So this past November, I attended two game design conferences on back-to-back weekends.  First came Project Horseshoe, an invite only retreat in Texas.  Then a few days later I was off to the small conference PRACTICE in New York.  This was my 6th year at Horseshoe and my 1st at PRACTICE. 

I gave talks at both and I'd say that my talk in New York was more fleshed out.  When the video comes online I'll be sure to point to it. 

Though both conferences were about game design, they really couldn't be more different.  Both conferences are impeccably organized and executed; the people running them deserve nothing but praise.  This is more my personal reaction to the culture and impact of the events. 

Project Horseshoe derives power from smart attendees 
Project Horseshoe is about getting really smart people together and letting them derive value from their interactions. It is an 'unconference' so the exact topics you cover end up being up the participants.  The mechanical guts of the thing is really a social engineering system for getting people to go through the steps of group formation as quickly as possible so that they can interact in a productive manner.  

1. High quality people are invited.
Most have many years in the industry. Students are uncommon and those that are there usually sport intriguingly specialized interests. 

2. Introduction
Attendees are introduced and primed with ideas for what the weekend will be about. 

3. Formation
They form small intimate groups and end up with a shared goal. 

4. Performance
They are encouraged to reach towards that common goal. 

5. Conflict & Norming
When conflict inevitably occurs, there are plenty of outlets including moderation, silliness, social grooming via board games or beverages, and chances for 1-on-1 talks late into the night. You are onsite the entire time so you have little choice but to reach a common understanding. 

6. Results
The groups are now forced to reach a public conclusion, which intensifies the need group performance and unity. 

For example, this year we had some rather bright minds dig into the mechanical and psychological systems behind organized religions.  The goal was to find positive and effective patterns that we could then apply back to games.  That was a deep, meaty topic that I don't have time to explore during my day job. Nor for that matter do I typically have 3 days of unfettered access to 6 veterans who are capable of approaching it from a rigorous game design perspective. 

Creating a shared goal for even a half dozen extremely individualistic designers is the most problematic aspect of the Project Horseshoe process.  There are three outcomes.  One, you find a group you like.  Two, you don't find a group you like and end up bitterly mopping about for the rest of the event.  Or three, you realize that you are empowered to do whatever the heck you like and either join a different group or start your own rogue group on a topic of interest. 

Both the brilliance and the weakness of Project Horseshoe is that it is what you make of it.  You can turn it into a fun filled weekend of nerf gun fights.  Or you can have life changing conversations (I've had several over the years). The conference provides the space, the time, the people and the process but everything else comes from you. 

I've written about Project Horseshoe previously and mostly bring it up as a means of contrasting my experience with PRACTICE.  For me, it is a must attend design event that has very little equal. If you want a first timer's detailed description of Horseshoe, I recommend David Sirlin's write up from this year. 

David Sirlin's Project Horseshoe report

PRACTICE derives power from speakers and organizers
PRACTICE is a much more traditional small conference.  You have a series of speakers and the majority of the conference is spent listening.   You attend to hear top notch speakers dig into details of game design.  Think of it as the design track from GDC as the main event with all attendees in the same room watching the same talks.  The quality and depth of the talks was roughly equivalent. 

I personally derived some very concrete ideas on franchise building from League of Legends lead designer Christina Norman.  And I loved the talk on agent-based systems (something we do a lot of in Leap Day) from Sim City lead designer Stone Librande.  

A few other talks were less successful.  A panel on non-games didn't meaningfully advance the discussion and got a wee bit ranty. A micro-talk style 'ask the audience about your game design problem' was entertaining, but the depth of responses wasn't high.  I suspect that it was used as a means of tossing up a flag to other attendees that you wanted to talk during the copious coffee breaks. 

This was a New York conference.  There's been a new set of voices streaming from out of the East Coast with ideas like Baby Castles and old Area Code efforts. I find these to be quite different from those found in West Coast game development.  I admit the main reason I attended was to see the New York game scene DNA up close.  

NYU sponsors the event and students were everywhere.  As was the voice of Eric Zimmerman who partially MC'd the event.  At times I felt like I was attending a special academic conference put on for the benefit of a group of very lucky undergrads.  I honestly can't imagine what odd turns my life would have taken if I had been ingesting this sort of game design information 15 years ago. As perhaps a foreshadowing to the whole event, the game department happens to be a temporary appendage to the film department until they can 'find a better place.'  

There was an implicit agenda in the speaker selection.  Designers from all walks of life are brought together include indie, military, academia, AAA and elsewhere.  The theme was of inclusion: Game design is a big tent and everyone is welcome and everything is good.

A surprising number of side conversations were about how people weren't actually making money or didn't intend to make money. Or wanted to make games without worrying about money. Interesting. Since I see business constraints and design deeply intertwined, I wasn't surprised to hear this philosophical deprioritization yielded real world angst.  It is hard to ignore the grinding reality of making games while still managing to eat.  Unless you have a trust fund. Or are ensconced in academia. Or pursuing the honorable career of starving student.  All roles that New York has in spades. 

Perhaps due to the mix of these influences, the audience wasn't an overly focused or critical group. Talkers, perhaps philosophers, but not analytical thinkers. I rarely saw ideas challenged beyond a handful of short 10-30 second comments that were allowed at the end of each speech.  People came, they listened and took away personal nuggets. Teasing out an objective reality wasn't high on most lists. If you are a student of design looking to be a receptacle of various elder philosophies, this format likely was like drinking from a hose. 

Attendees were indeed given marginally more Brownian motion time than many conferences. Breaks in the schedule provided for chance attendee mixing.  For me, these played out in the aimless polite pantomime of your typical conference conversations. The forming, storming, norming, performing was outside the scope of the schedule. My attempts to spark conversation didn't go so well. The students, in particular, didn't seem to have much to say despite my prying. Chats ended up being fragmented over a half dozen extended coffee breaks. Attendees deriving benefit from other brilliant attendees was ultimately a secondary priority. 

A cultural barrier
Honestly, I suspect much of it was due to my failings. I've felt a similar wall before when I was a working artist trying to talk to people from a business background. I lacked the language to dig into where they were coming from.  It took years of study at business school before I could talk their talk.  The experience made me cognizant of my professional language limitations; I only can speak game design, science, business and the practical aspects of visual arts. 

And none of those topics were where this conference was really coming from. PRACTICE is in New York. New York, epicenter of institutionalized museums, fashion and theater. The people are so steeped in the culture of the place. When poked, they bled Film School training, Humanities values and dreams of making High Art.  Some joked that the speakers mostly came from physics and science backgrounds, but the truth was that these were imports. For locals, games are so obviously derived from this bigger, broader, richer culture that to talk about games from the sole perspective of making games is almost a non sequitur.  

In ancient Greece, a branch of the Pythagoreans studied math as mysticism.  Over time, more secular philosophies of math emerged that let math be studied as a form onto itself.  I seek that secular tradition for game design and instead found a community of practicing Pythagoreans wrapped up in the spiritualism of cultural institutions so very very old. 

I'm cool with that. I found the odd thing about the New York game scene that I was looking for.  It was far more alien than I expected.  On the West Coast, games found a home in startups, websites and big business.  On the East Coast, they found a home in art exhibits, film departments and the local creative culture.  I'm curious to see what unique works they make.  Because, to be perfectly clear, making great games is all that matters to me.

Check out the summary website.  As perhaps a metaphor for the conference, It doesn't try to convey complete and useful information. It could be a band poster or a brochure to include in a grant proposal. Here we have a snapshot, a line of brilliance, a fragmented collage that exists to evoke the breadth and connectedness of design. 

PRACTICE 2012 Tumblr

Find your people
A commonality I've noticed at both events is that many designers were starved for contact with other designers.  Simply being within a community of people that think and dream in a similar manner to yourself is a life changing moment.  If you haven't been around a dense group of excited game designers for several days, I recommend you hit up at least one of these events.  Both work, though in very different ways. 

take care, 
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