Reveille was to be played at 7:30 that morning. In the still dawn it would have carried across the lake. But once everyone made it into the dining hall for breakfast, the powers that be decided to leave the trumpet in its case.
Project Horseshoe is something like summer camp for game designers. The setting is the same: There are canoes and cabins and campfires. The workgroups have facilitators – the grown-up’s answer to counselors. Their idea is your hands should be as busy as your mind – something that contrasts from most sit-and-listen conferences and symposiums.
With tables set up in a “U” shape, the room looked like any other summit from Geneva to Toronto, except for a lack of photographers, and between the yellow notepads were Play-Doh and modeling clay, toys and puzzlers, bags of plastic cowboys and Indians, and boxes of Wild West Cinnamon Graham Cookies.
That alternation of the playful and serious would follow during the next three speakers of the morning, and indeed, the remainder of the conference. The main question at Project Horseshoe was “Where is the frontier of games?” but such seriousness was tempered by laughter and world-play.
“You have to follow your gut,” Sanger told the participants. Last year, he said, the program was altruistic. But for this group, he wanted them to solve individual problems before saving the industry as a whole. “You have to put the oxygen on your face first, then on the baby.”
“You’re going to be hit by three speakers this morning,” Sanger said. “I’ve asked them to kick you right in the paradigms.”
First up was Michael Sellers, the chief executive of Online Alchemy, a company that’s working on character-based artificial intelligence for non-player characters. Sellers asked the essential question of the game industry: what’s next?
“It’s always easy to ask what’s next, and go blue-sky with it. … But we have to stay practical, too. Our industry is no longer the obscure hobby it once was,” he told the audience. “I think it’s really important to keep a couple things in mind. No one needs games. We all love them. But if they went away tomorrow, civilization would continue.”
Sellers looked for a technology on a similar path to games. “And I actually found one,” he said.
This technology was introduced in the 1870s. In the ’80s it became more popular. In the ’90s it became a huge market.
By the turn of the century there were 9,000 titles available for this technology. By the teens it was, without question, the dominant entertainment technology in the U.S. and Europe. By the ’20s, anyone who was anyone in entertainment was on this technology.
And then, because of social, technological and cultural factors, it became irrelevant. After inviting the audience to guess, Sellers revealed the answer: player pianos.
“This could happen to us,” Sellers said, noting that player pianos failed to innovate and were replaced by gramophones and radios. “The lesson is you have to keep moving forward.”
“Ultimately, for me, what’s next is, how do games bring people together?” he said. “There are the ethical considerations. As developers, we have the choice of taking people out of their lives, taking people out of the social landscape, or to put them in.
“What I don’t want is this.” Sellers showed a painting titled Warcraft 2030 by artist Pyxelated. It shows a tattered youth in the corned of a room, motionless and plugged into a pair of virtual reality goggles.
“To me, this is not what I imagine when I imagine people’s connectedness,” Sellers said. He went on to talk about games like Façade, if they would ever be scaled into an MMOG and the questions that might raise. “Somebody asked me: Is there relationship loot? I still don’t know the answer to that question, or whether it’s right to reduce relationship rewards to ‘loot.'”
Sellers ended his presentation with a look forward into Social AI and new ways of telling stories in games by enabling players to create meaningful goals. The talk ended not with answers but more questions.
Next on the agenda was a candid talk from Electronic Arts general manager Mike Verdu. He spoke about his experiences on a succession of RTS games, and how high-performance teams and small teams within a large project should replace the traditional structure of leads and departments of art, design and programming. Team size affects creativity in a profound way, he said.
The final industry veteran to address his peers asked that the session not be recorded. He spoke of leaving the game industry, becoming an educator and his eventual return. Only now he’s keeping a low profile. No more interviews, no more conference talks.
The vet looked at issues of legitimacy and legacy, discussed the “Clock of the Long Now” and research that showed the most lasting human monument was one made of large rocks piled high. After an intensely personal story, the developer concluded with a quote from Gandhi to sum up perseverance in the game industry. “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”
Afterward it was time to divide into four workgroups, each tackling a subject for study. For starters, three dozen-odd suggested topics had to be clumped into just four. The facilitators worked with the audience in what looked like a combination of commodities trader, short order cook and Japanese game show host. After much debate, the groups would focus on story in games, professionalism in the industry, regressive business models and creating games based on emotions other than fear.
After lunch, the attendees took a group photo and spent the rest of the day in separate cabins getting to know their group.
Dinner was served under the stars for the second time. Next to each plate was a wooden rubber band gun, branded with the Project Horseshoe name, and a full bag of ammo. Dessert marked the beginning of playful hostilities between the guests. Afterward the developers were sent on a hayride.
Seated on bales in a trailer bed, the designers glided through the darkness, chatting amiably about the royalty rates taken by Nintendo for the DS platform ($6 per unit) and the fun of working at Ion Storm Dallas (not so much).
The destination was an observatory in the middle of the field. The clear night air showed a sky with limitless constellations and nebulous depth never seen in cities. The observatory’s staff guided the developers through several points of interest across four telescopes.
The return to the lodge was quiet in the chill air. The ride was over soon enough, and everyone stretched his legs. Someone broke out a bottle of scotch. Next came a box of cigars and cognac. Around the fire, the conversation turned to stories of practical jokes using science.
Next morning, the work would begin in earnest.