Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Game Designer at the Game Jam

In this article, game designer Sande Chen discusses the role of the game designer at game jams and describes her first experience at Global Game Jam.

Happy Holidays!  As 2016 winds down, let's look forward to renewing our commitment to becoming better game designers in the New Year.  Specifically, I encourage everyone to attend Global Game Jam (GGJ), the world's largest game jam event.  It's happening January 20-22, 2017 and is the perfect opportunity to meet people in the industry and to challenge yourself.  If you're in New York City, then PlayCrafting NYC and Microsoft are again teaming up to serve as an official site. Be sure to take a look at this advice on how to be successful at game jams.

Although Global Game Jam has been around since 2009, I admit last January was my first time there. I guess I had always been intimidated.  I had heard stories that teams were pre-formed or that if you were a game designer or writer, you might have some difficulty latching on to a team.  Definitely, if you are a designer who knows your way around Unity or other applications, you'll have an easier time of it.  As it happened, I saw a friend at the game jam and while there was some "Oh I already promised I'd be in this group" going on, my friend and I still were able to form a team.  We didn't have a phalanx of programmers and artists, so I just had to design based on what were our capabilities.

In actuality, I think everyone on the team contributed to the design and the polish.  On the first day, after the introductions and discussion, I knew we had to lock down the basic idea and go with it.  I did research on the idea and wrote an initial game design document.  The plan was to make a functional demo in less than 2 days (because we would not be staying overnight and working non-stop.)

Although some game design questions did crop up in the remaining time, I did see that my role made a transition to producer, as I became more involved in making cuts to the design and reminding teammates to keep focused.  I was very careful to keep the vision intact.  I wanted very much to get the game on a tablet but in the end, we made do with a laptop that had touch functionality. 

After the demo night, I was asked to put together a little segment on the inspiration behind our GGJ 2016 demo for Major Nelson's Recap of the NYC Global Game Jam Microsoft site.  Here is our offering, Dance of Love, based on the word "RITUAL."

 

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 16, 2016

The Choice For Female Characters Part II

In this article, game writer Sande Chen looks at new data from a study on gender representation in media and again calls on content creators in the game industry to make a choice to include more female characters in their games.

It's been a while since I wrote this post about gender diversity in games. I remember a certain pushback from members of the game development community who felt somehow that a call for gender diversity, or any kind of diversity, was impinging on their personal expression.  They felt like they shouldn't have to sacrifice their creative vision for the sake of diverse representation.

However, I didn't quite see how deciding that a bit-part NPC Doctor #2 would be a female doctor or composing a crowd scene to have more female faces would make much difference to their original vision.  It's simply about reflecting the real world and in the real world, there are female doctors and there are females in crowds.  Yet, in the strange skewed zone of pretend worlds, as the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has shown, females are underrepresented.  This may not seem like a big deal, but it makes an impact on the psyches of young girls, who subconsciously get the message that females are invisible.

On the flip side, when there are empowering female heroines in media, young girls respond with emulation.  Because of the popularity of The Hunger Games series, Brave, and Game of Thrones, the sport of archery has seen a boost among teenage girls. Archery memberships purchased by women shot up by 105% in 2014.  As the Geena Davis Institute says, "If she can see it, she can be it."


Photo by Hayden Beaumont
Photo by Hayden Beaumont
At the 4th Global Symposium on Gender in Media on September 22, 2016, held at Google in New York City, a new software tool developed by researchers at USC Viterbi School of Engineering using Google's machine learning technology was unveiled.  This automated system, known as the Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient (GD-IQ), tracks speaking times and screen time using face-tracking algorithms and audio analysis.  It allowed researchers to quickly and efficiently analyze the top grossing (non-animated) films of 2014 and 2015.

Their research showed that in 2015, male characters generally spoke twice as much as female characters and received twice as much screen time.  Specifically, in box office hits with male leads, male characters spoke and appeared three times more often, and even in films with female leads, male characters spoke and received as much screen time as female characters.  In films with both female and male leads, male characters still received significantly more screen time.

But was this because male characters bring in more box office revenue?  Not exactly.  On average, 2015 films with female leads earned 15.8% more than films with male leads.  Films with both female and male leads earned 23.5%
more than films with male or female leads alone.

I'd like to emphasize that no one thinks that creators are purposefully creating male-dominated crowd scenes or actively trying to exclude female characters.  Rather, it's a subconscious societal bias that we as a community can start to notice and rectify.

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 9, 2016

Reading About Quantum Creativity


In this article, game designer Sande Chen looks at the science of creativity, as inspired by quantum physics.

A few days ago, I started reading the book, Quantum Creativity, by Amit Goswami.  A retired professor in theoretical physics, Goswami views creativity through the lens of quantum physics.  And just like quantum physics was a leap away from Newtonian physics, so too is what Goswami calls "quantum creativity."  While Goswami did intend this book for people not familiar with quantum physics, it's not actually that easy to follow. 

What I have gleaned is that creativity can be understood as belonging into two categories: inner and outer creativity. You can have one without the other, but merging both together is immensely better.

Outer creativity is the manifestation of expression in the arts and the sciences that we would have no problem calling creative.  We see the works of art.  We see the scientific discoveries.  Inner creativity, however, is about spiritual transformation and growth.  It's about meaningful context.  Psychologist Abraham Maslow distinguished this type of creativity as self-actualizing creativity and for outer creativity, he used the term, talent-driven creativity.

Learning about the science behind human creativity made me see that my search for meaningfulness in stories and games is likely because I don't want an inner and an outer creativity in a dichotomy, broken down into Hero's Journey and Heroine's Journey, but as an entwined creative experience that can be led by emotions and admired or felt on a spiritual level.

I realize I may be headed into the New Age-y zone with this book, but I did find it interesting to see a perspective so different from my own experience.  Never would I have thought that quantum physics would contain such insights into the workings of creativity.  I think it's important to read these different perspectives and I expect I will definitely be reading this book over to try to understand it better.

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, December 1, 2016

Upcoming Workshop: Game Writing Portfolio Workout


Hope everyone is ready for the holiday party season!  PlayCrafting NYC will be presenting The '16 Bit Awards, a celebration of game developers on December 15.  Be sure to attend and enjoy this night of music, awards, and games.

On Wednesday, December 7, I will be holding the last Game Writing Portfolio workshop of the year   It's a great space for beginning and established writers to share and learn about game writing.

Here's what a former student has said about Game Writing Portfolio Workout:
"This is so far best one of the Playcrafting workshops. The teacher was funny, incredibly knowledgeable and shared the best insider's secrets!"
Come and write!
Date:  Wednesday, Dec 7, 2016
Time: 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM 

As always, Playcrafting NYC, which offers classes and events related to game development, has Early Bird tickets, but if they sell out (and they have in the past), you'll have to pay full price.

About Me

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 and then I specialized in Screenwriting at USC's School of Cinematic Arts.  My first published game as a writer was on the epic space combat RPG, Terminus, which won 2 awards at the 1999 Independent Games Festival.  Afterwards, I worked on the episodic fantasy series Siege of Avalon, MMO Wizard101, and the dark fantasy RPG, The Witcher, for which I was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Videogame Writing. I currently head the WGAE Videogame Writers Caucus and am SIG leader of the IGDA Game Design SIG. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

A Look at Puzzle Games

In this article, game designer Sande Chen reflects on the level design of puzzle games and how allowing the player to win can help in the success of the game.

One year, at the Austin Game Conference, I was exhausted, not from partying, but because I had stayed up all night trying to progress through Puzzle Bobble.  My college friend had the original arcade machine and since I could use the same quarter over and over, I stayed with it.  I noticed almost immediately spikes in difficulty, remarking how I felt that one level was out of place because it was especially hard and the levels after it were easy in comparison.  Considering that the player also gains proficiency, gauging the increase in difficulty or challenge between levels must be an interesting exercise. 

Puzzle Bobble
In addition, there is a luck variable to these puzzles since colors can randomly get scarce on you.  It's the same way with Candy Crush Saga, that when you need red candies, you feel like all the other colors keep on showing up.  I especially hate using up moves while waiting for a certain color to show up in a line.  This probably contributed to my decision to delete Blossom Blast Saga.

I mean, I do have a certain amount of patience with difficult puzzles and in most free-to-play games, a player may have access to power-ups or boosters that can make uneven level design tolerable, but when my puzzle-solving efforts feel like frustration rather than fun, then I'll just quit.  Especially when I feel like it's a luck-related factor.

Candy Crush Saga showers me with free gifts, but that's not the only reason why I still play Candy Crush.  I fully realize Candy Crush Saga has that luck component but despite that, I still manage to have fun with it.  The way the levels are designed, I always feel like I have a chance at solving the puzzle because I'll be one or two moves out.  That motivates me to keep on playing because sooner or later, I'll feel like I'll solve it, even if it takes a long time.  If I don't see that possibility of winning, then I'll throw my hands figuratively in the air and mutter, "This is impossible!"  I can see why players are motivated to buy extra moves because it's almost ... just almost... there.  Unlike with Candy Crush Jelly Saga, another I deleted, I did have those boosters in Candy Crush Saga, so if I did feel like I had come across an impossible level, I could help myself out.

I also play Candy Crush Soda Saga, which I like better, even though there aren't free boosters given out there.  I've noticed that after I've been at a puzzle for a long time on Candy Crush Saga, something remarkable will happen such as a color ball and a color bomb ending up next to each other.  I have no idea if that was just the allotted time needed for this lucky occurrence to happen or if the designers were specifically thinking about helping me along.  It would be great if this were a matter of design.

In the past, I was in charge of designing a mah jong solitaire game.  In those types of games, there are the ones where it's possible for the player to have a puzzle without a solution. Alternately, there are the ones that use an algorithm to make sure there was always a solution to the puzzle.  I suppose in the former, a player would be able to get out of that unsolvable state with a booster.  I chose the latter because I always wanted players to be able to win without using boosters.  It seems unfair that the player could be presented with a puzzle that couldn't be solved without a booster.  After all, I wanted the player to stick around for the next level or game.

Challenge is great, but too much challenge leads to frustration, which can lose players.

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, November 11, 2016

Upcoming Class: Designing Games For Impact

Do you want to create more meaningful games? Make an impact?  Then I invite you to come to my new class next Thursday, November 17, on Designing Games For Impact.  Whether you are an entertainment developer who wants to add another layer to gameplay and story or an activist or educator who wants to reach out through video games, together we'll discuss how we can create a dialog without preaching, bake our messaging within the game systems, and create an emotional connection.

As always, Playcrafting NYC, which offers classes and events related to game development, offers Early Bird tickets, but if they sell out (and they have in the past), you'll have to pay full price. 

The details!
Designing Games For Impact
Date:  Thursday, November 17, 2016
Time: 6:30-8:30 PM

About Me 

Sande Chen is the co-author of Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform. As a serious games consultant, she helps companies harness the power of video games for non-entertainment purposes. Her career as a writer, producer, and game designer has spanned over 15 years in the game industry. Her game credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus, MMO Hall of Fame inductee Wizard101, and the 2007 PC RPG of the Year, The Witcher, for which she was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Videogame Writing. She has spoken at conferences around the globe, including the Game Developers Conference, Game Education Summit, SXSW Interactive, Serious Play Conference, and the Serious Games Summit D.C.

Friday, November 4, 2016

What Happened to Power Politics?

In this article, game designer Sande Chen discusses the legacy of the election simulation game, Power Politics.

The countdown has already begun for Election Day in the U.S. In the news, various election models are predicting the Presidential winner. Take your pick. They vary from statistical-based forecasts to the more whimsical claim that a sad ending in the most recent Best Picture Oscar winner would indicate a change of party in the White House.  Did Spotlight have a sad or happy ending?  We'll find out.

ElectoralCollege1992In 1992, the video game Power Politics made headlines around the world for correctly predicting that Bill Clinton would win the election.  My co-author, David Michael, and I interviewed Randy Chase, the developer of Power Politics, for a case study on educational games in our book, Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform. As I alluded to in my research reports for the Cooney Center, many of the same issues plaguing educational games 10 years ago have remained.

Chase found it difficult to sell directly to teachers and school systems.  He even tried discounting the price for teachers and professors but didn't find much success that way.  Therefore, in the spring of 2005, to recoup the cost of independent development, he decided he would have to "find creative ways to build new alliances."  Though he still had a premium version of the game for sale, most schools ended up using the free version sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor and Rock the Vote.  Power Politics was eventually distributed and used by over 400 universities to teach students about politics and campaigning.  The premium version of Power Politics offered a alternate history mode, whereby historically inaccurate candidates could be pitted against each other, much like fantasy football.

Power Politics was a seminal game in what Chase called "activism software."  He wanted a game that would challenge player assumptions about the world.  In Power Politics, the student has the reins to run the campaign, dirty tricks or not, analyze press conferences and poll data, and manage fundraisers.  The candidates were real-life people, with strengths and weaknesses, and the simulation was updated to include real-world demographics.

It almost seems unimaginable that at one time, there were only exit polls. Power Politics demonstrated the power of simulations and how simulations could be used for education.

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, October 27, 2016

How Games Can Elicit Emotional Stakes

In this article, writer Joshua Castleman addresses how game designers can reduce ludonarrative dissonance in linear action games to produce gameplay tied to emotional investment.

I recently read a post written by Sande Chen that discusses how the nature of videogame playing undermines the emotional stakes in linear storytelling. Referring mainly to AAA linear narratives found in 8-12 hour campaigns, she outlined some of the difficult challenges facing game designers and writers to compel the player to feel more emotionally attached to the character in the game than to their own experience as the player. Of course we as players want to achieve victory but designers and writers strive to deliver the emotional impact often found in Hollywood blockbusters.

Sande raised many excellent points that got me thinking about the problem myself. A large part of the issue is the linear railroading of a story, more specifically a game’s inability to allow failure. When a player fails and restarts at their last checkpoint, suddenly there is a disconnect where the protagonist character in the game is fine, as if nothing ever happened, but the player has taken a hit and suffered a setback. In a difficult part of the game, where the player has to try numerous times to get through a zone but story-wise the hero is essentially unscathed, there’s a dissonance between the player’s experience and the character’s experience, not to mention the player is going to care more about his/her own experience as the frustration builds than the player cares about the experience of the character.

One game that I thought worked somewhat was the first Tomb Raider reboot. Some of the death scene animations were so gnarly and gruesome that I wanted to do well and avoid those because I felt so bad seeing Lara writhe in pain as a river impales her on a metal pole! Even though I as the player then started over at the last checkpoint and Lara is safely in one piece, the memory of her violent death was still fresh in my mind.

At this point, it is easy to simply say, “Make a game that allows for failure.” But this presents the age-old problem of making a branching game that can turn a different direction for failure, which is suddenly no longer a linear story and also two to three times more expensive to make. As a writer myself, I understand the strong allure of a linear story that I can control as the creator. It allows for more specific nuance and depth in the story. Maybe the real challenge is finding a way to tell a linear story that can also accept failure in some way without resetting. I’m sure there are some elegant solutions out there, both mechanically and story-wise, that have yet to be discovered.

Another partial solution, or at least a step in the right direction, is creating strong characters. Especially a dynamic villain. I have noticed that a truly despicable villain helps a player invest emotionally in the story. Games like Far Cry 4, Bioshock Infinite, and Borderlands 2 (to name a few) have great antagonists, which helped me empathize with the heroes more. Even if there were times where I was jostled from the character’s POV emotionally, I still shared their emotional drive to defeat the vile bad guy. Fleshing out the villain’s character can present its own challenges. Villain scenes work best when they’re from the POV of the hero so the player shares the experience with the hero character. Be careful to not give the player insight into the villain or conflict that the protagonist does not have, or suddenly there is another disconnect.

A challenge most action games face is desensitization to violence, which can hamper any story based on violence and death. As Sande questioned, how can a player feel any emotional pull during a cut scene of someone’s death when the player just spent hours ending hundreds of other lives? Certainly something to consider when creating a story amidst a sea of blood, but I would again point to the creation of strong characters. Just like in war movies or books where there is death around every corner, it is critical to create those characters that players care about, and give them clear-cut goals they want and challenging conflicts in their way. There are characters that, even if they are soaked in blood, you don’t want them to die. (You Game of Thrones fans know what I’m talking about.)

What no one has tried yet (that I know of) is a complete paradigm shift. The way games are made is still heavily influenced by the history of video games. The player is faced with a challenge and they must overcome it or fail and try again. As the industry matured, designers put more story into the game, fleshing out fully-imagined world and characters, with an eye to Hollywood cinematic cut scenes and structure. But they still shoehorn the story into the same game mentality of trial and error. It’s like if in the middle of a showdown fight scene in a movie, someone stopped it and skipped back to the beginning of the chapter. We’ve all had that experience when someone accidentally sits on the remote. It jars you and the fight scene loses so much of its power and momentum.

Game designers are often focused on creating the ultimate challenge above creating an amazing story. The way most game designers define a good gaming experience is much different than the way a Hollywood director would define a good experience.

But what if they designed a game without the ability to restart at a checkpoint or die at all? What if fight scenes were built in a way that the player could take a beating, maybe lose some gear or status or something but never actually die? I know many gamers are rolling their eyes at the idea because many of us are so programmed that that is how games work. I have a confession: I’m one of those gamers that plays story-centric games on normal difficulty. I sacrifice the challenge aspect to preserve the flow of the story and the oh-so-fragile emotional empathy. Unfortunately, games are not built to reward that style of play, so yes, I run into times feeling where the game is too easy (though sometimes I get crazy and bump the difficulty up for awhile until I feel a miniboss fight coming). The trade-off is worth it to me to engage the story more than the challenge and triumph element.

Games will only ever reach a certain level of emotional investment with the current model. Maybe it just needs a small shift to, say, a story with a hero that reincarnates from set points in his life so that the ‘restarting after death’ plays into the story. The hero can even have little meta-esque quips about having to experience the same crap all over again. Or maybe it it will take a completely new approach, a full dedication to story over challenge.

All I do know is that Sande is correct. There is a strong disconnect between players wanting to beat the final boss for the sake of the protagonist and the story, or for their own mastery of the controls over the cleverness of the programmed obstacle. The points I mentioned in the beginning are ways to help align those two goals better, but they will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fully overlap as long as game makers continue to think of story as merely a way to get players to move from Challenge A to Challenge B. No, not everyone needs to change. But I wouldn’t mind seeing someone try it out.

Original Article: http://gamedesignaspect.blogspot.com/2016/10/how-games-undermineemotional-stakes.html 

Joshua Castleman is a sci-fi/fantasy writer, voracious reader, and gamer. He is currently working on a D&D-inspired deck-building adventure game with Vigilant Addiction Studios.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Upcoming Panel on Game Writing at GameACon AC

Halloween Greetings from Sleepy Hollow Country!  As you can imagine, there's lots of Halloween activities going on, including the Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze where I got to view literary icons carved out of pumpkins and illuminated by pumpkin light against the night sky.  Too bad it wasn't one of the supermoon nights or a blood red moon, but still, there was plenty of spooky ambience around.

If you're in the vicinity of Atlantic City Halloween weekend, I'll be at GameACon Atlantic City, held at the Tropicana Casino Resort. I've organized a reprise of our game writing panel from last year.  Same time, same topic. Come find out about breaking into the game industry as a game writer.

There's also cosplay, tournaments, industry panels, LARPing, anime, bands, and an expo.  Lots of things to see, to play, and to have fun.

Weekend and day passes are available.

Breaking Into Game Writing
Sunday, October 30, 2016
11:00 AM - noon
Pageant Room

There are as many ways to break into game writing as there are writers, so taking your first steps can be daunting. Join our panel of award-winning writers and designers as they share their successes and struggles with getting a foot in the door of the industry. Whether you dream of writing the next big AAA game or an indie interactive novel, we’ve got the info to set you on the right path.

Friday, October 14, 2016

How Games Undermine Emotional Stakes

In this article, game writer Sande Chen discusses how the nature of video game playing undermines the emotional stakes in linear storytelling.

For the last week, I've been pondering a provocative question posed by another game writer about the mediocrity of linear storytelling in games, specifically the 8 to 12 hours of story mode in a console game.  For a long time, I've been of the opinion that these types of stories are usually mimicking the Hollywood blockbuster and the Hollywood model of screenwriting, a system that doesn't always work with the needs of a game.  I also realize that this other game writer is only talking about experiences within these types of specific games and not about 60-100 hour games, episodic games, or MMOs.  We're not doomed to mediocrity for all eternity especially when we think about the ways games do build emotional connections. However, I agree that there are certain challenges in creating linear experiences within interactive games and trying to hold on to the emotional beats that would normally be generated by watching a great movie. 

There can be incredible gameplay with a mediocre story.  There can be gorgeous art in video games with a mediocre story.  Is story the weak excuse to transport the player from point A to point B, to get from one level to the next, or to string together a bunch of activities?  Is this kind of story character-driven or plot-oriented?  Sure, in screenplays, character development is the basis of all the decision points in the story, but in game development, character development can be one of the last items on the checklist.  The player can enjoy a great game but be completely detached from the story.

That's simply because in the do-or-die situations of gameplay, the immediacy of that kind of urgency affects the player more than the urgency of the created story.  Does the player want to avoid a reset or does the player feel the urgency to save the universe?  Moreover, if you think about all the things that a player has to do or keep track of in a twitchy action game, how important ranks the game story?  Much as we would like to multi-task to success, our brains have to prioritize.  Players may simply be too emotionally distracted to think about the game's authorial story especially when their own emergent stories are much more exciting.

Another concern is the desensitization to violence that comes from killing millions and millions of virtual foes.  In a screenplay, acts of violence generally have great significance and may punctuate an inciting incident, a midpoint, or climax.  Can a cut scene in a linear video game deliver the same kind of emotional punch in an act of violence when the last 4 hours have been pretty much the same fare? 

We know that games can elicit emotions, but these are not necessarily the same emotions that are elicited by watching movies.  I'm sure there are people who have tried over and over to beat a boss after repeatedly failing.  Nobody wants to see a required cut scene or hear the villainous taunts of the boss as we anxiously wait to try again, no matter how wonderfully cinematic that cut scene is.  The focus and resolve in this boss fight will not be about the game story or the player-character, but about manipulating the controller better or another gameplay aspect.  The emotion generated by the ultimate triumph in beating the boss is about the player, not the character. 


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, October 4, 2016

Upcoming Workshop: Game Writing Portfolio Workout


Happy Birthday, Game Writing Portfolio Workout!  It's been over a year since I started this series of workshops, the first of its kind, at Playcrafting NYC on the craft of game writing.  Intended for both new and veteran game writers, the workshops featured practical exercises on different game writing topics and frank talk about the industry each session.  The last two, held in July and September 2016, were intense workouts and the culmination of all the sessions before, so the upcoming one on Tuesday, October 11, 2016 will be the start of a new cycle.  And next month, I am going to be offering a totally new class (details soon!)

As always, Playcrafting NYC, which offers classes and events related to game development, has Early Bird tickets, but if they sell out (and they have in the past), you'll have to pay full price.

Here's what a former student has said about Game Writing Portfolio Workout:
"This is so far best one of the Playcrafting workshops. The teacher was funny, incredibly knowledgeable and shared the best insider's secrets!"
Come and write!
Date:  Tuesday, Oct 11, 2016
Time: 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM 

About Me

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 and then I specialized in Screenwriting at USC's School of Cinematic Arts.  My first published game as a writer was on the epic space combat RPG, Terminus, which won 2 awards at the 1999 Independent Games Festival.  Afterwards, I worked on the episodic fantasy series Siege of Avalon, MMO Wizard101, and the dark fantasy RPG, The Witcher, for which I was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Videogame Writing. I currently head the WGAE Videogame Writers Caucus and am SIG leader of the IGDA Game Design SIG. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Many Functions of Game Writing

In this article, game designer Sande Chen compares writing for VR to game writing and explains how game writing fulfills a bigger role in the game than just providing story and plot.
 
Imagine you are immersed in a VR setting.  Would you stay rooted in the same place, as if you were watching a 3D movie?  Most likely, no.  You'd want to get up close, see the details, walk around and explore, and if you can, pick up objects and interact.  Instead of a viewer, you'd be a player, or at the least, an user.  As Hollywood embraces more and more VR narratives, its writers need to learn about agency because viewers will no longer be passive participants. 
Photo Credit: StoryForward NYC, Adorama

As I mentioned in my StoryForward NYC lecture last week, many of the challenges in writing for VR have already been explored in game writing.  Video games have rich, immersive worlds that allow for player interaction.  What does player agency mean for the writer?

First of all, the writer needs to surrender some control.  If there's a story, the player may experience the story in his or her own time.  The player may leave the game experience for a couple days and return.  This means that besides advancing the story, game writing has other functions, such as dishing out a reminder, or a redirect.  While this doesn't occur in films as much, recaps are a familiar part of the television experience.

How else does player agency affect game writing?

As with the game's sound effects and music, game writing very importantly helps to guide the player and give feedback.  Sometimes, sound effects aren't enough and more precise instruction is needed to let the player know how to progress through the story or use the controls.  There's a big virtual world out there and as creators, we need to guide the player towards the content.  Feedback is especially important during tutorials.

Game writing also provides contextual information on the player's progress in relationship to other players, even in a single-player game.  Achievements, badges, or titles are the signposts of progress that are shared across social communities.  In multiplayer games, these honors would be seen by everyone in the game and might be a source of bragging rights.

And that immersive world?  Game writing provides many of those details, not only with journals, mission logs, found objects, audiotapes, books of lore, etc., but also with descriptions of objects, powers, weapons, vehicles, factions, and everything else.  Many of these worlds bloomed when a game writer began the process of world building.  Players walk through cities and terrain, interacting with non-player characters, flora and fauna, and objects.  The level of detail can be astounding.

Writing for VR narratives probably has fewer requirements than game writing because generally, there aren't gameplay elements (as there would be in a VR game), but the issue of agency is still important.

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 8, 2016

Upcoming! Breaking Out Panel and Game Writing Intro












Whoa!  September 2016 is turning out to be a busy month.  Next week, I will be moderating a panel for IGDA NYC called Breaking Out of the Industry, focusing on the freelance life and those starting a new game business.  I've assembled a panel of top-notch professionals who have worked at well-known companies and then forged ahead to start their own businesses.

Please note that space is limited!  If you RSVP'ed and you can't make it, please cancel through EventBrite so that a person on the Waiting List may be notified.

Breaking Out of the Industry Panel
Thursday, September 15, 2016
6:00 - 8:00 PM
Adorama 
42 W 18th Street, NY, NY

Ever wanted to run your own game company or work for yourself? You can! Representing programmers, producers, designers, and writers, our panel of accomplished game developers have gone from working for established companies to becoming founders, consultants, entrepreneurs, and/or freelancers. Listen to advice on business and legal matters and learn what it takes to launch a business in game development.


The following Sunday, I've been invited by StoryForward NYC, a group dedicated to promoting the future of storytelling and entertainment, to give an introduction to the field of game writing.

Introduction to Game Writing with Sande Chen
Sunday, September 18, 2016 
11:00 AM - 1:00 PM
Adorama 
42 W 18th Street, NY, NY

How is story expressed in a video game? Due to the importance of mechanics or gameplay, player choice, and non-linear play patterns, writing for video games presents unique challenges unseen in film and other media. How do you write for a player who wants his or her own personal story in the game?

Join us for an informative talk about game writing with Sande Chen, who was nominated for a WGA Award in Videogame Writing for 2007's PC RPG of the Year, The Witcher.


Sande Chen is a writer and game designer with over 15 years of experience in the game industry. Her writing credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus, MMO Hall of Fame inductee Wizard101, and the 2007 PC RPG of the Year, The Witcher, for which she was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Videogame Writing. She has spoken at conferences around the globe, including the Game Developers Conference, SXSW Interactive, New York ComicCon, PAX East, and Screenwriters World Conference West.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Workshops Next Week! Game Writing and Sci-Fi


In July, we had a very special session of Game Writing Portfolio Workout.   July's workshop was the culmination of all the sessions from before because we went through exercises based on writing tests given by game companies. It was straight writing, writing, writing.

Well, because there were exercises left over, we decided to hold Part II and that'll be next Tuesday, on September 6, the day after Labor Day.  As always, bring a laptop or notepad and be prepared to do a lot of writing.

Playcrafting NYC, which offers classes and events related to game development, has Early Bird tickets, but if they sell out (and they have in the past), you'll have to pay full price. Don't miss this workshop!

The details!
Date:  Tuesday September 6, 2016
Time: 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM


And on Saturday, September 10, I'm pleased to be offering a half-day workshop on incorporating science fiction, fantasy, and horror elements into any type of writing.  I've been yearning to do a deep dive about genre fiction and what better place than at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center in historic Philipse Manor at Sleepy Hollow, NY.  This workshop will be limited to 15 students and if you become a member of the HVWC, then you receive a discount off courses as well as other benefits, such as help in submitting your work to journals, agents, and publications.

The details!  
Date: Saturday, September 10, 2016
Time: 12:30 PM - 4:30 PM

About Me

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 and then I specialized in Screenwriting at USC's School of Cinematic Arts.  My first published game as a writer was on the epic space combat RPG, Terminus, which won 2 awards at the 1999 Independent Games Festival.  Afterwards, I worked on the episodic fantasy series Siege of Avalon, MMO Wizard101, and the dark fantasy RPG, The Witcher, for which I was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Videogame Writing. I currently head the WGAE Videogame Writers Caucus and am SIG leader of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Search for Meaningful Work

In this article, game designer Sande Chen discusses research on work-related motivation, in particular on "perceived meaning," to see how this research applies to the game industry.

The number of businesses using a sales bonus, merit bonus, or performance-based incentive to motivate employees keeps rising and yet, study after study indicates that pay for performance programs are barely effective.  In fact, the most recent study conducted by market research firm, Willis Towers Watson, published in February 2016, found that only 20% of senior managers at North American companies surveyed felt that merit-based pay made any difference.

On the surface, pay for performance makes perfect sense. Put up a leaderboard of sorts, get employees pumped up in friendly competition, and reward them for their efforts. Give the carrot and employees perform, right?  But, as we know from our understanding of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivators like a cash payout can actually lead to the opposite effect: demotivation.

Employees at Disneyland hotels resented their performance-measuring leaderboard, calling it "the electronic whip." According to a 2013 study by the Institute of Leadership and Management, only 13% of employees are motivated by bonuses.  Instead, intrinsic motivators like job enjoyment, getting along with co-workers, and fair treatment by management rank higher. Blindly adding leaderboards, badges, and bonuses without addressing job satisfaction may be a misguided approach.

Of particular concern to the game industry is the demotivation that occurs after a long-term project has been canceled.  Duke University Professor Dan Ariely began studying "perceived meaning" in work after noticing the apathy that sets in after a team works on a project for many years only to have it canceled.  He found that the affected employees felt that their work was meaningless, just like King Sisyphus of Greek mythology, who was sentenced to roll up an immense boulder up a hill and watch it roll back down for all of eternity.

It turns out that meaningful work is very important and doing meaningful work is a reward in itself.  In the study, Man's Search for Meaning: The Case of Legos," by Ariely, Kamenica, and Prelec, published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, the researchers purposefully set up pointless Sisyphean situations in which test subjects watched their reports shredded upon completion or their projects smashed in front of their eyes.  Test subjects who were given "perceived meaning," such as how their work would impact underprivileged students, performed better and even were willing to accept less pay for their work.

The study also showed that even the slightest amount of acknowledgement of the effort it took to complete the task increased motivation in the test subjects.  What does this mean for managers?  Basically, small things like showing appreciation to employees and reminding employees how their individual efforts connect to a larger goal can make a big impact.  If the larger project never gets completed, maybe an interim goal has significance.

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, August 19, 2016

Game Editing Demystified

In this article, game designer Sande Chen examines the little known role of game editors in game development.

With increasing budgets and the need for costly voice recording, some game companies are employing teams of editors as well as writers on large game projects.  If you consider Fallout 4 had over 111,000 lines of voiceover dialog, which was recorded over the span of years, there's a need for consistency of style, pronunciation, and character personality in these recordings.  On an organizational level, it helps that there's someone there who is keeping track of how to pronounce fictional names and locations as well as guarding the lore.
Photo by Stan Jourdan (Flickr)

In addition to working with voiceover directors, game editors of course work with writers to refine their text, just as a book editor would do with an author.  Editors ensure continuity across branching narrative, which may be sprawling.  Their job is not to rewrite the story, but to make everything better.  This includes the normal proofreading tasks of fixing grammar mistakes and typos.

Game editors also work with localization teams on issues of cultural sensitivity or copyright infringement.  They may be on hand to give advice on how to avoid unknowingly offending certain groups.

According to Cameron Harris, who helped launch the IGDA Game Editing SIG and accompanying Facebook group, the efforts of game editors saved Bioware over 1 million dollars on the Mass Effect trilogy through a reduction of word count and overall oversight.

Clearly, game editors make an impact on the bottom line as well as on the quality of the narrative.

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, August 9, 2016

SXSW Panel Picker: Beyond Turtles: Using Games to Teach Real Code


Hi!  It's that time of the year again for the SXSW 2017 Panel Picker.  Please vote for our panel on game-based computer science education.  We'll explain why game-based learning is good for computer science education and spotlight learning games used in classrooms now.

Register to vote and cast your vote here:
http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/vote/66615

Beyond Turtles: Using Games to Teach Real Code

Session Description:

It’s 2017! Your students need to learn computer science. How do you teach them in a way that gets them excited about coding? How do you reach geeks and non-geeks, girls and boys, computer experts and total novices? How do you do this without a CS degree, comprehensive curriculum resources and standards, and a magic wand of learnination?

A diverse panel of learning experts will dive into how game-based learning can create growth mindsets and overwhelming coding obsessions in every student. We’ll discuss what to look for in learning games, common pitfalls in teaching CS and bringing games into the classroom, and how to be the content expert without having studied CS before.

Panelists:
And here's an interview I did with Microsoft New York on the importance of computer science education during Computer Science Education Week last year.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Games For Change Festival: Breaking Into the Education Market

In this video, game designer Sande Chen discusses the difficulties faced by game developers in breaking into the education market.


If you missed my presentation about the educational market at the 13th Annual Games For Change Festival, it's now on Games For Change's official YouTube channel along with other coverage from the conference.  Thank you all for the support.
 

As a reminder, all 5 research reports based on my research for the Cooney Center are on the Games and Learning website.  They can be found here:  http://www.gamesandlearning.org/2016/06/22/gamesandlearning-org-series-fuels-g4c-discussion/

Friday, July 22, 2016

What Game Designers Can Learn From Cinema

In this article, game designer Sande Chen explores the ways film directors are masters of audience manipulation and what that means for game design.

Last Monday, I had to opportunity to hear game director and writer Sam Barlow talk about the inspiration behind his award-winning game, Her Story, at the BAFTA Master Class in Lincoln Center.  Surprisingly, it began with an analysis of Alfred Hitchcock's famous movie, The BirdsI'm a graduate of USC Cinematic Arts who has studied Hitchcock in cinematography class, so I was all for it; it's just that usually, when speakers talk about film and games, it's about the differences, not the similarities or what we can learn from the great film directors of the past.

Barlow didn't talk about the visual language of films, but more about Hitchcock's deft manipulation of the audience's expectations.  It's similar to what writers would call "hopes and fears."  However, these are not the characters' hopes and fears, but rather, those of the audience.  We know The Birds is a horror film about birds, so we the audience anticipate a bunch of scenes with birds attacking.  In fact, at the beginning, we may not even mind if the main character gets attacked because she comes off as smug and spoiled.

Barlow points out that the birds don't start attacking right away.  There's a build-up of anticipation.  The first attack, depicted in this scene, doesn't happen until some 30 minutes later. 


When there's a switch from mystery to suspense, the audience knows more than the characters and therefore can shout at the characters, "Don't do that!"  They become invested in the story.  What the audience knows or doesn't know is up to the director.

In contrast, traditionally, readers of mysteries marveled at the grand reveal of the killer in a whodunit.  Nowadays, more often than not, in a TV crime show, we may already know who's dead and who killed the victim.  Our viewership has become more sophisticated because we're more interested in the how and the why of the crime.  We are active viewers.

Can this work in interactive fiction?  As Barlow explains, Her Story builds upon viewer expectations about police procedurals. The player has certain expectations as to what might be happening and dives right into the investigation.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose experience spans over 10 years in the game industry.  Her credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus and the 2007 RPG of the Year, The Witcher.  She is the chapter leader of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Upcoming Workshops: Game Writing and Sci Fi Deep Dive


If you've been coming to my workshops at PlayCrafting NYC, then you know that we've been covering many different topics in game writing.  This month's Game Writing Portfolio Workout on Monday, July 25, will be the culmination of all we've discussed because we will be going through exercises based on writing tests given by game companies.  Hopefully, through this process, you'll come to understand your strengths and weaknesses. 

If you come this month, bring a laptop or notepad and be prepared to do a lot of writing!

As always, Playcrafting NYC, which offers classes and events related to game development, has Early Bird tickets, but if they sell out (and they have in the past), you'll have to pay full price.

The details!
Date:  Monday July 25, 2016
Time: 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM


And coming up on Saturday, September 10, for the first time, will be my half-day workshop on incorporating science fiction, fantasy, and horror elements into any type of writing.  I've been yearning to do a deep dive about genre fiction and what better place than at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center in historic Philipse Manor at Sleepy Hollow, NY.  This workshop will be limited to 15 students and if you become a member of the HVWC, then you receive a discount off courses as well as other benefits, such as help in submitting your work to journals, agents, and publications.

The details!  
Date: Saturday, September 10, 2016
Time: 12:30 PM - 4:30 PM

About Me

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 and then I specialized in Screenwriting at USC's School of Cinematic Arts.  My first published game as a writer was on the epic space combat RPG, Terminus, which won 2 awards at the 1999 Independent Games Festival.  Afterwards, I worked on the episodic fantasy series Siege of Avalon, MMO Wizard101, and the dark fantasy RPG, The Witcher, for which I was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Videogame Writing. I currently head the WGAE Videogame Writers Caucus and am SIG leader of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Upcoming Wearable Tech

In this article, game designer Sande Chen previews upcoming wearable technology and how it may transform the way we live our lives.

Hololens
HoloLens Photo: Microsoft Sweden
While much excitement has been generated by the potential of high-end VR devices, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and the more affordable smartphone-using Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR, I'd like to spotlight two more technologies coming to consumers.  Microsoft HoloLens isn't VR, but what's known as "mixed reality," whereby holographic images are projected atop real environments.  If you've ever played an augmented reality game like Niantic's Ingress, then this is similar except that there's no phone.  This is a head-mounted display.

Here's a video from Microsoft that depicts uses for the HoloLens in daily life, in education, in collaborative workspaces, and in entertainment.


Google's Project Jacquard is technology woven into everyday clothes. Yes, like this upcoming first-ever "smart garment," Levi's Commuter x Jacquard.  Basically, conductive yarns can be woven into clothing, like jeans, jackets, shirts (well, anything fabric), turning them into touchscreen devices.  With the jacket, you can answer phone calls, get directions, and turn on music.  And it's machine washable.  How's that for functional?


Is there any new technology you're excited about?  Let me know in the comments!


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 1, 2016

The Future of AI NPCs

In this article, game designer Sande Chen describes what happens when players have a supercomputer for a mentor and what this development means for games in the future.

Showcased in last week's session "Playing Medical Minecraft with IBM Watson" at the Games For Change Festival, Medical Minecraft is more than just a student mod of Minecraft transformed into a first-person shooter with disease enemies like malaria.  Players get a strong ally in the form of a NPC powered by IBM Watson. IBM Watson is the computer system known mostly for beating its human competitors on "Jeopardy!"


IBM Watson By Clockready via Wikimedia Commons
Using AI for NPCs has been done before, most notably in the game, Facade, whereby the player can interact with a couple on the brink of divorce. YouTube is littered with examples of players messing with Facade.  The funniest tales are when the players refuse to role-play the domestic scenario and instead type in outlandish inputs such as impending global thermal nuclear war or a grisly car accident.  The couple continues on with the conversation without acknowledging the dire circumstances.

In Medical Minecraft, players can quell their curiosity about various diseases.  IBM Watson playing the knowledgeable mentor character answers the questions not by doing a massive brute force search of the Internet, but by relying on its training in determining what is the most likely answer.  Moreover, players do not have to confine themselves to certain phrases or words as in previous computer games.  They can carry on a Q&A conversation with IBM Watson.  It isn't like the classic game ELIZA at all, where the computer played a psychotherapist and tended to repeat words back to the player. 


What does this mean for the future of games?  Instead of a limited script from a NPC or a database the player must search through for information, the player can interact with a NPC in natural language.  Although the example above is limited to medical knowledge, it very likely could be expanded for history or other sciences.  And that's truly exciting stuff.

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 24, 2016

Educational Games: The Big Picture & G4C

Hello!  Just a quick note while I am at the Games For Change Festival.  Thank you all for coming to my talk. It was great to share some of the key insights from my research last year.

If you are interested in seeing all 5 research reports that were published on Games and Learning, they can be found here:  http://www.gamesandlearning.org/2016/06/22/gamesandlearning-org-series-fuels-g4c-discussion/

Also, check out Games and Learning's recommended sessions at the Games For Change Festival.

And a quick reminder about my upcoming game writing workshop this Monday, June 27, at PlayCrafting NYC, which will focus on writing for social impact games.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Return of the GDAM Podcast

If you did not know, Game Design Aspect of the Month (GDAM) started in 2009 as an initiative of the nascent IGDA Game Design SIG.  Topics were submitted and voted upon each month and then the entire month was devoted to that one game design topic.  The reasoning behind this was to encourage responses from the community to each other's articles and to really delve into a game design topic seriously.  In addition, each topic was accompanied by a podcast, whereby members of the community would get together and discuss the topic.

GDAM Podcasts are available for the following topics:

July 2009: Mature Games
August 2009: Single-Play Sessions
September 2009: Gaming The Game Developers (Part 1), Gaming the Game Developers (Part 2)

Although the production quality was low, the podcasts were popular.  However, handling the organization of a podcast each month was too much for me to handle on my own.  If anyone would like to help out in this endeavor, please let me know.  I would like to get this started up again, in some fashion or other.  It probably will not be on a monthly basis, though!

As you have probably noticed, though GDAM has maintained its original name, the monthly focus is no longer.  I still welcome articles and topic suggestions from the community but there is no longer the monthly poll.  However, I'd like to put up this poll as to what would be the topic of the next podcast.  Please look to the right to put in your vote!  

Your choices are: Leveling, Copycat Games, Forces of Nature, and No More War Games?

Saturday, June 4, 2016

A Doll Like Me: Disabilities in Games

In this article, game designer Sande Chen explores the nature of disability in video games.

After seeing this emotional video of a young girl receiving an American Girl doll with a prosthetic leg, I can see that character representations in games and toys do matter.  "A doll like me," the girl says, overcome with tears of joy.  It's only natural that a girl with a prosthetic leg would want a doll with a prosthetic leg.  Those with disabilities want their favorite toys to reflect their own lives.




Though this particular doll was modified pro bono by a different company, American Girl is no stranger to petitions to include the disabled.  In 2012, American Girl released a line of accessories such as wheelchairs, seeing eye dogs, walking canes, and crutches.

When I've had occasion to play with children online in games with character creation tools, I've found that they like to make characters that look like them.  They adjust skin tone as much as eye and hair color.  They want female characters to be in the game world as much as male characters.  I have never seen disabled characters as an option.  Granted, it might not fit in with the narrative fiction, but most games have fantasy elements (I'm counting even power fantasies), so why not an avatar in a wheelchair?

I know that there have been games made especially for the blind or for those with learning disabilities.  There have been games that try to make us feel like a schizophrenic or a depressed person.  A lot of developers are recognizing the need for accessibility options, whether it's a different color scheme for the colorblind or a way to customize keys.  These options concern disabled players, but what about disabled characters in games?

Among disabled game characters, there's been amputees who gained a high tech appendage or characters who viewed their disabilities as something to overcome.  I think I would prefer it if the stories didn't focus too much on their disabilities.  Perhaps the disability is even an advantage, much like in the movies Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral.  Those characters do have a back story about their disabilities, but they don't dwell on it.  Although their disabilities are obvious, they have accepted the way they are and the way life is for them.

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.