In New E-Commerce Story Rules

Matthew Jenkin’s Better Game Stories In One Step shared on his blog and Gamasutra is such an important musing (his word) for online merchants. Find Jenkins post here with our comments following in blue.

Better Game Stories In One Step

A compelling story involves four elements:

  • An interesting protagonist
    • who wants something
    • but has to overcome obstacles to get it
    • and either succeeds or fails

“Traditional” storytelling media (e.g. books, films) are pretty good at ticking these boxes (literally—for example, there’s a how-to book for movie scripts).

Following the same advice and patterns has worked … okay … for video games, but runs into the usual problem with an interactive medium. The player is the protagonist. This means you have a conflict between giving the player freedom to do what they want to do, and ensuring that the protagonist does what is needed for the next part of the story. (emphasis ours)

Better Game Stories – Marty Note

As e-commerce website designers we must create almost an infinite number of stages. We set stages with our website’s personas, player archetypes or “heroes” or “protagonists” in mind. We want customer behaviors funneled, fueled and inspired. E-commerce stories unfold in real-time. Think of our customer’s paths like video games levels. Challenges and “scripts” are crafted, flexible and as “interactive” as possible.

Big Players

Different games manage this better or worse, and various techniques have been used (e.g. “gating” parts of the game to make sure the player experiences things in the right order). But players of some games have reacted loudly against being “railroaded”; feeling disconnected from the game, that their actions don’t matter, that the controls may as well be “Press X to see the next scene”.

Big Players Marty Note

Seeing the developer’s or web designers “hand” is the CATCH-22.  Too much presence and players or potential customers feel pushed. Too little “hand of the developer” can make some players or customers feel abandoned.  Pop the balloon and you remind shoppers or players they are in a crafted world. Disillusioned don’t buy. 


Yet it should be easy, shouldn’t it? Games are all about the player/protagonist trying to overcome obstacles to achieve a goal. And games are pretty good at making the protagonist interesting—either through being a blank slate that the player can project themselves onto, or making appropriate use of pre-existing literary/filmic character design techniques.

Protagonists Marty Note

The “like me” experience is the blank slate of e-commerce. Shoppers project themselves into the experiences, feelings, and actions of a visiting doppelganger. Connections between shoppers and those “like them” is why reviews are so important to an online store. Finding “like you” shoppers is why branding, about pages, and content is so important.  Providing ways to find, follow and promote shared experiences is why we write online copy, why we tell stories online. 

Ludo-Narrative Dissonance

Whether you refer to it as “ludo-narrative dissonance”, “lack of engagement”, “railroading”, or whatever else, I suspect the same underlying issue with the story. The problem is that the player and the protagonist have different goals. As such, story progress (related to the protagonist’s goal), makes the player feel disinterested (at best). If it gets in the way of the player achieving their goal, they may come to see the narrative as another obstacle.

Ludo-Narrative Dissonance Marty Note

Where is the narrative in an online store? Every shopper is on a mission. Shoppers are seeking something. Dissonance Mathew speaks of happens when a shopper’s mission, the quest, is confusing and obstacle-ridden. Confused customers do many things buying is rarely one of them. Common e-commerce obstacles include: 

  • Bad Internal Search results
  • Boring images
  • Slow page loads
  • Can’t find profiles or content by “like me” followers, ambassadors, and advocates
  • Too much or too fast movement (sliding heroes)
  • Can’t find the game or don’t understand how to “win” 


An example of this is in open-world games where the player wants to muck about and explore, and becomes frustrated at the game trying to get them back to the main quest. Another example is a cut scene that presents a character the protagonist needs to rescue. The player is essentially told “this is your best friend”, but they’re thinking “no, Sam is my best friend****, this is just some random NPC that I’m going to be forced to rescue.

Aw man, I hope this isn’t going to be one of those escort missions…”.

To fix this, we just need to make sure the player’s goal matches (or, at least, is compatible with) the protagonist’s. “Oh, is that all?” you might be thinking. The difficulty is how. To support my attempt at a general answer, I submit the following example.

Think of the opening scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (What do you mean, you haven’t seen it?!?). Imagine playing through something like that in a game. You have to navigate various traps to obtain the magic +3 Sword of Wompage—a significant improvement over your -1 Blunt Twig of Equivocation. You then get a brief chance to use the Sword of Homepage before, just as you’ve escaped the collapsing dungeon by the skin of your teeth, the villainous Baron Smarmy Twirls moustache shows up and takes your new toy away. I would suggest that at this point, the goals of you (the player) and the protagonist are in perfect alignment.

Exploration Marty Note

Another similarity between e-commerce and video games is the dual nature of the hero/protagonist. The shopper or player is one protagonist, but there is an Invisible “Yoda-like” guide along for the ride too – the creator of the store or game.

When Mathew speaks of divergence between the protagonist’s progress and the macro goals of the game he could be speaking of poorly designed e-commerce navigation, navigation that stands our shopper / players or a store’s tendency to violate the paradox of choice – the stress between having too few choices creating the feeling there isn’t sufficient pathing (products or choices) to feel the online store has what is needed and too many options shutting down a buyer’s decision process altogether as Schwartz outlined in his book Paradox of Choice.

General Principles

So what are some general principles we can draw from this?

  • Players won’t care about something just because they’re told to
  • They will care about something that affects gameplay
  • Cut scenes are better for introducing obstacles than goals

Game developers already consider the various types of player motivation they want to tap into when designing gameplay (see the Bartle taxonomy, for a formal example); the next step is considering how to align the story with it as well.

* Note: “interesting”, not “likeable”. The main character doesn’t necessarily have to be someone the audience wants to be, or would like to meet, but the audience does have to be curious about what will happen to the character next.

** This doesn’t necessarily align with whether the story has a “happy ending”. Sometimes the best outcome for the protagonist is not getting the thing but realizing they don’t actually want/need it.
*** One of the benefits of an ensemble cast is that different audience members may be intrigued by different characters, thus keeping a wider audience tuning in than if the focus was mainly on a single protagonist.
**** Few know that Frodo was an avid gamer. There had to be something to while away those quiet, lonely nights in Bag End.

General Principles Marty Note

If there is a better statement of the Miracle on 34th Street mission of the new e-commerce than “times the best outcome for the protagonist is not getting the thing but realizing they don’t actually want/need it” we don’t know what it is. One of the hardest concepts for merchants to grasp is the need to sell an infinite number of products and to give away information about competitors.

Shopping is always “an ensemble cast”. The more today’s merchants remind, empower and use the Greek chorus of their ensemble in real-time (or near real-time) the more hearts, minds, and loyalty they win. Google is right (always). Content truly is king in online commerce. The transaction relies on, stands on the shoulders of and can’t exist without projection.


See our 2016 Year of the Ecommerce Story Infographic:

2016 Year of the Ecommerce Story graphic<[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]