Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015 Gaming Year In Review Podcast

It's that time of the year for wrap-ups, top ten lists, and remembrance. What were your top gaming stories of the year? I participated in the Geeks World Wide 2015 Gaming Year in Review Podcast where we discussed upcoming trends in VR, open worlds vs. linear narrative experiences, and of course, awesome games.

Show Notes (if you want to check out some of the news stories yourself)

Confirmed: Kojima leaves Konami to work on PS4 console exclusive [Updated]. (http://bit.ly/1Oi4HuF)
Survey: “Gamers” are poorer, more male, less white than “game players”. (http://bit.ly/1Oi4F5Z)
Nintendo touchscreen controller patent offers clues about upcoming NX. (http://bit.ly/1Oi4HuP)
BioShock creator: ‘gamers want an experience that lasts more than 10-12 hours’. (http://bit.ly/1Oi4Iip)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Polar Ice is Melting!

In this article, game designer Sande Chen describes her playtest experiences with the card game, EcoChains: Arctic Crisis. 

Happy Holidays! I hope everyone is doing well.  Here, in the East Coast of the United States, it's unseasonably warm for December.  While we may be enjoying the spring-like weather, up in the Arctic, the polar ice is at its lowest point ever. This is why 2/3 of the polar bear population is expected to die off by 2050.  :(  The climate change card game, EcoChains: Arctic Crisis, which was funded through Kickstarter and a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, hopes to bring attention to this global issue.

EcoChains: Arctic Crisis
I was recently sent EcoChains for review on this blog and I thought what better place to bring it than to NYC Playtest, the monthly meeting of board game designers.  They vigorously playtest board games to get feedback from other designers.  I played a game of EcoChains with the board game designers and then I played a round with people who play board games or tabletop RPGs with kids every day.

It's a fairly quick game, estimated 30 minutes long, for up to four players.  We played it incorrectly both times, despite multiple people reading the directions repeatedly.  We also did not use the advanced cards, which probably would have made the game more interesting.

Initially, we got some polar ice cards and starter animals.  Throughout the game, we built food webs, indicating which animals consume other animals.  For example, a seal can survive on arctic cod, but in turn, a polar bear can eat the seal.  Some animals, generally the higher order ones, require polar ice in order to remain in the food web.  When the polar ice melts due to climate change, the polar bear would have to migrate or die.  In the first game, we did not realize there could be more than one node in the food webs, meaning 2 seals can build on 1 arctic cod card, so we quickly reached a stalemate, whereupon we were continually passing around cards (to simulate the migration) around the table.  The second game, where this was rectified, did run much better.  While making food webs, players try to hit goals, such as sustaining 3 whales.

In both games, we did find it hard to keep track of our cards, as the food webs can get quite large.  You almost need some kind of placemat to organize your cards.  In the second game, we didn't realize that the "good" polar ice recovery event cards weren't played out immediately like the "bad" polar ice melting event cards.  I suppose this was to simulate the situation of positive externalities in that if one party makes the effort to help recover polar ice, this helps all parties.  However, the benefactor would have to choose between taking the "good" event card or selfishly continuing on the path of accumulating points.  The player who has accomplished the most goals and has the most animals generally wins.

On the education front, the game does make it clear through the gameplay that polar ice is necessary for animal survival.  Players do learn about food webs and different arctic animals.  However, my playtesters did not feel that this was a card game that kids would pick up and enjoy on their own for fun.  Rather, the game seems like it would fit in better as a classroom activity where teachers can provide context.

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, December 11, 2015

Educational Games: The Big Picture Part II

In the weeks after the publication of "Is the School Market Still Just a Mirage?" on the Games and Learning website, I have seen that it has led to discussions about the state of the industry and perhaps some soul-searching as to how to improve the situation.  Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen wrote on the LinkedIn discussion that while the article was U.S.-centric, the lessons hold true for Europe as well.  This issue of commercialization ranks high on the list of concerns for educational game developers globally.  Other developers, however, are not yet at that stage of worrying about profits, but more generally are concerned about:  How do I fund the development of my game?

This important question is the focus of the second article, "The Real State of Learning Game Funding."  Much like in the book, Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform, I relate advice from developers who have walked the walk and come out with thousands of dollars to fund their projects.  What are other developers doing that you can learn from?  Read and find out.

In particular, check out the audio interview, which covers material not included in the article.


I would consider this article to be the most business-oriented of the four, but maybe that's why it's the most important.  While this stuff is not as fun as working on the game design, the nitty gritty details of how to find funding and how to make money are vital to a new business.  This often can be lacking in creative endeavors.  If you're starting up an educational game company, I think you'll find this article very informative.

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, December 4, 2015

More Than a Hero's Journey

At the last WGA East Videogame Writers Caucus meeting, Steele Filipek, lead transmedia producer at Starlight Runner Entertainment, came by to explain all things transmedia: what it is, its uses, key elements etc. One thing he noted is that in a transmedia storyworld, the hero's journey is just one story out of many stories and the hero is just one character out of many characters. Broadening the narrative fiction from a video game universe enables creators to see that there are many stories waiting to be told and not all of them have a structure well-suited to the medium of video games.  Despite advice from some corners to include the hero's journey in video games, the hero's journey may not be the best choice, particularly for multiplayer games, but it can be useful in a novelization.

The following infographic, produced by Getty Images, while mostly directed to marketers, explains why transmedia stories are pertinent and more enjoyable to users today.


Friday, November 27, 2015

For the Love of a Dog

In this article, game designer Sande Chen explores the emotional relationship between players and the stray dogs in The Witcher.

Last year, I heard the incredible story of Arthur, a stray dog who followed an adventure racing team on a grueling 430 mile trek through the Amazon jungle just because one of the team members, Mikael Lindnord, gave him a meatball.  Organizers warned that the team that the endurance race, which included slogging through knee-high mud, was too dangerous for the dog.  Despite best efforts to send him away, Arthur steadfastly followed and the team resorted to pulling the dog out of the mud to help him along.  At the last leg of the journey, the team left Arthur on shore while they set off kayaking, but he jumped into the water.  Heartbroken, Lindnord pulled the dog onto the kayak.  They crossed the finishing line with Arthur. 

The video pretty much sums it up:

This emotional story resonated with people around the world.  Even though the dog may have caused the team delays and additional headaches, Arthur was welcomed as a fifth member of the team.  It reminded me of a situation in The Witcher when a dog can start following the player-character, Geralt.  There is no benefit to keeping the dog safe and yet, players went out of their way to save the dog.  Some even decided to mod the game so that the "nosy dog" won't get killed off in the swamp.

This narrative designed situation created emotional ties and memories.  One player wrote:
"One of the saddest incidents I have ever had in the game was when the "Nosy Dog" got in the way while Geralt was whacking drowners. It went hostile, but didn't attack; Geralt had to kill it, and it wouldn't even defend itself. Only time I ever reloaded this game over a "friendly fire" incident."
Another dog-related quest that caused heartache was in collecting dog tallow.  The stray dogs whine piteously and die horribly.  Some players went out of their way to kill wolves instead of stray dogs, raid pantries for dog tallow, or locate dead dogs to avoid killing stray dogs.  While players may not have a problem with slaying evil human beings, some players viewed the dogs as defenseless innocents who did not deserve to be killed for dog tallow.

It's known that when we put our players in the position of caretakers, be it with a dog or a helpless child, this is a way to tug at the heartstrings.  What's interesting about The Witcher as opposed to other games is that there's no statement either way about allowing the dog to die or not.  If the player feels guilt, sympathy, or love for the dog, the player can act upon that and the player's actions are purely up to the player.  Likewise, with the dogcatcher quest, it's up to the player to decide between killing or not killing stray dogs.  It's great that there were alternate ways provided to complete the quest.

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, November 19, 2015

Educational Games: The Big Picture Part I

As I mentioned before, I've been reviewing research papers, interviewing educational game developers, and conducting a survey about educational game developers.  My goal was to see if the state of educational game development had changed in the last decade.  How were educational game developers faring?  Were the problems reported in our book, Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform, still plaguing developers or had they been eradicated?

I could not be more pleased to announce that the first of five articles, "Is the School Market Still Just a Mirage?" has been published on Games and Learning.  When I first started on this endeavor, I was trying to think of which journalism outlets would be the best venue for this type of research.  I knew that I didn't want to have this work hidden in an academic journal.  I want you to read the articles, discuss them, tweet about them, and hopefully, together, we can make an impact.  If anything, I want people to know that there has been research on the effectiveness of games in education.  I heard repeatedly from people that there isn't proof of games aiding in learning outcomes, which simply told me that we need to see that research gets publicized.

In particular, check out the audio interview, which covers material not included in the article.

I was fortunate to have frank conversations with educational game developers, many of whom have been in the industry for over a decade.  I also talked to new entrants, who are just starting up their businesses.  I talked to digital and analog designers.  I read tons of research papers.  I fact-checked and looked up school budgets.  Then, I hoped I could coalesce all this information into something coherent.   There were times, just like when the book was written, I wished there was some reference material I could read but there just wasn't, because so much of the content was based on original sources.

I have written about business models before in Secrets of the Game BusinessIn the game industry, I get to use both my degrees from MIT: Comparative Media Studies/Writing and Economics.  I'm really happy that I got the chance to take this deep dive into the world of educational game development. 

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, November 12, 2015

How Technology Is Changing Storytelling

Last weekend at the launch of Immersive Edge, a hypergrid story, I had a presentation in-world about how technology is changing storytelling.  I can tell you that doing a presentation in-world can be as complicated as a movie shoot!  There needs to be someone in charge of sound and someone in charge of camera.  There are worries about lag.  The event was livestreamed as well, since a limited amount of avatars can be in the amphitheater at the same time.  And of course, there's no Microsoft Powerpoint in-world.

Afterwards, I had a tour of Immersive Edge, which is a puzzle game-story that spans over several chapters, i.e. worlds.  If you've ever wanted to know how it feels to traverse the metaverse, hopping from one world to the next, this is what it's like.  Because Immersive Edge is a product of many minds, each world has a distinctive flavor.   At the same time, you follow the protagonists through their manifestations in each chapter, learning more and more about their story.   You aid them on their journey.  If you're interested in going through this immersive experience, let me know.  It's definitely worth checking out.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Let's Learn About Learning

In this article, game designer Sande Chen argues that creating a taxonomy of educational games would aid greatly in assigning value and determining usage for these products.

Last week, I was reading about a new system with technology to be implemented in the elementary school when an odd phrase caught my attention.  The article said that the kids would "use iPads to watch a video of the teacher explaining and demonstrating something."  It struck me that this was of more benefit to teachers and higher-ups than for learners.  In a learner-centric approach, if I were a learner who needed assistance, I think I would want to have interaction so I could ask the teacher questions rather than just watch a video of a teacher.  This also reminded me of the early days when computers were first introduced, they were mostly used for typing.  Or of digitized textbooks, which simply moved the textbook from paper to screen.  I truly hope the students get to do more than just watch videos on iPads.

I looked at the article closer.  Maybe the journalist had misinterpreted something.  Perhaps this was more about "flipped classrooms," whereby students view lectures at home and all the discussion and problem sets are done in class.  As I read, I realized the problem.  The headline was "Using Technology for Active Learning" and I associate active learning with learning by doing, but this system was not about active learning.  Rather, the system was named "learner-active" which seemed to be another way of suggesting DIY learning, or learning at one's own pace. This understood, the cynic in me still thought about how a teacher might refer a struggling student to a video rather than spend time going over difficult material.  Furthermore, if I wanted my primary school student to be engaged in the tools of distance learning, I could do that at home.

Learner-active vs active learning.  Too confusing.  I can see why the journalist got mixed-up with these similar-sounding terms.   This highlights an issue I've found when reviewing literature about technology and education.  We can't even agree on the proper terminology to talk about games in education.  No one likes the term edutainment and yet, journalists still continue to use the word, even referring to Portal 2 as edutainment when Valve opened its Teach With Portals site.  There's edtech, learning games, game-based learning, games for good, games for change, persuasive games, serious games, edugames, gamification, and simulations.  There are subtle distinctions but it still adds to the confusing pot of what is educational games. 

In the Cooney Center report, "Games for a Digital Age: K-12 market map and investment analysis," there is a distinction between short-form and long-form learning games.  It's arbitrary, but it indicates to teachers that short-form games are short enough to be used in classrooms whereas long-form games require a lot more sessions.  The authors break educational games down further into the following categories:
  1. Drill and Practice
  2. Puzzle
  3. Interactive Learning Tools
  4. Role Playing
  5. Strategy
  6. Sandbox
  7. Action/Adventure
  8. Simulations
Photo taken by Davi Silva.
While these categories may seem like they're from the game industry, with the exception of Drill and Practice and Interactive Learning Tools, there isn't a clear alignment.  In educational circles especially, there seems to be a great deal of confusion between the act of role-playing and the genre of role-playing games. Almost every game has an element of role-playing whereby players assume a character's role, but the category of role-playing games refers specifically to games derived from tabletop role-playing games, such as Dungeons & Dragons.

Drill and Practice "games" refer to programs such as Study Island that would be considered interactive worksheets.  Interactive Learning Tools are interactive elements, not necessarily games, that can be easily inserted into a lesson.  A timeline is an example of an "interactive."

I think this is a good start towards a taxonomy of educational games and software.  It's very hard for parents and administrators to gauge the value of the game.  There's so many games and apps out there for young learners and they're all labeled educational.  Parents need more information.  A taxonomy would help in indicating how an educational product is supposed to help in learning.

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, October 16, 2015

Player vs. Designer: Tracking User Experience

In this article, game designer Sande Chen gives advice on how to interpret player feedback and how it impacts user experience.

Have you heard the advice, "Take the note under the note"?  As a young screenwriter, I found this advice baffling, especially when in my first Hollywood meeting, the director said one thing and then the producer completely contradicted the director, asking for a rewrite that I thought was impossible if I followed the director's wishes.  Yet, they were smiling in agreement, seemingly both on the same page.  What the heck was going on?  Life would be much simpler if there were a feedback interpreter at every meeting.      

The problem with feedback is that not everyone can clearly enunciate what is wrong.  Moreover, people may be just bad at giving feedback.  They can only tell you what they felt when they went through the material while you fight back the urge to point out that if only they had read this section, they would understand everything.  The thing is, if they missed that section, that's feedback in itself.  What's important is not the actual words in the feedback, but what you can interpret about the user experience.

Last week at the 2015 New York Comic Con Livestream panel, Writing for Video Games, which was broadcast on Twitch, I eluded to this topic when asked about how to deal with player feedback.  I described a situation whereby designers reacted to player feedback in a MMO and then ended up making the situation worse. 
Matthew Weise, Caitlin Burns, Sande Chen, Steele Filipek at NYCC
In this example, the player response to this MMO world was loud and critical.  The whole thing was too boring.  Too many talk-to quests and not much killing.  I could see that the writer(s) were trying to develop a story, but not many players found the story interesting, especially when they wanted to kill something.  You could blame the players, but the fact is, in a kill-centric MMO, players want to kill.  It's not a MMO about diplomacy.

The designers took that note and in the next release, changed tactics.  Now, there were very few talk-to quests and lots of Kill-10, Kill-Collect, and boss fights.  It was Kill, Kill, Kill.  But the players were more upset than ever because bottlenecks were appearing everywhere.  Players complained that they had to kill hundreds of these mobs and how it was so boring to kill the same thing over and over.  What happened?

Now, you might interpret this feedback as players complaining about everything.  They complained about story quests and then they complained about kill quests.  It might seem that way, but let's examine that first note more closely.  Instead of taking the feedback at face value and replacing all the story quests with kill quests, the designers might have realized that this was an issue of pacing.  Story quests aren't evil.  Neither are kill quests.  They're just part of the user experience.

In this day and age, we're lucky that we can get player feedback so quickly.  This relationship doesn't have to be adversarial.  There's no right or wrong in how somebody feels.  However, we do have to develop a filter to interpret the feedback.  Zeroing in on the user experience is one way of putting player feedback in focus.

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, October 7, 2015

Upcoming Events: NY Comic Con and Immersive Edge

I'm finally making some virtual appearances, though you can catch me in person at New York Comic Con tomorrow, October 8! I will be there with colleagues Caitlin Burns, Steele Filipek, and Matthew Weise on a panel about Writing for Video Games.  It'll be broadcast live on NYCC Livestream.  Just go to Twitch and check out NYCC's Live Stage.

New York Comic Con
Writing for Video Games
Thursday, October 8, 2015, 11:30 AM

Secondly, I had a great time at the first installment of Game Writing Portfolio Workout on September 28.  We didn't have time to practice quest writing and interactive dialog, but definitely can during the second class on October 20.

Tickets are available here through PlayCrafting NYC and of course, there's still the early bird price if you sign up early.  The first workshop was sold out, so make plans to come soon!  No virtual appearances for this one because PlayCrafting believes hands-on attention and interaction is what makes its classes so valuable.


Finally, on November 8, I will have the unique pleasure of attending the launch of Immersive Edge, a collaborative Hypergrid story written, built, and produced by 25 persons.  My avatar will be there in the virtual world to do a short presentation about how technology affects storytelling.  Check out the trailer below to learn more about Immersive Edge.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Game Console Photo Spread

In this video, game designer Sande Chen showcases the various game consoles that have been sold throughout the years. 

I found this video from a Pecha Kucha night at IGDA NYC years ago.  If you're into retro gaming, enjoy!


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, September 17, 2015

Objects and Storytelling

In this article, game designer Sande Chen discusses the relationship of objects to storytelling.

Over the past few weeks, I've been participating in Sherlock Holmes & the Internet of Things. It's a worldwide experiment, a massive collaboration between creatives in different industries, to create an interactive storytelling experience for visitors to Lincoln Center. I think it merges technology, participatory theater, game design, and narrative.  It's been chaotic and strenuous, yet exciting.  At the end of it, I'm sure what comes out will be the work of many different minds and not a single author.

As a group, we've learned about enchanted objects, like umbrellas that notify owners of predicted rain forecasts.  As an owner of one such enchanted object, a Nabaztag that I dubbed magicbunny, I have marveled at its ability to connect me to other users as well as provide me with traffic, weather reports, indie music, and endless quips.  I have seen how others have programmed their Nabaztags for light shows, mechanical dance, and music.  Every time my Nabaztag spoke to me, I thought of how wonderful it would have been to be a writer for this device.  Such possibilities.

But it is not just connected objects that can speak to us.  All objects can have a story.  You may have heard of this as referred to as environmental storytelling and in games, it's not just about words scrawled in blood on a wall.  You see this in the rich detail a novelist uses to describe what a protagonist sees, hears, senses, touches, and smells.  When you realize that objects have stories, you begin to look closely and make deductions like Sherlock Holmes!  Perhaps that worn-out handle or chip means that this coffee cup holds sentimental value.  What does the rings of coffee on the counter tell you about the person's state of mind this morning?  As a writer, you can reverse-engineer these outward signs that evolve out of a character's inner turmoil.  I find it utterly fascinating that nature trackers could tell if an animal had eaten, urinated or had been frightened, all by looking at the animal's track.  Every object we touch leaves a trace of us.

Slow down.  Observe.  Look at an object and see if it tells you a story.

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, September 7, 2015

Upcoming Panels on Diversity, Storytelling, and Game Writing!

Hi, in addition to the Game Writing Portfolio Workout on September 28 (Update!  New overflow class date October 20 added), I'll be speaking on a couple panels this month as well as at New York ComicCon (Yay!) in early October.

I'm excited to represent Women in Games International (WIGI) on a panel about diversity initiatives in law and technology.  I've spoken about the need for diversity in the game industry at GDC, Austin Game Conference, and most recently, at the 2015 Different Games Conference.  I was recently profiled in "6 Inspiring Women Who Have Succeeded in Male-Dominated Industries" and I'm really interested in hearing what other industries have done to help women succeed.

The panel is open to the public.  To attend, RSVP to innovation@nyls.edu by Sept 14.

Tech Talk: Diversity in Law & Technology
Wednesday, September 16, 2015
5:30 - 7:00 PM  (Networking at 5:30, Panel at 6:00)
New York Law School, Room W300

The following week, coinciding with IFP Independent Film Week, I will be on a NY Film Loft panel about women influencers from film, TV, digital media and gaming. A limited amount of tickets for this event will be available. Otherwise, it's invite-only and event attendees will be from top media companies, press and content creators.

Register here to learn about storytelling in various entertainment forms. General admission includes event, beverages/snacks and digital download.

Storytime: Women in Media & Entertainment
Tuesday, September 22, 2015 
6:30 - 9:00 PM (Networking included)
115 E 23rd St, 3rd Floor, NY, NY 

Update: Due to unforeseen logistical issues, this event has been postponed until October.

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, August 31, 2015

Manga and Games

In this article, game designer Sande Chen points out parallels between amateur manga and indie game development.

One year, when I was at the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, TX, I decided to go to a session on manga called, “How Manga Explains the World.” The presenter was Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future.
I didn’t know anything about manga so all of this was quite new to me. I was struck by some parallels to indie game development.

Manga is really popular in Japan. Tons of fans crowd into marketplaces to get the latest comics. However, what they buy is not the official manga put out by the publishers, but the amateur manga, put out by indie creators known as ‘dojinshi.’ The dojinshi use established characters but create different, and sometimes questionable stories, with these characters.

Pink commented that in the U.S., IP lawyers would have a fit if someone did this with a Disney film. But publishers and dojinshi have an tacit agreement known as ‘anmoku no ryokai.’ The official manga industry has been in decline so the publishers look the other way because they figure the amateur manga will keep fans interested in the official manga. In exchange, the dojinshi don’t flood the market and create limited copies of their work.

In fact, this interest in amateur manga helps the publishers. They use the markets as a way to sign up new talent (and offer them a chance to create a new, original manga). They also learn about market trends by observing what fans are buying. Some of these dojinshi become as well-known as the original creators. They could even branch out and do their original stories without publisher backing.

It seems to me that the mod community is a similar model. Successful mod teams do become successful companies with publisher backing. Is the “official” game industry watching the indies? Just by looking at casual games, it appears they do. Do they look to indies as the barometer of what’s to come? What do you think?

[This article was adapted from an original post on the blog Joe Indie.] 

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, August 24, 2015

Upcoming Workshop: Game Writing Portfolio Workout

Last month, I had so much fun leading the Writing for Sci-Fi, Fantasy, & Horror Game Worlds workshop, courtesy of Playcrafting NYC.  I was so impressed by the creativity of the workshop participants.  One request was for a workshop on the ins and outs of getting started in game writing, so I'm happy to announce that I will be holding a Game Writing Portfolio Workout on Monday September 28, suitable for beginners and veterans!  Come share insights about the craft.  I like to foster the workshop environment whereby participants feel comfortable sharing and learning from each other.

Specifically, this is a hands-on writing workshop for people who want to build or add to a game writing portfolio.  Be prepared to write during the class.  I will be going through common assignments given to freelance writers as well as mentioning what in-house duties a person can expect.  Feel free to take what's written in class and use it to spark other ideas or expand it to completion.

There is an early bird special if you sign up early, but tickets may be limited.   If you're in the New York City area, come check it out.  I don't know when I'll be offering this workshop again.

Update:  Just added!  An overflow class on October 20:  Get tickets here!

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, August 15, 2015

I'm Offended. Is It You, Me, or the Character?

In this article, game designer Sande Chen distinguishes between offensive characters and offensive material, and explains why it's important to keep track of authorial tone.

"I'm offended because it's so misogynistic," said one of my classmates in a playwriting workshop years ago.  I was stunned, not only because she had dared to make an objection against the work of the Theatre Department's current media darling, but that she had given voice to the uneasy feelings I had about the play presented before me.  The young white male protagonist in the play made bawdy jokes about women, the kind that would usually be followed up in real life with, "Awwwww, c'mon, can't you take a joke?" This led the professor to question, "Do you think it's the character that's misogynistic or the play that's misogynistic?"  At some point, I came to the private conclusion that the play itself was misogynistic because of authorial tone, which would suggest somewhat that the author himself was misogynistic.
Image courtesy of fotographic1980 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

If a character in a fictional work is misogynistic, then it's seen as a character trait that isn't reflective of the author.  The character trait could be balanced or justified.  It depends on the situations presented in the fictional work.  There might even be other characters that offer a liberal viewpoint, as in the 1970's popular sitcom, All in the Family.   The viewpoints of the "lovable bigot," Archie Bunker, are constantly challenged and therefore, the show and its authorial tone becomes more about promoting tolerance in society.

Even when a fictional work can be considered to be misogynistic or racist and so forth because of the authorial tone presented, or in the case of games, because of art or game mechanics that can be interpreted in societal light, it's hard to say that there is one person at fault when it's a group activity.  An unproduced script has only the author, but a play on the stage is subject to the interpretations of the director and the cast.  The blame often goes to the person who is seen to have the most creative control.  Filmmaker D.W. Griffith is considered a racist for A Birth of a Nation, but it turns out that he might not have cared about racial politics.

In game development, there are so many moving parts.  Who exactly is in control of authorial tone?  Is it the narrative designer, the creative director, or the artist who decided to add something extra?  Whether it's due to lack of research, lack of sensitivity, or a lack of understanding how the content will be perceived, there will be players who find offense.  The offense doesn't even have to be about gender politics.  Maybe the player doesn't like how a mythological creature looks because the creature has symbolic meaning in the player's country.   It's known that Chinese and Korean players are offended by the Imperial Japanese rising sun flag.  Are these players just too sensitive?

From a customer support viewpoint, it really doesn't matter.  This doesn't mean that a game needs to changed right away or at all, just that an understanding reply can mean the difference between a player who feels his or her concerns are heard and a player who is mad enough to lead a campaign and rile people up.  If players are so offended that they won't buy the game or buy an in-game item, then I'm sure the marketing department cares about that.

The best approach, of course, is to carefully consider these issues before the launch of the game.  How will the situations in the game be perceived by different populations?  Does the game have a particular message that could be considered offensive?  How are minorities and underrepresented subgroups treated in the game?  Are there stereotypical characters?  Ask others for their opinions.  Learn and listen.  Games are cultural artifacts and as such, they do reflect the values of their makers.  Thus, game makers should be concerned about the game's meaningfulness.  If players are offended and no offense is intended, then that's a sign that something has gone awry.

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, August 6, 2015

The Current State of Educational Game Development

In this article, game designer Sande Chen reaches out to educational game developers to help her understand the issues hindering further adoption of game-based learning. Please take my survey!
10 years ago, David Michael and I wrote a book called Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform.   We were very excited to learn about these interesting projects that ranged from subversive art games to Unreal mods that conquer phobias.  Our article, "Proof of Learning: Assessment in Serious Games," has been cited in numerous papers and books.  We have even had the introductory chapter of the book translated in Chinese and published in one of China's local game development magazines.

This summer, I have been undertaking a research project to understand the current state of educational game development.  I want to discover if the issues we reported in our book are still plaguing developers and if any new challenges have arisen.  I do know that the Department of Education has recently released its Ed Tech Developer's Guide and that half of its SBIR portfolio now consists of educational games.  Educational technology investments have been skyrocketing and according to Ambient Insights, revenues generated by consumers of game-based learning products were around 328 million in 2014.

But, as edSurge notes in this recent article, "Education Technology Deals Reach $1.6 Billion in First Half of 2015," numbers can be misleading. That's because educational technology could also mean backend administrative software or a photo sharing app.  They're not necessarily games.  Moreover, money spent by schools that you'd think is being spent on innovative educational games may actually be going to interactive blackboards.  Even the numbers for game-based learning may be more reflective of language learning programs and brain trainers like Luminosity than educational games for the classroom.

To be sure, all of this is complicated, but you can help me understand what's going on by circulating my survey to educational game developers.  My hope is that the research will bring about policy recommendations, specifically to non-profit organizations, schools and government agencies.  I am also conducting one-on-one interviews, so if you're an educational game developer who'd like to be interviewed, please let me know.

Here's the survey link:
August 14 Update: I've closed the survey for now but am still seeking interviews with educational game developers.
August 16 Update: I will be moving the survey to another provider.   
September 3 Update:  Here's the survey on SurveyMonkey.  Please take it if you weren't able to complete it on Qualtrics.

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, July 30, 2015

Lost in Game Space

In this article, game designer Sande Chen describes certain game deficiencies that lead to player frustration and how better storytelling may provide the solution for one of the problems.

In the past few years, I have served as a judge for multiple game festivals and competitions. There are several reasons why some games don't make the cut.  Beyond the technical complications of not being able to get a game running, I find a similar failing may be in not having a strong enough tutorial, i.e. a player shouldn't be confused about how to play a game.  Struggling with controls or an interface is just frustrating and not the experience you want for a first-time player.  I recall there's an infamous transcript of a WWII Online player griping that it was easier flying a plane in World War II than trying to do the same in a game!

In other games, I find a beautiful world that I would like to explore, but I am directionless as to what would be my goal.  Free-form exploration and self-direction are fine as long as there's enough interesting content to support it indefinitely.  In most cases, due to production costs, this is simply not true.  Therefore, there needs to be a way to guide the player to the more interesting content rather than leaving the player to trod through the same loop of scenery.
A prehistoric storyteller describes a hunt.

Luckily, stories provide context and player motivation.  If I know I have to find a way off the island, then I'm not going to spend my time admiring sparkly fish.  Moreover, human beings crave stories.  Even in prehistoric times, cave dwellers conveyed tales of great hunts.  Stories tell us about ourselves and the human condition.

In this age of game making, it might seem like emergence or AI is the solution, but it's not enough.  Emergent stories could be interesting, but they could also be not interesting.  As Alex Toplansky said at the panel, Writing for Horror Video Games, even in systemic games, "a writer needs to come in and stack the dice."  Dramatic storytelling, whether linear or non-linear, is a crafted experience.   

As for AI, while there have been advances in computer algorithms generating stories, poetry, and news articles, sometimes a human touch is warranted.  To escape the redundancy of randomly generated "Rescue X at location Y" quests, players of the now-defunct The Matrix Online banded together to create an epic storyline that gave their characters more motivation.  While the quests did give the players specific goals to complete, the randomness did not generate an interesting story for players.

What's the lesson here?  As I have written in my article, Towards More Meaningful Games, don't leave your narrative design choices to chance.  Yes, a game still needs to feel open enough to allow for meaningful player choices but that doesn't mean that players should be left confused as to what they ought be doing.

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, July 17, 2015

An Exploration of Horror at the Writers Guild

In this article, narrative designer Robert Rappoport reports on the discussion at the Writing for Horror Video Games panel, ranging from player agency, push design, to the role of writers in game development. 

Things got scary at the Writers Guild of America East on June 17, 2015 during the panel, “Writing for Horror Video Games.” Organized by the WGAE Video Game Writers Caucus, the panel discussed writing and creating horror in video games, the difficulties involved, and the successes that members of the panel had found in utilizing the expert tool of fear. The panelists were Alex Toplansky, Senior Writer at Deep Silver Volition, Justin Pappas, former level designer at Irrational Games and founder and creative director at Ape Law Games, and a special Skype appearance was made by Chuck Beaver, best known for his work on the Dead Space trilogy.

The conversation began with a simple question by Matt Weise, the panel’s moderator: “Why make horror games?” Toplansky responded by commenting on player agency within horror, that the tone of a horror story often places the player him or herself in the driver’s seat of the terror. Fear is something that happens to you, and unlike a love story, horror is direct in its delivery.

The panelists ventured onto familiar ground during the discussion as each designer amicably used examples from their own work to show how horror was a useful tool in the writer and designer’s toolbox. Notably, Pappas discussed in detail his involvement as a level designer on the most recent and well-acclaimed Tomb Raider game. He discussed the transitional moments of the game where Lara Croft is forced through passageways that, Pappas explained, were used to intentionally demonstrate Lara’s fears and phobias. “How are we going to make the player claustrophobic in this area?”

Ideas like this are rarely planned, and the panelists were amused to think about the lightning in a bottle moments that have to happen for great gameplay to occur. “One of the funny things about video games is that it’s such a broad medium. The organization of teams is so strange,” Toplansky said. “The most successful cases are when everyone’s doing air traffic control, so they’re all there to peer review one another…We churn through everyone’s stuff and then it’s ‘who’s going to blink first?’ If you’re willing to own and champion your idea, then it makes it into the game.”

The importance of each role in a design team was discussed, with all panelists agreeing that there is no set way to create horror. “It’s all a case by case basis.” Pappas offered.

Level designers are important because everything passes through them, but writers are the people who have to make sense of everything. It is a sad truth of game design that the writer is often brought in right at the end of the development cycle, and the panelists concurred that this was no way to tell a story. They all agreed how wonderful it was that writers were more frequently being brought closer to the very beginning.

Beaver reminisced on his recent experience at Electronic Arts, where one of the first true writer positions was being forged for that company. The gaming industry is becoming a world where writers are not only appreciated, but are being sought after in places that they would not normally think to be involved. “I’m super excited about the professional career of writers. Who knows, soon we might have narrative for sports games!”

After discussing the role of the writer at length, Weise steered his excited peers back to horror by mentioning Konami’s Silent Hill 2, a landmark of the genre in the context of inhabiting an empty shell versus the experience of being in the head of a fully fledged character. Each of the panelists agreed that it was important to establish pillars in the world that the character and the player had to obey. Toplansky cited the familiar “In a world…” phrase to help bring the point home. “Silent Hill is, ‘In a world… where you’re going insane.’ In that world the story isn’t going to finish with ‘You weren’t insane at all!’ It wouldn’t make sense.”

Beaver commented that the changing nature of the medium and the enthusiastic approach studios are taking to virtual reality technology would also greatly change the face of not only horror, but also games as a medium. “In film, it’s always been a passive audience, but now the audience has the camera and is experiencing the story. There’s a huge amount of exploration left to do about what is effective.”

Player agency led to the discussion of how to make the player take actions that are frightening and unnerving. Or, as moderator Weise put it: “How do you make the player go into the basement?” Push design, a concept developed and popularized by Valve, was discussed. It’s the concept of creating soft boundaries around the player to gently guide their actions: “You have a ledge somewhere in the space, you look down and you see something neat, and we as designers have to show that if you walk there’s no going back. You’ve let us push you.”

“People who bought a ticket for a horror movie, a game is the same way,” Beaver mused. “I bought a horror game, I know I’m going to be scared. I don’t want go to the scary place! No, of course you do. You bought the game.” Beaver went on to discuss how Isaac’s needs in Dead Space lead to a detailed exploration of the game and its story.

The conversation wound down to systemic design and the future of horror. “We’re going to get more systemic games,” Pappas said. “It’s about discovery and finding those perfect moments.”

Toplansky spoke about how in a systemic game, a writer cannot plan for every situation, but they can create enough interesting interactions that a sophisticated engine will give the player a unique and terrifying experience. “A writer needs to come in and stack the dice.”

The panel created an overall thrilling and enjoyable experience for its audience, which had been a large turnout. Each of the speakers brought his own unique take to horror and how it affects the writer’s position and the nature of games, along with opinions of its future as a genre. No doubt we will see even more panels like this one as more people participate in Caucus functions.

[This article originally appeared on Robert Rappoport's personal blog.

 A narrative designer with a penchant for all things scary, Robert can be found sipping tea at his favorite hideouts in New York City. When not brewing tea by candlelight, Robert likes writing and creating horror... also by candlelight. If you enjoyed the article, you can find more of his work at robertrappoport.com.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Learning to love the narrative puzzle

In this article, Professor Clara Fernández-Vara argues that narrative puzzles don't need to be convoluted, but rather, they require a more conscientious and responsible game design strategy.

One of the recurring questions in narrative design is how necessary puzzles are, since they seem to be the staple of adventure games since their inception. There are plenty of examples of how adventure games may not need puzzles. Game makers such as Telltale Games or Choice of Games have explored how to engage players through choice design, while indie darlings such as Dear Esther, Gone Home, The Stanley Parable or Kentucky Route Zero show how exploration can also become satisfying gameplay. Some advocate leaving puzzles behind and focusing on problem solving.

Thing is, solving puzzles is problem solving. Puzzles get a bad rap because of years of players facing puzzles that only make sense to their designers, and the infinite patience of players who kept trying random things until they bumped into the hyper-contrived solution. Examples of bad puzzles are legion while, when a good puzzle is good, it is often seamless because it makes sense, so most players do not notice there ever was one. See for example how game critic John Walker mentions how the puzzles are perfunctory in Act 1 of Broken Age, pointing out that he may have expected something more complex but that the puzzles are there to help the narrative. Half of his review of Act 2, however, is a tirade against the tediousness of the convoluted puzzles.

We don't need to banish puzzles from our games. They can help us learn more about our world, set up character, and get the player to be in a specific place when we need it. What we need is conscientious and responsible puzzle design, understanding the range of what works and what doesn't.

Puzzles are problems that require a solution (hence invoking "problem solving" as an alternative may not be that useful), and most of the time there's only one valid solution. The issue with narrative puzzles is that they often have only one way to get to that solution, even if the player can think of multiple ways to tackle the challenge. In game design terms, we designers can follow three strategies:
  • Offering players more than one way to solve the puzzle: since puzzles in general have more than one way to achieve the solution - there are different strategies to solve mathematical and logic puzzles, jigsaws or crosswords. So why don't we try to provide more than one way to get to the solution? Games like Deus Ex or more recently Dishonored are famous for taking this design approach. Thing is, the challenges that the player faces tend to be physical problems; challenges that involve human behavior and psychology, for example, are out of the question. Puzzles that are more grounded in the narrative that have multiple paths are still a challenge. A glorious example of how multiple paths can backfire is Zack McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, the one LucasArts game nobody remembers because it does offer several ways to complete it, but it does not tell the player that if you solve a puzzle a certain way, other paths will be locked out.
  • Setting up the puzzle so that solving it seems an adequate challenge: the key to satisfying puzzles is that the player achieves insight at the moment of solving them. Some puzzles feel invisible because their solution feels natural to the player; there is a problem but the solution seems logical. This was the case with most of the puzzles of Act 1 of Broken Age, for example. There is set of questions that will help us set up each puzzle: 
    •  How can the player tell there is a puzzle that they need to tackle? 
    •  What information does the player need to solve the puzzle? 
    •  If it's not information that relates to everyday life (such as opening a door, or doing an economic transaction), where in the world is that information? 
    •  Is the information available in one place or several? How close is it to the puzzle itself? Can the player revisit the information? The more pieces of information the player needs, and the further they may be from the puzzle (whether it is in terms of space or time), the more difficult the puzzle is. 
    • How can the player tell that they have found the wrong solution to the problem? Does the player get more information to solve it?  
    • How can the player tell they have solved the puzzle?  
    • What does solving the puzzle mean in the game? Does the player learn about the world / story? Does the player obtain something out of solving the puzzle? (I've talked about this topic before at length; you can watch one of my presentations here.
  • Design an esoteric puzzle for hardcore puzzle solvers: there are games that are geared towards hardcore players who want their puzzles to be extremely challenging. If you use the checklist above, it turns out that hardcore puzzles are missing one of these elements, from letting the player know that there is a puzzle, to requiring esoteric knowledge to solve it, for example. The line between a badly designed puzzle and a hardcore one is very thin; the definition depends on the audience. The rule of thumb is that the logic of the puzzle must still be there. You still get insight if you check the solution. That's why omitting elements can be okay, because it's up to the player to fill the gaps. When the puzzle feels random, unjustified, or the challenge consists of reading the designer's mind, then the puzzle falls apart. Examples of games with difficult narrative puzzles are The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Maniac Mansion or, more recently, Device 6. The puzzles in Broken Age Act 2 aim at being hardcore (perhaps because some players thought the puzzles in Act 1 were too easy), but often the logic seems absent: at one point, I had to go to a location in order to trigger a cut scene that allowed me to obtain an object, which is the kind of random access to information that infuriates players.
There may be other design options that technology may facilitate in the future. For example in the games Symon and Stranded in Singapore, we used procedural generation, so that whenever you started a game the puzzles would be different. Our method of generating the puzzles was not particularly complicated, so there was still one single way to solve each puzzle; perhaps in the future we can have AI that can create and check multiple paths. What worked in the design of Symon (a bit less so in Stranded) was that the game design focused on creating a system of relations between objects, rather than just specific puzzles. Players could not look up a walkthrough that gave details on each puzzle. Instead, they had to figure out the relationships between objects according to specific qualities, thus showing the potential to understand the world as a whole, rather than puzzle to puzzle. What I want to highlight here is not that future technology will solve our design problems - although it will probably help - but we that we need to change our paradigms and the way that we design narrative games. We need to shake off our nostalgia a bit and start pushing for new design patters - a sentiment that I'm not alone in sharing.

Puzzles in narrative games are just a part of the design lexicon, and we need to expand the vocabulary of narrative in games. The possibilities of choice and exploration are now gaining popularity - although they have been around for a while - and the future of narrative in games looks bright. But let us not completely dismiss narrative puzzles yet. We should banish badly set up puzzles with unsatisfying convolutedness that do not help the narrative. The solution is realizing puzzles also require game design.

Clara Fernández-Vara is a game scholar, designer and writer, and she is an Associate Arts Professor at the NYU Game Center. Her area of expertise is narrative in games and how it can integrate with game design, which she has explored both in games for research and in the commercial sphere. Her first book, Introduction to Game Analysis has been published by Routledge.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Upcoming Workshop: Writing for Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Game Worlds

Hi! I'm pleased to announce a writing workshop I'm leading in conjunction with Playcrafting NYC. If you're interested in science fiction, fantasy, and/or horror and want to populate your game world with monsters, creatures, aliens, fantastical beasts, and otherworldly cultures, you can benefit from this participatory workshop.  It's next week, July 6th, details here.

I've written about the workshops I've attended to learn more about my own writing. I want this workshop to be about improving your work. I'll provide the framework but you will be the ones writing or developing your game world during the class.  Above all, let's have fun!

My background is a mixture of theatre, film, journalism, economics, and writing.  I received a S.B. in Writing and Humanistic Studies (now the major of Comparative Media Studies) at MIT, where I took classes on everything to do with science and writing, including science fiction.  My first game design doc was within science fiction; my first game writing gig, the space combat RPG Terminus, was science fiction.  Afterwards, I worked on the episodic fantasy series Siege of Avalon, MMO Wizard101, and the dark fantasy RPG, The Witcher.  As you might surmise, if you love genre fiction, then there may be opportunities waiting for you in the video game industry.

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, June 9, 2015

IGDA Webinar: Designing for F2P From Day One

In this video, game monetization consultant Ethan Levy discusses how the free-to-play business model impacts game design decisions.

Unfortunately, the IGDA Webinar series has gone on hiatus while the initiative is re-evaluated.  Please give us feedback.

Ethan Levy is an 12 year veteran game designer and producer who has contributed to over 50 shipped games across every genre and platform. He has worked at companies including Pandemic Studios, EA, BioWare and Playfirst. In 2012, Levy founded FamousAspect to serve as a monetization design consultant with a focus on free-to-play games for PC, console, mobile, tablet and web.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Zombies as a Force of Nature

In this article, game designer Sande Chen explains why zombies are a force of nature.

I hate zombies.  In general.  Despite origins in Haitian folklore, our perception of the undead as shuffling, brain-eating, animated corpses is shaped by films.  Zombies are a horror archetype, which means there are variations on a theme.  There could be speedy zombies, vegan zombies, even sentient ones, but for the most part, they aren't.  Zombie attacks are usually portrayed as a never-ending nightmare.  If you saw the latest episode of Game of Thrones, "Hardhome," then you saw wave after wave of unrelenting zombies scratching their way through barriers to kill humans.

Here's the thing:  If zombies aren't sentient, then they aren't villains in the sense that vampires can be.  Sure, zombies have a goal and motivation to do what they're doing, but these kinds of zombies are not sentient enough to be pining over lost loves or plotting nefarious schemes to kill the king.  Zombies are a force of nature, like a disastrous typhoon, shark attacks, swarming bees, a stampeding herd of buffalo, a downpour of frogs, or attacking birds as in Hitchcock's movie The Birds

Jon Snow battles the White Walker
In "Hardhome," the zombies are controlled by the White Walker, who are using them as a weapon of choice.  It's like Percy Jackson controlling ocean waves.  If you think of zombies as a force of nature and pattern their actions based on real-world phenomena, what would you come up with as a system?  There's a lot of interesting animal behavior that can be used for inspiration.

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, May 30, 2015

Writing for Horror Video Games Panel in NYC

The WGAE Video Game Writers Caucus Presents


Wednesday, June 17, 6:30pm

Writers Guild of America, East
250 Hudson Street, Suite 700, NYC

Join us for a lively discussion on what makes horror games so compelling in the interactive realm.  Our panel of game writers will explore how to fit story elements into a game to produce a spooky and immersive experience. Discover the writer’s role in developing horror games and learn how the player’s interactions make an impact in the process.

What writing techniques transfer well from film to games?  How do we create memorable scary moments?  Our panel will offer insights and lessons learned from working on horror games such as BIOSHOCK and DEAD SPACE.

Matthew Weise (Moderator) is a game designer and writer. Currently an independent developer, he has created experimental games in academia as well as big-budget commercial games (AAA). He worked at Harmonix Music Systems as narrative designer on FANTASIA: MUSIC EVOLVED; more recently has freelanced as co-producer/designer on TRANSCENDENCE: ORIGINS FOR THE ALCHEMISTS / Warner Bros. Before that, he was Game Design Director of Singapore-MIT’s GAMBIT Game Lab. His experimental art game, THE SNOWFIELD, received a nomination for the 2012 Independent Games Festival. He is currently working on an unannounced independent narrative game project.

Justin Pappas is the founder of an indie game studio in Boston called Ape Law that exists to explore and experiment with games as the next great storytelling medium. He has worked as a level designer on games like BIOSHOCK: INFINITE and TOMB RAIDER  and moved onto the indie scene in 2011 as the level design lead on CHIVALRY: MEDIEVAL WARFARE, He is now the creative director/level builder/writer/designer for Ape Law's first game, ALBINO LULLABY, a horror adventure with zero jump scares and no gore.

Chuck Beaver is the Narrative Director for EA’s DICE LA studio, working on an unannounced AAA.  He’s been in the games industry for 13 years, and recently came off CALL OF DUTY: ADVANCED WARFARE as their Cinematics Producer. As the Story Producer for the DEAD SPACE franchise, he co-wrote and oversaw the entire  franchise lore: concepting, authoring, editing and policing of storylines across the console and iOS games as well as the transmedia properties, which include the animated movies, novels, graphic novels and comics. He was also heavily involved with the scriptwriting, Motion Capture sessions and voiceover work.

Alex Toplansky has been building interactive products since 2005 in roles ranging from development to production on a number of AAA and Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game franchises. Before beginning his current role as a Senior Writer for Deep Silver Volition, the studio behind award-winning franchises like SAINTS ROW and RED FACTION, Alex was the Senior Narrative Producer at Deep Silver, Volition’s parent and publisher. Alex holds a BA in Anthropology from Brandeis University and a 3d Animation Certificate from Boston University.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Leading by Emotion

In this article, game designer Sande Chen wonders about the role of emotions in designing a game.

One particular way of teaching creative writing is to ask students to explore the essence of emotion and thus, I attended a Meditation and Writing Retreat last December to reach back into my memory and recall the sensations associated with the emotion at the time.  How did this emotion manifest in the body?  Did it cause dry mouth, sniffling, a tightness in the chest, or blank eyes?  Writing about emotion was an instant connection to my creative fury. 

While emotions are an accepted starting point for creative writing, I realize emotions aren't the genesis for most games.  A tech demo is an accepted starting point.  In fact, most genres of games are defined by gameplay rather than the feelings elicited by the game.  The only exception might be horror games, which follow traditional genre fiction categorization.  It's for this very reason that I organized a panel to explore the nature of horror games.  (Stay tuned for more info!)  

But what if emotions played a more important role in game creation?  After all, according to American author James Gunn, people look to fiction to engage in an emotional experience.  Why shouldn't it be the same for games?  And I'm not strictly talking about "making the player cry," but simply about connecting on an emotional level. As game designer Reid Kimball says in Breaking the Vicious Cycle, let's inspire players and go beyond grinding.
For many people, Jenova Chen's games are inspirational.  In preparation for my article, Towards More Meaningful Games: A Multidisciplinary Approach, I talked to Jenova Chen about preproduction.  He showed me this Emotional Intensity Graph he made during the conception phase.  What's interesting is that this isn't a map of a character's emotions, but of the player's intended emotions.

Filmmakers and authors need to carefully craft an audience's emotional expectations.  I assume that game designers should do the same.  Should we expect anything less?

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 13, 2015

Reward Me, Demotivate Me

In this article, game designer Sande Chen reflects on the nature of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and how it relates to games.

I know extrinsic motivators can lead to surprisingly, the complete opposite effect, demotivation, but I have never experienced it myself until I became an avid player of the hidden object mobile game, Secret Passages.  Games, of course, have loads of extrinsic motivators like enthusiastic praise, achievement badges, and quest rewards.  Could it be that the very same mechanics used to hook initial players can lead to waning interest in the long run?

Psychologists know that extrinsic motivators can decrease intrinsic motivation, i.e. whatever held your interest in the first place.  Displaying intrinsic motivation, a student practices violin to get better at playing violin.  Some might call this doing something for the love of it.  It's also called DIY learning and self-directed learning.  Paying $10 to a student to practice violin would be an example of extrinsic motivation.  Soon, the student begins practicing for the $10 rather than for the joy of it and won't practice without that incentive.  Sure, extrinsic motivators have their uses, but you can bet that student won't make it to Carnegie Hall without a desire to excel at violin playing.

Likewise, players can have a burning desire to master a game and they don't need a bribe. Granted, that can be hard to do with a game that's more like a game service, incomplete and ongoing rather than a finite product, but a player can still race through all the content that does exist.  I've seen players finish in a day what took content developers a couple months to implement.  That's why some content may seem grindy because it's designed to keep players at bay, away from the finishing line.

Secret Passages did have its repetitive moments.  I like hidden object games, though I wouldn't say I love them.  Hidden object games supposedly do well because our short-term memory fades and we can redo the same puzzle over without it boring us to tears.  I played Secret Passages incessantly not only to explore the content and level up, but also to analyze its design.  Since Secret Passages was an ongoing work-in-progress, some things didn't make sense until the features arrived.  There was one feature, though, that had no gameplay advantage and thus, I ignored it.  This feature disappeared some time later, perhaps due to analytic data.  I never did level everything up completely, but I did unlock all the puzzles, at least the ones where I didn't have to gamble or pay. 

In fact, even when the quest told me to gamble, I had the strength to simply abandon the quest.  I think for some people, this is harder than you would think.  People have this innate desire for completion.  There's satisfaction in completing a quest and getting the rewards.  As game designers, the quest feature sounds good because it gives a reason for players to come back to the game. We're designing for retention.

Before, I was self-directed, pursuing my own goals, and even though I had to wait for my energy to replenish, I came back to the game.  With the daily quests, I did come back to the game, but I soon realized that I was only playing for about 15-20 minutes a day whereas before, I was playing for couple hours spread out throughout the day.  Each morning, I would look at the daily quests, complete them, and then never look at the game until the next day.  At first, I thought of those 15 minutes as my break time, but then I started to think of it as a waste of time.  There's other games to play, after all!  So, one day, despite my accumulation of various in-game currencies, badges, and so forth, I deleted the game.

A few months later, I reflected upon this action and realized that playing the game for quest rewards had turned into my demotivation.  Had I simply been turned off because I had exhausted the content?  What do you think?  Is this an example of extrinsic motivation decreasing intrinsic motivation?

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.