Diversity in Games (and Other Media)

Nothing like a sinus infection & viral bronchitis combo to slow your week, topped off with busting up your phone! At I can say that I am on the mend; as for the phone, that remains to be seen.

Since the Daily Post doesn’t have this week’s photo challenge up yet, here’s a topic that crossed my mind again recently and does on occasion when I’m writing or designing, or just reading about games and media in general: diversity. I’ll be talking mostly about games here, but a lot of this applies to other media like movies, TV, comics, and so forth, so expect some crisscrossing of that line.

It’s no big secret or shock that most game protagonists are the default white male. Most designers are white men, and historically their target demographic has been white males. It still baffles me that some people react some strongly against this “status quo” being changed or challenged, but that’s a different topic altogether. I understand why this is the default–the old adage of “write what you know” is a powerful and natural direction to take when writing. It’s easiest to imagine yourself as the protagonist of a story. If you were to take a look at all my writing and roleplaying characters over the years, you’d find that most of them were female, white, with red or brown hair. This, and likewise the default white casts or male white protagonists of TV shows, movies and games did not stick out to me as odd for a long time.  Read more


Game Design: Support the Story Experience

More than once I’ve been asked what advice I have for people who want to design games, and everytime my first piece of advice is make sure everything in the game supports the story/experience.

I have usually just said “story”, but not every game’s main thrust is the story–hence, story/experience. What does that mean? Even if your game is open world exploration or a MOBA fighting game (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) or an FPS, and not an adventure game (as is my wont), there’s still a specific experience you want players to have. A mood, a frame of mind, a social interaction, or whatever else. I would add that I believe most people unconsciously add their own story to games that don’t lay out a specific one (ask me sometime about the narrative I’ve decided to paint when my husband plays World of Tanks!), but even if they don’t add their own, there is still the experience.

That’s what it means in theory. In practice? It means don’t add anything to your game that doesn’t support the story you’re telling. Don’t do it because when you do, you waste your time (and money and resources) and you waste the player’s time on something that is superfluous, unimportant, and may even remove them from the gameplay experience. This is why you should never add a puzzle for the sake of a puzzle. Only add a puzzle if it reinforces a point about the characters, the world, or the plot. If it’s there just to kill time, then that is all you’ve done. Killed time. And with the modern game audience, that’s all it takes for them to move on to the next thing.

My favorite examples of these are, of course, from adventure games. In that community, it gets called “moon logic” a lot, or puzzles where your true goal is to “figure out what the designer was thinking.” At the peak of this in my book are three puzzles from King’s Quest V: cheese in the machine, pie at the yeti, and emeralds in honey.

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What Do You Want to Know About Kickstarter?

As I’ve posted about before, Phoenix Online ran a Kickstarter campaign for our upcoming game, Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller. It was a fantastic success–we not only hit our $25,000 goal, we raised $34,247, and we’re now the 8th most successful video game project on Kickstarter, ever.

This April, the Penny Arcade Expo will be having it’s Boston-area event, aka PAX East, and I intend to attend the convention. I went in 2010 and it was a lot of fun, myself and another director did some interviews that were key in saving The Silver Lining, plus it was just really interesting! (Linkapalooza today, aren’t I?) There’s a huge area of booths for companies to showcase their games and other products, panels on all kinds of topics relevant to gamers, from gaming culture to Q&A with game creators, to dramatic presentations to suggestions for raising your geek toddler. They truly run the gammit, and quality will vary, but they are all of interest to the gaming community.

I’ll be honest–I did the majority of the work running our Kickstarter campaign. I managed our page, set it up, replied to emails, sent a thank you message to every single person who donated, posted the updates, tweeted, Facebook’d, emailed friends & family to ask for their support, I was all over that thing. I won’t pretend it was ALL me, but I was the person mainly driving that thing. And I really loved doing it! Kickstarter’s great, and I know there are others out there who are interested in and would like to use it to get their own projects going.

So, I’m looking to put together a panel proposal for PAX East. Right now I’m trying to decide what

Rich and I at PAX East 2010

sort of format I want to go with: one that’s purely about Phoenix Online’s experience with Kickstarter, or approach other successful gaming-related projects and try to get a panel of people together to talk about all our experiences. Both set-ups would involved plenty of audience Q&A, but I’d like to get a chance to talk about the experience before launching into pure Q&A as well. A panel of a number of people would cut down on both time available to talk about that as well as Q&A time. But, it offers a wider variety of experiences and answers for people as well, and that can only help since no one’s going to have the exact same experience.

Panels, of note, run about an hour.

So, readers, what do YOU want to know about Kickstarter? What format sounds better to you? What kind of information do you want, what questions would you have? I’d love to get some great feedback on this, and soon so I can submit the proposal. Thanks in advance for your help!

Phoenix Online Party!

Hello friends who read this blog! In a fun act of shameless self promotion (and it’s my blog, so damn right I’ve got no shame about it!), here’s the news:

Phoenix Online is having a party, and you’re all invited!

To celebrate the upcoming release–and to reveal some HUGE news–we’re having a live pre-release chat party next weekend! As The Silver Lining builds to its dramatic climax and the Phoenix Online team turns our attention to the future, we wanted to put together something extra special for the fans who have supported us during this long, exciting journey.

So mark your calendars for October 29th at 2:00 PM Eastern. You’ll see the Episode 4 trailer, hear new details about the episode (including the exact date of the early November release date–it’s so close we can taste it!), and be one of the very first people to hear about the commercial game we’ll be announcing on Halloween! That’s right, we’ll be spilling the beans to you–the fans–at the party, before we send out the press release!

Even better: Jane Jensen herself will be there!

We’ll also have special guests Fable Foundry to talk about The Art of Sierra and some other great new projects, and Romano Molenaar, comic artist with prominent work on X-Men, Tomb Raider, and The Darkness–find out at the party how he’s involved with us!

We hope you’ll set aside some time for this once-in-a-lifetime event and join us at the Pre-Release Party, October 29th, 11:00 AM PDT / 2:00 PM EDT/ 8:00 PM GMT/ 9:00 CET on Ustream! We hope we see you there!

Your time zone isn’t listed? Find out what time the party is where you are here!

The Leap of Faith

You’ve all seen this trope in a movie or on TV, or perhaps encountered it in a role-playing game or video game: the leap of faith. The jump or step

Thank god his binocular vision kicked in!

off the cliff and into oblivion, hoping but not knowing that there will be something there to catch you. Made particularly famous by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, of course.

I enjoy the idea behind this–having a character lead to a point where they cannot know for certain who or what they can trust, where they have to indeed have faith and that has to be enough, is great when pulled off correctly. However, I also feel like making it a literal leap of faith has become very overdone. Frankly, I want to see someone step off a cliff and plummet to their death because they were foolish enough to think their eyes couldn’t see the walkway right in front of them.

Because standing at the edge of a cliff should be scary. Everything around you says that this will kill you–the height, physics, the lack of solid ground to keep you upright and safe. You should look down the depths before and feel terror and complete denial that this will be anything but your untimely death if you move another inch. The same should go for anyone walking the plank, especially if there are sharks in the water. The only people who shouldn’t be afraid here are the foolhardy or the crazy–not the heroes. Why not, because heroes (or main characters or protagonists, your choice) need to be relatable. And the everyday person cannot relate to someone who will step off a cliff without any proof that they’ll not die for it.

Now if you'd stop dating vampires, you solve a lot more life-or-death issues for yourself....oh, who am I kidding, like I'd say no to that!

In the most recent season of True Blood, in fact, this came up (minor spoilers for Season 4, Episode 1): Sookie is told that to return to her world and get away from some nasty fairies, she has to jump into a visually bottomless and shrinking hole in the Earth. She sure as hell does nothing of the sort, because that’s what a sane person does! She only ends up jumping (and thus returning to the normal world) because she’s pushed by someone else. No part of that leap was her choice, and I was glad that was the case. Good for you for not being suicidal (in this particular instance), Sookie!

However, I still love Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and I don’t begrudge it this particular moment in the movie despite what it may have spawned. Why? (What a fun question!) Because they build up to this. Indy spends the entire movie being a practical, logic-based, believe-my-eyes man. The legends of the Grail present facts to him, and those are what he follows–he’s a man of science here, not a man of faith. Whether or not he should be given his past is a different story altogether, but in this movie, his reliance on science (rhymes and) contrasts with his father’s focus on matters of faith. Yes, there is more nuance to it, sure, but I’m talking in overarching terms here. He’s now been put into an insane situation–his father is dying, and only getting through these trials can he save his life. He has to put his faith not only in the Grail legend, but in the results of his father’s research. The first few tests would seem to be ones of faith as well, but they are broken down into facts that Indy qiuckly picks up on. Something solid and reliable. But this last test, the leap of faith, is different: prior to committing to the test, Indy has nothing to tell him this won’t kill him, except the fact that he’s come this far and there have been reasonable ways around the previous tests. But those tests were very deadly all the same, so he could die here if he doesn’t get it right. And that’s what it comes down to: have faith, take the leap, and pray to God it works.

For the rest of us, let’s agree to stop with the cliff edges and roofs of buildings, shall we? Unless someone’s about to go splat. That’d be awesome.

Stop Being So Agreeable, Dammit

Interesting, imperfect and three-dimensional characters are awesome. They make you want to keep reading a story, or series, they can sometimes make up for failures in plot or other areas of writing, they’re often quotable, and they feel more real. They’re also really hard to write.

In my many hours spent playing roleplaying games, it’s become more obvious over time that almost everyoe has a default character they go to when creating one for a new game. The system may be different, the setting wildly unique, the scenarios new and exciting, but the patterns who of plays who can be discerned. I’m no exception–I like playing good-hearted rogues. The underdog coming from a somewhat put-upon background to rise above and be a hero, I freaking love playing that guy or that girl. So much so that it’s really hard for me to be anything else even when I’m trying. This became really obvious to me when my friend Melissa ran a game where the PCs were specifically intended to be villains. I crafted my character a certain way, but with how her background ended up unfolding and my natural reactions in-game, it just plain had to shift. She was meant to be a ruthless and proud assassin intent on killing the ruling family who’d had her own family killed. She ended up being the classic “Misled” villain who believed she was doing good despite doing some kinda bad things, and in the end joined up with the secret police watching over the world at large to make sure no one group or individual ever got too powerful. (She also turned into a giant bug on ocasssion, but that’s neither here nor there!)

So the next time I had a notion of playing a not-quite-good guy, I put a lot more effort into making her morally ambiguous, driven by her own motives for power, argumentative with other characters, and if she did the right thing, it was somewhat more of a side effect or an alignment of goals for the time being. It wasn’t always easy, but it was fun and rewarding once I got it down.

It’s hard for anyone to get outside their heads for any stretch of time and see why someone else doesn’t agree with them or see things their way. Which is why players have default characters–the put-upon underdog hero, the violent thrasher, the shrewed businessman, the amusingly arrogant aristocrat, the wacky nerdy sidekick, the spunky young heroine, the hulking brute with a heart of gold, the list goes on.

Likewise I’ve noticed a pattern when writing scenes between characters I need to not get along–it’s really hard. I’m a pretty reasonable, logical, and practical person, and I make the effort to see the other side of the argument when I’m in one. But characters can’t all be like that, not very often anyways, because people aren’t all like that–we argue, we fight, we just don’t get it and we get angry about it! So a number of the conversations I’ve been writing keep going too smoothly because everyone gets what they need out of it on the first go.

That’s what the editing process is for, of course. I’m not tied to what I’m writing down right now. So hopefully, like an RPG, even if it isn’t easy, it will be fun and rewarding once I’ve got it down.

Goals in 2011 & Aspiration: Game Designer

I found a post I’d made on my previous online journal about goals for the year 2011. I’ve done okay with these, but not 100%. Some are a little beyond my direct control, but most of them aren’t. But, there are also 4 big fat months of 2011 left yet, so I can make good on as much as possible!

One of these was to finish writing Ghostlight. This I have not yet done, but if I push myself, it’s possible. Now we’re talking first draft business here, not a remotely finished product, but the first draft feels like the hardest part. And though I’m considering changes that range from cutting or adding minor characters to snipping out notions I no longer want in there to wondering about rewriting the whole damn thing in 3rd person instead of 1st person, when I can at least have a final draft completed, start to finish, that’ll be huge for me. In short, this one is still on the docket, and I’m going to work at making it happen!

One of my other goals was to get some chunk of a proposed game script done, of which just about nothing has gotten done, but the game designer landscape is a constantly changing one for me. That game is no longer first or even second or third in the docket behind other potential projects. And that’s a good enough place to talk about another aspiration of mine, game design.

When I was a kid, I discovered Sierra games. Adventure games where you took on the role of a person–a space-age janitor, a spunky princess, a prince-turned-slave, etc–and walked around a world, looking at things, collecting a ton of inventory items, solving puzzles with logic and not with force of arms. I LOVED these games. It was like a storybook come to life, and I loved me some storybooks. Pretty much from then on, a pipe dream of mine was to create adventure games.

Fast forward to 2002, and I’ve just graduated college with an English major, basically meaning I’ve got no job and very few prospects. It was a shitty time for graduating, moreso with a liberal arts degree. I find a website for a fanmade, unofficial, King’s Quest 9, a sequel to the Sierra series that built itself upon myths, fairy tales, and folklore, that I had adored most of my life. They were looking for a staff writer among other things. So hell yes I signed myself up for that! I submitted an application, a trial piece of writing, and over the next few years I was the co-writer on a script that was insanely large and impossible to turn into a game, not that we knew that, because none of us knew anything about creating computer games back then. But between temp jobs and other obstacles in my life at the time, it was a dream come true.

After two cease-and-desists that fans fought vehemently to get reversed for us, last summer, we at Phoenix Online Studios at long last released The Silver Lining, Episode 1 (of 5)*. The dream was reality. We had made a computer game (well, part of one), and we were making it happen. We were game designers, dammit! We’ve released three full Episodes now, and are working on the final two, while also working on turning this non-commercial company into a commercial one. I’m a designer and the PR Director, and I love it. It’s unquestionably a passion for me.

It’s hard to say how much getting this game released meant to me. I can use words, and I will, but the swell of pride, accomplishment, being part of something bigger than myself…it’s beyond just words. If you’ve felt it, you know it. Something we worked on for eight years, something that was almost taken away from us by “the Man” not once but twice, something that enough other people believed in to make the effort to fight for it, for us…it’s something that will always make me smile. I hope this group goes much further and does much more, but knowing we’ve done this much already is kind of astounding to me. I–we–have gotten this far, and that absolutely counts for something.


*Details and shameless promotion! The Silver Lining is a family-friendly adventure game based on the best-selling King’s Quest games made by Sierra in the 80’s and 90’s. It is also FREE! Yes, free! You can play the whole dang thing at no charge. It is only playable for the PC right now, although we plan to have a Mac version eventually, and we have released so far 3 out of 5 planned episodes.