Thoughts on Running Game Chef

2011 Oct 25

Folks are talking about Game Chef 2011 on SG and offering suggestions for next year. They’re all totally right about everything. But the real crux of running Game Chef is that is has a lot of contradictory aspects and goals, which have to be negotiated and priorities set. This is what I said about how I’ve been thinking about it:

First, one of the things I feel like I’ve learned from participating in and running Game Chef is that there’s really a limit to how much the master chef can control or facilitate as far as participants’ experiences of the contest. If you’re completely hands off, people find it hard to engage with each other or get excited enough to finish. If you go in and try to set up a bunch of structures, it distracts from the task at hand (i.e. designing the game) and puts people together who aren’t interested in what each other is doing, ending up feeling more alienating than relationship-building. So finding the right middle ground is tough.

The way I’m approaching things, I’m trying to keep the attention — as much as possible — on finishing a game and whatever participants need to do that. Connecting with other designers and getting great feedback would be nice, but — in the end — it’s not absolutely critical and it’s not something I think I can be responsible for. Sometimes it happens, othertimes not so much. And I’m not sure there’s a formula that will make it happen most of the time for most people.

And, honestly, being an indie designer is kinda like that. Sometimes you connect with folks, othertimes not. Sometimes you make a game that people get and are excited about, and othertimes people don’t really understand it or it can’t find the right audience. The people who end up being successful are those who push a project through and gradually build interest as more and more people play it and get excited about it, even if that takes a while. That’s partially why the games that win Game Chef have never really gone on to be successful, while games that made a less of a splash in the contest end up being bigger deals.

The thing about Game Chef that’s hard to remember sometimes is that it’s not really about the experience of the contest so much. It’s about what that experience does for you — to help you build confidence and experience as a designer — and the games that come out of it (in the event that you get lucky and develop something that people actually want to play repeatedly). And you can get the benefits of that even if it’s not always a perfect experience. There is value, in fact, to be had in persevering through a mixed experience because — lord knows — indie design and publishing is nothing if not full of mixed experiences. If some people don’t get your game, that can drive you to improve and clarify it; whereas folks who’s game gets major praise may be less clear on where to go next.

Now, I don’t mean that as a cop-out. I’ll certainly keep trying my hardest to make the experience the best that I can. There’s no point in upholding suffering as a virtue or something and, really, an incredible amount of good stuff and positive interactions came out of Game Chef this year, as it does every year. But what I’m trying to say is that some of this stuff isn’t really my responsibility or even in my power to make better, given the amount of time and energy I already devote to this. I don’t want to have to closely moderate a forum or coerce people into writing useful reviews (how would I even know what that would look like?). At some point, I have to just trust and hope that people will make a decent good-faith effort and assume that others will be tolerant when people are inevitably late, flakey, slapdash, conservative, judgmental, or otherwise less helpful and supportive of their fellows than they might be.

Designing Game Chef is a kind of game design in an of itself and, in game design, it’s almost always better when you trust the players and don’t try to micromanage or railroad too much. And, although I have some pretty radical notions about contest design (see: Murderland), I’m also limited by the traditions and expectations that I’ve inherited from previous master chefs. Believe me, if I had to create a design contest from scratch, it might not look much like this.

In any event, that’s where my head is about some of this stuff. 1) Yes, we will continue to get better, but 2) recognize that Game Chef — as an institution — can only do so much to create an experience that will be productive for you; and, 3) it’s really about what happens afterward: the contest is just an excuse.

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