Sunday, May 12, 2019

Monetization and its Effect on Design

 In this article, Dr. Ibrahim Yucel summarizes thoughts and discussion held at the IGDA Game Design SIG roundtable on monetization at GDC2019, focusing on three different tiers of monetization integration.

The roundtable started with an invitation for those in the room to share their personal experiences designing or playing games with real money transactions within them. A few developers expressed their concerns about the ethics of the microtransaction model possibly putting their work in a bad light and one developer in particular expressed his wish to avoid microtransactions as a whole since he was not comfortable with it in the current environment. A few others pointed at the success they’ve had with microtransactions, and how the resources and capital it generated provided players with more content.  That improved engagement and kept the game, and its player base, alive.

The roundtable then continued to set a framework for discussing the effect in game economies had on game design, highlighting three potential tiers of integration into a game. First, we identified games in which real money transactions only provide the player with additional cosmetic items for the player to use, with no mechanical impact on the game rules. It was pointed out that even though most found this form of monetization unobjectionable, it still prevents a player from self-expression and ownership, which can be detrimental to their experience. The next tier we identified was paying for access into new or additional content. This was not too problematic as developers acknowledge that much of this additional content could not be made without the additional capital the in-game purchase provided. The negative consequence of this, however, was a potential fracturing of one's player base due to limiting access via purchase. The third tier, and most problematic, was allowing the player to buy power and/or time via real money transactions. We acknowledged that good practice with monetization allowed players to accumulate currency through play in addition to real money transactions, but the roundtable did not come to a consensus on how valuable the players' time should be.

In addition to these tiers, developers also pointed out the difference in purchasing consumables versus purchasing “permanent” virtual items, and marketplace effects on these forms of monetization. The comparison eventually began a discussion on the game Magic: The Gathering (M:TG), which had traditionally been a physical collectable card game but was now fairly successful with the launch of the digital M:TG Arena game. Developers pointed out while the digital version no longer give player the chance to “cash out” via ordering physical copies of their cards like in a previous M:TG digital forms, The reduced cost and convenience of the digital version allowed players who had abandoned the game to return.

The roundtable ended with a open questions session in which students and young developers asked questions of the body. Most questions dealt with if certain monetizations had been tried by others and pros and cons of specific practices.

Overall, I had a exceptionally educational experience at GDC 2019, and would like to thank the Game Design SIG for hosting the roundtable. I feel some were very hesitant to talk about monetization as it has developed many negative feelings in player communities, but still has potential to allow the best game experience for all players, regardless of their personal buy-in.

Dr. Ibrahim Yucel is a scholar of game studies, virtual reality, new media, digital culture, and online communities. His research currently focuses on the evolving forms of gamification and mixed realities. He is the Coordinator of the Interactive Media and Game Design program at SUNY Polytechnic in Utica, NY. He teaches in the Communications and Information Design program at SUNY Poly and is an adviser for the Information Design and Technology masters program.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Reflections on Mathematics in Game Design

In this article, game designer Sande Chen explains the importance of learning mathematics in the field of game design.

I went to a university so nerdy that answering calculus problems was sometimes the only way to gain entrance to a frat party. Knowledge of mathematics was expected, even of humanities majors like myself. I soon learned that my economics classes were full of calculus proofs and my writing classes, more often than not, had a scientific focus. There was no escape, it seemed, from numbers and mathematics.

Mathematics could be scary. I hated calculating triple integrals. I doubted myself. In my freshman year, I turned down an exciting opportunity to help build a microscope to be sent to outer space because I feared I could not do the calculations. It was not until my class in econometrics that I began to find my way. Unlike today, the tedious number crunching was done by hand rather than computer, but that was helpful to me because then I could clearly see from the large data sets what variables were affecting what.

Despite my initial reluctance, a love affair with numbers would serve me well in my chosen field of game design. It seems odd in these times of free-to-play business models and monetization design, but back then, it was fairly common that I would be asked how my economics background might benefit my career in the game industry. In those days, game companies did not have data divisions devoted to figuring out whether blue or pink lettering sold better. Still, I would point out that in economics, we learn how systems work - how one thing affects another – and that is exactly what a game designer needs to know.

A game designer is often in front of a spreadsheet with a large set of numbers. It's not just about determining prices, but sometimes it's about figuring out hit points, experience points, damage percentages, probabilities, and various character stats. So much of what a game designer does is surrounded by numbers. You could say it's about learning how to think like computer, but even analog games that don't need computers can need numbers. Many beginning game designers ask, “How do we figure out which numbers to use? There are so many things that need numbers.” The answer? By using mathematics.

Moreover, mathematics is truly a universal language. Even in first contact sci-fi movies, we try to communicate with space aliens using mathematics! If a game designer needs to explain how something will work to a computer programmer, then using mathematical equations is one of the best ways. If a game design has to be passed along to a second game designer, then finding mathematical equations in the documentation is such a relief, much better than seeing a bunch of numbers without any explanations. Simply put, mathematics allows you to express the relationships between sets of numbers in a very precise manner. And for game designers, it's best to be precise because the job requires you to know which numbers to use and on what.

This is particularly important to remember when you have loads and loads of numbers that are representing any number of things: weapons, spaceships, armor, potions, psi powers, etc. Since there are newb items or powers ranging up to elite, this means there are number sets. If the game designer finds out that one of the Level 1 items is too strong, then it is much easier to readjust the game balance when all the relationships are known. The entire number set may have to be evaluated and tweaked. You will want to know right away what other numbers are affected by that one change.

The importance of mathematics to game design sometimes comes as a surprise to beginning students. They may have thought of game designers as the “idea people,” but they did not really know what “idea people” actually do. Turning a game idea into reality requires more than hand-waving, especially when there are lots of numbers involved. Game designers can use mathematics to clearly specify their designs.

In short, love math and love games!

[This article was originally written for Mathematics Day at CUNY-Hostos.]

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, March 12, 2019

GDSIG at GDC2019: State of Monetization Design

Will you be at GDC next week?  If you're interested in monetization design, be sure to stop by the roundtable presented by the IGDA Game Design Special Interest Group (GDSIG). Dr. Ibrahim Yucel, Associate Professor at SUNY Polytechnic Institute will be discussing how in-game economies affect game design decisions. If you're a GDSIG member, you can pick up your GDSIG ribbon there.

Here's the scoop:

State of Game Monetization Design and Best Practices Roundtable (Presented by IGDA)

Location: Room 211, South Hall
Date: Thursday, March 21
Time: 5:30pm - 6:30pm

In-game economies, many with real money transactions, have become more and more prevalent as developers look to try and replicate the success they see in the mobile and first person shooter titles. However, as more monetization is incorporated into a game’s design, developers risk alienating the game’s community and hurting its overall sales. Worse yet, a monetization model can dictate mechanical changes to the game to make the monetization “worth it” such as reducing loot drops to such a degree that players are forced to trade in an auction house to make progress. This roundtable seeks to discuss best practices in the design of games with monetization in mind. 

Attendees will share their stories and learn from experienced developers on the current state of monetization in design. This knowledge should help them develop revenue in their titles while building their fan base and game community by increasing the perceived value of their games. 

Intended Audience
Independent game developers, students, economists, and those interested in player behavior and motivations would be the primary audience for this roundtable. In addition, those with experience in data analytics and monetization are welcome to come and share their experience. No prerequisite knowledge is required for the roundtable.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Want to Write for Video Games? GameACon Panel 2017

In this podcast, game writers Sande Chen, David Kuelz, and David Tiegen gives advice based on their experiences breaking into the game industry as writers.

Once again, I am grateful to Michael Beeghley for cleaning up the audio from this fan recording.  It is a little noisy in the beginning, but it gets clearer.  In 2017, there were some challenges with getting all our panelists to the event.  I joked it was like an Agatha Christie novel how people were getting picked off by transportation snafus.  But in the end, after an one hour delay, three of us remained, plus one impromptu moderator. (Really, we grabbed him out of a corridor!)

David Kuelz reveals his past as a butler.  Sande Chen describes juggling different paths into the industry.  David Tiegen discloses how reddit helped him to launch his career.

Want to Write For Video Games?
GameACon October 28-29, 2017

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. 

You can find other download options here.

GameACon is now held in 3 locations, Atlantic City, Las Vegas, and Queens.


A writer and game designer, Sande Chen has over 15 years experience in the industry. Her first game writing credit was on the epic space-combat RPG Terminus which won 2 awards at the 1999 Independent Games Festival. She was later nominated for a 2007 Writers Guild of America award in Videogame Writing for the dark fantasy RPG The Witcher. She is SIG leader of the IGDA Game Design SIG. Find her on Twitter @sandechen  

David Kuelz is the founder of Awkward Pegasus Studios, a writing and story consultancy for game developers. Since starting Awkward Pegasus in 2012, he has written and consulted for game developers nationwide and has led workshops on video game writing and narrative design all across the Northeast, including for the Gotham Writers' Workshop and Playcrafting. He’s currently designing the narrative for an unannounced RPG at Juncture Media.

Despite his calamitous path, David J. Tiegen has survived for over five years  by writing game stories, designing narrative systems, creative directing, producing, and whatever else he ends up doing in the shadows. His reputation, if any - the middling indie wordplopper - is recently that of a horror writer, contributing to games such as Albino Lullaby and Kaigan Games' upcoming followup to Sara is Missing. Before making games, he created comics, music, theatre, radio, and other such artsy stuff that further grew his distrust of stable and respectable career paths.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

How to Teach Game Writing and Other Dilemmas

In this article, game writer Sande Chen reacts to the recent publication of "How to Write a Video Game Story."

The recent Polygon feature, "How to Write A Video Game Story," by Colin Campbell, has elicited some fiery responses, especially regarding how much John Yorke charges for teaching a course in game writing, something for which he does not have any credits. However, right now, the page seems to indicate the course is a joint venture between himself and Caroline Marchal of Heavy Rain fame.  I do not know if the copy has been adjusted since the publication of the article, which is prominently displayed on the homepage.

Other commentators responded to Yorke's remarks that in order to gain better stories, game developers should hire screenwriters who know how to create strong protagonists by analyzing wants vs. needs.  Of course, there are game companies that have hired screenwriters and ended up disappointed.  There are certainly pitfalls for able screenwriters while game writing, as I have pointed out before in this blog, starting with an obsession for the 3-Act structure

In my experience, a screenwriting background does help, but so would a background in journalism or theater arts.  I have experience in all 3 fields, so I can see how they all relate to game writing.

If you've been to one of my workshops or classes or seen it mentioned at PlayCrafting NYC, then you know that I tend to teach based on my game writing experience rather than what I would call "theory."  I absolutely hated it in my writing classes when I was told to learn something, but to not pay attention to it while writing because "anything goes if it works."  I can understand the viewpoint that "theory" or story basics is necessary, just like music theory is necessary for music composition.  I too place a great deal of importance on themes.  But is it necessary to teach theory first or can it be done later? 

An actor friend of me once opined to me, "Can anyone teach anyone how to write?  You're either talented or you're not."  You can teach the basics but beyond that, a person floats or sinks based on that person's skill.  To that end, I feel like talent gives a headstart but the work ethic also matters.  Others feel like everyone is innately creative and it's the art of the teacher to cultivate that writer in everyone.  The teacher ends up being more of a cheerleader. 

Sometimes, I feel like the theory part is great for refining and shaping work rather than acting as a template.  Otherwise, a lot of stories are just too predictable (and therefore, boring). Personally, I like to focus on the practical in my teaching:  how to approach writing tests, what exact tasks might you be asked to do, or how do we shape this experience, etc. With the workshop approach, there tends to be support and sharing as well as feedback.

What do you find most useful in your writing classes?

Look to the summer for my course offerings.  I am planning new workshops.

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, January 2, 2019

Happy New Year 2019!

Hello, I had some medical issues to take care of, so the blog went on hiatus... but now it's time to get this blog up and moving again!  I will try to get biweekly blog posts up a month rather than commit fully to once a week, but aim for once a week. 

There's lots of posts left in the queue:  a guest post, a podcast, several book reviews, and a post about unions :) 

Also, one of my dearest wishes for this year is to resurrect my former column on women's issues in the game industry and move it to a more accessible format. 

I usually like to interview subjects who have been overlooked by the industry, who are involved in projects and initiatives that really should be publicized, and who are great storytellers.

If that sounds like you, or someone you know, please let me know by sending me an e-mail with the subject heading of "Dame Dev."

Best of luck in the new year!

Sande Chen

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 27, 2018

Narrative Design and Videogame Writing for Screenwriters

On May 1, 2018, NYU Game Center Professor Clara Fernández-Vara was featured in THE BREAKERS series’ second event, "Narrative Design and Videogame Writing for Screenwriters." Presented by the Writers Guild of America, East's (WGAE) New Media Caucus, THE BREAKERS event series highlights revolutionary writers in the entertainment industry. The WGAE New Media Caucus is a community of professional writers who produce content for digital distribution such as webseries, video games, AR and other media.

Clara Fernández-Vara is a game scholar, designer, and writer who has worked on commercial and experimental games. Before joining the NYU Game Center, Clara spent six years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a researcher and game developer. She holds a Ph.D. in Digital Media from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a Masters in Comparative Media Studies from MIT. Her videogame work focuses on narrative design, and bridging games design and storytelling.

While Professor Fernández-Vara did indicate that some games, like the Uncharted and Metal Gear Solid series have filmic aspirations, she cautioned traditional screenwriters that they may need to cultivate new skills and knowledge in order to make the transition to videogame writing. They may need to think about how motivation, conflict, necessity, and structure change when a player can make choices and participate in the story.  In addition, narrative design, a related discipline, is not so much storytelling as it is story-building. Narrative design combines storytelling, systems thinking, and spatial design.

An example of indexical storytelling.
She pointed to environmental storytelling and indexical storytelling as examples of how game stories occupy a wider scope than just character lines and actions. Other differences include the use of silent protagonists and how player choices can alter character personalities.  Moreover, there are no set standards for game scripts. They may be written in Excel, programs like Chat Mapper, or even proprietary scripting tools.

Next, she gave examples of what a typical AAA writing test would be like, resources on game writing tools, and sites to learn more about games.  Although the game industry is interested in recruiting traditional Hollywood screenwriters, they will still need to understand audience interaction and meaningful decisions. Fernández-Vara’s talk provided an excellent overview of what screenwriters would need to do to develop the skills necessary for work in the 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.