Ji “Atlas” Chen is a Game Design MFA candidate for New York University’s inaugural class. Growing up in China, Atlas’ began nurturing his game design skills at a young age when he started creating custom design campaigns for Age of Empires – which he continues, now for over a decade! The Academy was impressed by his commitment to his craft – he has created 15 digital and non-digital games at NYU and hones his craft through several internships. Please check out some of his award-winning games on his website and hear Atlas’ thoughts on the US gaming culture as it compares to China’s.
How did you first become interested in gaming?
I had played some early games like Space Invaders on console several times with my uncles when I was only 4 years old, but the first video game that really grabbed me was Commandos. My father bought a PC around 1998, which was a rare but cool item at that time in China. One day I came home and found that he was playing a game where a small squad of soldiers used interesting tactics to fulfill missions in awesome WWII scenarios. I was immediately attracted by the game. Commandos was really difficult for me at that time as a kid. I played it tirelessly for at least 3 years. I never was able to beat the game but I did have tons of fun toying with it.
What differences do you see between gaming in the US versus China?
First, there are of course many cultural differences. Ancient board games like Xiangqi, Go, and Mahjong are popular. Themes about ancient China like The Three Kingdoms and Wuxia (martial heroes) are often seen in Chinese games. Traditional Chinese painting has great influence on the art styles of Chinese games. However, the translation of Chinese cultural and spiritual themes to Chinese games is not quite there yet.
Besides some of its uniqueness, I think gaming in China is generally less mature and less diverse than that in the US. Console gamers are rare in China because of the legal issues and single-player games are rare and are totally overwhelmed by online games because of piracy. I don’t find that many art and indie games in China, either. Though there are a couple of CCGs that are popular in China, the diversity of board games is far below that of the US. Large-scale living games like LARPs are not yet a phenomenon in China and many sports like Golf, American Football, Baseball, F1, etc. are still fresh to Chinese people.
What was your favorite game growing up in China? Why?
In 2002 I fell in love with Age of Empires II. At first I played against people online but soon got frustrated because I was losing so much. Then I discovered the Map Editor and became a campaign and scenario designer. That was the starting point for my dream to become a game designer - I got much more pleasure in making games than playing them. It’s the pleasure of learning, creating, and sharing. Through making campaigns for Age of Empires II, I realized that games could be as meaningful and expressive as all the other forms of arts. And I became a better person as I designed better games. I found that game design is a perfect way for me to gain self-growth and share my findings. This realization has led me to the road that I’m now travelling.
Tell us about how your education as a Game Design MFA Student at NYU is helping you towards your goal in the gaming industry.
I’m a game designer who fights for the belief that “games matter” - the program perfectly fits my personal goal. NYU Game Center has a focus on game design with an emphasis on serious game studies. It’s about the formal rule structure, the player experience, the larger cultural meaning, and the history and literacy of games. It’s about our skills of creative & collaborative problem solving as designers, our introspection and ambition as artists, and our pursuit for the truth as scholars.
The emphasis on both theoretical and practical aspects of game design at NYU is extremely helpful to me. I gain insights from readings of different disciplines, and I get solid skills and experiences from making lots of digital and non-digital games.
The faculties are strict and open at the same time. There is a high standard of the quality for the projects we did and the workload is heavy, while we are really encouraged to explore any creative direction we want to explore. I have really pushed myself out of my comfort zone constantly at NYU.
Besides, one great thing about New York City is it’s dynamic and inspiring culture. Though it may not be a great place for most AAA companies, weird and innovative indie games thrive here. NYU Game Center, as it is named, is really becoming the center of the game design community at New York. Through lectures, conferences, playtests events, game library, game jams, etc., NYU brings local game developers together and forms a community for ideas to flow. My mind is constantly refreshed and challenged by the games I see and the people I meet around NYU.
Overall, through the intense study at NYU and the emergence in the NY gaming community, I’m becoming more professional as a designer and gaining a much better understanding upon games and myself. My goal and the way to it are clearer.
Tell us about one or two of your favorite games that you've created and showcased.
I made a game with Zhechuan “Nick” Zhang at 2013 Global Game Jam called Silent Hunter, which won the Best Audio Design Award. It’s a two-player audio-only competitive game. One player tries to chase the other, who wants to survive as long as possible. The players can see nothing, but the frequency and volume of the sound of heartbeats and breath tell the players how close they are. It can be played as a party game for audience in Spectator Mod, in which the players are required to blind themselves from the screen while all the audience can watch.
During the winter holiday this year I designed a new campaign for Age of Empires II called Kaisera Fortress (凯斯拉要塞), which was published in Chinese. The protagonist is a young man who dreamed of being a glorious knight, but was frightened by the cruel reality on the battlefield, yet finally found his courage and honor fighting for the people he love, rather than the glory he had dreamed for. “There is only one heroism in the world: to see the world as it is and to love it” is the message that I tried to convey through the campaign.
In Kaisera Fortress, I tried to experiment with the limited tools provided by the Age of Empires II Map Editor. I intentionally designed it as a game without losing condition and a game that all players will lose at the end. The hero earned his glory death at the end as Kaisera Fortress fell. No matter how bad the player plays, the game doesn’t end until the final tragic ending. I wanted the player to experience the cruelty of wars by empathizing with the despairing people in the Fortress and suffering through all the battles by actually losing them.
It was extremely hard to make a game like this meaningful for players to try their best – why not just do nothing and wait for the game ends by itself since my hard work doesn’t change the inevitable tragic outcome? However, I managed to encourage hardcore play by providing different narrative contents for players who play harder. Also, when I gave the total freedom of how to play through the game to players without the threat of “Game Over”, it suddenly becomes their own interests to make the game a meaningful experience for themselves. To complete the game isn’t the goal of players anymore. To appreciate and enjoy it is. The outcome doesn’t matter anymore. The experience does.
What would you like to do after you graduate? What is your goal?
My ultimate goal is unlimited self-growth and sharing my findings with others. For now, I’m dedicated to game design as a career, since it’s such a good way to help me approach my goal. I want to design games that are not only “fun” but also have spiritual values as a form of art and human culture. I hope to stay in the US and work as a game designer right after I graduate since there is so much for me to learn here.