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Reflections on PRACTICE

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the second half of Saturday at the PRACTICE conference at NYU thanks to a very generious invitation from a friend. When I first heard about the conference, I was excited by the prospect of a game design conference in NYC, but was turned off by the price tag. But having gotten a taste for this conference, I’m confident I will fork over the money to attend next year.

Overall, I was really blown away by the quality and depth of discussion. It was a much smaller group than something like GDC, and I felt the passion for game design as a craft and life-long pursuit really permeated the atmosphere. I arrived toward the end of the panel on Saturday morning, and caught some words of wisdom from Richard Lemarchand which set the tone for my brief time there. He said something to the effect that a game designer should not hold on to a single philosophy of game design, but rather he should see games through the lenses of as many different design philosophies as possible. This was underscored by the juxtaposition of Dan Cook’s presentation on the creation of games as “value engines” (which I will get into more depth below) and Tracy Fullerton’s presentation of her game based on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. I don’t know if it was intentional by the conference organizers, or by chance, but I can’t imagine two back-to-back talks with a more different approach to game design. Yet both were very thoughtful and fascinating in their own right.

I have been a long time fan of Dan Cook ever since I found his amazing Lost Garden game design blog. I have gotten a great deal of inspiration from what he has written about game design over the years. Dan’s talk did not disappoint in the slightest. You can read a good summary of the talk here so I won’t bother to summarize the talk. Instead, I want to highlight and discuss a couple of his points.

Dan talked about players’ skill improvement in a game as a source of value. He claimed that the value of these game skills were not transferable to other areas of life. I agree with this in a literal sense. Skill in Triple Town will not make the player into a skilled city planner. However there is a great deal of hidden value in skill gaming. The real value in skill gaming is in the practice of training for improvement. Improvement at any task requires a certain mindset of learning from failure, and practice makes perfect. Improving at skill games trains these precise mentalities. I believe this value is transferable to other areas of life. This is the driving force behind my interest in creating StarLicker as a competitive, skill game. We plan to really explore ways of enhancing the value of training for improvement in the design, and hope discuss more details about this in the near future.

Dan also emphasized the fact that using media arcs in game design results in an endless need to create additional content which is consumed and discarded. I wholeheartedly agree with this and it was so refreshing to hear him verbalize it. I believe the true utility that media arcs bring to game design is to merely lower the barrier of entry into a game world for a new player. Game systems and rule sets are often abstract and complex, and I think it’s unreasonable to expect players to see the beauty in a game design right off the bat. Media arcs can be used to great effect to introduce and immerse players in a game world and the systems and mechanics they contain. Once the player is immersed, good game designs will wean the player off of the media arc as a source of value and replace it with what Dan calls a “value engine”, leading to a rich community and culture surrounding the game.

A perfect example of this from my own experience is the evolution of my love for StarCraft. I was 14 when the original StarCraft was released, and at that age, competitive multiplayer was quite overwhelming and intimidating for me, even against real life friends. Today, StarCraft (and its expansion Brood War) is famous for its incredible multiplayer which largely spawned what is now the professional eSports scene in Korea and which has now spread across the globe with StarCraft II. Despite being an avid fan and follower of this scene today, this is not what I fondly remember the original game for. What I remember most is the moment (a pre-rendered cinematic, no less!) when Tassadar sacrificed himself by channeling his power through his ship and crashing it into the Zerg Overmind to save Aiur, the Protoss homeworld. If it hadn’t been for compelling moments like these in storyline in StarCraft’s single player campaign, I honestly can’t say for sure that I would have the same attachment and interest in the game today.