PRACTICE: Game Design in Detail impressions

[Editor’s note: Keith Burgun is the lead designer at Dinofarm Games, makers of 100 Rogues. He also writes for Gamasutra and teaches game design at the Katonah Art Center. Keith just attended the PRACTICE game design event at NYU, and has some interesting thoughts about it. -Chad]

Despite a few minor complaints, the recent PRACTICE event at New York University was so wonderful that I almost feel guilty for writing about it. You don’t often find such a high concentration of people this passionate and thoughtful.

For those who don’t know, PRACTICE is a new yearly game design conference, run by Frank Lantz of Area/Code in NYC and Eric Zimmerman of Diner Dash fame, that takes place at the NYU Game Center. It’s subtitled “Game Design in Detail,” and that’s exactly what it aimed to be. In this article, I’ll be giving a quick rundown of the talks at the event and my own personal reactions.

NYU Game Center

Saturday Morning

Before the first lecture, there was about an hour dedicated to breakfast, where all the game designers were milling about, drinking coffee, and chatting. The feeling I felt when I walked into that room can’t easily be described. It was a weird combination of intimidation and relief. These people were all talking about games! I should mention that I’ve never been to any kind of game developer event before — E3, GDC, nothing. So not only have I never been surrounded by game designers, I don’t think I’ve ever really met a game designer (in person) before other than myself.

At first, I recognized almost no one, but I quickly noticed the two people that I had come there to see: David Sirlin and Reiner Knizia. I expected people to be circling around Knizia like vultures, but he was actually just sort of standing around by himself, wearing his signature bow tie and smiling. I wanted to go up and speak to him, so I did! I just walked right up to Reiner Knizia, probably the most prolific and famous board game designer of all time, and chatted with him. I told him that my favorite game of his was Through the Desert (which, in hindsight, he probably hears all the time). We also discussed a few board game designs of my own. This would be like a composer getting to chat with Paul McCartney or Beethoven or something!

The first lecture was Dr. Knizia’s discussing his game Whoowasit?, and he mentioned that this was the first time he had ever done a “making-of” talk about one of his games. That in and of itself is quite cool, although I found it a bit disappointing that he was talking about a children’s game. I should explain that I have a bit of a personal bias against children’s games — I feel that they are intrinsically easier to design than a game for adults. Worse, it was a children’s game with an electronic component that plays little sounds.

I mentioned that he’s prolific, and I meant it — Dr. Knizia makes a lot of games. I just wish he had done a “making-of” for his tile-laying games like Tigris & Euphrates or perhaps his bidding games like Money. Regardless, the talk was definitely engaging and still one of the highlights of the event. Most importantly, I think Knizia set the tone for the whole event — a highly technical talk from an extremely intelligent man.

Through the Desert
Knizia’s Through the Desert, a brilliant territory-control game

After Dr. Knizia, there was a panel called “State of the Art Techniques” that featured two social game designers, Scott John Siegel and Chris Tottier, and Magic: The Gathering co-creator Skaff Elias. Each of them came up and delivered a short presentation followed by a discussion. This was honestly one of the weaker parts of the event, bringing my expectations a bit down to earth.

The most interesting of the three was certainly Skaff Elias, who discussed his team’s many futile attempts to balance Magic. I would liken this task to trying to put toothpaste back into a tube. On its face, the idea of a CCG (collectable card game) is insane — you simply can’t keep adding cogs to a machine and not expect it to break. Either way, Elias had some interesting stories to tell about his player base and how they would react to his changes.

Chris Tottier mentioned that she worked on The Sims but really didn’t go into any detail on it. Instead, she talked about the concept of “exponential growth” as though it was something fascinating. Literally, one of her stories was someone’s coming up to her and saying that people were reaching the maximum level in a game, and her brilliant idea was to change the experience-requirement growth rate from a linear function to an exponential one. She went on and on about it and made me feel a bit like I was reading the book report of a child who really did not want to write a book report. There were a few of these fundamental no-brainer discussions which I think slowed the event down. Scott John Siegel’s talk about prototyping was similar in that it discussed an idea that any game designer already has an intimate knowledge of.

It certainly didn’t help that I have a moral and intellectual disagreement about the validity of what all three of these people were trying to do. I think social games (at least, those of the FarmVille variety) and collectible card games both have fundamental problems that keep them from being anything I’d ever have an inkling of interest in. With regards to social games, I’d say that designing them isn’t even really in the same realm as “game design.” Sure, there are similarities, but there are similarities to building a house, too.

David Sirlin’s Yomi, a non-collectible two-player fighting card game

The one good thing about the “State of the Art (how so?) Techniques” lecture is that I happened to sit next to David Sirlin. I’ve been reading Sirlin’s blog posts for years and recently got very much into Yomi and Flash Duel. I told him so, and we seemed to hit it off pretty quickly. After the event, we had some McDonald’s together and discussed real-time strategy and a few other topics.

After lunch, one of the darkest moments of the whole event loomed over like a storm cloud. I knew from my program that it would be Steve Gaynor, a level designer for BioShock, and so I knew not to expect too much. Even still, I have to say that my expectations weren’t really met. This was another one of those “I was asked to speak, so now I have to come up with something to talk about” sort of things.

Mr. Gaynor’s talk was essentially about the level design of the original Metroid and how BioShock hasn’t evolved from that point at all. His big genius point was that the keys for doors also had other uses, like a fire ability can melt an ice wall but can also be used in combat. It would have been great if had I never played a videogame ever, because I already knew everything this guy had to say and it was boring as hell.

I should mention that during this entire event, I was on about two hours of sleep, so the boring lectures had a tendency to knock me out. This one was probably the second most successful in that regard.It’s a perfect example of the kind of hot air that I tend to hear a lot in the videogame space — simple, fundamental concepts that everyone is already putting into practice almost by default, spoken as if they were new or enlightening.

Between lectures were coffee breaks, which were the best parts of the entire event thus far. Being able to just talk openly with some of the smartest people there and immediately hear their reaction was far better than listening to any lecture. During this break, I spoke with David Sirlin some more as well as with a few other people, most of whom seemed to agree with my assessment of Gaynor’s talk. We both felt that very little was being actually said at the conference thus far, and I like to think that our chat inspired him at least a little when he went on stage for the next panel, which centered around Street Fighter.

This was the final panel/lecture of the day, and it featured Mr. Sirlin as well as professional Street Fighter player Arturo Sanchez and Capcom community manager Seth Killian. Sirlin was first and completely knocked it out of the park with his opening remarks. To paraphrase, he explained his point of view regarding social games and the tendency for these games and even some competitive games to allow players to buy their success with real money. He looked right at the audience and said, “If you’re someone who does this, you’re doing a disservice to games, and you have my contempt.” He said it with a straight face and continued right along. That right there was the best moment of the entire two days! You could feel the tension in the room. It was like, all of the sudden, we were woken up by an actual point of view.

At the end of the first day, there was a session called “Open Problems.” Attendees could bring in their own game design problems, present them, and ask for advice from the audience. I think everyone, even the organizers, were skeptical about how well this would go. People only had about six minutes each to present their game and its problem, but it actually ended up working out really well. I studied composition in college, and one of the things we would do was called a masterclass, where we played songs for each other then critiqued them. I would say that “Open Problems” did a good job of being a game design masterclass.

After the event, there was an after party where I talked to lots of great people, including event co-organizer Frank Lantz. It was exciting to learn that he was actually a big fan of my game, 100 Rogues, and that he had read a few of my articles on Gamasutra and the like. This sort of after party is a great way for designers to make connections. For someone like me, who had been utterly disconnected from the world of game designers, it was a major sea change.

NCAA Football!

Sunday Morning

The first speaker on Sunday morning was Rogers Redding, a man who has been the officiator of NCAA Football’s rules for many years. This was one of the more fascinating talks — I really appreciate how they brought in not just people from board games and digital games but also from sports. This sent a strong signal that games are games, regardless of medium, something that I am always going on about.

Mr. Redding is an older man and admittedly didn’t know much about what we, the audience, do.  However, I think he provided us with a lot of insight. He discussed some of the unforeseen consequences of some of football’s game design aspects. For instance, he claims that the hard shell helmet actually helps players to feel invincible, leading to more serious injuries. He also talked about the history of the design of football, which backed up a personal belief I’ve had about the game for many years — field goals should be cut! Essentially, the game used to be much more about kicking. It was more of a flowing game like soccer or rugby, and only more recently did the game that it has become start to emerge. I think that the game hasn’t fully emerged, and hopefully it will continue to grow more focused over time.

Spy Party
Hecker’s Spy Party

The next talk was titled “Game Design vs & Programming” (that’s the title, with the strikeout). This was a good panel with some smart talkers, most notably Chris Hecker (I should mention that Chris was showcasing his game Spy Party, which I absolutely recommend that anyone check out when they get the chance). Unfortunately, the idea behind the talk was a bit misguided.

The problem was that the word “programming,” which ended up being the entire focal point of the argument, wasn’t well defined at the start. Chris Hecker was saying that programming makes you a better game designer, but by “programming,” he meant “systems design” and not literally “computer programming.” However, the other speakers did, I think, address computer programming. This shows that you have to define your terms and agree upon them before starting a debate.

Regardless, I was particularly impressed with Chris Hecker’s performance, and whenever he’d comment on something in the Q&A sessions, it was always smart. After this chat, I went up and verbally pounced on him with some of my radical game design ideas. We got into a big debate about it that ran into the next talk (which I wasn’t actually that excited for and I’m guessing he wasn’t either). I don’t think I did too well in our discussion, but the important part was that I was able to discuss the issues, face to face, with a really intelligent game designer.

The last lecture was Harmonix’s Matt Boch’s talking about the Kinect and Dance Central. It’s a game where you dance in front of the TV and let the game rank your performance. That’s pretty much all there is to say about that one.

Above: Kinect as seen in 1992


During our little discussion, Chris Hecker mentioned that he thinks these kinds of conferences and discussions are ultimately pointless. I know what he means — at the end of the day, all that really matters is what we end up creating. I will agree that the best way to move games along is to create great, interesting games. However, I think that all game designers can be helped by interacting and speaking with other game designers. As I said to Chris, “Ideas do matter.”

I recommend that anyone seriously interested in game design consider going to a conference like this, because interfacing with new people and new ideas is always a good thing. You’ll meet some people you agree with, some you disagree with, and some who force you to think in a new way. I think these are all tremendously valuable, not the least of which is making connections in the gaming world.

In short, I really think PRACTICE: Game Design in Detail was a huge success. I thank Eric Zimmerman and Frank Lantz for putting it together, and I applaud all of the speakers. With that said, my only real complaint is that there were a few speakers who really didn’t have anything interesting to say. Ideas do matter, but ideas that everyone is already intimately aware of aren’t worth listening to. My only constructive criticism would be to target people who have an interesting pitch for a talk over basing it directly on how successful a speaker is.

About The Author
Keith Burgun
More Stories by Keith Burgun