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.