Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Podcast: IGDA GDSIG Mentor AMA Game Writing

Greetings!  Our 3rd IGDA Game Design SIG (GDSIG) Mentor AMA (Ask Me Anything) in conjunction with the National STEM Video Game Challenge focused on game writing and featured questions from mentors and students around the United States, such as:
  • What is your biggest challenge in developing a video game, both in storyline and in general? 
  • What are some key differences between a good and a bad narrative?
  • Where do you see virtual reality and augmented reality going, and how do you think this technology will change games and storytelling?
  • What are some ways a designer can tell a story in a game that gives the player opportunities to make real choices that genuinely affect the outcome of the game?
  • What would you say is the #1 pitfall in the design of serious games?
A full transcript of the questions, transcribed by volunteer Jam Blute, is available on the IGDA Game Design SIG Facebook group Files section, as well as sample game design documents. The GDSIG group is a closed Facebook group, but free and open to everyone, provided you follow the guidelines.  The IGDA is an international, non-profit organization whose mission is to advance the careers and improve the lives of game developers.

The National STEM Video Game Challenge is a multi-year competition whose goal is to motivate interest in STEM learning among America’s youth by tapping into students’ natural passion for playing and making video games.

With Felix Wilhelmy as moderator, the guest panelists for the 3rd GDSIG Mentor AMA were Sheri Graner Ray, Bobby Stein, and Sande Chen.

Sheri Graner Ray is an award-winning game designer and CEO of ZombieCat Studios and worked for such companies as Schell Games, Origin, Sony Entertainment, and the Cartoon Network.

Bobby Stein is the Associate Narrative Director and Narrative Design Lead at ArenaNet, the maker of Guild Wars.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer best known for her work on titles such as The Witcher and Wizard 101.

We are continually striving to improve the Mentor AMAs.  Let us know if you have any feedback or if you'd like to participate as a volunteer or mentor!  Follow GDSIG on Twitter @IGDAGDSIG or on YouTube.  We will be moving to video soon.

Listen to the full AMA panel below or on Soundcloud.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Making Sense of Children's Educational Apps

In this article, game designer Sande Chen relates advice to parents and developers alike on how parents find age-appropriate and educational apps for children.

The latest research report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, "Discovering Kids' Apps: Do Family Strategies Vary By Income," centers on the decision process parents make in downloading educational apps.  With so many free apps with dubious educational value, how is a parent to decide which apps are worthwhile? On the flip side, what information can educational app developers provide to aid in discoverability?

As indicated in What's Wrong with Pre-K Game Apps, the majority of children's apps do not have any kind of educational benchmark. Highly rated apps on sites like Common Sense Media, Parents' Choice, and Children's Technology Review may not correspond with app store rankings, consumer reviews, or featured app lists.  Parents desire to know an app's age range or developmental stage focus, information that is often lacking in app store descriptions.  Because of this, many parents, in particular those in middle and higher income levels, engage in "app trialing," in which they download the app first and play it before the child ever sees it.  Lower income parents in the study tended to choose the educational apps to download whereas higher income parents were more likely to involve the child in the decision making process.

Whether due to virtual good concerns, freedom from ads, or a perceived higher educational value, higher income parents were more likely to purchase paid apps. Though there is no evidence that quality corresponds with price, many highly regarded apps do cost more.  Lower income parents downloaded fewer apps overall and tended to prefer free apps.  They also were more likely to depend on app store information rather than seeking out information on other sites.  Among all income levels, parents relied heavily on "word of mouth" reviews from other parents, relatives, teachers, and friends.

Higher income parents expressed frustration with app store descriptions, feeling that they needed more guidance from educational experts.  They wanted assurance of efficacy, which could have come from more prominent notice of research or recommendation.

With so much competition in the app store, particularly in Pre-K educational apps, developers know that they need to appeal to parents as well as kids.  They can send off their apps for review to parent-friendly sites and they can provide the necessary information for parents to make informed decisions.

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 26, 2017

The Love Triangle

In this article, game writer Sande Chen discusses the necessity of interesting choices in the realm of romance.

In the book, How Games Move Us: Emotion By Design, by Professor Katherine Isbister, discusses the dating sim Love Plus at length as an example of emotional design with non-playing characters (NPCs). Love Plus traces the journey of a budding romance, but unlike in real life, there's no fear of actual rejection. The player will always end up "loved" because the NPCs, even when snippy, are always in love with the player.  As in romance novels, lovers rejoice after many trials and tribulations.

The player has a choice of 3 different girls, who will react differently according to their personalities. During the initial phase, the Friend Zone, there may even be Jealousy Events as 2 girls discover they both share affection for the same person, the player.

Alas, this brings us to that popular conflict in the realm of romance, the love triangle.

Within the mindset of "a series of interesting choices," we wouldn't want each potential lover to be the same. We want a fulfilling love but not the same one. Each branch of the narrative should lead to love, but because of who we are and our personalities, the journey is not the same. I wrote about this relationship distinction in Interchangeable He And She when discussing a hypothetical change to replace all female pronouns with male ones to include a gay romance option.  If the story doesn't lead to love, then it's a tragedy, but one that should be brought forth by clear decisions driven by character traits.

Otherwise, the ending feels forced. The author hadn't taken the care to find a logical means for breaking up the love triangle without making someone act out of character or become a sudden, unmotivated asshole.  In the world of linear storytelling, I feel cheated out of a good story when the prince who had been such a caring and devoted childhood friend suddenly becomes a backstabbing fiend so that the girl can fall in love with that other guy in the last 10 pages of the novel.

I find the most interesting love stories are when I'm not sure where the story will go.  Both potential lovers are good choices and therefore, it's a very hard choice for the protagonist.  I'd be equally happy with either choice as long as it's understandable.

That's often the problem with OTP (One True Pairing) stories. There may be a love triangle, but there's no comparison to the OTP. The other person is such a bad, bad choice that who in their right mind would prefer that person? We start to wonder what's wrong with the protagonist that he or she can't see the obvious. By recasting the protagonist as player, it's easier to see that we would want each potential love affair to be a serious potential love affair.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Fantasy Worldbuilding Tips for Beginners

In this article, game writer Sande Chen sums up advice from a 2017 NYCC panel about fantasy worldbuilding.

At last week's New York Comic Con, top comics writers dispensed cautionary fantasy worldbuilding tips during the panel, Wizards and Fairies and Spells - Oh My! After recommending beginners read over dungeon master manuals, writers Kel MacDonald, Brian Schirmer, Dani Colman, Si Spurrier, Sebastian Girner, and Skottie Young proceeded to explain some of the pitfalls awaiting new fantasy writers.

Primarily, several panelists expressed the opinion that worldbuilding shouldn't take precedence over story, or any other activity.  Worldbuilding should not become a full-time job.  It's far too easy for beginning fantasy writers to get caught up with the process of worldbuilding and end up with a beautifully realized world without a story.  In fact, the world can enrich the story, and even become an externalization of a character's emotional life.

Next, the panelists discussed magic and magic systems, and urged writers to think about the cost of magic, as I do in my class, Writing for Sci-Fi, Fantasy, & Horror Game Worlds.  If magic didn't have a price or penalty, then what's to stop people from using magic all the time?  One panelist talked about the Harry Potter universe having 2 magic systems, one without cost and one with cost.

Finally, writers were asked to think carefully about the choice of POV character.  If Gandalf had been the POV character in The Lord of the Rings, then the story would be very different.  The reader would miss out on the feeling of wonder in regards to magic because Gandalf, as a wizard, would know all about the intricacies of the magic system.

Although this was a panel of comics writers, their advice applies to more than just comics writing.  But if you're interested in learning what game writers might have to say about the topic, I along with Dalton Gray, Sharang Biswas, Jennifer Estaris, David Kuelz, and David Tiegen will be speaking on the game writing panel at GameACon Atlantic City on October 28. Hope to see you there.

A writer and game designer, Sande Chen has over 10 years experience in the industry. She studied science fiction and science writing at MIT. Her first published game was 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.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Upcoming Workshop: Game Writing Portfolio Workout

In addition to the Writing for Video Games panel at GameACon Atlantic City on October 28, I have an upcoming game writing workshop through PlayCrafting NYC, which will be held at Microsoft NY in Times Square.

To learn more about me, you can read an interview I recently did with SciFiPulse: "Sande Chen discusses her career, teaching, and video game design."

The popular Game Writing Portfolio Workout, which had been on hold during the longer 4-week Game Writing Primer course, returns on Tuesday, October 10.  I haven't done this workshop since June of this year.  If you want to see what the life of a free-lance game writer is like, come to this workshop for a deep dive into typical game writing tasks. You'll be writing continually, so be sure to bring a laptop or notepad.

Here's what a former student has said about Game Writing Portfolio Workout:
"This is so far one of the best Playcrafting workshops. The teacher was funny, incredibly knowledgeable and shared the best insider secrets!"
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. 

Come and write!
Game Writing Portfolio Workout
Date:  Tuesday, October 10, 2017
Time: 6:30-8:30 PM

Each session is different and dynamic.  Existing story ideas are welcome, but not necessary, because writing prompts during class are intended to generate leads. 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Podcast: Game Design Tips from Sande Chen

A few weeks back, I did an interview with AppMasters. Their podcasts are full of valuable information intended to help you succeed in the mobile app business.

Link to the Podcast: Game Design Tips from Sande Chen

Listen on to hear about the issues with designing for VR, educational game design, narrative design, and about transitioning into the game industry as a writer.

Podcast Description

Today’s guest is one of the Game Industry’s Top 100 Most Influential Women and she shares her tips on educational and VR game design. You will also discover her process for writing game narratives and how freelancing while at her full-time job allowed her to be completely on her own.

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 10 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.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

How playing games can advance science

In this response, Claire Baert describes her fascination with citizen science games and poses some questions about the practice.

This morning, like most days, I woke up early, had a latte, turned on my computer and opened Gamasutra. Like most days, I'm looking for articles discussing how games can help advance scientific research. But this morning, for the first time, I found the article I was waiting for. A blog post by Sande Chen, featured by Gamasutra, and [re]titled: Why designers should embrace 'citizen science' . This was the trigger for me to start this blog, to write about citizen science games and share my passion with the Gamasutra community. In this first post, I will introduce many of the citizen science games everyone can play to advance science, and briefly introduce the different topics I will cover in the next posts.

My story with citizen science games began in 2013, in a small game studio in the UK. I was researching free to play, casual browser games, and was doing a quick play through the tutorials. Between Farmerama and Grepolis, I had listed a game I had never heard of: Foldit. First surprise, it's a client game. Second surprise, I'm taught how to mutate a protein to form more hydrogen bonds, not that casual. Third surprise, I'm doing real science. (Fourth surprise, first thing I did when coming back home was downloading Foldit on my laptop.)

I quickly became fascinated with the concept of citizen science games and started searching more of them. Not any kind of serious games, but specifically games that allow us, players, to contribute to authentic scientific research, without any scientific background. Games in which we provide valuable scientific data, accelerate research by analysing data, or solve complex scientific problems. Games that help diagnosis and cure diseases or that can answer important scientific questions.

After learning how to fold proteins in Foldit, I learnt how to fold RNA molecules in EteRNA and DNA molecules in Phylo. By playing these puzzle games, we are helping eradicate diseases. On my phone, I shoot at parasites in MalariaSpot to diagnose malaria in blood smear, I'm growing a microbe colony for Colony B. I'm mapping the brain in Eyewire and Mozak, advancing the field of neuroscience. I also dared join the quantum computing field, moving quantum atoms in Quantum Moves, optimising quantum algorithms in the prototype of meQuanics and solving quantum error corrections in Decodoku. All these steps are important to build quantum computers. Recently I've been showing off my navigation skills (ahem) in Sea Hero Quest, (and in VR!), to provide data to scientists researching dementia. With almost 3 million players, Sea Hero Quest is the largest dementia study in history.

Screenshot from Sea Hero Quest -VR
I loved the concept of citizen science games so much that about 2 years ago, I launched a website dedicated to them. It's called… well… Citizen Science Games. For the content, I contacted many scientists and journalists, which led to the opportunity to join one of the team. I am now bringing my experience from the game industry to Stall Catchers, in which we annotate blood vessels to help answering questions about Alzheimer's disease.

Scientists have started harnessing our love for games to conduct scientific research, sometimes on their own, sometimes with game designers and developers. As Sande Chen reported in her post, they have been using different design approaches: integration, gamification and separation. Most of the games mentioned above are examples of integration. The gameplay was designed around a scientific problem. Stall Catchers uses game elements: we get points, accuracy feedback, climb leader boards and participate in punctual competitions. To illustrate the separation approach, I will use the example of EVE Online. EVE Online is the first (and only) mainstream games that integrated real citizen science activities, Project Discovery, to the game. We are looking for exoplanets by analysing luminosity measurements of stars. By reaching more than one million contributions in one day, Project Discovery became one of the most successful online citizen science project. This is also one of the rare citizen science game having a few articles on Gamasutra, which recently covered the launch of the second round of Project Discovery and an awesome GDC talk by CCP and MMOS.

Project Discovery
There is an increasing number of citizen science games. They generate tangible results and publications and can lead to important discoveries. Scientists write about design, mechanics, difficulties, pitfalls, discoveries, results, recommendations. They try to understand what motivates people to engage with these games. There is also some controversies. Do games attract or retain participants in citizen science project? Shall citizen science be gamified? Are games compatible with serious and rigorous traditional scientific research?  All these questions find some answers in papers and will be discussed in future posts.

How could more studios embrace the concept? What scientific problems could be brought to existing games? What game genre would be best fitted for citizen science projects? What would be the best ways to integrate them? By starting this blog, I'm hoping to raise awareness about citizen science games. I'm also hoping to establish contact and start discussions with designers and developers interested in the genre.

And finally, I'm a big fan of this quote so I have to share it. It was written by Dara Mohammadi who was a scientific adviser on Sea Hero Quest:
"As a planet we spend 3 billion hours a week playing online games. If even a fraction of that time can be harnessed for science, laboratories around the world would have access to some rather impressive cognitive machinery."
 [This article originally appeared on Claire Baert's blog on Gamasutra.]

Claire Baert has 10 years experience in the video game industry and now focuses on citizen science games. She launched the website, Citizen Science Games, in 2016.