Sunday, July 21, 2019

Storytelling with Game Consequences

In this article, game designer Sande Chen reports on Jason Rohrer's session at the 2019 Taipei Game Developers Conference, in which he gave his thoughts about storytelling in games, games as art, and how his game design processes have evolved.

Independent game developer Jason Rohrer, best known for his game, Passage, debuted an open source image selector (available on GitHub) at the 2019 Taipei Game Developers Forum on Thursday, July 11, 2019 to go along with his non-linear, spontaneous presentation about storytelling in games, games as art, and the evolution of his work.

His latest effort, One Hour One Life, is a multiplayer online survival game in which players can spawn either as a helpless baby, a woman, or a man, and as the title implies, one hour corresponds to one lifetime. Cooperation is key to survival. 

Rohrer took a roundabout approach in explaining why permadeath was necessary in the design of his game. He wanted the players to feel like their choices had real game consequences and so if players allow babies to die, then there's no Undo or Rewind. There will never be a playthrough where the babies live and the players will never know what would have happened if the babies had lived. Since it's multiplayer, all the players are witnesses to the babies' deaths.

One Hour, One Life

Rohrer explained that storytelling engines haven't quite advanced to the point where he didn't feel like the storytelling was forced or fake. They either take the branching narrative approach or AI a la Facade. He's skeptical of AI ever producing great creative works and jokingly asked if we wanted HAL to tell our stories. As for branching narratives, even when there are a multitude of options, he still felt that because the player can replay the choice, the consequences don't feel impactful.  

Rohrer acknowledged that he's usually associated with the genre of games known as "art games," or games with artistic purpose. He thinks about what it is that games can uniquely do and how games can tell stories. None of his games are like Choose Your Own Adventures (CYOA). With Cultivation (2005), it was about building a mechanical system that allows the player to make and reflect on choices within that system. With Passage (2007), the game mechanics are metaphorical as if they were lines of a poem. He continued in this mode until he began to feel like this was like a high school English class where students write essays about what something means. No one goes to the movies to look for symbolism, he pointed out.

Now he thinks about creating "unique aesthetic experiences" that can only occur within video games. For instance, Inside a Star-Filled Sky is an infinite, recursive shooter. One can enter a monster and find another world with monsters and enter those monsters and find another world, etc.  It creates this feeling of diving in so deep that one forgets what one was doing in the first place.  

He mused about whether or not the game industry would ever produce that "Citizen Kane of games" a game so powerfully meaningful it's a transformative experience. He argued that there hasn't even been a game equivalent to the film Titanic, let alone Citizen Kane. He put up a list of games like Shadow of the Colossus, the first Zelda, and Metal Gear Solid II and said that even these amazing games paled as culturally relevant experiences when compared to masterpieces like the novel, Lolita.

Whether or not games are culturally relevant has been a subject of debate for more than a decade.  A watershed moment occurred in 2009 when industry watchers proclaimed with great fanfare that the video game industry had surpassed film because Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (CoD: MW2) had earned over a billion dollars.  Yet, as Rohrer showed in a graph, CoD: MW2 only sold around 20 million units whereas the film Avatar sold 360 million, Titanic sold 400 million, and the classic Gone With the Wind moved a billion units.  Therefore, the average man on the street probably knows Gone With the Wind or Titanic or Avatar, but what about CoD: MW2?  Even if that average Joe were to go play CoD: MW2, Rohrer argued, that person would not say, "OMG this experience has enriched my life! I'm in tears because CoD: MW2 has so deeply changed my life forever."

Rohrer acknowledged that there was a skill barrier to beating and winning at video games. Perhaps, he said, this barrier is so great that video games will never be as accessible as movies, books, and other mainstream media and therefore, cannot achieve cultural relevancy.  Another issue is that as technology marches on, classic games are no longer available, since the hardware becomes obsolete. This didn't occur with other media. Analog TVs still work with converters. CDs from 1983 still work, but a game like Quake was originally designed for specific hardware and emulators don't always capture that original experience. Rohrer had no doubt that engineers could make gaming systems backwards compatible if it were an industry expectation.  

For about 15 years, Rohrer has been creating games that are insightful and innovative. Mainstream media press have found his work to be deeply moving and complex, even tear-inducing. Despite his intellectual ponderings on whether or not video games can be considered masterpieces of art, others have already decided that Rohrer's work fits that description. In 2016, he became the first video game creator to have a solo retrospective in an art museum.

[Jason Rohrer's recorded session will be available on IGDA Taiwan's YouTube channel soon.]

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 15 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG., 

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Braid Behind the Scenes

In this article, game designer Sande Chen summarizes Jonathan Blow's session at the 2019 Taipei Game Developers Forum, in which he gave a behind-the-scenes look at the development of his game, Braid.

Speaking to a packed audience at the 2019 Taipei Game Developers Forum last Wednesday, July 10, 2019, independent game developer Jonathan Blow detailed a three-year struggle against naysayers during the development of his game, Braid. The 2008 runaway indie hit, considered by many to be a masterpiece, obviously defied its critics when it sold 55,000 units in its first week on XBox Live Arcade and earned Blow more than 4 million dollars in revenue.

Blow took the audience back to the very beginning with his Super Rough Draft Version, a bare-bones prototype featuring programmer art made in Paint. Despite the simplicity, this early playable level encapsulated the design principles he intended for the game. He had been thinking about the Rewind ability, in which a player is able to rewind prior actions  This had been implemented in previous games like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time so that players could rewind and fix mistakes, but hadn't been groundbreaking. Blow wondered how a game would change if a player had unlimited Rewind and did not have to worry about dying.

Moreover, all the puzzles in his game would be tied to this Rewind ability.  It would be about realizing mistakes, seeing the puzzle differently, and taking a different approach.  Because this was an untested concept, he wanted the game genre to be one that was simple and familiar so that when things got weird, players would not get confused.  He chose to do a platformer.

Finally, he was purposefully aiming for a game with "artistic attitude," even though at the time, it was controversial to consider games as art. Film critic Roger Ebert would famously say that video games can never be art. Blow explained that because there was no concept of art games or a big enough indie game community, it was very hard for him to recruit an artist to work on his game.  He would send prospective artists his demo and get shot down.

He read segments of an e-mail from one such artist who gave lots of unsolicited advice on how to make the game better because "the video game industry is very unforgiving." Blow speculated that the artist thought he was a confused newbie who didn't know anything about game design. The Independent Games Festival (IGF) judges in 2006 thought otherwise. Braid won Innovation in Game Design.

Encouraged by this development, Blow resubmitted Braid to IGF the following year, hoping to win a grander prize, but it didn't even become a Finalist.

Steam, which in 2007 was a heavily curated storefront, would be another dead end.  Steam projected that the game would sell less than 5000 copies and rejected the game. Blow even tried a back channel to Valve, which did not succeed.

Still, despite all the negativity from outside sources, Blow's friends maintained that Braid was something special and that they really liked it.

Blow persisted and got the attention of someone at XBox Live but even then, Braid was almost canceled twice by Microsoft and his art outsourcing company lost interest in the game.

Thinking back, Blow wondered why people, especially people paid to find future hits, didn't see Braid's potential.  He concluded that it's really hard for people to look at a work-in-progress and see its finished form.  Because of this, a lot of times, feedback will be wrong or at least conservative.  Therefore, it's vital that a game creator be able to communicate the future vision to team members and others.

In 2008, Braid won numerous awards, including XBox Live Arcade Game of the Year, and a decade later. is considered a transformative work that changed the market landscape by proving that independent games could be financially successful.

[Jonathan Blow's recorded session will be available on IGDA Taiwan's YouTube channel soon.]

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 15 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Pre-K Apps, Screen Time, and Infants

In this article, game designer Sande Chen reviews current guidelines on screen time and discusses what this means for Pre-K app developers.

Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) revised its guidelines on screen time, recommending severe limits for children under 5.  The guidelines state that infants less than 1 year old should not be exposed to electronic screens of any kind and that children between ages 2-4 should only have one hour of sedentary screen time.  This largely echoes the current guidelines issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in 2016, which state that children under 18 months should avoid all screens except for occasional video chat with family members. As more research emerges on how screen time disrupts normal brain development in infants, it is expected that the AAP will update its guidelines as well.

So what does this mean for app developers in the lucrative Pre-K market?

While most Pre-K app developers target ages 3+, there is a subcategory of educational games and programs known as lapware, ostensibly targeted to the non-verbal child sitting in a caregiver's lap.

We already know from survey data that despite these guidelines, parents routinely expose infants to electronic screens.  Some parents even admit to leaving smartphones and tablets in the crib overnight, perhaps leading to this invention of a crib with a multimedia tablet dock.

While we could abdicate responsibility to parents for making the choice to use electronic babysitters, we can instead choose to address the concerns that screen time is harming child development.

How can we do this?

As I argued in "What's Wrong with Pre-K Game Apps," we should be developing apps for co-use by a caregiver and child.  Children under the age of 3 learn through social interaction and it's important to retain this face-to-face aspect.  Furthermore, we need to tone down the bells and whistles not only because the overstimulation of screen time seems to lead to hyperactivity, but also because young children don't learn very well when there are too many distractions.

Of course, in regards to infants, if parents choose to limit children's screen time, that is all and well, but parents should also remember to limit their screen time too.  A recent 20/20 report entitled "Screen Time" showed clip after clip of babies and toddlers trying to catch the attention of distracted parents with smartphones.  Even young children under the age of 3 are aware when a parent's attention wavers.

Overall, as an industry, we are facing increasing pressure to take responsibility for limiting screen time. By June 2019, apps sold in China will be required to have a "youth mode" to allow parents to limit screen time and prevent children from accessing the app from 10 PM to 6 AM.  This follows similar regulations and fines in South Korea and Taiwan.  Before the regulators come for you, why not show that not all screen time is inherently detrimental to children's health?

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 15 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Augmented Reality Gaming Kid Toys

In this article, game designer Sande Chen takes a look at various augmented reality gaming kid toys on the market.

Have you kept up with the latest tech-savvy gaming kid toys?  In the past, there were the little critters that had thumb drives and plugged kids into a virtual world of mini-games.  There were interactive toys that tried to talk with you, or through cleverly scripted questions, made kids feel like a doll or animal really knew them (especially after Mom or Dad inputted birthdates and fave activities).

Considering the popularity of Pokemon Go, it's not surprising that augmented reality has made its debut among educational and entertainment toys.  All of them require an app installation.  Here's a couple to consider.

In 2017, kids age three and up were introduced to Parker the teddy bear, whose owners can play teddy bear doctor by viewing Parker's insides and monitoring the bear's Happiness Factor.  The app also includes a number of math and science puzzles.

Hasbro's first AR offering came in 2018 with the Marvel Avengers: Infinity War Hero Vision Iron Man AR Experience.  The app is downloaded and the phone inserted into the AR goggles so that kids can pretend to be Iron Man and battle enemies in the living room.

The latest of note is LEGO Ninjago AR, which brings LEGO sets to life with animations and characters. Two players can team up and fight against hordes of Dragon Hunters, unlock power-ups, and post high scores.

So far, ratings on Amazon and the Apple app store have been mediocre. There's technical issues such as the app crashing or an ill-fitting helmet.  As more apps come to market and more devices become capable of handling AR, there's hope that these problems will get sorted out.  Despite the snafus, it's an exciting time for kids to be playing with these enhanced physical toys.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 15 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Monetization and its Effect on Design

 In this article, Dr. Ibrahim Yucel summarizes thoughts and discussion held at the IGDA Game Design SIG roundtable on monetization at GDC2019, focusing on three different tiers of monetization integration.

The roundtable started with an invitation for those in the room to share their personal experiences designing or playing games with real money transactions within them. A few developers expressed their concerns about the ethics of the microtransaction model possibly putting their work in a bad light and one developer in particular expressed his wish to avoid microtransactions as a whole since he was not comfortable with it in the current environment. A few others pointed at the success they’ve had with microtransactions, and how the resources and capital it generated provided players with more content.  That improved engagement and kept the game, and its player base, alive.

The roundtable then continued to set a framework for discussing the effect in game economies had on game design, highlighting three potential tiers of integration into a game. First, we identified games in which real money transactions only provide the player with additional cosmetic items for the player to use, with no mechanical impact on the game rules. It was pointed out that even though most found this form of monetization unobjectionable, it still prevents a player from self-expression and ownership, which can be detrimental to their experience. The next tier we identified was paying for access into new or additional content. This was not too problematic as developers acknowledge that much of this additional content could not be made without the additional capital the in-game purchase provided. The negative consequence of this, however, was a potential fracturing of one's player base due to limiting access via purchase. The third tier, and most problematic, was allowing the player to buy power and/or time via real money transactions. We acknowledged that good practice with monetization allowed players to accumulate currency through play in addition to real money transactions, but the roundtable did not come to a consensus on how valuable the players' time should be.

In addition to these tiers, developers also pointed out the difference in purchasing consumables versus purchasing “permanent” virtual items, and marketplace effects on these forms of monetization. The comparison eventually began a discussion on the game Magic: The Gathering (M:TG), which had traditionally been a physical collectable card game but was now fairly successful with the launch of the digital M:TG Arena game. Developers pointed out while the digital version no longer give player the chance to “cash out” via ordering physical copies of their cards like in a previous M:TG digital forms, The reduced cost and convenience of the digital version allowed players who had abandoned the game to return.

The roundtable ended with a open questions session in which students and young developers asked questions of the body. Most questions dealt with if certain monetizations had been tried by others and pros and cons of specific practices.

Overall, I had a exceptionally educational experience at GDC 2019, and would like to thank the Game Design SIG for hosting the roundtable. I feel some were very hesitant to talk about monetization as it has developed many negative feelings in player communities, but still has potential to allow the best game experience for all players, regardless of their personal buy-in.

Dr. Ibrahim Yucel is a scholar of game studies, virtual reality, new media, digital culture, and online communities. His research currently focuses on the evolving forms of gamification and mixed realities. He is the Coordinator of the Interactive Media and Game Design program at SUNY Polytechnic in Utica, NY. He teaches in the Communications and Information Design program at SUNY Poly and is an adviser for the Information Design and Technology masters program.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Reflections on Mathematics in Game Design

In this article, game designer Sande Chen explains the importance of learning mathematics in the field of game design.

I went to a university so nerdy that answering calculus problems was sometimes the only way to gain entrance to a frat party. Knowledge of mathematics was expected, even of humanities majors like myself. I soon learned that my economics classes were full of calculus proofs and my writing classes, more often than not, had a scientific focus. There was no escape, it seemed, from numbers and mathematics.

Mathematics could be scary. I hated calculating triple integrals. I doubted myself. In my freshman year, I turned down an exciting opportunity to help build a microscope to be sent to outer space because I feared I could not do the calculations. It was not until my class in econometrics that I began to find my way. Unlike today, the tedious number crunching was done by hand rather than computer, but that was helpful to me because then I could clearly see from the large data sets what variables were affecting what.

Despite my initial reluctance, a love affair with numbers would serve me well in my chosen field of game design. It seems odd in these times of free-to-play business models and monetization design, but back then, it was fairly common that I would be asked how my economics background might benefit my career in the game industry. In those days, game companies did not have data divisions devoted to figuring out whether blue or pink lettering sold better. Still, I would point out that in economics, we learn how systems work - how one thing affects another – and that is exactly what a game designer needs to know.

A game designer is often in front of a spreadsheet with a large set of numbers. It's not just about determining prices, but sometimes it's about figuring out hit points, experience points, damage percentages, probabilities, and various character stats. So much of what a game designer does is surrounded by numbers. You could say it's about learning how to think like computer, but even analog games that don't need computers can need numbers. Many beginning game designers ask, “How do we figure out which numbers to use? There are so many things that need numbers.” The answer? By using mathematics.

Moreover, mathematics is truly a universal language. Even in first contact sci-fi movies, we try to communicate with space aliens using mathematics! If a game designer needs to explain how something will work to a computer programmer, then using mathematical equations is one of the best ways. If a game design has to be passed along to a second game designer, then finding mathematical equations in the documentation is such a relief, much better than seeing a bunch of numbers without any explanations. Simply put, mathematics allows you to express the relationships between sets of numbers in a very precise manner. And for game designers, it's best to be precise because the job requires you to know which numbers to use and on what.

This is particularly important to remember when you have loads and loads of numbers that are representing any number of things: weapons, spaceships, armor, potions, psi powers, etc. Since there are newb items or powers ranging up to elite, this means there are number sets. If the game designer finds out that one of the Level 1 items is too strong, then it is much easier to readjust the game balance when all the relationships are known. The entire number set may have to be evaluated and tweaked. You will want to know right away what other numbers are affected by that one change.

The importance of mathematics to game design sometimes comes as a surprise to beginning students. They may have thought of game designers as the “idea people,” but they did not really know what “idea people” actually do. Turning a game idea into reality requires more than hand-waving, especially when there are lots of numbers involved. Game designers can use mathematics to clearly specify their designs.

In short, love math and love games!

[This article was originally written for Mathematics Day at CUNY-Hostos.]

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

GDSIG at GDC2019: State of Monetization Design

Will you be at GDC next week?  If you're interested in monetization design, be sure to stop by the roundtable presented by the IGDA Game Design Special Interest Group (GDSIG). Dr. Ibrahim Yucel, Associate Professor at SUNY Polytechnic Institute will be discussing how in-game economies affect game design decisions. If you're a GDSIG member, you can pick up your GDSIG ribbon there.

Here's the scoop:

State of Game Monetization Design and Best Practices Roundtable (Presented by IGDA)

Location: Room 211, South Hall
Date: Thursday, March 21
Time: 5:30pm - 6:30pm

In-game economies, many with real money transactions, have become more and more prevalent as developers look to try and replicate the success they see in the mobile and first person shooter titles. However, as more monetization is incorporated into a game’s design, developers risk alienating the game’s community and hurting its overall sales. Worse yet, a monetization model can dictate mechanical changes to the game to make the monetization “worth it” such as reducing loot drops to such a degree that players are forced to trade in an auction house to make progress. This roundtable seeks to discuss best practices in the design of games with monetization in mind. 

Attendees will share their stories and learn from experienced developers on the current state of monetization in design. This knowledge should help them develop revenue in their titles while building their fan base and game community by increasing the perceived value of their games. 

Intended Audience
Independent game developers, students, economists, and those interested in player behavior and motivations would be the primary audience for this roundtable. In addition, those with experience in data analytics and monetization are welcome to come and share their experience. No prerequisite knowledge is required for the roundtable.