2015 Workgroup Topic Proposals

discouraging the dick

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One of the most requested changes to my game would let users edit the name of their spaceship. When I finally added that, they immediately named their ships “dickbutt69” or something similar. I recognize that this is part of the larger axiom, that if you give game players a creative tool (even a text entry widget) they will immediately make something obscene.

But it annoys me, and I have anecdotal evidence that it harms the game ecosphere at least a bit. So now that we’ve all acknowledged that this behavior is innate, I’d still like to explore ways to minimize and discourage it.

2015 Workgroup Topic Proposals

The “Bruce”; reexamining the job descriptions within game production

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On the podcast “designer notes”, Bruce Shelley detailed his past work relationship with Sid Meier, which resulted in historic games. He would receive a near-daily build from Sid in the morning, play it til lunchtime, and spend the afternoon with Sid discussing his analysis.  He also built levels and game content.  As he described his job, it became clear to me that his role, while critical, didn’t FIT into any existing videogame developer “roles/jobs”.

Shelley describes a job that isn’t tester, designer, or producer, but does a lot of each. Just as importantly, his job could not be held apart from the rest of the team; it was a VERY tightly integrated support role for Sid Meier, who was doing the programming and iterative design.

I think we need more “bruces” ( I know I do). But we could also ask ourselves; how can we smash the pidgeon holes that the games industry stuffs us into, and make up our own job descriptions?

2015 Workgroup Topic Proposals

Computer horsepower and videogame logical correctness

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PART ONE: Over the last decade, I’ve marveled at the increasing computing power we all have available, and I’ve asked many colleagues the question: How can we use this raw computing power in the service of game design? The answers have been dis-satisfying. Most seem confused by the question. Some proudly talk about nightly builds and backups. Others describe how art tools are used.

My mind immediately goes to GA, genetic algorithms, a powerful (and computationally expensive) way to find optimal solutions to specific problems. Unfortunately, GA requires a “fitness function”, and most of the “fitness functions” I can think of (in regards game design) determine something AESTHETIC, which is really the domain of the human mind.

PART TWO: Imagine you’re making an adventure game. In act 1, the player gets a flashlight. In act 2, the player finds a trashcan, which deletes anything the player drops into it. In act 3, there’s a dark room that requires the flashlight to traverse it. Thus, the player can accidentally choose to make an unwinnable situation for themselves.

This is a “bug” in the game design, and there are a thousand ways to fix it. But how do we avoid making the “bug” in the first place? Talk to game designers, they’ll tell you “that’s what testers are for!”. But testers can be expensive, especially for indie developers, and they aren’t a magic solution.
But also, since this problem is a “bug”, I could essentially be asking for a game language that has “prove-able correctness”, a computer science problem that has never been solved (for general cases). So, way too hard to solve.

FUSE THESE: With the new computer horsepower we have available, I suggest we revisit the idea of testing games “brute-force” (examining every possible input combination) for correctness. I also propose that we use text adventure games as a first step, because of the limited and discrete choices those games are known for.

So I’d like to spend time examining the innate structure of text adventure games, and building a representation of text adventure games that facilitates computer “brute force solving”.  Understand that I’m not trying to “revive” text adventures/interactive fiction; I’m thinking about all videogames, really.

2015 Workgroup Topic Proposals

emotionally safe spaces in game development

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Arguably, there’s a new level of social awareness in videogame development, led by young indie and LGBT groups. More specifically, I’ve read of groups that ask for (and sometimes demand) an emotionally safe space”, for working or creative interaction. As a boy in Texas in the 70’s and 80’s, I can’t imagine I could have asked for such a thing. I CAN imagine that those three words would have been alien nonsense to any authority figure I had contact with at the time. Throughout my career, “emotionally safe spaces” also did not compute. Every shop I worked in cared most about work output; emotional safety meant the ability to close your office door, and stress was just part of the job description.

“Emotionally safe space”. Does it matter for videogame developers? And if so, what are best practices to achieve it?

2014 Workgroup Topic Proposals

Designing for live community play

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As designers, we still tend to think of our work like sending a rover to Mars: we create an experience, and others consume it in some far-off place we can’t see, then after a delay they report back to us on their experiences. Even most MMOs are created with that mindset until (and even after) the game goes live. With the rise of social media and game streaming, along with so many games now providing a live service even if it’s just leaderboards, achievements and stats, it’s time to open doors to new types of games and ways of playing.

The first example I saw of a community game was Twitch Plays Pokemon. A game of Pokemon is streamed live on Twitch, and viewers can vote in the chat for what the AI player should do next. It’s messy to say the least (hundreds of chat messages can fly by before you can read them), but the possibilities are immense. Here are articles from Polygon and Gamespot about the potential impact of this style of play.

Choice Chamber is an upcoming game using the community voting method to determine the play experience. It’s just the tip of the iceberg though: when you consider the combination of modular game elements–including narrative–with an effective method for viewers to vote and then witness the outcome, I believe we have the opportunity to create a new kind of play experience that unfolds like a live performance!

2014 Workgroup Topic Proposals

How can we match existing game models & systems to specific kinds of learning?

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It’s long been part of the broader game design conversation that “fun is learning”, and that what we do as game designers is create smooth, usable, graceful progressions through a learning and discovery process — but I’ve yet to see a discussion of what organic systems and structures (even conventions) that have grown out of games (for example tech trees, leveling systems, first time user experience, resource management) can be best leveraged toward learning whether in or outside of a game.

We are heading into a time when the fields of learning and game design are beginning to converge and interact in ways they’ve never interacted before, from a standpoint of mutual respect and idea-sharing. How can we create a feedback loop into this system where game design informs learning design, and where learning design leads to the creation of better games? It starts with a shared vocabulary, and an understanding of what systems create what kinds of emotional and cognitive experiences. These “cookbook” approaches have been discussed inside and outside of Horseshoe before (“Multiplayer Game Atoms”, “Psychology for Game Designers”, “Solving Big Problems”…), but this topic would aim to create a list of major game structures and discuss their specific cognitive relationship to learning processes possibly as defined by the work of Piaget, Vygotsky, and more modern theorists and structures (systems thinking, persistence, affective impact, social norms).

The flip side of the feedback loop is that by understanding what it is that is fulfilling about learning, what the learning state looks like, what is happening on a microscopic level inside a person’s thinking when they learn, we can create more compelling introductory systems, smoother progressions, and stickier elder loops. First time user experience remains a persistent problem in most games, and some of the answers could well exist inside the heads of teachers and education scientists. It seems likely that even in thinking of the “first time user experience” as a universal thing, we might well discover that a diverse approach toward a first time user experience depending upon the kind of learning desired is what is most effective.

2014 Workgroup Topic Proposals

Fixing Online Harassment

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The industry is currently, for lack of a better word, under attack. This isn’t an isolated case, but something that’s part of a larger system. If anyone knows how to analyze, understand, and ultimately control systems, it should be game designers. So maybe we should say, fuck “solving game design’s hardest problems,” and instead use our time together to solve some of the hardest systemic problems out there in the rest of the world, as they are affecting our industry anyway.

There were some idiots out there targeting a bunch of academics at DiGRA on the theory that they are some kind of secret shadow organization that controls the game industry, apparently oblivious to the existence of PH. Clearly, if we work on this topic, the standard Code of Secrecy/Blabbing will need to be considered carefully, to protect all concerned.

2014 Workgroup Topic Proposals

Imaginative Play

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What do the real life trends of cosplay and LARPing, escape the room and haunted house experiences, location-based and alternate reality gaming have in common?  Adults are craving imaginative play more than ever.  Wanting that uninhibited fun we had as children.
But many social stigmas and self-awareness impede us from letting each other have fun.

  • What are ways that we can allow each other to have more silly, indulgent, imaginative play?
  • Can we frame systems, rules or even just present games in a way that is disarming?
  • What new types of play will compelling enough to make it irresistible to join in?
  • What parts of these games should be physical or digital?
2014 Workgroup Topic Proposals

Three Cheers for Systems Design: Promoting the dismal science of games

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Many (though not all) game live and die based off their systems design. Yet this critical discipline lingers in the shadows, poorly understood and poorly promoted.  Over the years that I’ve talked about systems design, I’ve found it to be a bit like chatting about advanced math at a loud dinner party.  In almost any setting available to game developers, the conversation quickly shifts to rhetorically charged chatter about art, narrative, politics, business or even programming. There’s a place for that. But…how do we encourage a rich discussion about system design?

  • What is a fruitful place to discuss systems design? How to create a safe space?
  • How do we create a critical mass of serious and knowledgeable practitioners so the conversation isn’t washed away?
  • How do we elevate and promote the practice?
  • What are useful rules of engagement with more rhetoric-focused groups that only weakly understand or appreciate systems design?
2014 Workgroup Topic Proposals

Game balance

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Nearly every game project has, at some point, some designer doing work on balancing. Yet there is a dearth of resources explaining how we do it. Let’s get some heads together and figure out if any of us even do this in the same way, and if there’s a way we can formalize our methods so that others can make use of them.

(I realize balance is a massive topic, possibly beyond the scope of our ability to cover over a single weekend. If so, we can choose a suitable subtopic to elaborate on.)

2014 Workgroup Topic Proposals

Inventing Progression Systems

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Progression systems have seen all sorts of innovation lately. F2P, MMOs, and incremental games (In a Dark Room, Cookie Clicker, Gridland) all do fascinating things to ease the learning curve and keep players engaged long term.

  • Tools we can use to make new progression systems
  • Common and uncommon existing variations (leveling, unlocking, events, drops, etc)
  • Techniques for mixing and matching existing systems (feedback loops, internal economies)
  • Ways of introducing meaningful choice.
  • Common design goals for the progression system and how we might meet them.
2013 Workgroup Topic Proposals

Old vs. New: How to acquire new players with a largely veteran community

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I have a specific problem I’m trying to solve. I have a game that’s been running since the 90s and most of the player base has been playing for at least a few years. I’m in the process of redoing the game to make it more accessible, and my primary obstacle hasn’t been anything technical, but rather the community itself.

It’s a competitive game that relies a lot on teamwork and veteran players tend to be very impatient with newer players, which results in the classic poor experience (getting removed from games, yelled at, etc.).  Some ideas I’ve had to fix this problem:

  • segregating players based on experience
  • reducing exposure of new players to the community (disabling chat by default, etc)

However I’m not sure if this going to help or harm. I know that “making online MP a better place” has been a topic in the past and touched on this issue, but I would like to focus in on this specific problem in depth.

2013 Workgroup Topic Proposals

“Shall we play a game?”

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A few years back, when the Milo tech demo made the rounds, it was met with a mix of curiosity and confusion. While pet simulators like Nintendogs were adopted by the masses, and Seaman is a cult classic,  the idea of interacting with a lifelike virtual human, a child no less, it seemed to alienate more people than it intrigued.

On my current project, I’m working with social simulation software to create interactive prose fiction where the characters in the story react in real time. The medium is different, but for me, the goal is similar to project Milo’s — to create the illusion of life; to lull the player into forgetting that they are interacting with an AI. Early days, but a lot of fun, and the fact that it’s prose and not an avatar helps blunt the uncanny valley.

Ignore for now the challenge of how to make smarter AI characters. What I would be interested in talking about at Horseshoe is what new kinds of games and game-like experiences could we create around characters with all the expressiveness, vulnerabilities and spontaneity of human beings. And what are the ethical implications as empathy with AI characters increases alongside freedom of interaction?

2013 Workgroup Topic Proposals

Good Grief

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This may be a little weird, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the mechanics of grief. Mainly how grief is really weird in how it seems to completely disregard time, as in how you could have lost someone 8 years ago and then out of nowhere have the grief return as fresh as though it had just been yesterday. Such a strange, human system!

I’m interested in breaking down this experience and exploring the rules that may drive it. Mind you, this isn’t so much “make people sad when they play games,” or “make a character and get the player really attached to it and then off it. Grief!” but more looking at how grief behaves in the weirder sense and if we can extract that shared experience and do something interesting with it in an interactive context.

2013 Workgroup Topic Proposals

When do you kill a game?

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There are multiple stages to a game. Prototyping, Production, Live game.  And in each of these multiple moments, it might be a really good idea for the game to die.  Life is short, resources are limited and there are more games to make in the future.

  • When do you kill a game?  
  • What criteria do you use?  What are tools that make us murder intelligently?
  • What are the emotional costs and benefits?  Parents are always over invested in our sickly children.
  • What are ways of ending a game that open up the maximum opportunities for the future? Is the corpse worth preserving?  Can its essential organs be harvested and used elsewhere?
2013 Workgroup Topic Proposals

Creating games that command respect

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Have you seen Ian Bogost’s last presentation on fun? http://vimeo.com/74943170

I want to talk about this with my cogent and wise game design fellows!

Some quotes:

  • Fun comes from the work of working a system
  • Fun: the feeling of operating a system, particularly in a way we haven’t seen before.
  • Fun is related to structure, not to effect.
  • Fun is an admiration for the absurd arbitrariness of things.
  • Fun is a name for the feeling of deliberately operating a constrained system.
  • Shift the frame from play as an activity to play as a condition for certain media. Shift the frame from fun as an experience to fun as an exhaust that is produced when an operator can treat a thing with dignity.
  • Designing something fun: Conceiving of something worthy of being treated with respect.
  • Fun at its best: the whole world watches an abstraction give up its secrets.
  • The thing that makes a job fun is not finding the element of fun that makes it a game, but finding the element of fun that makes it a job. Jobs are fun when they are not games, when we treat them seriously.
  • We fail to facilitate fun when we don’t take things seriously, not because we take them too seriously. It’s not that we’re not having enough enjoyment.
  • Fun is measured in historical time. Fun cooks slow. It demands seeking out novelties within boundaries that have largely been erected for a long time.
  • Fun is a way of finding the air bubbles of freshness in something that is suffocatingly familiar.

I’m so excited by this kind of thinking. Can we talk about how to best design when adopting this viewpoint? I hate grinding but I appreciate the “job of playing”. How do I design a game that feels like the latter and not the former?

2013 Workgroup Topic Proposals

Game designs boosting creativity

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When we are in a creative mode, we  find new solutions to old problems, and we get new perspectives on things we take for granted. We create things that are truly new and unique, things that has not existed before, things that are both valuable, surprising and impressive.

How can games boost creativity?

We know some about what makes us creative. Random stimulus is one trigger, where we we combine seemingly unrelated concepts.  How can we use  applications such as wordNet or big data mining? How can we add real world bleed?

Another trick is to constrain the border in which you solve a problem or create something. We find new ways to work within the borders, or we find new ways to break them. If we made a game that gave the borders – what would that game be like?

We also know that we are better at solving problems when we cooperate with each other. What would game utilising this look like? And, would it be true even if the one we cooperate with is a machine, or a game system? Would we be able to enable the creation of truly novel things?

Lets map this out, and lets design!


… just to give some context:
Some Game Pre-cursors:
Conceptual blends and collaborative storytelling:
Tarot, StoryCubes, Dixit, Fiasco, and any table top RPG.

Creative construction:
pine-cones, LEGO, CreatorVerse, MineCraft, SporeCreature Creator…etc.

 Pretty related
The Voynich Manuscript (unknown)

The Book of Imaginary Beings (Borges)
Codex Seraphinianus (Serafini)
A book of Surrealist Games

 Attempts to understand Creativity
M. A. Boden, The Creative Mind – Myths and Mechanisms (2. ed.). Routledge, 2003.

A. Newell, J. C. Shaw, H. A. Simon, “The process of creative thinking,” in Contemporary Approaches to Creative Thinking (G. T. H. E. Gruber and M. Wertheimer, eds.), pp. 63–19, Atherton, 1963.


2013 Workgroup Topic Proposals

The Games of Tomorrow

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Facebook is so yesterday. Mobile is hot right now, but is becoming so red-ocean that it’s not a fun place to be. What are the new frontiers of gaming that will be red hot in 5 years? The ones that I can see are multi-screen experiences (e.g. living room TV + tablets), wearable computing (e.g. Google glass, iWatch), and neurogaming (pure thoughtwaves as user input). I’d love to spend Horseshoe discussing the gaming implication of these new techs.

2013 Workgroup Topic Proposals

Pejorative user names & market segmentation words hurt industry reaction speed

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The game industry is still young, but we’re already showing our age by getting stuck in unproductive ruts.

The game industry was far too slow in embracing female players, continues to lag in appealing to players of color (especially Latinos) and seems loathe to embrace concepts that don’t fit the mainstream mold.  (Case in point, journalists and produces continue to exclude the Wii, despite its amazing sales record.)

Much of this comes from the industry’s pejorative names for everyone who isn’t in our most devoted demographic.  “Kid games,” “Girl games,” “Non-traditional gamers,” “Whales,” “Girlfriend mode,” “nOObz,” “Match-3 players,” etc.  How can we help top-level executives and studio heads, for a start, to re-think who they build games for in terms of actual market data, as opposed to stereotypes about players that haven’t been true for decades, if they ever were?

2013 Workgroup Topic Proposals

How to make great in-situ digital board games

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How can we create new shared experiences around a table that make the most out of tablets and smart phones?

I mentioned this topic a couple of years ago. I think that with the advent of games like Spaceteam, it’s even more relevant now.

There are some crazy ideas out there (like http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1613260297/golem-arcana?ref=live ) but no real design framework that I can find.

  • Can we come up with designs that solve the lack of hidden information problem without relying on randomness or on each player having his own hardware?
  • Are there games where players can play simultaneously without making the experience a mess? (or maybe, as in Spaceteam, how do we create new and fun kinds of mess?)
  • Are digitally-enforced rules the gateway to more tactical/strategic yet more accessible board games?

I’d like to find out 🙂

2013 Workgroup Topic Proposals

Endorsement of game design & game development courses at Universities

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An ever-growing number of schools offer courses or entire programs dedicated to game design, development, engineering, etc.  But there are no clearly recognized standards in place for such programs, and no official body which can provide reviews of such programs.  Most students in such programs complete 1 finished game at best, so there is very little data available from which any such official body could draw.

Compared to established fields of study such as English, Art, or the Sciences Game Development courses suffer from a lack of industry credibility.

How could this situation be improved?  What steps could be recommended to University programs?  What steps could be taken within the game industry?  What existing models best fit Game Development as a field of study?