Project Horseshoe

Project Horseshoe: Summer Camp for Game Designers

N. Evan Van Zelfden | 8 Nov 2007 16:00
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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.

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