Project Horseshoe: Games are the Wild West

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A digital media professor once said Project Horseshoe was “the perfect antidote for the thronging masses of GDC.” And it’s a fair contrast: 12,000 game industry workers in downtown San Francisco, or 30 sharp minds sequestered in the Texas wilderness.

That private environment lets people talk openly, from a publisher explaining why he turned down a hotly anticipated game to a technology director being able to frankly discuss next-gen platforms and AAA development costs without fear of controversy, or for another industry insider to lament his publisher’s infighting studios.

There are wide-open spaces in the schedule, but mostly people are there to participate in the workshops. If Friday was about winnowing down two-dozen possible topics into four discussions, Saturday was dedicated to completing reports in time for the evening presentation.

All this is done in separate cabins equipped with projectors and whiteboards, baskets of cookies and crackers, and enough toys to keep even the most idle hands occupied: clay, erector sets, soldering irons with transistor pets and rubber chickens.

On Saturday afternoon, everyone reconvened in the summit room for cocktails and group presentations. The World’s Most Dangerous Chefs were first. That group was named after a droll old MMOG legend that involved skills being gained by proximity, an epic battle and the warriors who died better cooks than they had been before, simply because one of them started cooking during the fight.

The Chefs wanted to explore the possibilities of making games based on emotions other than fear or aggression. They proposed a series of game designs based instead on some alternate emotions or experiences:

  • Guilt/nurturing
  • Love
  • Generosity
  • Suspicion
  • Schadenfreude
  • Frustrations/masochism
  • Sadism
  • Homesickness/nostalgia
  • Greed
  • Hope/despair
  • Cynicism
  • Embarrassment
  • Attention seeking (recognition)

The first design, a Web 2.0 game, was so well received that it will go into development this year. There were also ingenious and sadistic designs about generosity (you play as Santa Claus) and hope and despair – the unique gameplay mechanic is the game reacts to the player’s level of hope, which spawns dynamic calamities to counteract that hope.

The next group was Rising Tide, who took up the issue of professionalism in game design, “so the culture of professionalism can spread.” These were hardened veterans who could still laugh, despite their experience.

“In the grand tradition of summer camps everywhere,” they began, “we’re going to begin our presentation with a poorly written, woodenly acted skit. Thank you for your forbearance.”

What followed was a hilarious skit modeled on the Voight-Kampff test from Blade Runner, alternately poking fun at the industry and some of its icons and occasionally making in-jokes about the conference itself. It even mentioned “tightening up the graphics on Level 3.”

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The previous day, Rising Tide had outlined the industry’s professionalism problem using the “all draftsmen, no architects” analogy. There is a lack of creative management, the group found. That, coupled with basic misunderstandings of professional design (“an idea is not a design,” and “there are lots of people who think they’re designers, but they aren’t”), leads to friction within the development process.

Their solution was to create a framework document outlining improvements to various segments of the industry – but that the industry should be completely self-regulating when it came to implementation of these ethical standards and processes.

Next up, the United Rogue Emirates mused about the future of parser-based games, the audiences and their appetite for such things.

Story Bored started as a large group and grew even bigger. Everyone, it seems, is interested in stories in games. In order to solve all the problems related to the subject, the group decided to create Fabula Rasa. “Fabula Rasa is a blank story.” Or, in this case, a website, one which will feature blogs by a select group of game design types who research, track and share tools. The site is for brainstorming and inspiration on this ever-popular topic, which will continue even when Project Horseshoe is not in session.

Dinner started as a series of toasts inside the dining hall with tables arranged in banquet fashion. As waiters brought the soup course, a glass was raised to the previous attendees who couldn’t be there that night. Concluding the list, along with Daniel James of Puzzle Pirates fame and Theory of Fun author Raph Koster, was Kathy Schoback, the director of CMP’s Game Group.

“If any of you talk to Kathy, let her know she was missed,” Sanger told the audience. At which point, one attendee whipped out a cell phone. A moment later, “It’s her voice mail!” The whole room joined in song:

We love you Kathy,
Oh, yes we do.
We love you Kathy,
Yes it’s true.
When we’re not with you,
We’re blue.
Oh, Kathy we love you.

Unlike most conferences, Project Horseshoe is mostly ad free, with the exception of middleware vendor Emergent Technology acting as the event’s sponsor. Michael Steele, the company’s “Evangelist,” was presented to much applause and cries of “Speech, speech.”

Steele said Emergent has a commitment to helping the “thought leadership” of the game industry as technology evolves. “I can’t think of any gathering of people on Earth who more personifies that vision of who we are trying to most empower,” he said. He’s previously gone on record as saying that “game designers stand at an amazing place right now,” adding that this group personifies the leverage game developers possess in their ability to touch the lives of millions.

Dinner continued with the presentation of certificates, gushing and more singing. But the night wasn’t over. There was still enough beer and peach iced tea, even some cigars from the night before. Inside the dining hall, everyone expected a big finish. And as master of ceremonies, George Sanger obliged even as waiters cleared plates that once held enormous steaks. “And, ladies and gentlemen, with one more yee-haw, we are out of here, partying and friends for the rest of our lives. 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.

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