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Blurring the Lines Between Analog and Digital at NYU Game Center Practice 2012.

Brad Cummings
United States
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Hello Everyone,

Below are my thoughts on PRACTICE: Game Design in Detail. I have a few more images to add which should go up soon. Overall it was a great experience that gave a great look in to the state of game design.

Thank you,

This weekend I had the chance to attend PRACTICE: Game Design in Detail. This was the second time this annual event was held at the Game Center at NYU. It featured two days full of informative and enlightening panels and discussions, along with parties and networking time. This event gave the opportunity to swap ideas with industry leaders. It was also a chance to see the state of game design as it relates to both board and video game design. It was also evident that any barrier between the two disciplines and hobbies is fading fast.

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The opening social was a chance to check out some very cool up and coming indie game projects. After an early round of Johann Sebastian Joust, the highlights for me were Super Pole Riders and BariBari Ball. If you have never played BariBari Ball, it is akin to Super Smash Brothers and rugby mixed. All of these games are actually holding a Kickstarter as we speak. Your goal is dunk the ball in to the water on your side of the board. This event was also a great chance to meet the first crop of students from the newly minted Game Design MFA at NYU. I was surprised by the diversity of candidates which ranged from LARPers to iOS developers. They also explained that they curriculum involves both analog and digital game design, allowing them to hone skills in all types of game design.

At another event I had the opportunity to speak with Zach Gage and Jesse Fuchs. These gentlemen epitomize the relation between board games and digital games. Zach Gage is the designer of Spell Tower, a very popular iOS title. He has now designed Guts of Glory in conjunction with Jesse which was successful on Kickstarter. Speaking with Jesse, he said that Guts of Glory was a great chance to show ideal board game design. Coming from video games he is trying to make sure the game not only plays well, but also looks great. This philosophy is something I certainly agree with and is a contrast to many war game and euro-games on the market. I personally see this as a key in helping the industry grow and become more mainstream, and it is great to see great designers entering the board game genre to bring this type of game to market.

Of course, apart from the many opportunities to chat and meet with attendees, the real meat of the conference were the excellent talks. The speakers ranged from established board and video game designers to experimental academic designers and even a game designer for the US Army. You should be able to very soon watch all of the talks online. Let me share a few of the highlights for me.

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To start off, two words: Richard Garfield. He is one of the biggest names in gaming and responsible, through Magic: The Gathering, for creating a gaming genre that dominated the 90’s and still has a presence today. He also been involved in great board game titles such as Robo Rally and King of Tokyo. He spoke about balancing games and dove deep into several methods doing this. It was interesting to seem he tackle this topic as Magic is often accused of balance issues. He did mention some set that just failed, but most interestingly he said that balance varies on several factors. If a certain block of cards produces several viable deck types, the Magic designers consider this balanced. He also mentioned that many games balance towards the expert player, whereas they also must take the casual player into mind. For example certain Magic cards would never be played by an expert player, but work well in casual play. Richard also touched on how rarity or monetary cost for a component can be a way of balancing. This will be a sore point for many gamers, but it was interesting to consider it in the light of balancing.

Chris bell, a designer on Journey, shared a very interesting talk on folk games that have developed in the Journey system. In Journey, players are randomly dropped in to co-op games with others. These strangers have no ability to communicate apart from their actions and a chime. He explained that by mixing different types of players, new sub-games have emerged. Some players play hide and seek with each other, while others play tag. Players have also invented “rock climbing”, a sort of synchronized jumping, that has allowed them to overcome obstacles in new unplanned ways. The whole concept fascinates me. Players have found new freedom through a set of constraints.

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Dan Cook actually spoke later on in a similar vein. He spoke on generating value in games, or how much quality time are users finding in a game. He spoke about how a trade system in Realm of the Mad God created an economy in the game, which in turn created several hours of quality play. He also explained how competition can also be a tool for retention, though it makes the players on top feel great, while those on the bottom can feel discouraged. He specifically reference Triple Town. Minecraft was brought up throughout the conference, and he called to it here praising its level of freedom, progression of players skill, and social aspects of the game. He also directly criticized one off games that can be completed in a matter of hours. He created a ratio of developer years spent versus quality hours for the player. In his view something like Bastion has a 1 : 6 relation, while something like Minecraft can have a 1 : 100 relation. It was an interesting point, but not one that was a extremely popular among much of the crowd.

In direct contrast Tracy Fullerton followed Dan, speaking about Walden, an academic game project. The goal of this game is to recreate the experience of Thoreau’s experience for players. It is a simple game with very few measurable goals. The player is given freedom to focus on simplicity as Thoreau did or to choose another path. This sort of short form experiment was purely academic with the hope of bringing a player an experience rather than retaining users through another method. This game surrounded by the many other games discussed was a very interesting. I am a very business focused person, but it was a interesting to see game design from an academic point of view.

The last event of the first day was an open questions session with developers who wanted advice on design challenges. There were really great questions from new developers to seasoned professionals. The stand out for me was an arcade/word game mashup called Lexcavator. Designed by Adam Parrish, the game has players speling words to create a path further into the mine. The screen is scrolling upwards, so players must act quickly. His design challenge is to bring this game to iOS and he received some great suggestions. I look forward to seeing this and the other titles discussed have successful launches.

Sadly, I was unable to attend the second day of meetings, but I look forward to watching them online. The whole experience was great and it was a good look in to the current state of game design. Many at the conference were from the video game world but they have begun to study board games and their influence on Game Design as a whole. The event is not cheap but it is a rare opportunity to connect with some of the biggest names in game design. If you are interested in board and/or video game design, I recommend you find a way to attend next year. As board gaming becomes more prevalent in popular culture, it would be great to see a large representation at Practice.
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