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!