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Sunday
Oct302011

NYU's Practice Conference

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.

The Vibe

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.

Session Highlights

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.

Open Problems

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.

Reader Comments (19)

That sounds awesome. Is there any recording of the event that I can look up somewhere?

Sirlin, start a show about game design where you have to take shitty facebook Skinner's Boxes games and make them good.

October 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTheRealBobMan

Nice read, your entries are always a pleasure.

October 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeff

Funny thing about Chris Hecker's claim...the more I've done both programming and game design, the more I see games as a human program as opposed to a computer program.

This is more obvious in non-electronic games, where a fun and smooth game experience depends almost entirely on how clear and concise the rules are for your players to read and interpret. Good programming practices very strongly apply to writing game rulebooks.

With video/computer games, since you have a computer doing most of the work, there's the potential for the player to just figure things out by accident or trial and error.

Contrast this with a non-electronic game: Instead of the computer drawing the graphics and UI for the player, the game designer has to instruct the player on how card decks and discard piles are arranged, how to place pieces on the board, how to fill out a character sheet, etc.

A misunderstanding of the rules can result in play that's unintended by the designer, much like encountering a bug in a computer program. If the rules aren't written such that it's quick and easy to find what you need, the game pace will suffer and/or unintended behavior can crop up, like lack of enjoyment or choosing to make up rules on the fly.

And though humans aren't deterministic like computers are (that is, devoid of unintentional randomness), you still have to write code or game rules in mind for individual differences. Computers have different operating systems, drivers, background programs, hardware specs, etc. Game designers have to consider the attributes of their intended audiences in a very similar way.

October 31, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbrized

Thanks for taking the time to describe things like this... great read.
Its a good feeling when you go to a conference or meeting where you can find kindered spirts. In the scientific community this is even harder due to the sheer size of some of the events, and hence the amount of mainstream advertising and crap you have to wade through to find the gems.

October 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterUthgar

I think that Hecker's claim about programming being the single most important for game creation rests on the assumption that mechanics are the single most important aspect of a game. Jonathan Blow also made the same claim on multiple occasions, and it's not surprising considering the types of games he designs. Both Braid and The Witness involve exploring the implications of certain rules of the game world, and having to translate a design to code forces you to do exactly that.

If you wanted to apply the same concept to board gaming as well, go an abstraction level higher, disregarding the technical constraints: the equivalent of coding would be writing down the game's rules using formal logic. So the proper question there would be "Should board game designers be mathematicians?". Many good ones certainly seem to be!

Another thing programming knowledge does is help ground the design in reality: awareness of hardware limitations, the trade-offs and opportunity costs involved in choosing one design over another. In board gaming, your "hardware" is cardboard and the human brain, so your concerns there are somewhat different there, but they're present all the same. Ignoring such restrictions results in stuff like the transforming cards in MtG, which would be perfectly fine, were it not for the fact that cards only have two sides, not three.

November 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterpkt-zer0

Thanks for being "fair", Sirlin. ;)

The "design buy precedent" point was admittedly a bit of a fuzzy one, that I got taken to task for a few times. While I acknowledged that my industry is a little too willing to simply copy concepts wholesale, I also acknowledged that derivation is a NECESSARY part of innovation.

The best games combine reference points from a wide variety of sources. The first step in any spec I write for a game is a list of prior art, or inspirations. I might be critical of OVER-copying any one reference, but I champion the iteration of concepts and mechanics across multiple games and genres (we wouldn't have Peggle if not for Snood and Pachinko, for example).

My hope is that being Robin Hood is more about ^ THIS angle, and less about the wholesale copying (which itself could be viewed as robbing from the poor and giving to the rich).

Great seeing you again. Sorry we didn't chat more.

November 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScott Jon Siegel

Yeah, making completely new things is cool and all, but we don't actually want EVERYTHING to be some completely new thing. If it was, we'd be worse off. We all benefit by creators seeing good parts of an existing work, then taking that to the next level somehow. Or fixing the bad parts of it. Or just doing an original take on it, and so on. Maybe you get misunderstood on that point sometimes because there is also the blatant copying or unoriginal take on things, and people think you mean that. There are a million lame match 3 games, for example, so a lot of those are the "bad kind of copying." But things like Puzzle Quest and Triple Town are interesting takes on match 3, so they are the "good kind of copying" that you mean.

November 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Hey Dave. Nice post! Actually, when that picture representing you came up on the screen, I didn't recognize Gordon Ramsey (I don't watch TV), so I thought it must have been some knife-murderer character that Harrison Ford played in a movie I hadn't seen. I expected that this was in reference to your "you have my contempt" comment, directed at social gamers, which for me was the #1 highlight of the entire conference. Sadly, this was not the case, although I think that it would have been better if it were!

Was excellent meeting you!

November 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKeith Burgun

Thanks Keith! It was excellent meeting you as well. I'm pretty sure my interpretation was right regarding Gordon Ramsey because she clearly knew who she was and wondered if we knew, over here in America. She also mentioned that that was the only picture she found of him quickly, implying the point wasn't the knife, lol. But nice interpretation anyway, haha.

November 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Wow, I can't believe something as cool as this happened and I didn't even know until after the fact. I'm really out of touch!

I'm curious about this "you have my contempt" comment. I'd love some details!

November 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterThomas Grové

The contempt thing was for games that are framed as competitive games, but that put forced grinds or "pre-order only" or something between gameplay-affecting things and the player in the multiplayer modes. For example if you had to grind to unlock a Reaver in Starcraft 3 multiplayer. Or if you...played league of legends at all. Competitive games were the last bastion of hope against that stuff, but several have already been infected. Fighting games and RTS are some of our last hopes, so let's hope can resist the virus.

Unlockable stuff in the multiplayer modes should really be cosmetic stuff, trophies, concept art, etc. Or gameplay-affecting unlocks for single player. Or possibly a designated goofy multiplayer mode that is separate from the "real" one where you unlock various gameplay affecting things. Incidentally that last one is exactly what Ultimate MvC3 is doing, which is fine I guess.

November 3, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Great post, David. I didn't even hear about this conference. Is this going to be the new Project Horseshoe?

Thanks for the well-written, comprehensive and insightful summary.

November 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie Cleveland

What's a "factory-worker fantasy" game?

November 6, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertataki

I should really write a whole long thing about that. She meant games in which the core fantasy is putting in your time to get the same rewards that anyone else would get if they also mindlessly put in their time. So for example: most games made today, almost everything on Facebook,and almost every RPG.

November 6, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

No offense, but the term factory worker fantasy plus your description seems a bit ill-informed. I mean, if two people were to put the same effort into reading a book or perhaps, observing a painting, they'd receive the same "reward," that is to say, received information.

It's not about the reward in and of itself that's important, it's the way that an individual parses it and derives personal meaning from the work in question. Example: A friend and I put in more or less the same effort into Final Fantasy X. There's not exactly a whole lot of room for too many strategic decisions outside of the fairly mundane toolset available (Haste and heal guys as needed, hit the other guys for damage, et cetera), but when Tidus confronts his father and finally admits his feelings ("I hate you dad."), and then forces the player to confront Tidus's father, there's certainly room for the player to participate emotionally with the scene at hand.

I also hated my father, and the way the scene is set up, it forces the player to engage with the scene and participate. If one were to reread Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics." the author talks about how the reader is participating in the action at hand by completing the action between the panels of the comic. In much the same way, I re-lived my negative emotions and experienced an emotional catharsis by connecting the action of the scene ("I hate you dad") with the ensuing battle with Braska's Final Aeon.

Rewards don't have to be distinct, rather, in the case of static rewards (like a story unfolding or what-have-you,) it's about providing an opportunity for the player to engage with the piece and find personal meaning.

If you were to take a bit more mundane example where story rewards aren't a reward for success, but just simply cash or something else, like, say, a Harvest Moon title, where the strategies at play are pretty limp-wristed, they do have something else to offer the player: An experience of agency. Agency, or more simply put, the ability to enact change and progress in an individual's environment, is almost compelling in its own right, and probably why even simple things like Harvest Moon are compelling to people, even though they don't exactly require much thought on the part of the player.

November 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKatzebar

No offense, but you're ill-informed about what factory worker fantasy meant. Your post is kind of about flow, and is not really about the so-called factory worker fantasy at all. Perhaps you're making the strawman argument that a supposedly boring thing can produce flow, which is true and not the point. If a grindy "we are all equal based on time-spent" experience CAN include flow-inducing good stuff, that is not a real response to the discussion that there is something apparently appealing about the non-skill, anti-meritocricy nature of such games. It's just a footnote that talks around the point.

To put it another way, I might have said that eating a lot of sugar is linked to getting diabetes, and you might respond that I'm ill-informed because sugar tastes good and you can have a really pleasurable experience with it that doesn't involve diabetes. That would be a form of "disagreeing" that doesn't really address the actual link between sugar and diabetes. It would be more of a footnote to the discussion.

November 8, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Then for my enlightenment, can you provide a comprehensive description so that I can have an informed opinion, because apparently since this thing "Factory Worker Fantasy" encompasses "Most games made today" according your previous post.

November 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKatzebar

I prefer to explain it in another post.

November 8, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

I think what Katz is trying to say is that the point of a game like Final Fantasy isn't so much the gameplay itself, as it is the overall immersive experience. Square and its ilk have long thought of their titles as interactive movies - the leveling and grinding result in the "reward" of advancing the storyline to the finish. The "rewards" that Sirlin references are more like the new spells/abilities/weapons that a player earns by grinding, within the game itself.

The point as I understand it being that factory-worker games aren't about a player's ability so much as time-investment: regardless of the personal reward a player feels in seeing a cutscene, the in-game rewards of weapons and equipment are connected solely to how much time the player invests in grinding. In regards to facebook games, the developer wants you to play as long as possible, so there's no real way that you can get GOOD at the game to accelerate your advancement.

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAtma
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