing us into the next one. (Exception: if the point is to be fast-paced and throwing stuff at us before we can blink, obviously ignore this advice!)

 

Don’t twist our arm

This is an issue more with video games and tabletop campaigns, although it has applications in storytelling as well. Very often, I will encounter a game that provides a huge amount of content and ostensibly stands back and says, “Enjoy whichever part you want,” only to punish you for not doing a PARTICULAR element. In World of Warcraft, I call it “dailies damnation”. For those that don’t play WoW, dailies are types of quests that can be done every single day (vs. just once) in order to gain reputation with a particular faction, as well as certain rewards. Great, if those rewards are just for fun or mostly optional! Unfortunately, in Mists of Pandaria, those rewards (and the faction reptuation) are pretty much required if you want to be at all active as a raider, to say nothing of unlocking new storylines etc. As a result, if you want proper access to Content X, you must do Content Y… EVERY DAY. Sometimes for weeks on end. Yeesh, no wonder I haven’t had time to do pet battles! You see this in tabletop too as a particularly annoying form of GM railroading, sometimes AFTER the fact when it’s too late. “You could have been kissing up to the gorgeous elf I spent five paragraphs describing, but instead you ended up blowing her off and following the sinister cloaked figure who snuck out the back door, and now you’re up against the Lord of Nightmares without a clue of how to proceed. Ha! That’ll teach you to check out one of my plot threads over the other!”

Yeah, don’t do that. If you really have that much content and plot hooks that you want us to play with, then let us play with it. Throw the door open and let us pick and choose what we’d like to do, in the pace we’d like to do it (see: Skyrim, any good GM). If there’s an element that’s more central and “required,” fair enough, but make that clear. Don’t try to pass something off as an optional piece of content then make it necessary to proceed.

 

This might all seem common sense, but the fact that we keep getting overstuffed games, shows, comics, novels, anime, and webseries shows that, as good as a designer or writer might be, it’s always a danger. Keep these steps in mind as you venture out your door, whether it be to Azeroth, to Westeros, or to the worlds you’ve created in your mind!

 

 Do you think there can be too much of a good thing? What are some of the most overstuffed geeky things you’ve encountered?

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