Sande Chen discusses her career, teaching, and video game design

"...This system-thinking approach is essential to game design. Game designers are responsible for devising the rules of the game, how variables interact with each other, and the consequences of the player's actions..."

Sande Chen has been in the video game industry since the late 1990s. In addition to being a writer on The Witcher, Wizard 101, and dozens of other games, Chen is a co-author of Serious Games: Games that Educate, Train, and Inform, and is now teaching various courses on game design and narrative. Wanting to learn more about her career, Chen allowed me to interview her for ScifiPulse.

To learn more about Chen, check out her blog here and follow her on Twitter at @sandechen.

Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some video games you loved playing? And given you experience making games, are there any video games from your youth that you still love playing?

Sande Chen: I played a lot of different games growing up, which included card, tabletop, and video games. I especially loved Centipede with its bright colors and trackball.  I excelled at games like Puzzle Bobble, which involved pointing a cannon at different colored bubbles to solve a puzzle.  I still like a lot of puzzle games.  I worked in casual game development for many years and I can understand why these puzzle games are so addictive.

But I also played PC role-playing games like Ultima and Wizardry, games based on Dungeons & Dragons where the player could be part of an adventuring party as a mage, fighter, or healer.  One of the first games I worked on, Siege of Avalon, was an episodic hero’s journey in the fighting style of Diablo.

Nowadays, I play a massively multiplayer online fantasy title (MMO) and mobile games like Candy Crush Soda Saga.  Once in a while, I have come across video games from my youth as they are being re-released or adapted for mobile or other platforms.  As for the bigger PC games, in the past, a person couldn’t play those old titles without an emulator, but with GOG, one can find a lot of classic titles.

At one video game conference, I came across a Centipede competition to celebrate some sort of re-release on mobile phones.  I played it and I was just too good at it.  The people there kept on urging me to continue for a prize, but I needed to leave.  I didn’t mind.  It was for the nostalgia and it was great to have that moment of pure fun.

Yanes: When did you know that you wanted to have a career making video games? Was there a specific game that pushed you in this direction?

Chen: Like many girls of that time, I had stopped playing video games while I was in high school and college.  It’s not that I didn’t know about video games.  Video games just weren’t targeted towards young women.  I didn’t think about having a career in video game development until after film school.  I wanted to be at the forefront of narrative innovation and for me, I thought that would lie in the interactivity of video games.

I don’t feel like there was any particular game that cemented my decision.

 

Yanes: You have a background in economics. How has this influenced how you approach video game design?

Chen: Economists study systems and variables in the system.  This system-thinking approach is essential to game design.  Game designers are responsible for devising the rules of the game, how variables interact with each other, and the consequences of the player’s actions.  Game designers are also responsible for making sure there is game balance so that every player has a fair chance and a fun experience.

Yanes: Given how difficult it is to have a stable career in the video game industry, what advice do you offer to anyone interested in making games for a living?

Chen: There are many avenues into the game industry.  An aspiring game developer would probably go a game jam to meet other like-minded individuals and make a game.  Some people decide to go indie while keeping a day job.  Others gain skills to work on AAA game development.

Yanes: You are teaching a game writing course, “Writing for Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Game Worlds.” What are key pillars you think every sci-fi, fantasy, or horror game should have?

Chen: Because players are often using their own magic or supernatural powers within the game, there needs to be consistency on how these work and the situations in which they do or do not work.  A lot of the thrill in playing a game is being able to wield these superpowers, but if there’s no vulnerability to them, then there’s no challenge in the game.  Some people enjoy playing in “God mode” where they can easily defeat everything, but this is not the ideal outcome for a game designer who wants to satisfy players who want all types of difficulty levels.

 

Yanes: For me, the quality of a horror game is directly tied to sound. Breathing from the shadows, footsteps just out of sight, creaking floorboards, and more are key to me engaging the story. As a writer, how do you begin thinking of the audio space for the story you are crafting?

Chen: A writer can suggest sound effects, but ultimately, in a game, this is up to the game audio engineer.

Yanes: Another course you are teaching, “Designing Games for Impact,” will focus on social impact and empathy of game design. How do you approach designing a game to maximize the emotional connection the player will develop with the narrative?

Chen: There are many techniques. A designer would need to understand the target audience, the goals of the project, and the delivery method. For instance, a game in virtual reality is a very different experience from a MMO, which is very social.

One trap that some people fall into is assuming that by its nature, a game technology leads to empathy.  Because players are controlling a character and are often in first person view, players can blur the line between characters and themselves.  However, just because a player controls a character, that does not mean that a player is necessarily feeling or thinking the same thoughts as the player-character.  A situation that can arise is called narrative dissonance, whereby a player is pulled out of the scenario because what the player wants to do is different from the stated goals of the player-character.

Yanes: Overall, when people finish playing the video games you’ve worked on, what feelings do you hope they take away from them?

Chen: I hope that players had fun! Ultimately, games have to be fun, even if they’re used for education or social impact.

Yanes: Finally, what are some projects you are working on that people can look forward to?

Chen: I’m not at liberty to discuss the projects I’m working on but they are in the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror vein, like a lot of games.  I’m looking forward to writing for new technologies and learning how players interact with these technologies.

To learn more about Chen, check out her blog here and follow her on Twitter at @sandechen.

And remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow Scifipulse on twitter at @SciFiPulse and on facebook.

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