Aaron Loeb on Jetset Secrets’ storytelling: Treat it like a TV series and stay connected with your users

EA’s Jetset Secrets went into open beta on Facebook last week, a hidden object game that eschews the traditional gothic mystery plot of the genre for an action spy yarn. We recently sat down with Group General Manger Aaron Loeb to talk about how EA believes it’s possible to create memorable social games by employing television-like story arcs and staying connected to the players.

Loeb didn’t write the story of Jetset Secrets, but he helped oversee its development as it was penned by a team that included Max Doty (who recently wrote the Surviving High School novel), Wendy Despain and producer Jim Preston. Since he came into the games industry in the 1990s Loeb’s been focused on storytelling, starting out working on pen-and-paper role-playing games with Mayfair Games (initially with its Underground brand). From there, he co-founded the UGO network and served as its editorial director until he moved to Planet Moon Studios where he served as its CEO and was involved with popular games like Armed & Dangerous. In April 2011, he went over to EA and became its Group General Manager in San Francisco. Loeb’s writing hasn’t just been limited to games. In 2007, he wrote a play called “First Person Shooter” that dealt with the issue of school shootings and the connections to video games, as seen from both the general public and developers’ perspectives.

Active and passive storytelling are crucial for a good game

From a writing perspective, Loeb explains how games can provide both extra challenges and rewards. “Video games create several and unique challenges to the writer,” he tells us. “The user of the game should be determining the path of the story in some interesting ways so you can’t do something totally linear. Even something a game critic might call a ‘linear game’ is not in fact totally linear. Things are created in chunks in ways that can be interchangable in case a player misses something. If somebody wasn’t paying attention at a particular moment, they still won’t lose the story thread.”

That said, Loeb notes that storytelling is a double-edged sword, since many players don’t care about the overall plot and instead just want to skip ahead to the gameplay. When that’s the case, he says passive story through a title’s background can  get users to still care about the game world. A memorable example he cites is the mainstream game Bioshock, which told the backstory of the underwater city of Rapture through audio recordings, posters and even level design that players would notice as they progressed through the world. In order to achieve this writers have to “create a story that lives in the bones of a game, as opposed to just a bunch of words.”

Loeb believes social games can provide deeper storytelling experiences than many core gamers and mainstream developers believe the genre is capable of delivering. It’s all a matter of perspective. “It’s fine for someone who makes games that are sold for $60 to say they have a lock on entertainment,” he tells us. “But those of us who make games for free have a different view of it. We want to make games that are accessible and frictionless and open to everybody and really easy to play.”

Think of social games like TV

With social games, there’s an extra challenge of making sure a title’s plot is continuously compelling. Loeb explains the best way to do this is to treat a social game like it’s a TV show. It’s far different than how AAA gaming is progressing right now, with games’ life cycles being being extended via downloadable content.

“Like a television show, you’re having a constant interaction with your consumer and understanding the way they relate with your writing,” he says. “DLC packs are massive production efforts to create another eight hours of entertainment that a person will pay another $5 to $15 to get that additional content for the game. You can’t be totally nimble in what you’re creating, whereas a service game on the web like Jetset Secrets means we have a very direct relationship with our consumer. We can see what is interesting to them through objective measures — and qualitative measures like talking to them — and we can steer things based on what’s working for people.”

As a result, Jetset Secrets is being broken up into seasons, with roughly eight crimes planned for each; at the time of launch, the game contains four crimes for players to solve. Each season will end on a cliffhanger, thus setting plotlines in motion that will be fleshed out in the following season. Loeb tells us each season will last for a few months and there will be an unspecified “minor amount” of downtime before a new season begins.

Currently, Jetset Secrets is only available on Facebook (though Loeb tells us he’s thinking about bringing it to mobile devices eventually); the game has 10,000 daily active users and 40,000 monthly active users. You can follow its progress with our trafic-tracking service, AppData.