Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Art of the Brainstorm

In this article, game designer Sande Chen provides the ground rules for a successful group brainstorming session.

When handled badly, brainstorming hurts!
We all know about unproductive meetings.  They're frustrating, annoying, and mostly a waste of time.  It's even worse when it's a group brainstorming session gone wrong.  I remember being in a room full of mobile game developers with the boss at the whiteboard.  He shot down suggestion after suggestion.  We felt such immense pressure over the name of this mobile game!  Why couldn't we come up with an approved, awesome name?  I left the meeting feeling like my brain was fried.

The pressure, the boss, the environment.  All of this was terrible in terms of encouraging creative insight.  Let me tell you, we creatives will do better work in a non-judgemental zone.

If you want to get better at group brainstorming, here are some guidelines:

1)  Can the criticism

Nothing shuts down a brainstorming session more than criticism and defensiveness.  The purpose of brainstorming is not to cause arguments, but to generate ideas.  The mantra should be Quantity, not Quality.  You want to get as many ideas out as possible without stopping to think if they're lame or not.  You can sort out the ideas later.  And who knows, maybe that first idea will lead to better ones as the session goes on, but if you had stopped it there, you would have never gotten to the pearls.

2) Even the environment

If you use a facilitator, then the facilitator probably shouldn't be the boss.  You want the participants to feel that all opinions are valued and that it's a safe environment to share.  Sounds mushy, but that's the way of it. The brainstorming session is going to go better if it's not dominated by a few, loud voices.  Let everyone mingle in a room that's free from pressure and make it a fun activity.

3) Bring out the toys

As in most prototyping sessions, there should be supplies such as sticky pads or index cards or whiteboard markers.  If you've got a doodler, then this is the best time to doodle.  For something like names, you can play word association.  In fact, at the last Global Game Jam I attended, we simply went around in a circle and asked each other what associations or feelings the jam theme word evoked.  This inevitably led to more ideas and furious sketching about what the gameplay may be like.

A successful group brainstorming session is a joy.  Everyone feels energized and excited to continue on the project.  Next time you have a group brainstorming session, try these tips for a more productive meeting.

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 14, 2017

IGDA Game Writing Podcast: Sande Chen

In this podcast, game writer Sande Chen discusses her career in games and covers various topics such as narrative design, system design, and work-life balance.

In 2014, Carl Killian was interviewing game writers for a podcast series for the IGDA Game Writing SIG.  This initiative was stalled (but still going on slowly) and my interview was not posted.  However, I recently was able to obtain the raw, unedited recording.

So, if you don't mind static and lack of polish, what follows is a very frank, hour-long discussion about my career and how others can pursue game writing as a career.  I talk about working on The Witcher and Terminus as well as give advice on how to break in and become a writer in the game industry.

You can find other download options 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.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

It's Computer Science Education Week

It's Computer Science Education Week (#CSEdWeek) and there's still time to participate in an Hour of Code!  Check out all the Hour of Code activities available for all ages.  You can learn to code using Scratch within the Google Doodle or see what resources NASA has about programming robots. Millions of students worldwide are taking this opportunity to learn to code.

Here's an interview I did for the Microsoft NY blog a few years ago to celebrate Computer Science Education Week:

Sande Chen, Instructor — Playcrafting NYC

What was your introduction to the gaming community?
As a child, I programmed my own text-based adventures and I definitely played games.  But, I didn’t really think about video games as a career until much later. After I finished film school, I decided that I wanted to work in video games because interactivity was a new frontier in writing. I started working as a freelance writer in the video game industry. I transitioned that experience into jobs as a producer then as a game designer.

What do you teach in your Playcrafting courses?
The courses I’ve done for Playcrafting are Educational Game Design, Sci-Fi and Fantasy Game Worlds, and Game Writing.

How did you learn game dev / design?
I took classes at MIT like Non-Linear and Interactive Writing. The last project in that class is to build your own game or interactive experience. I took other workshops on game design, MMOs, and mobile storytelling at MIT during the Independent Activities Period, which is a whole month where as a student, you can explore anything you want.

Outside of higher ed, what are some opportunities to learn dev or design?
My local public library is currently running a video game design class to make platformers. In the past, the library has had courses on Unity, Scratch, and even on how to build a desktop computer. Scratch, which targets younger learners, has instructional videos online. There are even games that teach programming and game development. Some are available on the Web.

Tell us about computer science applications in gaming.
Computer programming is an important aspect of video game development. It’s also important on the art and animation side. Artists need to learn how to use 2D and 3D tools to make assets for the game. Producers, designers, and writers may not be doing the active coding but they still have to understand how to use the programs.

Outside of game dev, how do coding skills apply in your everyday life?
I think understanding the process of coding and debugging is definitely helpful in daily life in terms of problem-solving. Just looking at a problem logically can help in determining the best way to tackle a problem.

Who can learn computer science?
I think anyone has the capacity to learn computer science. Especially when you consider how computers and computer power has infiltrated our lives, it’s an important skill to have. I think that’s why more states, including New York, will be requiring computer science education.

Who can take a Playcrafting course?
Anyone can take a Playcrafting course! There are so many disciplines covered at Playcrafting that I think it would interest artists, makers, programmers, writers, designers, and even business people.  If you want to be involved in games or if you just want to increase your knowledge about certain topics, then Playcrafting classes are a great way to do that.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Joys of Fan Fiction

In this article, game writer Sande Chen looks at the fascinating depth of fan fiction and wonders what this means for the fan/creator relationship.

At a StoryForward NYC event, "The Business of Collaborative Storytelling" speaker Steele Filipek noted the interplay between fans and creators.  With the popularity of crowdfunding sites, storytellers just like game makers need to consider this closer relationship with customers, also known as the fandom. There are tricky legal issues when fans decide to go further, writing their own fictional works, or for developers, making mods.  Some famous authors, like George R.R. Martin, are strongly against this practice.  Others are OK with letting fans play with their characters as long as it's not for profit and comes from a hobbyist spirit.  As story creators, we want our customers to engage and became enthusiastic fans, but how do we balance the needs of the audience with our own control over the material?  Academics, unperturbed, study fan fiction for its way of twisting norms, its exploration of gender and sexuality, and because like glimpsing parallel worlds, fan fiction provides insight into all the pathways not taken.

The relationship between fans and author can be contentious, as evidenced by what happened with the aftermath of the Southern Vampire Mysteries series by Charlaine Harris. Harris' supernatural characters had been traveling on different story trajectories since the books had been picked up for adaptation into HBO's TV drama, "True Blood"  Harris herself was influenced or inspired to change aspects of her writing based on the show.  For instance, the vampire Bill in the book series ends up as King of Louisiana as a nod to his TV counterpart and was not killed off as intended.  Harris even sanctioned other writers to extrapolate her characters' stories in the book, Dead But Not Forgotten: Stories From the World of Sookie Stackhouse.  However, there was large-scale anger within the fandom over the ending of the series, which had become more paranormal romance than mystery, over a number of issues.  This led to a multitude of interesting "fix-it" fictions.

Harris contended that these fans were upset over not getting what they wanted: a Happily Ever After (HEA) for Eric and Sookie.  While to some fans, the Eric/Sookie OTP (One True Pairing) had been telegraphed, as one Reddit fan indicated with the following chart, and her marriage to Sam seemed forced, as was discussed in The Love Triangle, the reasoning for this anger was multifaceted. Subsequent post-series fanfictions paired Sookie not only with Eric, but with Sam, Bill, Alcide, Quinn, Felipe, Victor, Eric's human descendant, a wendigo, some random werewolf, and with no one, as Sookie can be an empowered woman, proud to be single and unattached.  In many stories, Sookie grows into her fae bad ass self, embracing her supernatural power, and orchestrates Eric's rescue and/or her revenge.  One fansite owner felt betrayed to find out book Sookie would end up spurning her supernatural ties, despite her fae heritage, her demon godfather, her werepanther brother, shifter husband and other supe exes, to exult in small-town normalcy (or hypocrisy, as Sookie herself had suffered greatly from their ostracism).  The fansite owner had seen an allegory in the making about tolerance and minority rights, and now was very bitter.

Another source of anger, which is more understandable in the current climate and #MeToo revelations, is Sookie's dismissal of her brutal rape by Bill. In the book, she never acknowledges the rape and even continues to have a soft spot for Bill.  Fanfiction authors corrected that oversight and wanted badly to rescue Eric, who had already endured 300 years of sexual servitude and sacrificed his wealth, station, and friends to protect Sookie, from another 200 years as a not-so-willing sex slave.  Sometimes, Sookie is punished for being so uncaring such as in one story, where her telepathic son commits suicide due to his mother's close-mindedness, her eldest daugher dies from domestic violence, and her youngest runs off to become a vampire and Eric's eventual lover.  In another, Eric finds a more suitable and caring half-fae lover while Sookie boils with jealousy.  Even within Eric/Sookie OTP, they may not get a HEA but a lot of times, they do.  Or they find an uneasy continuance, such as in the story where Eric has an online relationship with Sookie using a pseudonym. There are simply so many different fictional avenues.

Other fans exacted a more demanding cost to the magic that brought Sam back from the dead other than Eric's heartbreak.  Sam came back changed, with scary results.  The wish cleaved Sookie into 2 people with 2 separate lives since the magic was not used properly.  A sacrifice of a life for a life was required.  Sookie suffers an additional "curse" of eternal life.

In a transmedia mindset, all of these stories with different outcomes and pathways are interesting, but what do they do to the brand?  From a business standpoint, we do want this continual interaction with fans, but eventually, we will need to clarify a stance.  Do you have any stories or advice on how to manage this relationship?  Do tell.

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.