Sunday, May 29, 2016

Upcoming: Games For Change Festival and Game Writing Workshop

Last year, the Games for Learning Summit was only open to a select number of invitees.  This year, it's a full-fledged track at the 13th Annual Games For Change Festival.  There'll be 2 days of panels, presentations, and workshops about game-based learning.  The Games For Change Festival will be held in New York City on June 23-24.

I'm pleased to announce that I will be speaking about the market for educational games on Thursday June 23, 2016 at 2:30 PM.  I feel so thrilled that I will have this opportunity to present research that I did for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center.

If you're a student, you're in luck because for a limited time G4C is offering a special discount for students, a price of $89.  The regular price is $379.  Go here and enter code ST89 if you're interested.

Indie developers can apply for the same discount here.  These will be awarded on a need basis.

And if you'll be sticking around for the weekend, I will be holding a special "social impact games and learning games' edition of the Game Writing Portfolio Workout the following Monday, June 27, 2016 at 6:30 PM at Microsoft NYC.

Register here for early bird tickets of $25.

About Me:

Sande Chen is the co-author of Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform. As a serious games consultant, she helps companies harness the power of video games for non-entertainment purposes. Her career as a writer, producer, and game designer has spanned over 15 years. Her game credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner, Terminus, and 2007 PC RPG of the Year, The Witcher, for which she was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Videogame Writing. She has spoken at conferences around the globe, including the Game Developers Conference, Serious Play Conference, and Serious Games Summit D.C.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Forced Failure in SPENT

In this article, game designer Sande Chen examines the role of agency in the social impact game, SPENT.

Last year, an article in Psychology Today made the rounds, declaring that social impact games may have a less than desired effect.  Based on her study of adult players of SPENT, a text-based poverty simulator made by ad agency McKinney with input from the Urban Ministries of Durham, Yale researcher Gina Roussos found that some participants ended up with increased negative feelings towards poor people instead of empathetic concern.

On the surface, this would seem to contradict an earlier study on SPENT that did show that SPENT increased affective learning in students.  Affective learning involves feelings, motivations, attitudes, and values.  However, that study was not about measuring negative or positive attitudes, but rather about active engagement.  The game encouraged these students to think about issues, which in turn had the possibility to engender attitude adjustment or a change in behavior.

Roussos attributed her surprising results to the agency, or choices allowed, in video games.  Because players have agency, she reasoned that players might feel that poor people have control over their life situations, even if in reality, they don't.  However, while she may feel that there's agency in SPENT, I found that there's examples of forced failure all over SPENT.  For example, just because I talked to a union rep in the game, I was illegally fired from my warehouse job. Forced failure is extremely tricky in game design, especially since the end result is that it usually pisses off your players.

Moreover, I did not feel that SPENT was entirely accurate.  Most states would have Medicaid for the indigent, so why would I have to pay for health insurance?  If I went to college, why are my job options so limited?  If I just abandoned my car, why would I need to pay for car insurance?  I spent more time pissed off at the game than caring about poor people.  Factoids pop up frequently, making SPENT an extremely preachy game.  I did "win" in that I ended up with $72 at the end of the month, but the game then reminds me that my $808 rent is due tomorrow.  Um, forced failure?

One resentful user wrote:
"Why do I have a student loan? Was I unaware of the Pell Grant? Was I not good enough for scholarships? Did I refuse to live with my parents until graduation? 
Where did this child come from? I’m not married, and I don’t seem to be getting child support. I can’t fathom why I apparently have this kid. 
Why do I HAVE to have a car? Why is my cell phone so expensive? Why is my landlord above the law? Why am I not just living in Section 8 housing? 
This game is absolutely ridiculous, and all it showed me was that the average person is trying to live beyond their actual means."
Rather than too much personal agency, SPENT doesn't have enough agency. It doesn't have enough choices.  It doesn't have enough depth.

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.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Adventures in Game Writing PAX East Panel

In this video, game writer/designers Leah Miller, Cohen Edenfield, James Pianka, Sande Chen, John Ryan, and Nicole Kline share stories from the frontlines of game development.

Did you miss the PAX East panel, Adventures in Game Writing?

Adventures in Game Writing Panelists

Adventures in Game Writing
PAX East, April 22, 2016

Ever wonder what it’s like to write for games? Join us for a conversation about the methods and philosophies of writing and narrative design. Our eclectic group of panelists have worked on giant AAA titles like Destiny, The Witcher, and the indiest of tabletop games, in roles that include everything from Lead Writer to Customer Service Representative. We’ll talk about the realities of the industry today and speculate wildly about the future of storytelling.

Leah Miller [Writer and Designer, Independent]
Cohen Edenfield [Lead Writer, What Pumpkin?]
James Pianka [Narrative Designer, Firefly Games]
Sande Chen [Writer and Designer, Independent]
John Ryan [Writer and Narrative Designer, Independent]
Nicole Kline [Game Designer, Cardboard Fortress Games]

I found this recording from Blackman 'N Robin and if you know of other podcasts or recordings of the panel, let me know! This video had some technical issues and got cut off, and I think maybe my microphone wasn't working. Oh no!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Upcoming Workshop in Game Writing May 2!

Woo!  Who would have thought there would be a fifth installment for Game Writing Portfolio Workout?  I know, I thought last time would be the last one, but now I have an upcoming workshop on May 2nd at Microsoft NYC in Times Square.  If this keeps up, I may develop this into a longer series.

If you'd thought about writing for video games or even if you are a practicing game writer, come join me in this fun community event. No experience is required, though it is helpful. Participation in the earlier workouts are not needed to understand what's going on, but you do get a broader sense of what is the craft of game writing if you have attended the earlier sessions.

As always, the event is held through Playcrafting NYC, which offers classes and events related to game development. Early Bird tickets start selling now.  Please bring a laptop or notepad, some way to do some writing!

About Me 

My background is a mixture of theatre, film, journalism, economics, and writing. I received a S.B. in Writing and Humanistic Studies (now the major of Comparative Media Studies) at MIT and then I specialized in Screenwriting at USC's School of Cinematic Arts. My first published game as a writer was on the epic space combat RPG, Terminus, which won 2 awards at the 1999 Independent Games Festival. Afterwards, I worked on the episodic fantasy series Siege of Avalon, MMO Wizard101, and the dark fantasy RPG, The Witcher, for which I was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Videogame Writing. I currently head the WGAE Videogame Writers Caucus and am SIG leader of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Building Emotional Connections with Game Design

In this article, game designer Sande Chen follows up on the ways games can provide a truly emotional experience.

At NYU's Lecture Series on April 7, 2016, Katherine Isbister, Professor of Computational Media at UC Santa Cruz, explained how game designers are already building emotional connections in their games.  This issue of emotive game design has been of concern to narrative designers, especially in regards to the Heroine's Journey, but Isbister is more concerned with how game design affects emotions rather than how story affects emotions.  She feels it's an oversimplification to simply state that it's stories that provide the only emotional impact in games. 

Pulling examples from her recent book, How Games Move Us: Emotion By Design, Professor Isbister cited 3 ways in which game design impacts players emotionally.

1.  Emotional Connections with Non-Player Characters

The "moment to moment intimacy," as Isbister says, that is created through NPC design is extremely powerful.  This is not necessarily about storylines, as I pointed out in "For the Love of a Dog," my blog post about the connection between players and NPC dogs, but about player interactions with NPCs.  While certainly plot and dialogue can play a great role, as in Isbister's example regarding Japanese dating simulations, it is not necessary.  Players remember the pain and loss of destroying a Companion Cube in Portal.  This notion of losing a beloved NPC, as in Aeris' death in Final Fantasy VII, is practically a trope.  Beyond attachment, players can feel responsibility for a NPC's welfare, as with Yorda in the game Ico.

2.  Emotional Connections with Avatars (Self)

How many players have been faced with the agonizing situation of losing one's own avatar?  After months or years of customizing and leveling up, the emotional connection to this projected self-identity can be overpowering.  If you've been following my work, then you know I've discussed how real-life changes in patients have stemmed from engaging in healthy activities in virtual worlds. It's this kind of research that inspired the creation of Lumeria, an ARG to promote physical and mental well-being.  This self-identification with avatars is so great that immersion in a nurturing virtual environment has helped those players with phobias, eating disorders, weight loss issues, and social anxiety.

3. Emotional Connections with Other Players

How about the emotional connections with other players?  Sure, there's clans and guilds where there's ample communication, but how about situations where there's cooperation needed but little communication?  According to Isbister, games provide the opportunity to create "socially meaningful situations."  Unlike the silent and superficial social interaction of visiting each other's farms in FarmVille, the game Journey produces a strong emotional bond between strangers who happen upon each other while progressing through the game. Obviously, as I stated in "Leading by Emotion," this type of situation was likely socially engineered by the designer as part of the early design.

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.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

When Story Isn't Everything

In this article, game writer Sande Chen discusses how storytellers can mitigate ludonarrative dissonance by respecting the player experience.

"Story is Everything" was the tantalizing title shown on the Creative Arts & Technology Conference program at Bloomfield College last week, but when Omar Shakir, Narrative Director at Avalanche Studios, opened up his presentation, there was the bombshell of a footnote: "(unless you're making a video game)." He acknowledged that story IS everything in the Hollywood approach, but for video games, story wouldn't be the genesis and focal point of a project.

According to Shakir, the aims of the storyteller and the aims of the gamemaker can be at odds.  He described a situation whereby a Hollywood writer created ludonarrative dissonance by showcasing spectacular moves in a written cut scene that players couldn't actually do in the game. Even if that functionality had been added, it would have been programmatically excessive. Another example he cited was how the player character in Far Cry 3 is depicted as timid and fearful. Yet, players spend their time killing everything in sight.

I explored this matter in my ION Game Conference session, "Story vs. Story: Redefining Narrative and Player Engagement in MMOs." What's Story vs. Story?  Well, there's the authorial story, which the author wants to tell and reflects the author's desires, and then there's the player story, which emerges from gameplay and is about the player's experiences in the game.  What's important to remember is that the authorial story is just one element of the user experience.

Shakir further stated that sometimes it felt like these authorial stories were ill-fitting or crammed into games.  As I have stated in a previous blog post, Writers, Stop Obsessing Over Three-Act Structure in Games, the traditional story structure may not be the standard fare for video games.  Just because it works for linear media doesn't mean it's perfect for interactive media.  The Hero's Journey may not be appropriate.  Why?  Because spectating is different from participation.

Much as I appreciate story and story-based games, I can understand that story isn't everything.  As writers, we need to honor the player story just as much as the authorial story.  In that way, we can lessen the Story vs. Story conflict. 

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose experience spans over 10 years in the game industry.  Her credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus and the 2007 RPG of the Year, The Witcher.  She is the chapter leader of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

It's All in the Technique

In this article, aspiring game designer Barret Gaylor argues that game critics often miss the point behind certain systems and condemn them due to personal tastes.

I am kind of amazed how much some game commentators don't understand that people have different taste. It should be an obvious concept, but it seem like the people who say that they understand this are the people who don't follow through. Obviously, I don't think that they are doing it on purpose; I think there is just a flaw in the way a lot of people criticize game design techniques that cause people to fall into this trap. Many critics get into the habit of saying a game design technique is bad, as opposed to understanding that they might not be a fan of the technique.

To be honest with you all, I began thinking about writing this after I watched a YouTube video about the recent Thief remake called Thief vs. AAA Gaming.

I apologize to the person who made this video, but I just could not watch this video in its entirety. The creator of the video argues that the navigation in the original Thief game is better than the navigation systems in all modern triple A games today. He even says the phrase "Waypoints are the laziest kind of design" as if he was trying to make his opinion more myopic than it already is. In my opinion, it falls into all of the traps that I am talking about. My biggest problem is that the creator does not seen to even understand why the navigation system in the original Thief worked. The navigation system in Thief is meant to be a puzzle. The game gives the player a basic layout of the environment without even telling them where they are in that environment and ask them to find landmarks and figure out how to get from one place to another. This type of immersive navigation puzzle is really cool, but not all gamers want their navigation system to be a puzzle. This is where we start to understand how different taste can cause the Thief system to be bad for some gamers because the system is meant to create an element of challenge for the player, but not all gamers want to be challenged by their navigation systems. Some gamers just want their navigation system to be a functional tool, which is why a waypoint system is sometimes the best solution to the problem. In games like Skyrim and Fallout where the world map is huge, a player might just see a place on the map and want to go there, and they might want to do it is the least challenging way possible. Some might ask why someone would want their game to be less challenging, but I would ask them why they thought exploration had to be challenging? I mean, shouldn't exploration be engaging in of itself, without the need for challenge? The engagement that someone gets from exploration is the feeling one gets when they discover something new. Now, I am not saying that the new Thief game is good or bad, I am saying that dismissing waypoint system entirely just because you don't like them might be a little shortsighted.

You might think that this is a mistake that is only done be lesser known critics like the one above, but you see it everywhere, even by very well known critics. If you have ever watched Zero Punctuation by Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, then you might have also read his article on regenerating health. Yahtzee uses the length of the article to explain why he thinks that regenerating health in shooters is fundamentally flawed. Again, this is an example of another critic not recognizing the upsides of a technique. Regenerating Health can be a useful tool in a game designers tool kit and it can do a lot of things for a shooter. For example, regenerating health can allow a designer to tune an encounter more tightly since they will always know how much health a player will have when they enter the encounter space, which is something you don't all ways have in a game without regenerating health. Regenerating health can also give the player better feedback to whether or not they are playing the game well. Whenever you die, the game basically tells you that you were in a situation where you were being shot too many times in too short a point of time. Regenerating health can really help get rid of a lot of variables that can cause a game to become too frustrating, but you will never understand this if you have already decided that the technique is bad.

I don't think people who make these kinds of argument understand how pretentious they can sound by doing this. When a critic says that a technique is bad, they are basically saying that everyone who likes the technique is somehow wrong, but this in in of itself is wrong. There is no such thing as someone's personal taste being wrong, and I think the reason this happens is because the way the gaming community goes about game criticism might actually be the thing that is flawed. Game criticism seems to always be about trying to convince your audience how you think games should be made as opposed to just telling your audience how a game made you feel as an individual. On, during one of their ANNCast podcast about criticism, Zac Bertschy, Executive Editor on the site, expressed that, to him, criticism is an expression of how a piece of art made you feel as a person. I agree with this statement a lot and I feel like critics would be doing the gaming community of favor if they started writing with this mentality in mind. Criticism should be about empathizing with another persons experience and using your understanding of their taste to figure out whether or not you will like a game or using their experience to start and interesting discussion.

If you have already decided that a technique is incorrect, then you have destroyed the ability for an interesting discussion to take place because you have already decided that all the points that the other side might have must obviously be incorrect. If critics and gamers continue to talk about games along these lines, we will continue to have problems understanding the different tastes and viewpoints that we should all know exist in our community.

[This article was originally posted on Barret Gaylor's personal blog, Barret Game Design.]

Barret Gaylor is an aspiring game designer who recently received a degree in game design from the University of Advancing Technology. He is working on several game-related projects.