I just attended NYU Game Center's conference called Practice. Special thanks to Frank Lantz, Eric Zimmerman, and the rest of the crew that made this first annual event possible. I wasn't quite sure what it was going to be like, and it ended up not being like any conference I have ever attended before. It wasn't exactly because the sessions were so great though (they were ok). It was because of the very specific vibe the "designers" of the conference tried--and succeeded--in creating.
It was very small, at only about 80 people, which was intentional. It had a single track, meaning there was only one presentation going on at any one time, so there was no way to miss anything and all attendees were "together" throughout. The intent of the conference was to focus on the actual craft of making games--the realy nitty gritty, day-to-day things that working designers are really doing, as opposed to high concept stories. It included a wide range of perspectives, including paper game design (board and card games), core single player games, facebook games, fighting games, physical sports, dance games, and so on. Finally, it succeded in having an attendee list that was mostly actual working designers who are able to engage in a high level of discourse about out craft, rather than newcomers, hobbyists, or suits.
It pretty much succeeded on all those counts except that it could have focused even more on the nitty-gritty of real day-to-day processes than it did. I also think in general the quality of the sessions themselves could have been a lot better. Any by "quality," I really mean a very specific thing here: the number of ideas presented per second. Jesse Fuch's presentation on the history of Monopoly stands out especially here, in that it was the most information per second I've received for quite a long time. Amazing job that we should all aspire to.
Two years ago I wrote about the stark contrast in vibes between the social games summit at GDC (souless, dry, and utterly depressing) with the vibe just next door at the indie games summit (overwhelming love, passion, hope, and encouragement). The true character of a conference is defined by something that's between the lines, something interstitial.
At Practice, the vibe was really exactly what its architects intended: one of makers who came together to talk about making. One thing that struck me was that I went to dinner with three other designers, and one mentioned that he didn't drink (alcohol). We then learned that none of the four of us drink, and that we all found the idea of going to the suggested afterparty drinking thing kind of a terrible idea when compared to getting together to discuss and play the games we were working on. I playtested my in-development customizable card game with them, and got valuable feedback. We also playtested one of the other designer's games. Of course most people there do drink I'm sure, the point was that we each though of the others as kindred spirits. Such things seemed to happen a lot at this event, for a lot of the attendees. I think a lot of people found kindred spirits, or at least good adversaries to argue with!
Another notable thing was the prevalance of Apple products. This makes sense to me, though for some reason most of my forum community is, shall we say, "outside the loop" on that. Anyway, all presenters with A/V presentations used macbook pros and macbook airs. An iMac was to the side of the stage, almost as an advertisement for Apple. No such ad was needed though, as the audience was a sea of ipads, ipad2s, macbook pros, and macbook airs. At the times I surveyed the room, it was literally 100% Apple for the tablets and computers that were visible in the crowd. There might have been some Windows machines somewhere, but I just didn't see any. iPhones were also ubiquitous, though not at the 100% level. I think the crowd in general cares a lot about design, which includes aesthetics, but also attention to detail in creating an overall user experience. That experience isn't just about the surface level, but about the entire way of doing things that informs the entire design process. It is no wonder that the Macbook Air and iPad would be so popular with such a crowd. (Incidentally, I am typing this post on a Macbook Air.)
I'm a bit too exhausted to write the summary of every session right now, and I wonder if I should just attempt to transcribe my entire conversation with game designer Naomi Clark instead. I learned that she had given three lectures at other conferences that quoted things I'd said about World of Warcraft, and we discussed meritorcities, flow, power fantasies, factory-worker fantasies (aka facebook games), Josh Waitzkin, how to exploit the brain's dopamine wiring, and more. Also, I like Naomi's unusual speaking voice.
Not a full summary, but here's some tidbits.
Reiner Knizia, the world's most succesful board game designer (probably?), off-handedly mentioned that he thought the rulebook for recent incredibly successful game "Whoowasit" should be fairly short and not explain a bunch of stuff that the electroinic components of the game handle for you. The publisher disagreed and wrote a long rulebook though. I would have guessed the most successful board game designer would write the rules himself, and that the publisher would do what he said, but apparently not. Further, when the publisher suggested that the sequel to the game use a completely different setting for the game world, and Knizia disagreed, I was surprised to hear he "had" to go along with them and change the setting to some new thing he thought was worse. hmm.
Skaff Elias, the creator of Magic the Gathering's Pro Tour, offhandedly mentioned that of course a "distributed object game" (a game with hundreds of cards/objects) needs to be constantly refreshed with new content to be business-viable. It's too much investment to balance a one-off version of such a game then see brief sales which fall off. This wasn't even the point of his lecture, more like an assumption that underlied it. To me, the most interesting kind of game is one that can last 10+ years without the need to be refreshed. In other words, the exact thing he assumes no one would want to make. He very well may be correct that a polished gem of a competitive game with hundreds of cards/objects and enough depth to last for a decade wouldn't sell enough to be viable. I sure as hell hope that's wrong, as that's exactly what I'm working on right now.
Seth Killian mentioned that in the latest version of Street Fighter 4, Zangief's EX "green hand" no longer knocks down. The reason (in my words, not his) is that it's not good flavor for Zangief to knock down there because he doesn't feel like a throw guy. He feels like a guy who pokes/rushes down with an awesome knockdown move. His spinning piledrive throw should be more central to his play though, so that he feels like he's supposed to, and any balance issue with him should be solved a different way. This is quite an example, because those words really aren't even my summary! They are almost the exact words that Street Fighter James Chen said to me during the development of Street Fighter HD Remix. You see, top player John Choi suggested that the green hand move in our game be made to knock down to improve balance, especially against Dhalsim. I implemented the change and testers agreed that it did improve balance. But after a while, Chen said it just didn't feel right, regardless of balance. I agreed and reverted the change. It's interesting that exactly the same thing with exactly the same *move* happened in Street Fighter 4. Incidentally, the subject of my session was the tension between how balance is "the most important thing" because it can fuck up an entire game, ruining all the work of the entire team, while simultaneously being "not at all the most important thing" because issues like gameplay dynamics, flavor, feel, and fun all trump it.
Rogers Redding taught us quite a bit about football rules. But first, he explained that the rules of baseball almost never change. Any changes are a big deal because the world of baseball really likes to be able to compare the stats of one era to another, with the rules being as close as possible across eras. Meanwhile, the rules of football change constantly. We got a whole lesson in that, and the strange insight that the football world *expects* the rules to change every year, and they do. Yes I said every damn year. I was also very surprised to find out that the rules committee, while made up of coaches, athletic trainers, referees, business people, and media representatives, only allows voting rights to just one of those groups: coaches. The referees have no power at all to change or implement rules, in other words. The only people who do are the self-interested parties: the head coaches of each team. Unsurprisingly, corruption can ensue.
There was an hour and a half set aside for designers to present whatever problems they were working on. Due unexpectedly many people signing up, the format had to change at the last minute. Despite the organizer's fear that this session would be a total disaster, it ended up being the best part of the conference according to most of the attendees. The format was that each person had only 6 minutes on stage: 2 minutes to explain their problem and 4 minutes to get feedback from the audience. This turned out to be an intense firestorm of ideas.
The types of design problems varied wildly. Ken Perlin asked how he could give some OTHER lecture where he wanted each member of the audience to be a computational element in some human-computer, in order to demonstrate computation. Someone else wanted to know how to fix a mechanic involving a boat that sails down a river with some "explorer" characters the player can send out, but he wanted the explores to somehow(??) stay within a certain radius of the boat without it feeling artificial. Another person wanted to know how to handle the problem of making a cooperative board game where one player doesn't just tell everyone what to do. (For hints: see Flash Duel Second Edition's Beytral at Deathstrike Dragon mode!). Another person showed a tile-laying game that was unlike anything any of us had ever seen. The "any of us" included a guy who read an entire book that was nothing but a compilation of every tile laying game known to man. Anyway, his unusual idea had the problem that it could stalemate far too easily (or become unwinnable) but he wanted to fix this rather than abandoning the entire concept.
There were many more of these, and it was pretty intense being presented with some new problem every few minutes. It was also pretty amazing to have such a collection of smart people all in the same room, able to give wildy different kinds of advice on problems like these. I think this really embodied the spirit of the whole conference. (I personally did not present though, because the kinds of design problems I have require the helpers to have deep knowledge of some entire game system. My playtesters are more helpful than strangers who I have only 2 minutes to explain something to.) Anyway, I'm glad this part went so well.
"Response to Practice"
Margaret Robertson gave an extremely unusual final presentation at the conference. She was assigned to give her impression of the people and ideas that were discussed during the conference, and she chose to do this by showing the pictures of 9 famous people, and how they correlated to 9 of the speakers at the conference.
Knizia was Thomas Edison, because she said he embodied the role of the prolific inventor.
Scott Jon Seigel was Robin Hood because he embodied the idea of "the thief," she said. Seigel had talked about the world of social games and how designing things "by precedent" (aka copying other games almost exactly) was one method. (To be fair, he talked about other things too.)
Steve Gaynor was the Invisible Man, because he discussed the concept of the designer fading away, and being invisible to the player. His session was about the use of "gating" mechanics in games such as Bioshock, meaning things that stop the player from progressing until they get some certain item or power. While this is a very useful mechanic, and it runs throughout Bioshock, the designer has to be careful how he implements or it can become too ham-fisted and take away from the immersion of the overall game experience.
Chris Hecker was HAL, the computer. In his session with Nick Fortunado, Hecker argued that all designers should become programmers. To put it another way, he argued that any designer who isn't a programmer but then learns programming would be a better designer. He said that if you are intending to make a very high quality game, then every single detail matters and design and programming kind of blend together. By having a programmer and designer in the same brain, you reduce the friction and iteration time of all those important details. Nick's counterpoint is that a whole truckload of other things would make a designer a better designer too, such as understanding architecture, story structure, music, graphic design, systems design (that isn't programming), UI design, etc, etc. Nick himself has pursued many varied skills, including a lot from the humanities and says it made him a better designer. Hecker's bold counter-claim is that yes, those things all help, but programming is the single most important thing in game-creation. (Eric Zimmerman asks, "Should board game designers become programmers??") Hecker explicitly stated that programming is "more important" than audio, humanities knowledge, art, writing, and all other fields in video games. HAL would be proud.
Jesse Fuchs was Indiana Jones. His *two minute* lecture (it might have gone on as long as three minutes) on the history of Monopoly was so well-delivered that it really stood out. Jesse explained that Monopoly has a long and convoluted history, and that the current version of Monopoly (the one that everyone has...the one that is a cultural artifact) is a worse game than than an older version that hardly anyone knows about. He had data and actual reasons for this and everything. His point though is that he feels sad that we have lost something that was kind of better (not that the better version was that great either he says, but still), and he wonders about "game archeology" (my term, not his). Who, if anyone, has a responsibility to preserve games so that they don't fade away as the better version of Monopoly has?
Skaff Elias was the cowboy. He spoke about the balancing of Magic the Gathering as a rodeo. In a rodeo, the rider must *appear* to be totally out of control in order to be entertaining. In Magic, the game must appear to be totally wide-open, and potentially breakable by any number of combos, if only the players discover them. In a rodeo the rider really *isn't* in control of the movements that push and pull him from moment to moment (and MTG doesn't know the exact course a metagame will take), but in both cases the actual amount of control needs to be higher than is apparent to the observer. MTG must not *actually* be completely out-of-control, and safeguards are built in to try to keep things not too-crazy.
I was Gordon Ramsey. I spoke about the prime importance of flavor and feel, and that if a game is "balanced" but that doesn't express the right flavor, then if falls flat. So supposedly I embodied the idea of game designer as a chef. Of all the chefs in the world, Robertson just happened to pick a very particular chef though. One who has a very high standard of quality of what he considers "acceptable." A chef who doesn't really tolerate things below that bar, and who is very vocal about what he considers bad, regardless of what other people think about his statements. Based on my statements during the conference, I think it's no accident she chose Gordon Ramsey.
Thanks again to organizers of the conference. I recognize that you tried to create an atmosphere unlike that of other conferences, and I think you succeeded. Now you can iterate on that, and make version 2.0 even better.