Tuesday, July 22, 2014

IGDA Webinar: Multiplayer Economies

Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing game designer Adam Thompson on the topic of Multiplayer Economies during the IGDA's most recent Webinar on Game Design.  Adam Thompson is responsible for economy design on the upcoming MMO, First Earth
First Earth

The IGDA Webinars started recently and we hope to cover a lot of interesting topics.  Feel free to suggest topics for upcoming Webinars.  During the Webinar, which happens on every third Wednesday of the month at noon Eastern, attendees can interact with panelists and type in questions.  We have a recording of the Webinar here, but as you will see, it's better as a live event, where you can see the speakers' Webcams. 

If you want to listen in:

Adam Thompson is game developer with twelve years experience in mobile, educational, and multiplayer PC games.  For the last four years he's been consumed developing First Earth, a next-gen game meant to fulfill the promise we saw in classic MMOs like Ultima Online.  He has a particular interest in the philosophy of game design as it relates to multiplayer games. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Screw Narrative Wrappers

In this article, game writer Richard Dansky examines the assumptions behind the term, "narrative wrapper."

And here is why I hate the term “narrative wrapper”.

What is a wrapper? It’s something that’s put around an object, not intrinsically part of the object. It’s something that’s taken apart to get to the good stuff. It’s something that’s discarded as unimportant. It’s something that, 9 times out of 10, has disgusting congealed faux-cheese on it.

And so when we talk about the “narrative wrapper” of a game, we’re implicitly stating that the narrative is not of the game itself. It’s something we’re supposed to wrap around the gameplay to make it transportable and attractive, and keep the targeting reticule from dripping burger grease on our fingers, but it’s ultimately unattached and disposable.

Which, to be blunt, irritates me to no end.

Because yes, you can have a narrative wrapper on a game, one that you discard as soon as it’s time to start blasting or moving geometric shapes around or whatever. But I’d like to think we’ve moved past that. That we understand that narrative and gameplay are part of a unified whole that, when combined with a player’s choices, creates the play experience. That a game doesn’t have to have a lot of narrative to have an appropriate amount of narrative for what it presents, in order to provide context to the player actions and create a satisfying arc to their progression.

But Rich, I hear you say, not every game has a narrative element. Not every game needs a narrative element. Take, for example, tower defense games. Or Minecraft. Completely narrative free!

To which I say, cunningly, that’s absolutely not the case. Because when most people think of game narrative, they think of the explicit narrative - the story of getting from point A to point B, and probably slaughtering a zillion hapless orcs/enemy soldiers/terrorists/space aliens/zombies/geometric shapes infused with dubstep along the way.

But that’s just the explicit narrative. There’s also implicit narrative built into every game though the choice of setting, items, character design - the assets of the game tell a story, if only by their very existence. Or, to put it another way, think about the archetypal tool you get in Minecraft. It’s a pickaxe. It’s not a tricorder. It’s not a Black and Decker multi-tool. It’s a pickaxe, and through it’s very pickaxe-ness - low tech, implied manual labor, etc. - it tells part of the story of the world it exists in. Ditto for those towers in tower defense games that everyone claims come narrative free - they’re shaped like something, they’re shooting something, and those choices frame a story before word one of any dialog or plot gets written. If you’re shooting aliens in a tower defense game, you’ve established genre (science fiction) and technology (aliens with enough tech to invade, you with enough tech to fight back); your backdrop implies the course of the conflict so far, and so on. As soon as you decide what a game asset is, you’re implying the narrative that allows it to exist and function.

Which is another way of saying that narrative is baked in, blood and marrow, to games. It’s not a wrapper, though God knows enough people have tried to separate story and gameplay like one of them has to walk home across the quad in last night’s jeans. Yes, you can divorce narrative elements from gameplay (Or as we used to call it, “put it in the cut scene”) but that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what the narrative elements of a game are, and how they interact, inextricably, with gameplay. If you think of narrative as something external to the game - a wrapper, perhaps - then you’re missing the point, and your game will be the worse for it.

And that’s why I hate the term “narrative wrapper” - because it damages narratives and it damages games, and it damages the understanding of how narrative works in games. And it gets crappy congealed cheese all over my deliverables, and we just can’t have that sort of thing.

[This article originally appeared on Dansky Macabre.]  

The Central Clancy Writer for Red Storm/Ubisoft, Richard Dansky is a 15 year veteran of the games industry. His credits include Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Outland, and Driver: San Francisco. The author of six novels, Dansky lives and works in North Carolina.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

July 2014: Creativity Enhancing Games

July 2014's topic was submitted by Vbwyrde GrayFalcon.

Video games can spark our creativity in so many different ways.  Some games, like Minecraft, explicitly promote a Creative mode whereas other games or simulations provide creative outlets for players to sell player-designed clothing or other items.  Players of The Sims franchise post illustrated stories, all staged in-game with characters and props from the games.  Games can also inspire mods.  Any game that allows us to build, decorate, and express ourselves is tapping into our creativity. 

If one were to focus on enhancing player-led creativity in a game, how would one go about designing such a game?

Besides allowing players to create new levels or new in-game items, is there a way for the player to leave the game with a creative masterpiece, like a song, painting, or written epic that is utterly unique to that player?  And would that application still be considered a game?

What are your thoughts on the topic?  Do you know of any examples of great creativity enhancing games?  If so, why do you feel they work as well as they do?

As always, submission guidelines along with submission procedure can be found on the right hand side of the blog.  Topic suggestions and articles are welcome! 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Interchangeable He and She

In this article, game writer Sande Chen explores the role of gender or lack of gender in branching narrative.

After all the protest about the amount of work to animate female characters, it appears that female characters, like Assassin's Creed III: Liberation 's Aveline de Grandpr√©, can use animations created for male characters.  As Aja Romano points out, this works out especially if animators decide not to oversexualize the movements of female characters.  It's also a production issue, since interchangeable male/female animations would have to be the plan from the beginning.  Interchangeable animations, along with a couple of gender-specific ones, would save both time and money so that there could be male and female playable characters in the game.

  These animations weren't so interchangeable...
But say, it's not the beginning, what I might call the pre-production phase, but at the beginning of crunch time hell, or even worse, at the end or after the game is released?  Then, sure, a development team may find it hard to provide a fix.

All of this reminds me of a thorny problem a video game company presented to the game writers Facebook group.  This video game company created romance games (in text) and after a game was released, customers asked why there wasn't a gay romance option a la Dragon Age 2.The company wondered if a solution could be found by simply replacing all of the love interest's pronouns by the opposite gender. 

Would that work?

I have played a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) game that did something similar and I truly felt cheated because my choice of gender was as meaningless as the selection of eye color in the game.  OK, the story was supposedly set in an enlightened (yet vaguely RenFaire) society in which men and women were treated equally and men had even achieved pregnancy, but I still felt cheated.  I can see that this might work in a different game, but not one that was all about relationships.  And a romance game is all about relationships.

I understood that the author had very cleverly done this to avoid writing whole sets of branching narrative.  Yet, I couldn't help but feel that the whole fun of choosing a female or male character in a romance game had been taken away from me.  If I had a female character, what would happen here?  How would people react differently?  Might I be able to succeed as a female character but not as a male character?  I feel that even if writers do create enlightened societies, we are still viewing their world from the present.

In our flawed and unenlightened world, females don't always act and talk like males and hence, the need for female-specific animations and dialog.  Female relationships are different from male relationships.  I believe that the experience of growing up as a female is special and worth exploring.  When this informed background isn't there, then the relationship feels hollow.  To me, all the romances, including the gay ones, in this CYOA game were somewhat shallow.

In the end, the video game company with the problem decided that a quick switch of pronouns would not be respectful to the gay community.  Gender would not be a meaningless string variable. 

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.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Female Players Want Female Playable Characters

In this article, game writer Sande Chen reviews the reasons she's heard for not including female playable characters in video games.

Oh, deja vu!  Here comes the news that there won't be female playable characters in co-op mode for Far Cry 4, following the revelation that Assassin's Creed Unity will not have female playable characters in co-op mode.  The reason why?  As other companies have responded in past queries of this sort, it's just too much work to make female playable characters: it's double the amount of animations, double the workload, and double the production cost. 

At least that sounds more reasonable than some narrative excuses that have been brokered in the past, such as, "It's not historically accurate or believable to have females in those roles" or "It's a warrior culture!" which led to my presentation at LOGIN Conference 2010 on "Hot Warrior Women."  As Brenna Hillier writes in her article about sexism and the game industry, narrative excuses come off as rather flimsy.

Let's face it, most of these games are fantasies, even if based on real-life historical eras.  That's why there are items like G-string armor for female playable characters.  In an idealized society of the future, a fantasy world, and even in a historical setting, we can surely see that writers have the option to include strong female protagonists.  And in real life, even though they may have been marginalized or overlooked, women have been in combat situations throughout history.  As Dan Golding points out, the most famous assassin in the time period of Assassin's Creed Unity was a woman.  Our world history is not just "the history of men." 

Is it any wonder that female players might want to play these kick-ass female characters?

Sure, I agree that there are production realities and I have faced those myself, but ultimately, the decision to include female playable characters really boils down to whether or not a video game company makes it a priority.  Currently, nearly half of the gaming audience is women and they have proven with their purchasing dollars that they are a demographic that shouldn't be ignored.

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, June 5, 2014

June 2014: Luck vs. Skill

On certain PvP forums, players may argue about whether a game is more about luck or more about skill.  Not surprisingly, players routinely attribute wins to their inherent "skill" whereas losses must be due to the opponent's "luck." Some games, like chess, people readily agree have more "skill" components whereas casino games like roulette definitely requires more "luck."  A big debate rages on about poker, because if considered a game of skill, poker could arguably not be subject to gambling laws.

The luck vs. skill debate is also of interest to economists and sociologists, especially in regards to investment strategy, capital management, and entrepreneurial studies. For economists, distinguishing between luck vs skill helps prevent decision-making biases.  Sociologists understand that the more people think they're in control, the more they believe they can influence "luck."  That's why some people throw dice harder for a high number and throw gently for a low number.  Yet, the act of throwing dice comes down to pure chance.

How does this luck vs skill ratio affect game designers?  I think when designing for certain demographics, we might consider whether the audience would appreciate a higher or lower luck vs. skill ratio.

Some questions to consider:
  • When designing a game, do you take the luck vs. skill ratio into consideration?  How does it affect your design?
  • What audiences do you think appreciate a higher level of skill? Or a higher level of luck?
  • What sort of decisions in the game would you leave to luck?
  • Is a game that is mostly luck-based a satisfying game?
  • Do luck-filled elements in a game increase game addictions?
As always, submission guidelines along with submission procedure can be found on the right hand side of the blog.  Topic suggestions and articles are welcome! 

Friday, May 23, 2014

Chasing the Heroine's Journey in Games

In this article, game writer Sande Chen ponders how to find the heroine's journey, or the internal life of characters, in games.

A few months ago, I was fortunate to go to a lecture given by script consultant Dara Marks, author of Inside Story. She spoke of the counterpoint to the Hero's journey, which would be the Heroine's Journey.  (Note:  This is just terminology and not meant to suggest that female characters cannot follow the Hero's Journey and vice versa!)  Dara Marks conveyed that the best stories have the yin and yang of both journeys.  Masculine-type stories, often following the Hero's Journey, tend to be external, life-and-death conquests whereas feminine stories celebrate inner connectedness, compassion, and acceptance.  Without enough yin, masculine stories can feel hollow (yet action-packed).  Feminine stories without yang can get bogged down.

Marks' framework for the Heroine's Journey has a Call of Action, Midpoint, and Final Pursuit, just like the Hero's Journey.  It's definitely not just adding a love subplot into the midst of the story.  The Heroine is propelled into action after suffering a deep, emotional wound and is only redeemed through her courage and the help of others, resulting in a new perspective on love and self-acceptance.

It struck me that in the realm of video games, our blockbusters are mostly masculine stories.  It may be because of the medium.  We need to externalize our inner demons -- show not tell -- and can't afford an extended monologue.  Or if there is a monologue, like in The Darkness, which could be a technique to telling the internal story, at least make it interesting.  There are diaries, but truly, do people really leave their diaries scattered about?  Perhaps we simply need to get better at showing the entire story:  external and internal. 

For other games, it simply doesn't matter because the player-character is a blank slate to be filled in by the player.  Appearance, actions, thoughts, back stories:  all controlled by the player.  That's a different type of game, so let's stick to the games where the player has a pre-assigned role.

Here is another issue:  the blurry line between player and player-character.

I absolutely detest in an action game when a player-character declares that I, the player, had an epiphany about some story element, especially when I haven't felt any change in my feelings or thinking.  I don't suddenly care about something just because the character I'm controlling tells me I should care.  Some writers make a distinction between player and player-character.  The player-character has its own life and therefore, is free to go about having epiphanies and actions that run counter to the player's desires.

However, the identification between avatar and player is so strong that hardly anyone says "Samus did this; Samus did that" but "I beat the boss; I got to the last level."  It doesn't matter that the character isn't a blank slate.  I've been struggling through all these levels and doing all the work while controlling this player-character, so, yes, I got a little... attached. When something doesn't jive between player-character and player, it feels disconcerting and jarring.  Perhaps that's why some players chose not to play the ending of Prince of Persia rather than go through the player-character's mission to destroy all the lands.

There are probably better ways at conveying emotional truths than straight out telling the audience (or leaving written evidence).  Screenwriters handle this all the time, but in a video game, we can't have too many cut scenes (or it would be a film!).  Slower, less action-packed games that explore character growth could succeed, as well.  I wonder, since we are adept at those masculine, action-packed games, can we find the feminine there too?

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.