(A long post; mostly a brain dump of my experience at a conference last weekend.)
This past weekend my friend Benji and I made the long trek from the Capital Wasteland up to Boston for a new-ish un-conference called GameLoop. Apart from seriously misunderestimating the amount of traffic that would slow us down, the trip itself was uneventful. I did score a gold medal in the “going through a toll booth without having to come to stop” game, though, which was a great moment of victory.
As for the event itself — it was terribly cool. Darius Kazemi and Scott Macmillan made the thing happen by sheer force of will, and I heartily applaud them for it. They more than doubled the attendance from last year, and based on what I saw, I imagine it will continue to grow for some time to come.
GameLoop is essentially a games-specific version of BarCamp — if that doesn’t mean anything to you, just know that it’s a sort of ad-hoc organized-as-you-go conference. The day starts with about an hour of people standing at a whiteboard saying “I’d like to do a session on X” or “can we get a roundtable to talk about Y?” Then you just do it. The second spiritual element of an un-conference is that if you’re sitting in a session and you feel you’re not getting anything out of it, you vote with your feet and head to something else; nobody gets offended, everybody learns.
Due to the inherent mutex lock on me, I could only go to one session in each timeslot, and in some cases the choices were hard.
Session 1: Designer/Player Trust-Building
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this session — I felt like we were discussing good game design principles, but couldn’t necessarily see how they were specifically related to trust. You want to have understandable level designs, make sure your player understands their goals, etc. Maybe the point was that trust is so endemic to game design that the two can’t be separated. I felt like mid-way through we ended up just naming examples of games that made us trust the designers (I was guilty of this as well, contributing Donkey Kong Country), and, as was pointed out by one of my colleagues later that evening, it’s not the most productive form of discourse.
Session 2: Prototyping
I had given a talk on Prototyping back when I worked at EA, had originally considered dusting it off (and removing EA-specific portions), but just didn’t have time to get it together. Darius sneakily (and a bit cheekily :-) ) put it up on the board anyway, and it received enough support that we pretty much had to do it. So I pushed it towards a round-table format as much as I could.
This was a really productive session, at least for me. It made me feel better to hear that everyone seems to have the trouble of execs/producers mistaking prototypes for shipping code, and we talked about strategies for mitigating that. We stopped short of saying actively sabotage your code, but writing it in a different language from the shipping game was one of the cuter strategies.
I think my slightly controversial view that prototypes are science experiments and should only answer single questions did exactly what it should do — spark discussion as some people agreed with me and others disagreed. Most people in the session were contributing, and it felt like everyone was learning, so I felt like this was a win.
I walked away thinking it would be fun to de-EA-ize my old prototyping talk and do it at events like these. At least a 10 minute version to help frame give-and-take like we had here.
Very tasty sandwiches. Very large cookies. Above average coffee.
Session 3: “Programmer Designer” vs. “Designer Programmer” + Game Design Basics
Early on in my career I had to make the call as to whether I would be a programmer with design skills or a designer with programming skills. I went the design route and have been pretty happy with it, and this discussion was exploring that boundary and how people on either side of it felt.
I definitely think as games become more systemic that this line is going to get blurrier, if never dissolve completely. It’s also been my experience that it’s far easier for designers to get input on programming issues than for programmers to get input on design issues, though that’s largely an individual studio culture thing and case-by-case. One engineer said that he felt he couldn’t make any change to a system without getting clearance from a designer, and that the process was more of a handoff than a collaboration. That made me sad, but from what I heard, it’s pretty much the general state of the industry.
I’m not sure where the talk went after that, because I decided to bounce and go into the “Game Design Basics” talk and share my vast reams of knowledge. :-) For the most part it was a “how to break into design” roundtable, which always interests me, as you might remember, dear reader.
Session 4: Procedural Story & Emergent Narrative
Another roundtable type thing that I was attempting to run. I felt really bad about this one because I think I did crappy job with it — it’s obviously an overly broad topic and there are lots of quagmires hiding in there waiting to drag a discussion down for hours. I warned that I was going to shut down lines of conversation if I thought they were going in that direction, but then defined the problem so loosely that the rest of the session was spent trying to better define it, which was the chief quagmire I was wanting to avoid.
I could tell there were some equally frustrated people wanting to get it back on track, but it’s hard to control a passionate crowd who wants to talk definitions. This is definitely a situation where a 10-minute prepared opening could have really helped.
Session 5: Meaning in Games & Interactive Metaphor
On the long drive up, somewhere, I think, in Delaware, Benji and I got talking about Passage, which I described as the best, possibly only example I could give of “interactive metaphor,” something where the mechanics themselves are metaphorical. It inspired Benji to run this roundtable, the last of the day, to get people talking around this issue. There was some confusion over exactly what was being discussed, but to be fair, this is a complex and hard to grasp issue. A lot of people latched onto the moral choices of Fallout and Bioshock, but I think we all at least walked away willing to acknowledge that some more subtlety in those choices would be more interesting.
Of course, moral choices are not necessarily interactive metaphor. Perhaps the fact that we couldn’t come up with any other examples means that this is still an area ripe for development.
Afterwards, most people headed over to a local watering hole for some refreshment. Sat down with Scott and spent a lot of time talking about his game Heritage, which I’m really excited to actually see in action when finished. Also met (or re-met possibly) Marc ten Bosch, talked about indie games, multi-dimensional thought, and the pros and cons of EA. At least I think we did. The beer at that place was good.
Ended the evening at the office of Orbus Gameworks, playing my first round of Race to the Galaxy, which I found delightful, if a bit non-orthogonal for my tastes. I think more mastery of it might reveal systems I didn’t see before. We schemed about ways to make next year’s GameLoop even better. Which I guess means that I have to go back next year. :-)
On the drive back Benji and I debated the merits of doing a DC area GameLoop (Capital GameLoop?) — there’s not much of a scene in the area, but maybe a smaller event could snowball and eventually draw in folks from North Carolina and Philly. Anything is possible; it would definitely be good to see more game development community in the area.