Friday, February 28, 2014

Does Narrative Matter in Serious Games?

In this article, writer and game designer Sande Chen discusses the role of zombies in serious games.

At last year's Different Games Conference, Professor Mary Flanagan revealed the results of research on narrative, gameplay, and learning outcomes for two related games.  POX: Save the People, a public health game that promotes understanding of vaccination, shares the same gameplay as ZOMBIEPOX, which, as you can imagine, is about the zombie apocalypse.  Same game, different narrative.  The verdict?  The fictional trappings of Zombies vs. Us did promote better learning outcomes about vaccination.  In fact, when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) started issuing fictional zombie apocalypse alerts as a way to push emergency preparedness, public interest was so high that it crashed the CDC's Web site.


Was a Gaming Thought Leader at last year's Games For Change Conference right in chastising serious game developers for their horrible lack of imagination, for basically making boring office and retail sims over and over?

Hold on. I wrote in my last blog post, When Game-Based Learning Doesn't Work, that some serious games, especially those in corporate training, do need to simulate real-world workplaces in order to be perceived as relevant to their target audiences and give better learning outcomes.  Why the contradiction?  Zombie apocalypses are not going to work for everyone and that's because there's a difference between work time and leisure time.  I don't doubt that a laparoscopic surgeon wouldn't mind brushing up skills in a simulated laparoscopic surgery trainer as part of work, but I find it doubtful that the same surgeon spends all of his or her leisure time in such a program. 

For the general public browsing through varied options and seeking general entertainment during leisure time, sure, a more exciting narrative is going to capture interest.  The same holds true for educational titles used in the classroom.  Students may need that extra incentive to get interested in subject matter they deem otherwise boring or confusing.

While the CDC did succeed in engaging the public with its humorous zombie apocalypse campaign, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) received sharp criticism for actually staging a simulated zombie apocalypse to train US Marines and Special Operations forces.  Government watchdogs lumped the extravagant exercise into other examples of frivolous taxpayer money waste, such as a $240,000 armored car to protect pumpkins, and questioned if killing zombies was even useful training for soldiers.  The CDC has since released a free iPad game called Solve the Outbreak, which has nothing to do with zombies.

As always, a developer needs to be aware of the preferences of its target audience and the context of usage for the serious game.  Even in less exciting locales, as in an office or retail shop sim, narrative can still be an asset, adding spice through interesting dialog and case studies.  We don't all have to put zombies in our games, but we can certainly strive to find a happy interchange between gameplay, narrative, and learning outcomes.

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, February 19, 2014

About Microtransactions

In this article, aspiring game designer Gabby Taylor discusses the evils of microtransactions and how it has changed attitudes and practices in the game industry.

Microtransactions have completely fucked the game industry. But first, a couple explanations: for those who may not be aware, microtransactions (also known as "in-game purchases") are most rampant in casual games like Angry Birds Go or Candy Crush Saga, but they exist in more hardcore titles too like Grand Theft Auto Online or Gran Turismo 6. Initially a bridge to cross the gender gap and get more women interested in gaming, casual games tend to be on mobile platforms like smart phones and tablets, though it's not uncommon for them to be in the browser, like Facebook games. Casual gamers tend to only play for a few minutes at a time, and because of this time constraint, developers have dulled down the difficulty, or in some cases, taken it out entirely. This means that casual gamers lack the patience and tenacity hardcore gamers have developed over the years.

Games containing microtransactions are also usually free to download and start playing, and make the purchase system as easy if not more so than the game itself, which fits in perfectly with the parameters of their demographic. And studios are preying on that. Hard. Years ago, microtransactions were usually just for vanity items (different colored armor, etc), but with casual games, you can buy lives, levels... in some you can even buy "beating the game". Yes, that's just what it sounds like. And the cost is usually triple digits, in actual, real world money. And people pay!

"Surely you're just raging and this doesn't actually affect gameplay," you think. "Is just an added feature, if anything at all." Ha! Oh how I wish.... The advent of microtransactions has completely altered everything about the game industry. Yes, money exchanged hands from the beginning, and yes, studios and publishers were businesses. What I'm talking about here, though, is nothing short of Pandora's box. See, people saw the first harmless little microtransactions bring in money and thought it was a decent idea. It was earning a little extra money, money that could go straight into development and help create better games. But, as is human nature, greed kicked in. Soon, developers began to lose their sense of shame and added more and more of these microtransactions to their games. Then, it stopped being just an extra feature. Games began to launch that were nothing more than money-makers; games whose core was microtransactions, and the gameplay was merely a skin. Studios began to employ psychologists to wring out every little penny, and even made some targeted specifically for children to use their parents' credit cards. This in itself had kind of broken the unwritten rules of game development (you know, where players and the experience come first), but oh, it gets worse. Now it's common to find studios who are just re-skinning games and pricing them as if they're new, and indies have mostly abandoned the creation of new in favor of using free assets found online to create the same abominations you see out of King or Zynga... It is everywhere.

You could almost think of it as a real-life Dark Souls, really: the world is in this money-grubbing chaos, and the industry is about to collapse. In order to save the world as we know it, we must defeat microtransactions in both the lands of hardcore and casual gaming. Once we've cleansed these areas, we must fight our Gwyn: greed.

We are in for one hell of a fight.

[This article originally appeared on Gabby Taylor's blog, Journey to Game Design.]

Gabby Taylor is an aspiring game designer and head of GreyBox Studio. When not making design documents, she contemplates going outside, and sometimes even takes a few steps when feeling particularly frisky.

Friday, February 7, 2014

When Game-Based Learning Doesn't Work

In this article, writer and game designer Sande Chen discusses specific instances where game-based learning may not be effective and how serious game developers can make improvements.

As the co-author of the book, Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform, and a serious games consultant, I will happily point to the advantages of using serious games in the classroom and workplace.  Games are great at conveying systems and allowing exploration in a safe, virtual environment.  As has been shown in studies in the classroom, the use of deep (vs. drill and practice) games can make a remarkable difference in the learning outcomes of otherwise reluctant students.

However, there is one subset of students that may still need convincing:  Adults.

At the 2013 Games4Change Conference, Dr. Alicia Sanchez presented results of a study based on the use of games at the Defense Acquisition University.  Despite efforts, there were some adult students that felt the games were frivolous and especially disliked being seen playing a video game with a cartoony character.  Learning outcomes were better for these students when they avoided these lighthearted games entirely.

These results reoccurred when a serious game developer wanted to introduce a game to help would-be employees of the airline industry memorize airport codes.  Adults preferred to rely on their own tried and tested methods of memorization rather than muddle about with the new game.  The majority of the target audience did not even try the game.

What can we take away from these examples?  How can we reconcile these results with other studies that state that learning outcomes do significantly improve with the use of serious games? 

In both of the "fail" results, the adults didn't want to be seen playing an edutainment-like product, replete with childish helper characters and bright text.  These were also both situations where the adults' future jobs were on the line.  If one doesn't follow the right procedure in defense acquisition or doesn't know the right airport code, that person will not get the job.  Even if the game wasn't like edutainment, why risk job security?

When simulations are used in the workplace, adults clearly see the benefit.  Here's how you should land an airplane, conduct offshore drilling, fight a wildfire, run a roller coaster safely, etc.  These are deeper experiences in which adults can see a clear connection between serious game and job security.  As a target audience, adults may need a more "serious" visual presentation to take games as learning tools seriously.  To put it bluntly, adults need more convincing, especially in the workplace.

Furthermore, serious game developers should be striving for these deeper experiences in their games.  These are the types of games that slough off the shackles of edutainment and show why games are useful in the classroom and beyond the classroom:  in the workplace.

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, February 1, 2014

February 2014: Co-Designing with Players

This month's topic was suggested by John Krajewski.

With the emergence of crowdfunding as a viable publishing avenue, players are not only consumers but also lately, becoming stakeholders as well as participants in game development.  Companies are embracing these direct-to-consumer business models and in tandem, the more active role of players.

Another funding model, early access or alphafunding, allows players to play through games-in-progress (for a price) and offer up suggestions for improvement.  Minecraft is an example of a game funded through early access.

Of course, we have already seen how player involvement can make a difference in game design via metrics in social games, but this is more personal and more community-based.  Fans are now part of the process.

How has co-designing with players changed your design perspective?  Do you think that this will become the standard in the future?

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! 

John Krajewski is studio head of Strange Loop Games, creator of the liquid physics puzzle game Vessel. He is currently leading development of a suite of commercial and educational games: a social/mobile game called Picture This, a cell biology exploration game called Sim Cell and H3i5T, a social algebra game. Prior to founding Strange Loop, he was Lead AI Programmer at Electronic Arts Australia, designing and developing AI systems for open world games. His portfolio of games includes Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, The Suffering, and Destroy All Humans.