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Thoughts on the 2014 Practice: Game Design in Detail Conference

I attended the 2014 Practice: Game Design in Detail conference at NYU this past weekend. Here I give my thoughts on this year's conference, as well as thoughts on the conference generally.

Keith Burgun, Blogger

November 19, 2014

15 Min Read


In 2011, The NYU Game Center hosted the very first Practice: Game Design in Detail conference. It was a life-changing event for me, who, at the time hadn’t really been to anything like that before. Of course, I had watched dozens of game design talks online, but now all of the sudden, I was able to spend hours, often one-on-one, with some of my game design heroes.


While each Practice conference has evolved somewhat from the last, I feel that the one thing that it’s always had in common was this element of risk-taking. By risk-taking, I don’t mean that it brings in people from all over the “interactive systems design spectrum”. You do indeed get a wide range of different kinds of interactive system designers; designers of strategy games, IF, art-installations, indie titles, AAA titles, and everything in between.


I also don’t mean risk-taking in that the conference often brings in people from outside what we would normally consider the field of game design. Last year there was a competitive breakdancing troupe that came in, did a talk, and then took everyone outside and started a breakdancing show. This isn’t the type of risk-taking I’m referring to.

Instead, the kind of risk-taking that really impresses me, and that is clear throughout the event, is the fact that the talks are raw, unfiltered, and honest.


I was lucky enough to be able to do a short talk as part of a strategy game design panel in 2013. Essentially, the organizers gave me a very general, loose direction for the sort of thing they’d like me to talk about. I also tried to give them a rough heads-up in terms of what I was going to talk about, but I didn’t feel like I was really required to. I’m pretty sure I just thought it seemed like a good idea to let them know, and maybe give them the opportunity to give me feedback - which, if I recall correctly, they did not. That sounds like a negative, but it's actually a positive here, as I'll explain.


It seems to me, from all of the talks I’ve witnessed, as well as from my own experience as a speaker, that the organizers really do not want to have a heavy hand in the actual content. They don’t seem to want to filter out talks that they consider weak. Instead, they choose some people that they think might have something interesting to say, and they throw them on stage.


A big conference like GDC probably gets hundreds or maybe even thousands of submissions for talks, and they have to filter through all of those and pick the couple dozen or so talks/speakers from that. So because of this, there’s a lot more filtering going on. It’s a lot less raw.


I think a lot of people actually find GDC, for instance, to be too “controlled”. They’re often soft-ball “inspirational” talks, or often just business-oriented lectures and, as Jonathan Blow pointed out in this year’s opening Practice talk, it’s rare that you really learn anything from them, unless you’re very new to the field.


Yes, that's him. He's been in a cave working on The Witness for six years, so I guess growing hair is kind of like the bald guy equivalent of growing a beard.


In contrast, I think everyone learns something new when they go to a Practice conference - even just from the talks, I mean. The reason is that it’s such a wild scattershot, open-surgery of an event. Some of the talks make no sense and about half of them have no discernable point, but they still usually contain some little glimmers of important ideas.


In this way, Practice is a game design conference for our time. We are in a time where we don’t have clear language for talking about our young, undeveloped discipline. At the same time, we have thousands of super-excited, visionary people who see a light at the end of the tunnel. Practice is kind of like “the internet”, or the personal blogs of these thousands of excited people. There’s quite a lot of noise to sift through, but there’s no way you would choose to not have or not use the internet. The rawness and honesty of the internet is something that’s absolutely worth the noise.


That’s not to say that Practice isn’t curated or anything. The organizers, primarily (as I understand it) Frank Lantz and Eric Zimmerman, are some of the most thoughtful people in the game design world, and it’s incredibly clear how deeply they care about making Practice the best game design conference it can possibly be. I think they explicitly want Practice to be the kind of event that it is - a raw, unfiltered look into the minds of a bunch of important game designers.



This year


I feel like this year was maybe the Practice-i-est of the four, in that it was the most untamed. While I was there, I was often thinking to myself - as I have many times before - “they need to make a new rule where speakers must submit their thesis statement before they go on stage.”


I think there’s a lot of merit to that idea. We shouldn’t reject it just because things like GDC became huge, safe and corporate by having a similar requirement. I think the difference would be in the criteria. Where GDC’s criteria might be something like “say something about the latest tech trends” or “say something inspirational”, much better criteria might be “say something that challenges currently held beliefs about game design”.


I do want a game design conference that’s like that. While Practice isn’t that conference, but it’s just as important and valuable, and I'm not sure my dream conference could exist right now anyway. Once in awhile, you do happen to get people who choose to say something, such as this year’s Zach Gage, who made a point about using a “goal-less” toy-mode in your games to allow players to teach themselves your rules.


Jonathan Blow’s opening talk was essentially about ambition in games. He feels that we’ve kind of lost our “let’s go to the moon!” style ambition that we once had in games. His answer to this, for himself at least, was to do a “20 year game”. His next game - on which very little information is known - will take him 20 years to complete, although every few years he’ll release a smaller, but somehow “complete” piece of the game. I’m not certain that anyone completely understands the idea, but it certainly does sound ambitious.


The designer of Threes, Asher Vollmer, also had a couple of “points” to make with his talk. His first point was that he operates “team-size first”. He first knows that he wants a team size of 3, and then works from there.


He also talked a bit about the importance of “overloading a verb”. In Threes, your “swipe” verb actually does many things: it moves numbers around, it combines numbers, and it draws in new numbers. This is a really good point, and he’s inching towards the idea of a “core mechanism”, which is a fundamental part of an idea I’ve been honing for the last few years.



The “Here’s What I Did” Style-Talks


Many of the talks end up being a run-through of what a designer did - what problems they faced and what solutions they came up with. These don’t have any major intended point, but there are little glimmers of possible lessons in there for people to pick out sometimes.


Lukas Litzsinger was likely invited because everyone at the conference, particularly the organizers and the faculty, happen to be really into his game Android: Netrunner right now. His talk essentially ran through how and why he made the changes that he made from Richard Garfield’s(a 2012 Practice speaker, by the way) original Netrunner CCG, which A:NR is based on. The talk was mostly of the pattern, “we tried A, but A had problem X, so we went with B”, or some repeated iteration on that.


One example of an interesting lesson that I was able to pull out of Lukas’ talk was that they took dice out of the game not necessarily to make it less random, but to better hide how random the game actually is. Shuffling the deck is, according to Lukas, like this “new universe” that players “don’t really think about”. In other words, when you’re drawing cards, the fact that you could be drawing wildly different cards that could cause you to be winning or losing the game isn’t so apparent. Rolling a die and seeing the “6” that you wanted lying there on its side, just 45 degrees away from where you want it to be, is a very present reminder of how random the thing you’re interacting with is.


You also had Shawn Snelling and Salvatore Garozzo, who are a Counter-Strike map-design team. They gave a very functional, step by step run-through of what they do when they design maps (they’re well known for a map called de_cache, for those of you who are CS fans). I wasn’t really able to pull any larger point or lesson from this talk - but like I said, it’s a bit of a crap shoot. You never know exactly what you’re going to get and you never know where some genius idea is going to pop out until you try.


Similar was Samantha Kalman’s talk, which ran through a bunch of iterations of a music-generation/production digital toy called Sentris she’s been working on for the past few years. It’s always neat to see how something evolves, although in her case I don’t think it was quite clear what the evolutionary direction was, exactly. With that said, Samantha is taking on an incredibly difficult task - one that basically everyone who has tried to do in the past has failed at - and so one of the interesting things for me to watch was how she dealt with the feelings of desperation and uncertainty throughout the process.


The designer of Sunset Overdrive, Drew Murray, also gave a “here’s what I did” talk. It was pretty loose; in fact, I didn’t know what Sunset Overdrive was, and he didn’t make it remotely clear until near the end of the presentation. The most significant thing about this talk was the designer's focus on allowing a wide range of gender-neutral clothing and accessories in the character generation tool. Paraphrasing, Drew said something along the lines of, "the artists told me could have 40 beards that only go on guys, or 10 beards that can go on a male or female face, and I told him to go with the 10."


Oh, and I can’t forget pinball-machine-designer John Popadiuk. He made one pretty solid point about how every game - or really, every project - needs a “champion”: someone who believes in it and is pushing for it. Other than that, his talk would have been remembered as one of these technical “here’s what I did, just so you know” talks, but for the fact that it was littered with, as Davin Pavlas artfully put it on Twitter:




This is actually a fantastic example of just how unfiltered Practice really is - you never know what you’re going to get. In Mr. Popadiuk’s case, you got a talk that frequently mentioned the importance of putting “beautiful women” on your pinball machines. At one point, he mentioned having to pull back on some more complicated scoring mechanisms because “the women couldn’t understand it”. I think everyone in the entire room did a double take and assumed that they heard him wrong, before finally coalescing on Twitter about it.


The other thing that his talk really revealed (to everyone in the room except Mr. Popadiuk) is just how far we’ve come in the last few years with regards to sexism in games. I think it was totally mainstream for many AAA game artists to talk like this even as recently as a year ago. I was reminded of the confrontation between the Blizzard guys and Rock Paper Shotgun over the portrayal of women in Heroes of the Storm. That was almost exactly one year ago, and already Blizzard guys now seem to be stepping back from their position. This progress was fully visible here, and I think that's valuable.



Other Talks


Then you have some other talks, which sometimes are a little bit “what I did”, sometimes are a little bit point-ish, but were also a lot of rambling. But even in the rambling, you can find some value.


The best example of this was David Kanaga. If you were to give Stephen Hawking some psychedelic drugs right before he fell asleep and then somehow were able to record the words and phrases that poured out of his subconscious, that’d be somewhat close to what David Kanaga’s talk was like. He's obviously a very thoughtful person, the problem may have been as simple as having too little time to get his point across. It seemed that there was maybe a point there - some kind of huge Hail Mary point that almost certainly wasn’t going to connect, but it if it did, it was going to change everything we know forever, or something. My notes from this talk are strange. I have written down “Neo-Lib Dream Machine”, some weird new word that’s a blend of the words “ecology” and “economy”, and I also wrote down “rational and irrational do not oppose each other”.



Other Details


The organizers have been experimenting with a few other non-talk-related details that I thought were somewhat interesting. One new segment is called “Feedback”, where the hosts bring up people who have had recent interesting conversations on Twitter about something onto the stage and let them rant about it for a minute or two. I think it’s their way of trying to incorporate more voices into the event so that it’s more of a discussion and less of a lecture, and I’m alright with that, even though it means sometimes you’re going to give the mic to someone and just get a few minutes of completely useless hot air.


Speaking of which, Frank was nice enough to bring me on stage for the first Feedback session. The topic was about single-player competitive games, and so I got to brag about my single-player ELO system for my game Auro, which solves the “high score” issues of many such games.


Another neat thing they’ve added is “discussion topics” to the lunch tables. During lunch, there are a bunch of tables, and each of them has a little piece of paper with a suggested topic on them. One says “MMO History”. One says “Merits of Asymmetry”. I sat down during one lunch at a table whose sign read “Games are Stupid”, where I found people discussing the Oculus Rift. I complimented them for staying on-topic!






I hope that I haven’t given any mixed signals here - I really, sincerely, and thoroughly love the Practice conference, and I hope to never miss one. I don’t think there’s anything like it out there. It’s rough around the edges, but as I said - that’s intentional, and it's kind of what we need right now. I don’t think we could do much better than this until our discipline grows up significantly. Also, I’m pretty certain that each Practice conference going forward is going to be incrementally better than the last, because of how much the organizers care about finding ways to iterate and re-design.



Hope to see you there next year!

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