George "The Fat Man" Sanger, Critical Mass Interactive's "Captain" Billy Cain, Furcadia.com's David "Dr. Cat" Shapiro, Mockingbird Games' Troy Gilbert, and Online Alchemy's Mike Sellers might sound like an enclave of government spies.
But they're actually industry veterans who convened at the recent Independent Game Conference in Austin to share their experiences as part of the annual Texas-based "Project Horseshoe"
game design think tank.
Project Horseshoe's objective? Solving game design's toughest problems -- they brainstorm the issues and try to set themselves on a road toward solutions.
About the panel, Sanger said: “These guys are all what you’d call ‘the shit.’ These are among the smartest people I know, and I know a lot of people. As far as I know, these are some of the smartest people there are.”
“These guys represent the four breakout groups that happened at [Project Horseshoe]," he continued. "We want you to know this thing exists, and help you get in on the ground level. We want to provide the specific information and findings we came up with this year. We want to find out from you what you think would be helpful. And, we want to know if there is anyone you really think should have been at PH."
But there was a caveat, as Sanger described, “We are not soliciting attendees. It is invitation only, and you have to be really good at what you do. You’ve gotta bring something to the table.”
30-50 people gather together for a few days at Canyon of the Eagles, Texas – a resort with eagles, and reptiles, and bugs. "We feed them free food and access to booze and cigars, have a big ‘ole party," Sanger described. "There’s arguments. There’s throwing things. There’s practical jokes. Friday morning we present three talks on topics meant to blow attendees’ minds. Thus disoriented, with shaken-up agendas, we try to brainstorm, 'What are our big problems?'"
The attendees break out into workgroups that day and Saturday until about 4:00. After that, everyone comes up with action items and a report for the website. They also perform a skit -- recalled Sellers, “This year there was a great one taking off of Blade Runner.”
Explained Sanger, “On the website are the published workgroup reports from last year, and pretty soon we’ll be publishing the ones from this year. That’ll give you the badassest point of view on the situation.”
World’s Most Dangerous Chefs
Shapiro's described his first Project Horseshoe group, which was named "World's Most Dangerous Chefs." He recalled, "The first year I went, I was on a group working on very down-to-earth, practical issues – which is what I felt I wanted to do. This year, I felt the need to do something different.”
As Shapiro described, he ended up on group discussing how we could get a broader range of emotions elicited through games. "Fear, anger, and excitement – we’ve done those," he said. "We started by listing as many emotions as we could think of. Really obscure ones. Schadenfreude is one we had a hard time agreeing about!"
He added, “If you are on a team -- or even a lone wolf -- I think it’s a really good exercise.”
So how does it work? Team members come up with wacky ideas and challenges. For a taste of how Project Horseshoe does things, sit down with a few people, and think about what you would do if you had to, say, create a game that made people feel embarrassed. "It’s a lot of fun, and it stretches your design skills," added Shapiro.
And the exercises aren't just fun, as Shapiro explained, “Of our group of four people, three of us came out of it with something to take out into our work and prototype.”
Shapiro added, “We independents are the best people to stretch the limits of game design. See what new places you can find. Start from somewhere different and see where it takes you.”
They came out of the brainstorming session with action items to build games. They published the list of emotions the used. And any games ideas generated that they don’t build within a year, they’ll throw out to the public. "There’s a huge potential for fun and sales," noted Shapiro.
Cain recalled the "Rising Tide" group, as he elaborated, "We chose the name because of the idea that a rising tide raises all boats. How can we professionalize game design?"
He continued, "We broke the category down into segments like job titling, anything that could be remotely consistent. For example, if I say ‘level’ in game design, what does that mean? Just the word ‘level’ has, like, 8 million different meanings. We also looked at how to rate a designer. If someone is good at one type of product, does that mean the same for other products?"
Added Cain, “All we could really accomplish was setting out the fact that this needs a lot more work. Our job wasn’t to determine what specific titles mean, so much as to present the fact that it is a problem – to the game industry. Hopefully the industry itself helps us actually start formulating those things.”
He continued, “In the movie industry, you know what a grip is, what a gaffer is, what an assistant director is. It’s a standard product that they’re actually creating. At some point we have to start standardizing this.”
As he pointed out, it's an enormous problem. Last year, the game industry was valued at $12 billion dollars. "Investors need to know about these things. Educators, too. What does an assistant producer do? What does a level designer do? I believe we’re going to get the ball rolling. We’ll have it up on our website, and hopefully that will get the ball rolling."
Some other highlights from the group's report: "An idea is not a design. A feature is not a game. Game design is not fun.”
Said Sanger, “There are balls that can be picked up and run with. So pick up your balls and run with them.”
Iterative and collective process of determining what the problems were. Self-vetting and self-organizing. Sanger has been using the same process with Project Barbecue for years.
United Rogue Emirates
Gilbert discussed his "United Rogue Emirates" group. "We spent most of our time discussing interactive natural language artistic experiences – which is what everyone calls ‘text adventures.’”
He continued, "How can we take the genre and make it relevant to today’s gamers? Ours was a more specific focus – not very big ideas. We talked about a lot of practical details. We want to give people a more expressive sense of engagement. Most everyone can read and write. Written language is the most expressive form of input people have. The problem is, it’s so expressive, it opens up a communication gap between what users think they can express, and what is actually possible through the computer"
The message? “For the text adventure to be relevant to the modern user, it needs to be spiced up a bit.”
Even though people spend lots of time interacting with text, the text adventure as a game needs to position itself differently, according to Gilbert. "Right now, they are like reading a book. Although you can explore, they are a closed experience."
United Rogue Emirates also focused on the notion of amateur game development. "Most people think these games are created by a single author. That’s part of the magic," Gilbert said. "Using the Victorian notion of an amateur, we talked about someone who pursues something from a place of passion rather than as a profession."
What was detailed in the report: The group identified what the problem areas are and why text adventures aren’t as successful today as they once were. "The method of interaction is very dry," said Gilbert. "People expect visuals.”
So how can the text adventure be modernized? Context (presenting it on the web or mobile phones), modernizing the input (most next gen consoles come with headsets and voice recognition), and incorporating text adventure design as an element of larger gameplay, as Gilbert explained from the findings of his group. "[We had] lots of good ideas on how text adventures can contribute to game design – as a facet," he said.
Another "action item" from the report? The importance of establishing and building a social network for amateur game developers to share and facilitate each other’s work – in an organized, reputation-oriented system. In that vein, they'll be creating amateurgamedev.com.
Now it was Sellers' turn to describe the findings from his team. "The very first thing we agreed on was that storytelling is vastly important to game design and game playing, but none of us wanted to use the word ‘story’ or ‘telling,'" he noted.
Added Sellers, "We want the story to be the player’s story. We need new ways to create or mediate new kinds of experiences for the player or players – that later become the player’s story."
One example was from The Sims
. People would post slide shows, and some of them were like watching somebody else’s vacation slides. Not very interesting to the viewer -- but a completely different level of value therein for the player who'd taken them.
Said Sellers, "We talked a lot about different ways we could create, support, or mediate these kinds of experiences. What does it mean to be meaningful? Collaborative? Transformative? We want someone to walk away from the game they played feeling different about their world."
He continued, "We talked about character-driven drama – rather than saying 'here is the story' as a plot, we say, 'here are the characters.' Having semi-autonomous non-player characters. Characters who have lives, goals, and personalities."
Explained Sellers, "The way we create meaning is not by telling you, ‘this game is about falling in love,’ but by giving you the opportunity to do that if you want to."
"We’ll be talking about these issues over the next year," he concluded. "We all came away having learned something, and with things we could take back to work. We’re all interested in moving story creation forward.”
The panelists then opened the floor for audience questions -- someone asked whether anyone died at this year's Project Horseshoe. "We still even haven’t had a fist-fight," said Sanger. An audience member disagreed and took responsibility for broken glass at the first Project Horseshoe.
Asked an audience member, "Do you think today’s AI technology can handle the kind of storytelling you’d like to see?"
“Maybe in 3-5 years," Sellers replied. "Right now, it doesn’t scale well. We are looking at the goal of having it feel to the player like this is an experience created just for them. We’d like to allow a personality test that can be added to your avatar and then modified. Like, ‘I want to be me, but meaner.’”
Another audience member asked whether the group used Richard Bartle's "four gamer types" in their discussion. "Everyone in my group is friends with Richard Bartle -- so we felt completely free to throw it out immediately,” said Sellers.
He continued, "We focused pretty quickly on what’s called the 'big five.' You can take a short test that tells you where you stand on these five dimensions. It hasn’t been put in a game yet -- but wait a couple of years.”
Added Shapiro, "For years, I’ve wanted some research done on what kinds of games are liked by what types of people. Questions like that. Bartle's types are a good start. But we really need to get in some more depth and detail than three or four character types."
Asked another audience member, "Has Project Horseshoe ever tackled the issue of sex, nudity, or pornography in games?"
Sanger replied, “Yes, it does get discussed. We’re not shy about it. We go right to the extremes. That is a huge driving force in technology, and if anybody wants to laugh that off as a joke, go ahead, it’s your loss. If they took all the pornography of the Internet, the only thing left would be all the discussion groups saying, ‘where did all the porn go?’”
He went on to say that if you’re thinking about that, look at the type of people you’ll be dealing with, and see if you want to get involved. Leave yourself a way of getting out of the business. And know that the porn industry tends to attract people who are most interested in money. Which takes away from the fun, even with all the nakedness.
Sanger then invited the panel to give some closing thoughts. Cain advised, "Make fun games, and be excited about your game being fun." Added Shapiro, "Live in your hopes, not in your fears."
Gilbert said, "If you want to take the route of a cover band, that’s cool. Do that. But we could use a lot of guys out there doing something different."
Concluded Sellers, "Independent game developers are where all the new stuff comes from. Without a question. Make a game. Finish a game. Finishing’s the hard part. If you go through the hard stuff in the middle, it’s great. But don’t leap all the way to the end. An idea isn’t a design. A design is not a program. A program is not a product. A product is not a business. A business is not profit. Profit is not happiness.”