Boston GameLoop 2010 – Overview

Saturday morning, at Too Damn Early AM, I was sitting in a large briefing room at Microsoft New England and clutching a cup of not-quite-hot-enough Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. A hundred or so other people, game designers, artists, programmers, academics, and writers like myself were listening to Darius Kazemi and Scott Macmillan explain exactly what the hell we were doing here.

Well, Darius was trying to explain. Scott, and most of the audience, were trolling him. Still, he managed to get a few key points across.

  • GameLoop is a small local conference that is seeing rapid growth. ’09 had about 100 guests, this year was closer to 200.
  • We were here early to raise topics for discussion and vote on sessions that sounded interesting. Anyone was free to bring up anything, though it was best if he was prepared to run a session.
  • Once a session had enough interest, it won a slot in the schedule.
  • Expert talks should be clearly labeled as such, and moderators should keep the discussion on track so that it remains the proper knowledge level.
  • Bail on sessions that you’re not getting enough out of. No hard feelings.
  • Tabletop gaming is not dead and this audience doesn’t think it’s funny if you make jokes like that.

It’s a great concept and quite a ridiculous amount of fun. Before I get into some of the conversations I had during this conference, however, I should point out a couple things that didn’t seem to work quite right.

For one thing, GameLoop seems to be getting big enough to the point where it is causing problems. The informal nature of the conference agenda (the fact that it is created on the spot) seems like it would work brilliantly for a hundred people. Beyond that, it seems like it started to cause problems. Voting took forever, and the morning schedule filled up with the most popular topics while there was a bit of a “leftover” feel to the afternoon talks. Not that these weren’t valuable, it’s just that there were schedule conflicts in the morning, where 3 out of 5 sessions sounded great. In the afternoon, I was having a hard time finding any talks that I was keenly interested in. But it was the nature of the chaotic morning vote.

Second, I can’t help but wonder if maybe Darius and Scott have made GameLoop too welcoming for guys like me. Mind you, I really hope I can attend next year and they’ll still have a spot open for writers, but I also picked up on some frustration from some of the more advanced professionals attending the event. There were not enough talks for working professionals, and the discussion level tended to operate at an amateur level. If I were at BGL wanting to hear about new design tools, principles of level design, or get a primer in a new coding language, I’m not sure it would have been an entirely satisfying experience. I’d be interested to know whether this jives with what other people observed.

For instance, my day was bookended by two discussions that sprawled into armchair design by people who really didn’t know what they were talking about, but were plenty willing to share opinions. I was one of them. They were great discussions, one about making conversation in games a more satisfying from a gameplay perspective, the other about creating the illusion of life in AI-controlled characters. But the first conversation trended toward some truly ridiculous armchair design that had more to do with what people thought sounded cool than with what was actually practicable for a working designer. The second was largely about what people found lifelike in AI characters, and not about how to make life-like characters.

One last point: Bioshock seems to be growing more important with time, not less. The simple fact is that absolutely no discussion of any game-related topic occurs without reference to it. Narrative, level design, morality, choice, character… someone, every time, will bring up Bioshock. And it is never out of place. It is well on its way to becoming a crucial part of the conceptual framework that everyone uses to interpret and understand games.

The Bioware oeuvre is similarly important, though mostly within discussions of narrative and character. No discussion of storytelling in games passes without someone using Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age to illustrate something. I think what these works have in common is that they point the way forward in a number of ways, but that only serves to underline their limitations.

  1. Thanks for the review/suggestions, Rob.

    On the number of people: we’re going to cap next year’s GameLoop registration at 200 people. We had 195 registered this year, about 175 actually in attendance. I’ve attended unconferences of 300 people and they simply don’t work very well.

    A lot of the issues around registration speed and voting logistics were due to the fact that we didn’t give ourselves enough time to set up in the morning. I got there at 8am to set up and there were 30 people there by 8:15am. For next year I’m going to streamline registration ahead of time (by having at least two lines for A-L, M-Z registration) which will allow us to start the intro session earlier, giving us more time to vote.

    In addition to having more time to vote, we could’ve pulled out another “Big Board” for the votes. Why I didn’t, I don’t know. But next year there will be more voting board real estate and thus more people can simultaneously interact with the voting so there isn’t a big logjam anymore.

    As to the content of sessions sometimes veering too much into armchair development… yeah, that happened a bit. I think we’ve improved that aspect from last year, but we need to find ways to really empower our moderators. I can’t expect a spur-of-the-moment moderator to really be a hardass about shutting down conversation, so maybe what I’ll do is find 7 people who want to stay in a particular room all day and just be the official moderator-helper, tasked with being kind of a jerk about shepherding things.

    In previous years we limited our attendance to professional devs, but even then the armchair stuff can happen. If I’m a pro in field X and I attend a topic about field Y, I can still create that kind of beginner-level discussion. It’s less likely but still very possible.

    I’d be interested in any other suggestions you might have! Thanks again for the feedback.

      • Flitcraft
      • August 30th, 2010 2:20pm

      You’re spot-on about empowering the moderators. I think the problem we had on Saturday is that people were too nice. Which is a good problem to have, but not when a discussion is getting off-target and the moderator is having a topic hijacked or torpedoed. Expertise-level is going to be an issue no matter what, though. You’re right about that. There’s so much specialization that even pros are having a hard time talking in detail to other pros. Not sure how you solve that one without painstakingly assembling the guest list.

      Given that everyone seemed to be sporting laptops, PDAs, and smartphones, maybe see if you could make the voting electronic? Throw up a Survey Monkey type thing real fast, have the people who can vote electronically do that. I don’t know if that’s practical, but it could clear the logjam around the boards. Just having a second big board, though, would help a lot.

      Volunteer moderator-assistants could be a great idea. I was definitely in some sessions that need to be held on topic, but I was in others where conversation never really got rolling. Discussion-facilitators could help with both problems.

      It’s a tricky problem. How to improve and better-organize an awesome, unstructured conference without killing what makes it special. I wish I had more ideas.

      • Having attempted it in non-GameLoop settings, I’m not entirely sold on electronic voting. There are always some people with non-data phones. Plus you get tech compatibility issues, problems where people can’t get on the wifi for one reason or another, etc. I’m thinking that a bigger voting board plus a dedicated board moderator would do the trick.

        • I think having separate boards based on the topic category would have been great (i.e. Design, Business Development, Writing, Art, Programming etc).

          A quicker way to combine similar talks and to see/vote on the topics that interest you in your field. Might go so far as to say that each category gets the main room (150 people) at least once during the day…sort of like a keynote for that category.

          • I like the idea of breaking things up into categories for the voting board; that way the people who only want to go to design talks (for example) can just focus on those.

    • Owen Macindoe
    • August 30th, 2010 2:10pm

    I certainly felt a bit of frustration at the armchair design stuff in the AI discussion. I heard that before I arrived it was pretty technical, but by the time I got there it was at a much more abstract level. I had been hoping to hear from industry people about the state of the art in game AI so that I could compare it with the state of the art in academic AI. I actually had a better chat with Arun Rao afterward, who clued me into Jeff Orkin’s (http://web.media.mit.edu/~jorkin/) work on the AI in F.E.A.R. which I’m going to be reading up on this week.

    I felt that I got the most our of Jeff’s XNA session and Darren and Darius’ HTML5 session. I think that in general, sessions with a technical focus are more likely to have content so full of jargon that it deters people who aren’t really committed to the topic or don’t have enough technical background to jump in. Also, the presenters in both of those sessions had prepared presentations with slides and the like, which gave them a more formal feel and more focus than the less technical sessions, albeit at the expense of some of the rough and ready aesthetic that goes with an unconference.

      • Flitcraft
      • August 30th, 2010 4:12pm

      Arun really held the AI session together. But I’m not sure it’s fair to say that it was ever very technical. The problem that surfaced very quickly in the session is that we had a pretty low knowledge-level when the session got started, and no real idea where we wanted to go with the discussion. Plus, it’s debatable whether that session was ever about AI. Remember the main thrust of the topic was “the illusion of intelligence.” That kind of confused things.

      Good point about the XNA and HTML5 sessions. The subject matter was techincal and clearly labeled as such. Maybe something a simple as more specific talk titles could help.

    • Andrew Plotkin
    • August 30th, 2010 2:48pm

    I was not at the AI discussion but I was at the first-session dialogue panel. (A few minutes late.) And I do not at all agree that the ideas were armchair-impractical. The text game examples (including both old-style text adventures and Echo Bazaar) are real games; you can play them. The ideas ran outward from there; they might not all work, but they were starting with demonstrated practice.

    Writing thousands of lines of text for a full-length game is difficult, but so is creating thousands of artwork assets. You do it if you think it’s worth doing.

    (I also started thinking of techniques to spread out dialogue across a game; it shouldn’t just a matter of providing fodder for insatiable menu-clicking players. However, I didn’t manage to edge that into the discussion. If only the session had been two hours long…) (…Then it would have killed us all, I know.)

      • Flitcraft
      • August 31st, 2010 6:48pm

      For reasons passing understanding, Andrew, your message got caught in the spam trap. I didn’t see until just now. Sorry!

      Anyway, I agree that there were a lot of useful parts to that discussion, and I didn’t mean to characterize all of it as impractical armchair stuff. But the discussion was trending toward what I thought were really impractical levels of granularity (especially if the goal was to add a game component to conversation, rather than more options in dialogue).

      • Seems like there wasn’t really an understanding of what the session was ABOUT (or at least it wasn’t maintained). I have in my notes for next time that we may want to consider forcing sessions to be specific: if not on the board then at least spend the first 5 minutes of each session figuring out what the scope is and then having the room moderator usher things along.

          • Flitcraft
          • September 1st, 2010 1:05pm

          That works well for small groups. The last session, on lifelike AI character behavior, opened with everyone figuring out what we were equipped to discuss and what we wanted to focus on. That kept us on track until the session filled up.

          Oh, one thing that would we incredibly useful in the small discussion rooms? Small whiteboards, maybe a little bigger than a tablet. There were a couple attempts at technical talk that were kind of stymied by an inability to diagram.

    • In spite of what I said elsewhere in this thread (which was a bit tongue-in-cheek) I want to agree with Andrew here. The discussion was not very different from those experienced developers have, so you may be trying to second-guess yourself too much.

      Ironically, the reason I found it less interesting than I might have is because it seemed more typical developer discussions of dialog systems, not less. I think I was looking for something less focused on the RPG genre, although this was just my personal preference, not a “problem” of the discussion.

  2. Yeah, I wasn’t quite sure what to say during the dialog round table… which is why the only comment I made was a snarky joke. It’s not that the discussion was bad, but it’s the same discussion that happens EVERY time people try to talk about dialog systems in games and “how to improve them”.

    It’s interesting that you mention armchair design, because I was actually kind of surprised you spoke so much. Not that I think you shouldn’t have, but for being a journalist you had a lot of ideas on how to design a dialog system. I think you have to be an armchair designer to be a critic to an extent.

    I’m not sure how to solve the “problem” of too much armchair discussion. Maybe next year there should be an “armchair” track, with armchairs, where the only people who get to talk are people who have no professional experience on the topic in question.

      • Flitcraft
      • August 30th, 2010 11:09pm

      It really did not start out that way, though. I don’t remember if you were present from the start, but the moderator (I wish I remembered names better) wanted to discuss his specific ideas for conversation and dialog within his MMO. Now I spoke up a fair bit, especially toward the beginning, because I felt like I really got what he wanted to accomplish. Later, I definitely feel like I was part of the problem as I engaged in arguments over Bioware games and rambled on about shortcomings in the way games reveal character and handle writing.

      But for the first half, I think the discussion was more on track. The moderator wanted a conversation system that worked both as communication and as a game. He wanted competitive, agenda-driven conversation. What he needed, as came out very early, was a way to force players to play the conversation game. Where I foresaw a problem is that such a system would require some way of creating diverse conversational encounters and to generate results. Especially because of how players usually feel ownership over their characters and their freedom to pick from any and all possible options.

      But we kept having more speculative notions introduced for discussion, and it kind of lost cohesion. But we had a great 20 or so minutes there!

  3. Also, about Bioshock…

    I can’t speak for other people, but the reason *I* bring it up so often is because it’s merely the most recent example of a game that employs certain narrative strategies that were invented over a decade ago.

    To my mind the work of Looking Glass, Origin, and Ion Storm did nearly everything it does, and in most cases better, but if you mention Ultima or System Shock today no one remembers them, so if you want to talk about certain things you sometimes have to mention the “recent” and “popular” example, which in this case is Bioshock. It doesn’t mean (and, again, I’m speaking for myself here) that I think Bioshock is particularly brilliant or amazing at what it does. It’s pretty good, but not the best. Yet given the alarmingly short memory of gaming culture it’s sometimes the only way to have a discussion everyone can participate in.

    In particular I find the moral choice elements of Bioshock some of the least interesting and simplistic I’ve ever encountered. The game is on better ground in its use of environmental storytelling, but even so not a single thing I does is original. For a more detailed explanation, see below:

    http://www.eludamos.org/index.php/eludamos/article/viewArticle/34/65

      • Spades
      • August 31st, 2010 7:58pm

      I have to agree. The moral choice system in the game really wasn’t that well thought out. Think about it: if you harvest the little sisters you get lots of ADAM and if you save them you don’t get as much ADAM. Here is the kicker though: Most people playing the game save the little sisters not because they genuinely feel sorry for them but because they know that if they save the little sisters they will get valuable gifts from Tenenbaum. that alone defeats the original purpose of the Save the Little Sister option in the game. That is why I spent my time in Bioshock harvesting them for 2 reasons: 1) I got more ADAM that way and 2) As far as I’m concerned I don’t give into Tenebaum’s bullshit, she was the one who changed those little girls into monsters and now she expects you to rectify her mistake.

      • Just to be absolutely clear, I do not dislike Bioshock. I liked the game quite a lot and think it deserves a lot of the praise it gets. I just wanted to point out that there is a difference between mentioning a game because you find it the most useful example for a particular discussion and mentioning it because you think it’s the Best Game Ever.

          • Flitcraft
          • September 2nd, 2010 1:58pm

          I totally see the difference and largely agree with your assessment, but I do wonder if you aren’t selling the game a bit short. We might both regret that games like System Shock and Thief do not receive their due (and all of which I find much more engaging to play than Bioshock), but I think Bioshock is more than a handy reference that a lot of people will readily grasp. Bioshock’s techniques, objectives, and virtues seem to be uniquely apparent to gamers. It lends itself to analysis. Even its flaws are instructive. You dislike the moral choice system, but that crummy “harvest or save” mechanic is most morality systems distilled to its unsatisfying essence. It may not the “greatest” but it might be the most instructive.

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