Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Today we see the aftermath of the Global Game Jam, with plenty of interesting games made in the last 48 hours. Congratulations to the participants for making it through!  Very impressive stuff.

Last year, I participated in my first game jam and I didn't know what to expect.  I soon realized that programmers were the most sought after teammates.  I learned what really helps is knowing how to use programs that can get you quickly started on your game.  The team I joined in the game jam decided to use GameMaker: Studio, which has a free version.  Lots of different types of games can be made using GameMaker as shown by the video:

Furthermore, during a game jam, I found that you need to commit to an idea and just go with it.  That's mostly due to the time pressure.  So while I wish I could have done more during this game jam besides learning how to make levels in GameMaker, I did walk away with an appreciation for these game-making tools.  Even though they may be limited in some aspects, these tools could help a lot in prototyping.

Or even with creating professional-looking games without coding! GameSalad is drag & drop and app developers have had games created using GameSalad in the top 100 of the app store.  Lately, I have been looking at Scratch, which is also drag & drop.  Here are examples of games created using Scratch:

If you do want to see or play the game our team produced during the game jam, it is a top-down dungeon crawler with musical tones synchronized to the player's movements:  Temple of the Gopher God!

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.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Get the Message

In this article, game designer Sande Chen discusses the impact of effective messaging in serious games.

In a TV advertisement, you've got about 30 seconds to sell your product, tell your story, and connect with the inner desires of your target audience in an emotional way.  This means that every shot and every aspect to this ad spot is valuable.  Yes, it's a pitch.  You need to give the reasons why someone might care about your product and do it quickly.

For a PSA, or public service announcement, it's the same deal but hopefully, your message is more profound than "Mentos make you super attractive."  It's very important to get your message across and I think a simple, understandable message is best, such as "Smoking kills."  Certainly, the PSA can convey more in terms of what other bad things may happen if one smokes, but the main message of "Smoking kills" should be reinforced over and over, should you choose to go this direction.

Here's an example of a PSA that does have an effective message:

Although the primary message here appears to be "Seat belts save lives," the PSA also connects on a very emotional level about familial love with the suggestion that using a seat belt is a small act one can do for the love of one's family.  The tagline, "Embrace Life," reinforces this idea.

In serious games, many game designers choose not to give a heavy-handed message.  It may be a simple message like, "War is hell," while not indicting either side of the conflict.  The purpose is to get the player thinking about hard issues or to explore a controversial topic.  But for a PSA-type game, the message IS important.  If I were designing a game to bring awareness about the importance of seat belts, then I do want the players to end up getting the "Seat belts save lives" message.

Are games an effective medium for this purpose?  I think it's possible for us to design games that do make an impact on players' lives in such a manner and furthermore, I believe that to do so effectively, we'll have to reach the players on an emotional level.

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, January 15, 2013

Fitness Behavior Modification

In this article, game designer Sande Chen reviews how gamification can assist people's fitness goals.

In January, people are likely to sign up for fitness clubs as part of a New Year's resolution to get fit or stay fit.  But of those with fitness resolutions, 73% fail to stick to the plan, according to a Harris Interactive online study conducted in November 2012.  As a person said to me, "January is not the time for resolutions.  It's the time for behavior modification."  Time to shed bad habits and adopt better ones.  So how do we help people do this feat?

Last year, I participated in a class on designing learning environments.  I found a group interested in gamification but we only had a matter of days to put together a group project.  After tossing around numerous subjects that could be gamified, we settled upon fitness.

I think fitness ended up being a great choice for our group's gamification project because it's been noted that social pressure can help people stay on track with fitness goals.  It's why people join mall walker clubs or have a workout buddy.  In addition, there is a history of fitness games, spanning from Dance Dance Revolution to Yourself!Fitness to Wii Fit.

So why do people give up on fitness goals?  Here's what the study indicated:
  • No time (36%)
  • Too difficult to maintain (42%)
  • Too easy to not bother with it (38%)
Furthermore, fitness experts say to succeed with fitness resolutions, people should set realistic goals and switch up routines to avoid boredom.

Gamification, through online interaction with friends or others interested in similar fitness goals, can provide the competition and social impetus to keep up with the fitness program.  In addition, the program can define what would be an individual's realistic goal (just answer some questions and plug in the parameters) and give helpful suggestions as to which activities would satisfy that realistic goal.  Although it's not a personal trainer, the program gives the ability to personalize and specify routines for an individual.

To add to the fun, we tied real-world activities and check-ins to correspond with virtual ones.  The virtual routine, such as a run through a park, would serve as a guide for the real-world run.  If a person was attempting something for the first time, the virtual routine would allow that person to be more familiar with the right techniques.  I know that when I read magazine articles that suggest physical exercises, I sometimes wish there were pictures to illustrate what exactly I need to do.

I'm hoping that we can go further with this project and really nail down the specifics.  I see the word gamification used in regards to a lot of things.  Here's one case where I think it could really work to improve people's lives.

So happy January, everyone, and good luck with any of your behavior modification goals! 

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.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Post-Pitch Analysis

In 2012, I participated in several workshops, game design contests, and a game jam.  Most were first-time experiences for me and I'd like to share with you some of the design processes I underwent to develop these game concepts.

During the summer, I saw a contest to design a tournament for the PvP aspect of an online game.  It struck me that this would be like designing a mod for the gameplay because I would be giving structure and rules that were not in the inherent gameplay.  It's as if Tag suddenly became a competitive sport with referees and Olympic prizes.

Though I was not active in any of the tournament-style PvP, I was already familiar with the gameplay.  I don't think I would have attempted this contest otherwise. I did know that because I was not a "known" gamer celebrity of that game, I'd have to devise a concept that would catch the attention of the judges.  I also knew that a pitch can be a different beast than an actual game document.

A colleague had remarked to me that sometimes the person with the best presentation or pitch doesn't necessarily have the best concept, but that the person has a great, winning way of selling that concept.  I had noticed in the Winning Pitch Workshop (more on that later) that humor goes a long way in putting the judges in a good mood.

So, serious or not-so-serious?  I noticed that the serious proposals posted so far sometimes missed audience appeal.  They were interesting ideas for the hardcore players, but not so much for casual players.  In fact, some seemed so difficult as to dissuade casual players from even entering the tournament, so....Hmm, what would the judges looking for?  I knew this would be a tournament that the judges wanted to put in their regular line-up of tournaments and also, I thought, the new tournament would need to appeal to new players.  I decided that not-so-serious would be my direction.  I needed my proposal to be original and not easily viewed as just a dismal copy of some other idea.

I admit I had my worries in how would I inject the funny, but it came to me naturally and I figured if my concept made me laugh, it might make others laugh too.

My second goal was to make the tournament more social.  I wanted my tournament to have social interaction.  I wanted social interaction between the players and also with the spectators.  I wanted a tournament that spectators would enjoy and could also participate in some way, akin to people clapping to the music in gymnastics or ice skating competitions.  The current tournaments were often hours-long affairs, whereupon spectators would start to chatter about all sorts of unrelated topics, distracting the players.

My third goal was to make the tournament rules easy to understand and remember.  My personal reluctance for these tournaments was due to the long list of rules I would have had to memorize.  I once did a search on official Scrabble tournament rules and I was amazed that it had so many pages!  So many details!  I would hate to have to remember all those rules or risk being disqualified.

In summary, I wanted the concept to be:
  • Original
  • Accessible
  • Social
  • Easily Understood
I still wasn't really sure how the judges would react to my proposal.  When I saw that my concept won the popular vote (I guess the funny worked there!), I thought maybe I had a chance at winning.

But I didn't. 

I inquired later for feedback.  Basically, the judges had viewed my entry as a joke submission and had not given it any consideration.  I viewed my submission as a viable idea, just presented in a humorous way.  What did win is what I would have called one of the "very serious" concepts and of course, it didn't hurt that it was proposed by a well-decorated tournament winner.

What happened here was a failure to understand what the judges wanted.  Perhaps the judges didn't want accessible.  Perhaps their need was to appeal to their existing set of hardcore tournament players.  I think I was imposing my values and what I thought would be desirable in a tournament setting.  Still, I found the contest a welcome way to exercise creativity and maybe one day, I'll learn more about running tournaments.

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, January 2, 2013

January 2013: Diversity

Happy New Year!  I've been traveling these past weeks and hope to get things up and running again :)

I once asked at a WIGI conference if diversity in the workplace had made an impact on design decisions.  Normally, people talk about the impact on female character models or how diversity in the workforce can broaden the market appeal of the games.  I'd like to hear your thoughts on how diversity in the workforce affects design decisions.

I'm an economics major, so when I presented at the Women's Game Conference in 2005, I discussed the economic impact of diversity:  reduced recruitment costs, increased staff motivation, increased creativity, and greater growth in new initiatives.  A more diverse workforce means more diverse backgrounds and experiences, which can lead to richer ideas and greater community connections.  Moreover, studies have shown that when the male:female ratio is more even, employees feel that it is a more pleasant work environment and this leads to higher productivity.

So why is it that there are fewer women in the game industry?  #1reasonwhy has shed some light, citing reasons from misogyny to harsh work conditions to unequal pay.  The prevailing economic thought on women's unequal pay when I was taking Labor Economics in college had to do with the fact that women can have babies.  Because some women had babies and chose to drop out of the workforce, it was reasoned that employees could not count on women to be reliable.  Therefore, it was riskier to hire women.  Also, those women who did drop out of the workforce tended to do so during years when men were climbing up the corporate ladder so they lost valuable time in their careers.  Often times, they could not return to the workforce after a hiatus.

However, the 2000 Nobelist in Economics James Heckman, who conducted a exhaustive study on women in the workforce, concluded that there was no "typical" woman who dropped in and out of the workforce.  There were women who worked all the time and there were women who didn't work or worked part-time or seasonally.  He concluded that companies should pay attention to the women who worked and invest in them equally.  An unequal wage to a valuable employee would only be detrimental to the company and to the industry.

Of course, as many HR managers in the video game industry might tell you, it can be challenging to find a diverse pool of qualified applicants.  It takes top-level commitment.  See the video below for ideas on diversity initiatives.

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.