Brainstorming at a video game 'think tank'

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Most "think tanks" debate and propose ideas having to do with domestic and foreign policy. But "Project Horseshoe," which met for the first time last month, isn't your everyday think tank. Its members -- all long-time game industry vets -- gathered to brainstorm and solve videogaming's toughest design problems.

According to George "The Fat Man" Sanger, the founder of the "first annual" three-day event, "30 of the industry's most vibrant, eclectic, accomplished, opinionated, talented people" gathered from Nov. 2-5 to identify workable solutions for what stops effective game design from happening. Sanger composes music for games and is probably best known for his score for "Wing Commander" -- as well as for the "Project Barbecue" think tank on video game sound that he's hosted for the last 11 years.

While "Project Horseshoe" managed to fly under the radar of the rest of the game industry -- which undoubtedly had something to do with the fact that it was held in the Canyon of the Eagles in Lake Buchanan, Texas -- its attendees declared it a resounding success and plan to continue the work they began at the invitation-only conference.

One topic of debate was how designers of online games could save time and money by learning from the mistakes of others in order to avoid having to redesign the wheel each and every time they began a project.

"We discussed the fact that most of the failures in the online space have failed for reasons that were all well-known 10 years ago," says Mike Steele, vp at Calabasas, Ca.-based Emergent Game Technologies which makes tools for game design. "You can read all the game postmortems and see that the developers all repeated the mistakes others made simply because they weren't aware of them and what the solutions are."

Steele's work group decided that there was a need to build a body of knowledge to contain game design best practices.

"We're talking about information on everything from cryptology to real-time photorealistic rendering to artificial intelligence to databases -- all the big, hard problems addressed in one small space."

The solution is expected to be a "wiki," a Web site that allows developers to add their best practices and then make them available to all other developers. "This became a Project Horseshoe action item," says Steele, "and, in fact, the wiki is scheduled to be posted very shortly -- perhaps as early as January 1." The Web address will be announced on the "Project Horseshoe" Web site.

Another topic of discussion was how developers might convince publishers to take risks and fund games that aren't easily categorized.

"Everyone recognizes that games like 'Katamari Damacy,' that contain tremendously innovative gameplay mechanics, ought to interest publishers," notes David Warhol, president of El Segundo, Ca.-based game developer Realtime Associates. "But all that publishers seem to be looking for is the next sports game or the next first-person shooter. They're all afraid that they're not going to recoup their investment if they back something that's on the fringe."

Warhol's work group looked at a design process that's popular in other industries, such as television and movies, known as "stage-gate" in which a "gate" must be passed through to proceed to the next stage of development.

"We recognized that the game industry doesn't really use that process in order to winnow its ideas down to the single, best game concept," he adds. "But if we did, if we documented each step along the way, we could take the results to a publisher and say, 'See, this has been really seriously considered and this is why we believe our game is worth the investment.' It sort of gives you the ammunition you need to support your pitch and have the publishers take you more seriously."

Warhol's group intends to turn its thoughts on the subject into a white paper that will be posted on the group's wiki.

A third topic involves the ability of designers to create games for mature audiences without pressure from outside groups that may consider gaming to be "kid stuff."

"The industry gets some really bad PR, especially because of some of the mistakes that have been made," notes Realtime's Warhol. "One of the action items that we hope would earn the video game industry some additional respect would be an archive, perhaps at a university. If we can get a university interested in teaching the history of or the social impact of video games -- instead of just the technology -- perhaps it will work in our favor by legitimizing gaming as an entertainment medium."

Coincidentally, shortly after the Project Horseshoe gathering, Sanger was contacted by archivists at the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.

"I couldn't believe the timing," recalls Sanger. "Since many of the group's action items lined up perfectly with what the archivists hoped to achieve, I put them in touch with each other."

And, in fact, the Game Development Archive was informally announced earlier this month at a developer event held by Austin Business Computer. It is now accepting financial donations as well as lists of historical items which people intend to donate, including documents, digital files and art relating to game design as well as physical game platforms that are no longer generally available for play.

Other topics recommended for discussion by group members which may get their attention at future meetings included:

What's the best way to train future game designers? "Since almost everyone with success in the industry was self-taught or, at best, mentored unofficially, there's no track record of how any given game design program has paid off," notes Noah Falstein, a freelance game designer and producer since 1980.

How can we make games more emotional than movies? "What's preventing game designers from doing this," asks Nicole Lazzaro, president of XeoDesign.

How can we make our games have real social/political applications while still being "good" games? "The existing 'serious games' are all too often failures as games," comments Dallas Dickinson, a producer for Sony Online Entertainment. "Is it due to some deep disconnect players have between playing games and learning about real problems?"

When will game developers realize that business concerns are just as important as any other decisions in creating games? "How long will we allow people with business savvy but little or no real interest in games as a creative medium to dominate the economics of games?" asks Brian Green, a game developer and founder of Near Death Studios.

But Project Horseshoe isn't just about talk. According to Sanger, the work groups that discussed the game development issues are then charged with creating a report with action items, and Sanger and his team "then keep following up until a white paper is produced," he says. "Those papers will be posted on our site by the end of December at the latest for the rest of the industry to see."

Realtime's Warhol says he's excited about the entire concept of Project Horseshoe which, he expects, will be far more productive than any of its members could be individually.

"Sure, I could sit in my office and stare out the window and ask myself how our company could solve any one of these issues," he says. "But, at Horseshoe, we have the collective experiences of industry veterans who, I'd guess, each have at least 15 years or more on the job. I mean, I was sitting across the table from a publisher and someone else from Microsoft and another person from a board game company, and each of our ideas triggered other ideas. It was a tremendously productive experience.

"You know," Warhol added, "George [Sanger] told us that the onus was on us to affect change in game design within the next year. So, from year to year, this think tank is supposed to try and affect some change. I can't wait for Project Horseshoe 2007 to see what we've accomplished."

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman was the editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.
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