Monday, November 10, 2008

Project Horseshoe 2008: There and back again


I’m writing this on the long flight back from Project Horseshoe 2008. The last bittersweet night, we stayed up till five AM playing games and talking about games. The conversation shifted from the slow death of games as we knew them, to fresh games that will change the world, to the little tips we use to thrive each day. There is something distinctly surreal about chatting quietly with such an intimate knowledgeable group during the wee hours of the morning, there on a lonely porch in the uncharted depths of Texas. And yes, there were indeed baby racoons.

This year, I took a risk. If you’ve been following this blog for a bit, you know that I’ve been working on skill atom techniques for modeling gameplay. I’ve written about it. I’ve used it myself. There has even been a talk or two. Yet, aside from a few furtive emails with other happy heretics, I’ve never had a chance to do the following:
  1. Explain the model to a crowd of natural skeptics, working designers who have been successfully building games for years.
  2. Get them to tear it apart.
The cautionary tale of the secret paint formula
I’m reminded of a story that Norman Rockwell used to tell. He once became good friends with a fellow painter who was famous for his rendering of luminescent, sensual skin tones. The painter used a secret formula for his paint and he guarded it jealously from potential imitators. When the painter died, he willed his greatest gift, his secret paint formula to Rockwell.

Rockwell excitedly tried out the formula, but ultimately found it disappointing. The paint was too slick and difficult to control, so he gave up on it and instead fell back on his own preferred techniques. The real secret had never been the paint formula. It was just one little piece of the painter’s vast organic, highly individual process. The real secret was the intuitive wisdom that comes from making a thousand paintings. Sadly, such a thing is not transferable to others. When he died, his specific way of creating paintings died with him.

Are skill atoms the same thing as the secret paint formula? Are they a glossy coat of theoretical hand waving that only works for the people who invented it? Many people I’ve talked with see ‘game grammar’ as nothing more than a time wasting intellectualization of a fundamentally intuitive activity. I went into the weekend with this thought very much at the forefront of my mind.

Why stop there?
If all we had done was validate or invalidate the skill atom model for simple games, it would have been a useful weekend. But by god, this is Project Horseshoe and people are nothing if not psychotically ambitious. To up the ante, our group decided to apply skill atoms to multiplayer games. I’ve never done this.

How do you model a deeply psychological behavior like bluffing? Gifting? Competition? Collaboration? Goodness! I didn’t have a lot of answers prepared for this topic and honestly expected that the skill atom model would immediately collapse under the weight of all the crazy things that happen as soon as you add two or more players to a game design. All it would have taken is one smart designer to raise a single counter example and my fragile model would burst apart, defeated by reality.

Some questions that I had included:
  • Could we even begin to talk about multiplayer with skill atoms? The alternative is that this is a model that is limited to only single player experiences. That would be like coming up with a model of physics that worked for one ball in a vacuum, but wasn’t useful for something useful like say…building bridges.
  • Would the system scale to complex systems? Often when you use a diagramming technique (like UML or state diagrams) to understand real world projects, the resulting diagrams becomes so convoluted that the model does more to confuse than to illuminate.
  • Would the system be useful to designers during every day work? It is much easier to come up with a academic system of analyzing games that works best if you are an ivory tower dweller who can devote hundreds of hours to breaking down each interaction into pretty diagrams filled with obscure invented lingo. However, I’m looking for utilitarian tools that can be applied in that critical 10-minute gap between playing a prototype and deciding what to try next.
  • Can this system be taught to other designers? Like the secret paint formula, most game models I run across are only useful to their inventors. If I can’t observe other designers applying the model successfully without my intervention there is something horribly wrong with the approach.
We ripped the skill atoms apart. We analyzed multiplayer M.U.L.E. We looked at charades and then took on football and buffing in MMOs. We used skill atoms to prototype a new multiplayer game about gifting using a bag of plastic Indians. At some point, not so long from now, our group will come out with a report. In that report, we’ll be blunt about what we found. What worked? What was flawed? The results are fascinating.

Our team’s report will be one of several reports to come out of Project Horseshoe by groups of game designers just as crazy and inspired as we were. If any one of these reports starts gaining momentum, the world of gaming as we know will change. It turns out that moving our industry forward isn’t about complaining. It is about getting smart people together where they have the time and the space to think. Grab a beer (Aventinus Double Bock, no less), join the mind meld and use the vast pool of centuries (!) of game design experience to come up with real solutions. Then follow up again and again and again.

In that spirit, I can't wait to share our final report with everyone.

Time for some much needed sleep, chock full of dreams.
Danc.

PS: Warm kudos to George, Linda and Teresa for putting Project Horseshoe on. It is obviously a labor of love and is utterly unique compared to the other events and conferences I’ve attended. If you ever get an invite, don’t hesitate to go.