Writer and designer Sande Chen reflects on her journey as a freelancer, breaks down the budding field of social game design, and recalls memories of working on her favorite role-playing games.
From Serious Games to Social Games
With a background as a games writer and serious games designer, Sande Chen is currently navigating the fairly new space of social game design. She continues to consult on other titles but is content with a steady design position.
Although Chen went to film school at the University of Southern California, she aspired to work in the games industry from the moment she graduated. Her first contract position as a game writer was for Terminus, which won two awards at the 1999 Independent Games Festival.
“As a freelance writer and game designer, I have worked on pretty much every platform, games big and small, from serious games to MMORPGs,” says Chen. She relies on a wide range of ongoing and overlapping work, which is the lifestyle of freelancers.
Transitional work is key to a stable career as a freelancer. “Since some of my freelance work had been in social games, I had a pretty smooth transition into working full-time as a social game designer,” says Chen.
Aspects of Social Game Design
“Social Game Designer” is a title for designers who primarily design games to be played on social networks like Facebook. Social games require a unique approach to users. Chen explains, “One particular facet of working in social games is dealing with metrics and the immediate feedback from users. Of course, other types of games deal with such issues, but I find in social games, user impact on design is faster.”
Social games especially appeal to Chen because she can have a more direct relationship with players. To Chen, social networking trumps AAA titles, particularly when you take into account that Facebook social games can reach more than 500 million active users.
Chen deals with more than writing and design. She also has to consider the economical and marketing aspects of games as a consultant. Recently, she has been familiarizing herself with free-to-play mechanics paired with microtransactional elements in social games. “It’s very important to understand your monetization scheme or to build in ways to monetize when designing a social game,” Chen advises.
Before Social Games
Although Chen enjoys social game design, she does miss the richness of writing for role-playing games. By far, her best experience was writing for CD Projekt RED’s first large-scale game, The Witcher, which won Best RPG 2007. She had the opportunity to work with a unique story created by leading Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowsk.
One of her most interesting experiences was working on a Serious Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (or SMMORPG, now that’s a mouthful). Like pushing the boundaries of social games, “the most exciting and challenging projects are outside the norm,” says Chen.
Chen explains what brought about the game: “My friend is a physics professor and an avid fan of fantasy MMORPGs. He wanted a fantasy MMORPG to teach university level physics. It also needed to be non-violent.” For this project, Chen had to figure out what the basic gameplay mechanic had to be, what the quests would be like, and how a physics curriculum could be integrated into a MMORPG.
It also had to feature magic and elves.
Sande Chen also coordinates the International Game Developer Association’s Game Design Aspect of the Month.