Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Fantasy Worldbuilding Tips for Beginners

In this article, game writer Sande Chen sums up advice from a 2017 NYCC panel about fantasy worldbuilding.

At last week's New York Comic Con, top comics writers dispensed cautionary fantasy worldbuilding tips during the panel, Wizards and Fairies and Spells - Oh My! After recommending beginners read over dungeon master manuals, writers Kel MacDonald, Brian Schirmer, Dani Colman, Si Spurrier, Sebastian Girner, and Skottie Young proceeded to explain some of the pitfalls awaiting new fantasy writers.

Primarily, several panelists expressed the opinion that worldbuilding shouldn't take precedence over story, or any other activity.  Worldbuilding should not become a full-time job.  It's far too easy for beginning fantasy writers to get caught up with the process of worldbuilding and end up with a beautifully realized world without a story.  In fact, the world can enrich the story, and even become an externalization of a character's emotional life.

Next, the panelists discussed magic and magic systems, and urged writers to think about the cost of magic, as I do in my class, Writing for Sci-Fi, Fantasy, & Horror Game Worlds.  If magic didn't have a price or penalty, then what's to stop people from using magic all the time?  One panelist talked about the Harry Potter universe having 2 magic systems, one without cost and one with cost.

Finally, writers were asked to think carefully about the choice of POV character.  If Gandalf had been the POV character in The Lord of the Rings, then the story would be very different.  The reader would miss out on the feeling of wonder in regards to magic because Gandalf, as a wizard, would know all about the intricacies of the magic system.

Although this was a panel of comics writers, their advice applies to more than just comics writing.  But if you're interested in learning what game writers might have to say about the topic, I along with Dalton Gray, Sharang Biswas, Jennifer Estaris, David Kuelz, Ant Tessitore, and David Tiegen will be speaking on the game writing panel at GameACon Atlantic City on October 28. Hope to see you there.

A writer and game designer, Sande Chen has over 10 years experience in the industry. She studied science fiction and science writing at MIT. Her first published game was the epic space combat RPG, Terminus, which won 2 awards at the 1999 Independent Games Festival. She was later nominated for a 2007 Writers Guild of America award in Videogame Writing for the dark fantasy RPG, The Witcher.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Upcoming Workshop: Game Writing Portfolio Workout

In addition to the Writing for Video Games panel at GameACon Atlantic City on October 28, I have an upcoming game writing workshop through PlayCrafting NYC, which will be held at Microsoft NY in Times Square.

To learn more about me, you can read an interview I recently did with SciFiPulse: "Sande Chen discusses her career, teaching, and video game design."





The popular Game Writing Portfolio Workout, which had been on hold during the longer 4-week Game Writing Primer course, returns on Tuesday, October 10.  I haven't done this workshop since June of this year.  If you want to see what the life of a free-lance game writer is like, come to this workshop for a deep dive into typical game writing tasks. You'll be writing continually, so be sure to bring a laptop or notepad.

Here's what a former student has said about Game Writing Portfolio Workout:
"This is so far one of the best Playcrafting workshops. The teacher was funny, incredibly knowledgeable and shared the best insider secrets!"
As always, Playcrafting NYC, which offers classes and events related to game development, offers Early Bird tickets, but if they sell out (and they have in the past), you'll have to pay full price. 

Come and write!
Game Writing Portfolio Workout
Date:  Tuesday, October 10, 2017
Time: 6:30-8:30 PM

Each session is different and dynamic.  Existing story ideas are welcome, but not necessary, because writing prompts during class are intended to generate leads. 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Podcast: Game Design Tips from Sande Chen

A few weeks back, I did an interview with AppMasters. Their podcasts are full of valuable information intended to help you succeed in the mobile app business.

Link to the Podcast: Game Design Tips from Sande Chen

Listen on to hear about the issues with designing for VR, educational game design, narrative design, and about transitioning into the game industry as a writer.

Podcast Description

Today’s guest is one of the Game Industry’s Top 100 Most Influential Women and she shares her tips on educational and VR game design. You will also discover her process for writing game narratives and how freelancing while at her full-time job allowed her to be completely on her own.

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 10 years in the game industry. Her game credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus, MMO Hall of Fame inductee Wizard101, and the 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, Game Education Summit, SXSW Interactive, Serious Play Conference, and the Serious Games Summit D.C.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

How playing games can advance science

In this response, Claire Baert describes her fascination with citizen science games and poses some questions about the practice.

This morning, like most days, I woke up early, had a latte, turned on my computer and opened Gamasutra. Like most days, I'm looking for articles discussing how games can help advance scientific research. But this morning, for the first time, I found the article I was waiting for. A blog post by Sande Chen, featured by Gamasutra, and [re]titled: Why designers should embrace 'citizen science' . This was the trigger for me to start this blog, to write about citizen science games and share my passion with the Gamasutra community. In this first post, I will introduce many of the citizen science games everyone can play to advance science, and briefly introduce the different topics I will cover in the next posts.

My story with citizen science games began in 2013, in a small game studio in the UK. I was researching free to play, casual browser games, and was doing a quick play through the tutorials. Between Farmerama and Grepolis, I had listed a game I had never heard of: Foldit. First surprise, it's a client game. Second surprise, I'm taught how to mutate a protein to form more hydrogen bonds, not that casual. Third surprise, I'm doing real science. (Fourth surprise, first thing I did when coming back home was downloading Foldit on my laptop.)

I quickly became fascinated with the concept of citizen science games and started searching more of them. Not any kind of serious games, but specifically games that allow us, players, to contribute to authentic scientific research, without any scientific background. Games in which we provide valuable scientific data, accelerate research by analysing data, or solve complex scientific problems. Games that help diagnosis and cure diseases or that can answer important scientific questions.

After learning how to fold proteins in Foldit, I learnt how to fold RNA molecules in EteRNA and DNA molecules in Phylo. By playing these puzzle games, we are helping eradicate diseases. On my phone, I shoot at parasites in MalariaSpot to diagnose malaria in blood smear, I'm growing a microbe colony for Colony B. I'm mapping the brain in Eyewire and Mozak, advancing the field of neuroscience. I also dared join the quantum computing field, moving quantum atoms in Quantum Moves, optimising quantum algorithms in the prototype of meQuanics and solving quantum error corrections in Decodoku. All these steps are important to build quantum computers. Recently I've been showing off my navigation skills (ahem) in Sea Hero Quest, (and in VR!), to provide data to scientists researching dementia. With almost 3 million players, Sea Hero Quest is the largest dementia study in history.

Screenshot from Sea Hero Quest -VR
I loved the concept of citizen science games so much that about 2 years ago, I launched a website dedicated to them. It's called… well… Citizen Science Games. For the content, I contacted many scientists and journalists, which led to the opportunity to join one of the team. I am now bringing my experience from the game industry to Stall Catchers, in which we annotate blood vessels to help answering questions about Alzheimer's disease.

Scientists have started harnessing our love for games to conduct scientific research, sometimes on their own, sometimes with game designers and developers. As Sande Chen reported in her post, they have been using different design approaches: integration, gamification and separation. Most of the games mentioned above are examples of integration. The gameplay was designed around a scientific problem. Stall Catchers uses game elements: we get points, accuracy feedback, climb leader boards and participate in punctual competitions. To illustrate the separation approach, I will use the example of EVE Online. EVE Online is the first (and only) mainstream games that integrated real citizen science activities, Project Discovery, to the game. We are looking for exoplanets by analysing luminosity measurements of stars. By reaching more than one million contributions in one day, Project Discovery became one of the most successful online citizen science project. This is also one of the rare citizen science game having a few articles on Gamasutra, which recently covered the launch of the second round of Project Discovery and an awesome GDC talk by CCP and MMOS.

Project Discovery
There is an increasing number of citizen science games. They generate tangible results and publications and can lead to important discoveries. Scientists write about design, mechanics, difficulties, pitfalls, discoveries, results, recommendations. They try to understand what motivates people to engage with these games. There is also some controversies. Do games attract or retain participants in citizen science project? Shall citizen science be gamified? Are games compatible with serious and rigorous traditional scientific research?  All these questions find some answers in papers and will be discussed in future posts.

How could more studios embrace the concept? What scientific problems could be brought to existing games? What game genre would be best fitted for citizen science projects? What would be the best ways to integrate them? By starting this blog, I'm hoping to raise awareness about citizen science games. I'm also hoping to establish contact and start discussions with designers and developers interested in the genre.

And finally, I'm a big fan of this quote so I have to share it. It was written by Dara Mohammadi who was a scientific adviser on Sea Hero Quest:
"As a planet we spend 3 billion hours a week playing online games. If even a fraction of that time can be harnessed for science, laboratories around the world would have access to some rather impressive cognitive machinery."
 [This article originally appeared on Claire Baert's blog on Gamasutra.]

Claire Baert has 10 years experience in the video game industry and now focuses on citizen science games. She launched the website, Citizen Science Games, in 2016.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Upcoming Workshop: Designing Games For Impact

Next week, on September 20, I will be holding another workshop through PlayCrafting NYC called Designing Games For Impact. While I have explored issues of concern to social impact games in past classes, my primary research focus has been broader and more centered on deepening emotional impact and meaningfulness in games.  I relate findings from related disciplines like advertising, cinematography, and social psychology.  Thus, I believe these classes are of interest not only to serious game developers but to entertainment game developers.

As I mentioned, I was interviewed for the book, Empower Yourself Through Your Memories: Use the Lessons From Your Past to Create a Happy Present and Future by Frank Healy.  Healy, a counselor and life coach, has helped people deal with traumatic memories.

These emotional memories from one's life can also be tapped for stronger narrative.  If you can learn to access the emotion from a past event, then you convey the same emotion in a fictional story.  The focus of the next class will be on using personal autobiographical elements to create an emotional connection.

As always, Playcrafting NYC, which offers classes and events related to game development, offers Early Bird tickets, but if they sell out (and they have in the past), you'll have to pay full price.  

The details!
Designing Games For Impact
Date: Wednesday, September 20
Time: 6:30-8:30 PM

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 in the game industry. Her game credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus, MMO Hall of Fame inductee Wizard101, and the 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, Game Education Summit, SXSW Interactive, Serious Play Conference, and the Serious Games Summit D.C.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Citizen Science and Knowledge Games

In this article, game designer Sande Chen discusses the concept of citizen science, and how it can be embraced by game designers.

On Monday, August 21, 2017, residents of the contiguous United States witnessed a total solar eclipse for the first time since 1979.  Because of the rarity of the occurrence, which will not occur again in the U.S. until 2024,  hundreds bought special eclipse glasses to watch, but some members of the public, as citizen scientists, aided in scientific research by sending temperature data to NASA or by recording animal behavior in a citizen science app like iNaturalist. Amateur photographers contributed to a time-lapse photo spread of the eclipse. Through the combined efforts of researchers and the public, a large amount of data was able to be collected about the total solar eclipse.

Total solar eclipse August 2017
Citizen science, which engages the public to participate in scientific research, is not a new practice.  Communities of citizen scientists have been active in mapping the stars, counting butterflies, watching birds, and monitoring coral reefs.  Could such communities be galvanized as game players, who through the process of playing games further scientific knowledge?  Associate Professor Karen Schrier, Founding Director of the Games & Emerging Media program at Marist College, asks this very question and more in her book, Knowledge Games.


FoldIt, the protein folding puzzle game, is the most well-known example of this type of game. As documented in the article, "FoldIt Gamers Solve Riddle of HIV Enzyme Within 3 Weeks," the results from FoldIt players has led to scientific breakthroughs, research papers, and in improvements to AI algorithms. Yep, it turns out humans are better than computers at solving certain types of puzzles, especially those requiring intuition and a basis in cultural understanding.

In the past, I had an interesting challenge:  to design a game to generate data about obesity rates and general health indicators over a period of a year.  The project at first had more of a gamification focus and then morphed into the ARG Lumeria.  It provided insights on designing and writing for wearable technology, which would serve as the main way of data collection.  But Schrier argues that these games are more than just about gathering data, but about increasing knowledge, which is why she uses the term, knowledge games, instead of other terms like "crowdsourced games" or "citizen science games."  Data needs to be contextualized, analyzed, and interpreted.  Games like Happy Moths and Galaxy Zoo, which involve classification and categorization of images, do seem to be more about data sets, but as mentioned above, FoldIt and experiments like bullying sim SchoolLife have demonstrated that the intuition shown in human thought processes may be used to improve algorithms or model behavior.

At present, there appears to be three design approaches for knowledge games.
  • Gamification  -  In games like Happy Moths, players receive scores based on tasks.  The common highlights of gamification are present: leaderboards, high scores, badges, game elements rather than gameplay.
  • Separation - In some games, like Reverse the Odds, the gameplay is separate from the knowledge-producing task. Instead, players in Reverse the Odds classify cancerous cells in order to earn potions to continue or better gameplay. 
  • Integration - In games like FoldIt, the gameplay is essential to the knowledge-producing task. FoldIt players use the same tools as scientists would, but that is not necessarily the case. In Play to Cure: Genes in Space, players pilot a spaceship and by doing so in an optimal way, DNA microarrays from breast cancer research are analyzed. However, Schrier states that not all of these games are integrated fully or well, which may make the game feel like a construct, or wrapper, for the knowledge-producing task.
Besides the design of knowledge games, Schrier tackles many issues in her book concerning knowledge games, including the ethics of possibly profiting from such volunteerism (would they be player laborers?), or even the ethics of creating such games since they may not even be created for social good. Do knowledge games need to promote social change?  There is also concern over who exactly is contributing and playing and if this "wisdom of the crowds" is acceptable.  "What if," Schrier muses, "players work through the possible scenarios to tribal peace in The SUDAN Game, and the resulting finding is that two of the tribes need to be decimated?" These are interesting questions for interesting times.  We may need to continue our exploration into knowledge games by creating more knowledge games.

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.  









Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Double Standard for Female Characters?

In this article, game writer Sande Chen implores others to think about how female characters are portrayed and developed.

Women in fields like high tech can feel like they're pushing against a double standard. They have to prove that they're beyond qualified for the job while at the same time, receiving a lower pay. They may feel like they're treated differently or belittled, their ideas claimed by male colleagues who fail to even let them finish speaking. I sometimes feel that female characters must feel the same way.  Think about how you treat your female characters.  Are they given the same opportunities as male characters?

For a long time, in film, the prevailing thought was that movies with female protagonists would never be major successes so why bother?  (Though recently, Wonder Woman smashed box office records.)  This same mantra seems to be repeated in the video game industry.  According to the 2013 Electronic Entertainment Design and Research Report, only 3% of top console games from 2005 to 2013 had female protagonists and publishers had very low expectations, as reflected in the low marketing budgets of those games. One game developer with a female-fronted game commented on how hard it was to get publishers to change their views: "We had some [companies] that said, 'Well, we don't want to publish it because that's not going to succeed. You can't have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that."

TERA
This had led to the male character being the default playable character, especially in mobile games, with female playable characters falling into the optional "pay extra" category or simply non-existent.  Despite it all, female players still clamor to be heard. They want female playable characters.  Repeat, this is just about the mere inclusion of a female playable character!  Even when female playable characters are included, they may be hypersexualized just like non-playing female characters whose only value seems to be their physical attributes.

If your game doesn't have a female protagonist, maybe you have a female character in a supporting role?  Let's hope she's not a badass there just to support the male hero as a plot device, much like the character Trinity in The Matrix. Give her a fully realized story of her own that could function as a subplot.

Does your female character have strong opinions? Careful now. Here's where criticism may come. Maybe she's too brash. Or too unlikable. Comes off as "too male."  These are charges that probably wouldn't ever be leveled against male characters.  Male characters tend to get away with all sorts of off-putting personality tics.

Male characters also don't tend to be threatened by sexual assault.  Yes, sexual assault is a concern for women and pertinent to some stories, but don't use it for shock value or as a plot device for the male hero to seek revenge.  Sexual assault shouldn't be the "go-to standard" for a female character's traumatic childhood. Don't use rape or attempted rape as a way to make a story "edgy." I'm sure there are other ways to insert danger into a female character's life story.

Female characters are deserving of better treatment. They too can have deep, intriguing back stories. We don't have to turn them into seductresses or subject them to sexual abuse.  We can attribute more value to them than their physical appearances.  Let's make sure we aren't applying a double standard and create stories that celebrate female characters.

In an idealized society, I wonder what female characters will be like, and if you would like to join me, I will be holding another writing workshop in New York City, Writing for Sci-Fi, Fantasy, & Horror Game Worlds, next Wednesday, August 23rd, at Microsoft NY.

the details!
Date:  Wednesday, August 23rd, 2017
Time: 6:30 to 9:30 PM
Place: Microsoft NY, Times Square
Tickets sold by PlayCrafting NYC

A writer and game designer, Sande Chen has over 10 years experience in the industry. She studied science fiction and science writing at MIT. Her first published game was the epic space combat RPG, Terminus, which won 2 awards at the 1999 Independent Games Festival. She was later nominated for a 2007 Writers Guild of America award in Videogame Writing for the dark fantasy RPG, The Witcher.