Project Horseshoe

Project Horseshoe: Games are the Wild West

N. Evan Van Zelfden | 16 Nov 2007 16:00
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A digital media professor once said Project Horseshoe was "the perfect antidote for the thronging masses of GDC." And it's a fair contrast: 12,000 game industry workers in downtown San Francisco, or 30 sharp minds sequestered in the Texas wilderness.

That private environment lets people talk openly, from a publisher explaining why he turned down a hotly anticipated game to a technology director being able to frankly discuss next-gen platforms and AAA development costs without fear of controversy, or for another industry insider to lament his publisher's infighting studios.

There are wide-open spaces in the schedule, but mostly people are there to participate in the workshops. If Friday was about winnowing down two-dozen possible topics into four discussions, Saturday was dedicated to completing reports in time for the evening presentation.

All this is done in separate cabins equipped with projectors and whiteboards, baskets of cookies and crackers, and enough toys to keep even the most idle hands occupied: clay, erector sets, soldering irons with transistor pets and rubber chickens.

On Saturday afternoon, everyone reconvened in the summit room for cocktails and group presentations. The World's Most Dangerous Chefs were first. That group was named after a droll old MMOG legend that involved skills being gained by proximity, an epic battle and the warriors who died better cooks than they had been before, simply because one of them started cooking during the fight.

The Chefs wanted to explore the possibilities of making games based on emotions other than fear or aggression. They proposed a series of game designs based instead on some alternate emotions or experiences:

  • Guilt/nurturing
  • Love
  • Generosity
  • Suspicion
  • Schadenfreude
  • Frustrations/masochism
  • Sadism
  • Homesickness/nostalgia
  • Greed
  • Hope/despair
  • Cynicism
  • Embarrassment
  • Attention seeking (recognition)

The first design, a Web 2.0 game, was so well received that it will go into development this year. There were also ingenious and sadistic designs about generosity (you play as Santa Claus) and hope and despair - the unique gameplay mechanic is the game reacts to the player's level of hope, which spawns dynamic calamities to counteract that hope.

The next group was Rising Tide, who took up the issue of professionalism in game design, "so the culture of professionalism can spread." These were hardened veterans who could still laugh, despite their experience.

"In the grand tradition of summer camps everywhere," they began, "we're going to begin our presentation with a poorly written, woodenly acted skit. Thank you for your forbearance."

What followed was a hilarious skit modeled on the Voight-Kampff test from Blade Runner, alternately poking fun at the industry and some of its icons and occasionally making in-jokes about the conference itself. It even mentioned "tightening up the graphics on Level 3."

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