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.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Good Free-to-Play Games (Part II)

In Part I of this article, indie game developer Howard Go expresses his philosophy on making good free-to-play games. In Part II, he discusses addiction and how games can be designed without exploiting consumers.

Here’s a side note on Candy Crush Saga. I hate King for what they did with the trademark thing. And I hate that Candy Crush Saga remains in the top ten grossing after well over a year. But I do respect how they did their game. They have the best "energy system" in place. If you successfully finish a level, you don’t lose the energy/life you spent to play it. You can play again. Candy Crush Saga is a very polished game on almost every level and is one of the most fair games as far as freemium games go (even if I hate how the game has hooked my mother into asking me to send her tickets and hearts even after I told her I deleted it after the trademark crap they did). There are ways to not spend money (or even to not ask friends to enter a new world…A little trivia here: did you know you can move to every new "world" if you get 3 stars in every level in the previous world?). Only those who truly enjoy the game continue playing it with money being spent. And that’s their call. That they spend so much is their choice. And, please, don’t call them whales. Call them what a hotel or restaurant or another business would call a big spender: a VIP. If someone loves wine so much that they think spending a thousand dollars or more on a bottle brings them pleasure, then we may shake our heads in disbelief because of our own worldview, but let’s admit that they have a choice there. A good winemaker may or may not have taken them for a ride, but I think each of us may have a thing that we spend more than normal for because it is, well, our thing.

Which brings me to a need to discuss addiction: I’ve been addicted to many games. I believe I have an addictive personality. I smoked heavily for many years in my life before I could break the habit, I drank a lot of alcohol before (now I drink a lot on special occasions), and I’ve spent shameful hours and money on games. I play a lot of games to research on what works and what doesn’t so you can imagine how tempting it is for me to just spend days playing games. But you know what game ruined my life the most? Not a freemium or paymium game. It was Final Fantasy VII. No game made me play so much that my professional and social life suffered. And it was because it was an incredibly well made game. And the chocobo breeding was ingeniously addictive. If you got into the breeding like I did, you know that after completing the game, the breeding became the game. In an almost shameful way, I have to admit that’s what happened to me. And I still love Final Fantasy VII. How I kept spending more and more hours playing it instead of the hours I originally set aside for it (which, I believe is one difference between a console game and a mobile game, one is basically scheduled/timed gameplay while the other is play when there is time) is my fault. I won’t tell its creators to stop creating awesome and addictive games. That would basically mean a request to please don’t make any game with engaging characters or story lines or gameplay.

A game should try to get people involved and, well, hooked on the gameplay, the story, and/or the characters. The question is, is it done in such a way that only spenders can reasonably and successfully move forward. And, I believe, a good number of freemium and paymium games did right for their players. While the others cause frustration instead of fun for all non-spenders or, even worse, for all small-time spenders. That’s where the bad rep essentially comes from. One game in recent memory that I soon deleted because I felt I couldn’t grind successfully was Robocop. And I do some amount of real currency spending before I grind, to make things easier. I spent 20 dollars each on Zombiewood and Dead Trigger 2 and never felt a pang of regret. These are games that essentially should follow the same grinding principles as Robocop. But Robocop just felt off for me. It was like I had to spend more and more real money and grinding would not yield results. It felt, here’s that word: greedy. This is, of course, a subjective matter. Value is in the eye of the beholder, after all.

I end this with a claim: though indie game developers can succeed with paid games and many of the people my business partner and I admire in the indie game field are people who stick to paid games, we both believe doing free-to-play right has a better chance at long term success than doing a great paid game. And, at the end of the day, we want to make games, games that people will enjoy. And this means two things: we do it right for the people who download our games and we do it right for us so it can be what we do professionally day in and day out.

Howard Go is ½ of MochiBits. His current interest in game design involves game balance, retention, and monetization. He taught philosophy for five years then sold out to work in the corporate world for seven years, finally escaping into the world of game development in December 2010.

Friday, May 2, 2014

May 2014: Game Design Practice

Hello, and welcome to May 2014's topic, Game Design Practice!

I just wanted to make sure everyone knew about the IGDA Game Design SIG's new Weekly Design Challenges on Reddit.  Every Sunday, a new design challenge goes up.  I hope you all will participate.

As with Game Design Aspect of the Month, the idea behind the weekly design challenges is to inspire you and to get you thinking about game design issues.

It's good practice to expand an idea, write it on paper, and try to make it feasible.  There have even been GDC talks from designers who mapped out a game design idea each day for a year.  It's the first step to realizing your idea rather than just talking about it.  It's often said of writers that we don't always have the luxury to wait around for inspiration to hit.  To be a writer, one has to write.  And a game designer, as we have tried to relay, is not the person who sits around telling people ideas for great games, but someone who has the skills to create and fine-tune games so that they can be great.

So for May 2014, I'd like to learn more about your practice and your inspiration for games.  How do you work out your ideas for games?  Do you go straight to prototyping?  I remember a talk from GDC where the designer talked about exhaustive historical research before even approaching what might be a cool mechanic to be in the game.

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!