Surprises at the PRACTICE 2012: Game Design In Detail Conference

Note: This article was written a few months ago, right after the conference, but kinda got lost in the shuffle.  Anyway, it’s here now!  Enjoy!

This was the second year of the new NYC-based game design conference, run by NYU Game Center staff.  It was also my second year attending.  So, having been there once before, I went in with some kind of idea of what to expect from each of the list of speakers.

For those who don’t know anything about the conference, it’s kind of like a game designer’s dream-conference.  It’s not a game development or game business conference, it’s not a commercial expo – it’s merely a bunch (less than 100) game designers getting together and talking about their practice of game design.  There aren’t a lot of events in the world that focus so narrowly on my field of interest, so it’s something I’ll be attending every year, if I can.

Now, having attended the conference, I think I can pull everything together into a kind of theme of “surprise”, as almost all of the speakers did not quite match my expectations. That might automatically sound negative, but it actually was positive in a couple of cases where I didn’t expect much from the speaker.  For better or for worse, what I expected to hear was often subverted, and that fact in and of itself was probably of value.

Among the speakers were Richard Garfield (Magic: the Gathering), Dan Cook (Triple Town), Christina Norman (League of Legends), Stone Librande (Spore), Kjartan Emilsson (Eve Online), and many more.

I should also mention that while the event is formally held on two days (Saturday and Sunday), on the previous Friday there was a short get-together where attendees got to hang out play Douglas Wilson’s J.S. Joust.  I wasn’t able to make it to this part of the event, but I’m told that it was a blast.


Arriving at the event on a cold Saturday morning at 9 AM is always exciting – not just because there’s free bagels and coffee, but also because you suddenly enter this world where you’re surrounded by other game designers, many of which might be people who have made things that you already love.  It’s common for people to introduce each other, and then go “oh, you made that?  That’s great, I love that game!”  So there’s a process of getting to know who it is you already know, in a way.

The first talk was by Richard Garfield, designer of Netrunner, Robo Rally, and of course, Magic: The Gathering.  Now, I’m sorry to say it, but I don’t have a high opinion of Magic: The Gathering, almost purely because of the fact that it’s a collectible card game, which is a business model I find exploitative and a recipe for game design doom.  His talk was called “Balancing Games”, which I found kind of ironic coming from a CCG designer, but I guess that when I was formulating my predictions I sort of forgot that this is a guy who has designed a lot of games, not all of which are CCGs.  Also, since CCGs are already set on a course for ultimate balance disaster, it does mean that the developer of a CCG certainly has a lot of practice trying to balance games – in a similar way that an arsonist might be good at putting out fires.

So, I was a little bit surprised when Garfield presented a strong, coherent breakdown of how games are balanced.  He discussed his idea of “holistic balance” versus “componential balance”, which I liked very much.  Holistic balance is balance in the actual base rules – things such as “there are hit points” and “after you play an action you draw a card” – whereas componential balance addresses the individual components and whether they’re balanced.  Componential balance is what most game-players normally think of when they think of balance, but both are obviously tremendously important.

I also liked his prescriptive term, orthogames, which essentially means the same thing as my prescriptive definition for game: “contests of decision making”.  I run into a lot of trouble with my prescriptive definition, so I might consider using Garfield’s term in my work in the future.  Either way, it’s good to be reminded that other people do in fact use prescriptive specialist terminology to get ideas across.

More surprising than the usefulness of this talk, however, was what was omitted.  My feelings about CCGs and their insane perpetual torrent of content takes my mind immediately to the subject of balance, and specifically, the feeling that a “perpetual torrent of content” can not be balanced.  Yet, Garfield never brought it up, even once!  Granted, the talk wasn’t about CCGs, but I was truly surprised that he didn’t mention the relationship between “amount of content” and “difficulty to balance”.

But that’s what’s so great about PRACTICE.  It’s a small venue, less than 100 people, so if you raise your hand with a question, there’s a very high chance you’ll be answered.  I asked that specific question – about the amount of content issue – and it began a discussion about it.  It’s also super-easy to walk up to the guy afterwards and start a more in-depth discussion, or even take him out to lunch or something if you want.  This is what’s so fantastic about this event for people who are really interested in exploring the problem of game design.


Panel:  Switching Gears – Chris Bell, Kjartan Emilsson, Richard Lemarchand


Next up, there was a panel of a few game designers, with a somewhat loosely-connected theme tying them together:  “Switching Gears”.  So, basically it was three designers:  Chris Bell (Journey), Kjartan Emilsson (Eve: Online) and Richard Lemarchand (Soul Reaver).  These were essentially three unrelated short talks.

The most significant of which, in my opinion, was Chris Bell’s.  This wasn’t to say that I enjoyed his talk.  His talk circled around the development of his game Journey, and his philosophy for creating it.  Essentially, he argued, that people are going to get bored of your software really quickly and start making up their own little games and playing with it like a toy.  I find this to be an anti-game designer message;  it essentially says that we don’t need game designers.  Or at least, we don’t need good game designers, because people will just make up games on the spot to entertain themselves.  Worse, he actually said that building systems of rules and goals and resources — you know, game design — was something that you should avoid doing.  It’s an anti-game-designer message at a conference on game design, which I thought was unfortunate, but hey, it definitely gave me something to talk about in the between-times.

Finally, Chris Bell did a weird thing which I found very off-putting and possibly somewhat condescending:  he played this “mood music” through the speakers during his talk.  I didn’t really know what to make of it, it was just… strange and pretentious.  But I’ll come back to this later.


The Between-Times
Speaking of which, the between-times are what make this event.  Being able to look around and see great game designers all around you, approach them and start up a conversation is really fantastic.

For instance, I got to meet up with Dan Cook, designer at Spry Fox, the makers of Triple Town and SteamBirds.  I know him even more, though, from his writing over at The Lost Garden, his blog on game design.  This was a great honor for me, because his blog was the reason I started writing about games in the first place, many years ago.  He was incredibly friendly and thoughtful, and over the weekend I got to have lunch with him and even have him test out a cardgame prototype of mine.  I feel like I’m writing an advertisement, but that’s the kind of stuff that happens at PRACTICE!


Dan Cook – The Persistence of Value


The next talk was indeed the aforementioned Mr. Cook, with a talk that frankly, was in a league of its own at this event.  This was a man who has clearly spent the last several decades not simply making games, but thinking and writing and working to solve great problems of game design.  So, I have to say that he made most everyone else look a little silly in comparison.

This talk was about the relationship between “developer work investment” and “value for the player”.  One of the best charts illustrated the diminishing returns you get for adding content to a system.  The other great point he made was that not all time the player spends playing your game is equal.  He said something like “it’s easy to get players to play for many hours and be miserable”, which I couldn’t agree with more.  As I’ve often said, some systems exploit players’ compulsive behavior, and some systems challenge them;  these are two very different motivators.

Overall, it was a very positive talk that offered a lot of insight into this classic videogame problem of “throwing media at the problem”.  If you’re not already a reader of The Lost Garden, Dan’s blog, I highly recommend it.


Tracy Fullerton – Finer Fruits: Experiment in Life and Play at Walden


Alright, this was one of the talks that I dreaded having to write about.  Firstly, I should say that I found this agonizingly boring to listen to, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, it has nothing to do with game design.  Tracy’s talk was all about this digital interactive art installation she was building, based on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.  It has the following things in common with the practice of game design:

1.  It’s interactive
2.  It’s on a computer, and sometimes people make games on a computer

There was literally nothing someone like myself could take away from this talk, other than some trivia about Walden (which was decently interesting, if unrelated to the talk).

This harkens to two separate problems that I have with the PRACTICE event, one of which I think they can solve, and another I don’t see them being able to solve on their own.  Firstly, they need to invite people who have a message to bring, not just people in influential or successful positions.  This talk did not have a message or theme or guideline or any kind of useful lesson for us.  It was just an hour and a half of her telling us about this thing she was making.  I can’t say with certainty that no one enjoyed it or got anything out of it, but I also think that someone would get something out of literally any developer running people through what his project was.

The second thing, which isn’t PRACTICE’s fault, but rather a problem in our culture in a larger way, is the “game” word problem.  Within our colloquial “game” word, are all kinds of systems which, as I mentioned above, have very little in common with each other. Someone designing a competitive 2D fighter has only a small amount to teach a person designing a traitor cardgame, who has very little to teach a person designing an interactive art installation or a person writing interactive fiction.

I need to clarify that quickly and say that I actually love PRACTICE’s habit of bringing in game designers from other fields, like last year’s Rogers Redding talk (he managed the rules for the NCAA Football league for decades).  This year they did the same with a military war-game designer, which I think is also great.  What’s problematic is bringing in people who are making wholly different kinds of systems, but it’s difficult to know exactly what that means without breaking things down in some kind of low-level way.

This is, of course, a pet problem of mine though so I’m sure many attendees didn’t feel this way.


On Saturday night, there was a great party at Zach Gage’s apartment, which was a lot of fun.  I couldn’t stay too long, being that I had to catch a train, but I did stay long enough to get some playtests of my cardgame with a bunch of designers, which was a blast.

Sunday’s a slightly shorter day, with many of the attendees having to leave to get to their workplaces Monday morning.  It started with David Ward, a military wargame designer.


David Ward:  The Art of War Games


I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that those running the show weren’t 100% aware of what they were signing on for with David Ward.  While Mr. Ward’s field certainly has a ton to teach game designers, this talk was kind of a mess.  It was rambly, unclear, and so incredibly full of bizarre military jargon and acronyms that it almost seemed like a satire of the military’s love of acronyms.  Mr Ward would nervously zoom through two or three of his slides before anyone could even read what they said, trying to “sum them up in one sentence” for some reason.  Eric Zimmerman (who, along with Frank Lantz, runs the event) tried to interject a few times to get Mr. Ward to explain some of what he was talking about, but to not much avail.

It’s alright – it happens.  Sometimes you get a bad speaker!  Not much you can do about that.  From this talk, I was able to extract only a few useful pieces of information:

1.  The Naval War College has been designing wargames since 1887
2.  There’s a great acronym that he actually did explain, called BOGSAT – which stands for “Bunch of Guys Sittin’ Around a Table”.  It refers to the problem many of us in videogames would call “theorycrafting”:  the sometimes meaningless armchair strategy conjecture.  “Armchair Generals” is another common term for this.
3.  He also made a point which I found interesting, which was that when he designs wargames, he designs them so that the good guys usually lose, because you learn more from a loss than you do from a win.  Game designers need to take this advice to heart.

It was clear that this was a guy who had a very interesting job, and who did have a lot to teach us, but unfortunately, wasn’t used to giving presentations to people outside his field.


Christina Norman:  Building a Legendary IP – Growing Creative in League of Legends

This was one of the flagship talks;  not because Christina Norman necessarily has anything interesting to say, but because she’s associated with one of the most popular videogames of our time:  League of Legends.

Here was another very surprising aspect to the conference, for me.  I expected that this would be a talk about how they’re going to keep up their practice of perpetually adding content to the system.  If you’re not aware, League adds new Champions (playable asymmetrical avatars complete with unique powers) every two or four weeks or something.  So, somewhat like Richard Garfield’s talk, I expected that there would be a discussion about how on earth they’re going to balance all this stuff.

Well, it wasn’t about that.  Further, it wasn’t about gameplay mechanisms at all.  Actually, it wasn’t even about interactivity of any kind.  Instead, it was about adding depth to the “characters” in the game.

Now, if you’re not aware, League is probably best described as a “sport”.  It’s a competitive game that’s very much about winning, losing, strategy and execution.  There are “characters” that “say stuff”, but it’s really not about that.  There’s no single-player narrative campaign or anything that tells any kind of authored story.  Instead, you learn what you learn about the characters from their quick little quips they make during play and other material such as the official website.

The talk was, very disappointingly, all about these “characters” and how Ms. Norman intends to make them “deeper”.  This confused the hell out of me at first:  why on earth does a sport like League need deeper characters?  Someone later explained to me that it’s so that they can do spin-off games in the future with the successful IP.  Okay.  That makes sense, but it’s not exactly interesting to a game designer.  Why is this at a game design conference instead of at a corporate boardroom meeting?

Just as a bit of a side note, if Ms. Norman wants to make these characters interesting and deep, she has a long way to go.  As an example of how she plans to inject more personality into these He-Man Saturday morning cartoon characters, she played us this clip of “Elise the Spider Queen” doing a voice over.

While (if) you listen to the following Youtube clip, keep in mind, this is a room full of adults listening to this.  Looking around at the somewhat bewildered, yet intent-on-understanding faces, I had to strain to not burst out laughing.

It’s apparently only two minutes long, but I could have sworn it was at least 15 minutes long when played in that room.

So, again, this talk wasn’t really a winner in my eyes as it had little to do with anything anyone would really call “game design”.  Yes:  sometimes a game designer might have to develop characters in order to do his job.  Of course, a game designer also might have to clean out a keyboard, troubleshoot a computer or organize a schedule;  that doesn’t mean that these things are part of the discipline of game design.


Panel:  Games and Not Games:  Annika Waern, Doug Wilson

The description beneath this panel on the program said “a debate on design between games and non-games”.  Firstly, I don’t understand what that’s supposed to mean.  Can you have a debate between two different subjects?  Can an automobile repairman really “debate” a laywer?  It becomes a little bit more clear when you realize that there’s a “Not Games” movement of people making digital interactive art installations, which the title may have been referring to.

Either way, this panel was most certainly not a debate.  Both speakers completely seemed to agree with one another, although if the organizers expected a debate, I could see why, being that the game Doug Wilson is famous for is indeed a competitive gamey-game and Annika Waern is a super-hardcore LARPer (Live Action Role-player).

Essentially, both sides of this debate agreed that we need to be as vague as possible with the word “game”, to be more “inclusive”.  In fact, both speakers offered a similar quote during their talks:

Doug Wilson:  “If Proteus [an interactive art installation that has no goals or challenges] isn’t a game, then I don’t want to be a part of this community!”


Annika Waern:  [after explanation of how the videogame community has embraced roleplaying] “Now we can get role-playing in!”  [into “games”]

Wilson went as far as to say that in the dictionary, the entry for the definition of game should be a picture of Proteus, so as to say that it is basically the quintessential example of what a game is.

Annika made a great point about how when people talk about what is and is not a game, they always have an agenda.  Of course, humans always have an agenda for everything they do, but it’s worth remembering that we ascribe meaning to words for a specific purpose;  there is no “true meaning” of a given word.

After the talk, I raised my hand and brought up the following point:  aren’t some agendas better than others?  I feel like I could argue that an agenda about improving the level of discourse is superior to one that’s about getting “in” stuff that they personally like.  The word “game” has all kinds of cultural value which makes it difficult for us to have a “game design conference”.

Another couple quick notes:  Doug Wilson used a lot of swear words in his talk which was really off-putting, like he was trying too hard to do something that I can’t exactly put my finger on.  I got a Phil Fish vibe, for those who have seen Indie Game: The Movie.  And again, he put music on during his talk!  Please, please, let’s not let this become a thing that we do!  It’s extremely irritating and insulting, I guess because it feels like he’s trying to “sway me” to agree with him by playing evocative mood music while he says it.  It’s similar to the feeling you get from watching a political ad that has moving music accompanying it.


Naomi Clarke’s Closing Statement

I notice now that I just went through a string of talks that I was dissatisfied with for one reason or another.  Let that not send the wrong signal – I was totally enjoying the conference, because each of these talks, good or bad, were surrounded by that wonderful free coffee time, where we can all chat freely.

Naomi Clarke, a NYC based game designer who also teaches at the NY Film Academy, gave a very fun, thoughtful little wrapping-up presentation of the event.  I really have to give her extra credit, because she prepared this presentation during the presentation.  Very fantastic work, and I think that she captured the spirit of the conference for most people.

However, that let me to wonder, “what was the spirit of the conference for me?”


My Closing Statement
Before Naomi’s talk, the second to last talk was Stone Librande’s talk, titled “Designing for Thousands of Autonomous Agents”.  His presentation was about the new SimCity simulation he’s been working on.  Essentially, what he’s trying to do with the next SimCity is to have the city controlled by thousands of autonomous, AI-controlled agents moving throughout the world.

It’s kinda neat, and has a touch of a Dwarf Fortress feeling to it!  Some of these are trucks that bring resources to a power plant.  Some of these are individual people who get in their cars and go to work at that same plant.  Then these same people would take the money they earned and bring it to a store to buy something and get happiness(!). The upper-class people and the lower class people would both, at the end of the day, spend the same ratio of their money on an upper class and lower class good, respectively, and receive the same amount of happiness.

What I found hilarious about this was that Stone didn’t come in here with an air of “hey, look out, I’m an artist and I’m deep and insightful”, like a few other speakers did.  He’s a down to earth guy who’s just trying to make a nice little city simulation.  He didn’t put those things into the game to get a chuckle out of people:  he put them in because they make sense.

Because Stone is actually thinking about mechanisms, how stuff works – you know, like, reality – he’s stumbling upon somewhat profound and interesting things.  To harken back to the theme of this article, I found this very surprising.  I didn’t expect to hear insight on the human condition from the guy who worked on Spore.

I thought back to when Annika said something along the lines of “I’m not a person who cares about math”.

So maybe this was my big narrative for the event.  It showed two realities, two ways of viewing the world.  You have your Stone Librandes, your Richard Garfields and your Dan Cooks, who are all trying to offer up real solutions to real problems, and you have your Doug Wilsons, your Tracy Fullertons and your Chris Bells, who are… doing something else.  To be charitable, they are, I suppose, trying to make sure everyone’s keeping an open mind about creativity in general, and that’s certainly a good message.

Perhaps I’m biased, because I’m clearly in the first camp.  But there’s something to be said for the fact that this is an event where people express ideas, and ideas can and should be judged by how much utility they have.  Wishywashy ideas, such as Chris Bell’s “who knows, anything could work, you never know” approach don’t really even need to be said.  They are already implicit, it would seem to me – a default starting point, upon which we build a sophisticated network of “ifs” and “thens” which lead us to become skilled craftsmen.

And perhaps this isn’t the only divide.  Quite possibly, every individual who attended left with his own unique view of what the divides – if any – were.  This was the second year of PRACTICE, and I’d say that overall, it was an improvement on the first year.  I wholly recommend that anyone serious about game design should look into it. If next year was even better, it wouldn’t surprise me.