Coming to the end of an impossibly winding and scenic road, there’s a nature preserve encompassing 960 acres of wild Texas hill country. It’s called Canyon of the Eagles, because in the winter, bald eagles nest there.
Up the hill and well past the gate are the lodge, administration building, dining hall and a dozen cabins. The buildings are set on a bluff, which overlooks Lake Buchanan on three sides.
This is Project Horseshoe.
If it is an unusual setting for a game industry trade event, it is because Project Horseshoe is unusual. Unlike other conferences, attendance is invite only, and its numbers are always limited to somewhere between 30 and 50 people each year.
And that creates a completely different dynamic. The cabins are spare – no televisions here. It naturally follows that attendees don’t use cell phones the way they do at other conferences. They do have them, but breaks don’t turn into mass teleconferences.
These people, after all, are here to change the world.
George Sanger, Linda Law and Teresa Avallone – the same people who have been doing Project BBQ for years – started Project Horseshoe last year. But BBQ is about innovations in game audio, and Horseshoe is about solving game design’s toughest problems.
Sanger, who was given the IGDA Award for Community Contribution this year, is a veteran of the industry and a colorful fellow – most biographies mention that he’s tall, wears sometimes outrageous western wear and has an endless supply of stories. What they fail to mention is the stories are true and as practical as they are whimsical. For example, Sanger decided to purchase a 1958 Rolls Royce as the family car after comparing it to the cost of a Volkswagen.
A lot of people in the videogame industry are smart, and Sanger does have a keen mind beneath the feathered cowboy hat. But he’s also got a genuine enough heart that when he stands in front of 29 people to deliver a pep talk, they can accept it at face value.
In many ways, Project Horseshoe is about face value. Within just minutes of arriving, people are inside the lodge drinking iced tea and talking as animatedly as if they were old friends.
One European executive who pioneered MMOGs on that continent pulls out a DS Lite. He’s been developing a DS game for a year now and hasn’t announced it publicly, but it’s nearly complete and fully playable. The game is tuned, polished and could be the next Katamari Damacy.
In the Texas wilderness, this European executive is able to freely show his game to others, encourage them to play and get feedback, all because Project Horseshoe has a “Code of Secrecy and Blabbing” that unifies the small group.
Of the 28 members gathered for opening ceremonies on a flagstone terrace, 12 are conference veterans. Introductions begin with haiku. One well-known veteran of the game industry gives insight into his life and career with his poem:
I worked every day
But winter is coming soon
Look forward, not back
And then it’s time for an inspirational ramble. “This group of people is going to change the world,” Sanger tells an audience seated on bales of hay. “You all are game design, give or take.”
People pass around beers while Sanger remarks that during the day-to-day, game developers can face the frustrations of working with stupid people and those who don’t communicate. But that won’t be the case for the next three days, he says. Attendees don’t have to answer to anyone.
Sanger riffs on game design and on designing the world itself. There was a popular saying around Origin Systems, “Change the world, or go home.” It was a feeling not uncommon to the rest of the game industry. And now people come to Project Horseshoe to change the world. But being the in the driver’s seat is a weighty thing, Sanger says.
No campfire talk is complete without a PowerPoint presentation, and Daniel Cook obliges with a look at the start of game design as a science, trying to back away from pure craftsmanship and pure intuition.
Cook, who writes the Lost Garden design blog, speaks about his search for the unified theory of games. That ties into the game grammar movement, which visualizes a game’s underlying structure so that when you put the code in front of real users, you get feedback on what needs improvement.
It is a system that seeks to support and improve rapid prototyping, not replace it with ivory tower diagrams. “Diagrams suck, if they’re not useful,” Cook says, and illustrates his point by displaying a classic diagram of a penguin defecating – much the delight of his audience.
Game grammar’s virtues are strong, Cook says. “You can link them together to describe your entire game. You can identify, from the very first prototype, where things are failing.”
Sanger tells the group every Horseshoe begins and ends with a yee-haw – with one in the middle. That’s how he closes the talk before dinner is served under the stars.
“On the count of three. One. Two. Three.”
N. Evan Van Zelfden expects great things for the future of games. Games are the greatest art form to date, he asserts. This is why he plays games, writes about them, and continues to work in the industry of games.