Horseshoe and the Declaration of Designer Independence

I had a transformative experience this past week. I attended the fifth annual Project Horseshoe at the Canyon of the Eagles. Horseshoe is a conference/retreat where game designers from all walks (packaged games, casual games, social games, ARGs, artists, teachers, simulation) get together and talk about the issues facing the field. Unlike sifting through the throngs at GDC, there are no wannabes at Horseshoe. I had the honor of meeting over thirty of the smartest, most inspiring doers in the industry.

I’ve “met” people at GDC. You talk for a few minutes: “what are you working on? Oh yeah? Here’s my card” before scurrying off to another session that someone is only presenting because it got them a free badge. Horseshoe was wonderfully different. I got to really know some fantastic people and get some work done. I highly recommend making the trip if you have experience and want to be with other folks who want to change the world. I’ll explain more in future posts, but I have something I want to address here.

Our group was concerned about the treatment of design as a skill in this age where design is not only seen as unnecessary by many companies but as an evil that needs to be contained by formal testing procedures. The majority of us in the group have been in the position where best practices in design were thrown aside by higher-ups and our output was worsened for it. So our goal over the weekend was to answer two questions: 1) How do we convince decision makers that design is something that contributes to the bottom line? 2) How do we unite designers together to support them in personal growth and help them to avoid situations where they are crushed by authority?

Ambitious, yes.

What we were able to do over a two day period was come to an agreement on a set of principles that are a starting point for something like a clan of designers. Again, this is all very work in progress, but what we have was received very enthusiastically by the larger group and signed by two dozen. This is the starting point for a formal report that we are preparing that will live on the Project Horseshoe site. As a forewarning, this is only the position of the drafters and the cosigners of the document, not all attendees or the group behind Project Horseshoe.

Declaration of Designer Independence
Drafted by Daniel Cook, Dustin Clingman, Patricia Pizer, Devin Knudson and Zack Hiwiller.

  1. Without game design, there is nothing.
  2. Designers must own the vision of the game.
  3. We dedicate ourselves to the lifelong craft of design.
  4. We strive to be renaissance designers.
    • We speak the language of creative.
    • We speak the language of production.
    • We speak the language of business.
    • We speak the language of development.
  5. We will not be silenced. We tirelessly promote our vision both internally and to the public.
  6. We fearlessly embrace new markets and trends. We then reinvent them to be better.
  7. We demand the freedom to fail.
  8. We have a choice between creating with our own voices or whoring ourselves out to the exploiters.

Let me explain further.

Declaration one is a recognition that great games have existed for thousands of years before there were 3d tools, before there were high-level languages, before there were teams putting games together. Look at Mancala, Go, or Chess. All of these are great designs. There has never been a great game without a great design. This is the importance of design.

The first objection I hear is that this is some sort of egoist document, meant to pat designers on the head and tell them they are special little flowers. Or perhaps that it is needlessly territorial, that it ignores the importance of programmers, artists, animators, businessmen, producers and so forth. This is not the case. A sail cannot function as designed without a boat. Boats can exist without sails, but move slower and cannot achieve greater purpose. Forgive the terrible comparison, but we certainly recognize and appreciate the crucial roles that must be filled to put a game out there.

Declaration two is a statement of responsibility for game projects. There are many stakeholders in a project. On modern game projects you have producers, engineers, artists, composers, marketers, public relations, designers, testers and customers. There is the view that each of these parts are cogs that all have to turn in unison to make a project work. We reject that view. Because design is the crucial element, designers have to be the ones who drive the direction of the game. Again, this is not a statement of arrogance that designers are the only group that matters. In fact, we acknowledge that these other groups are so important that designers must understand the needs of each of the groups in order to go forward.

Our language is limited in that we must call this “ownership” as if it were owning a home. “Stewardship” is likewise too weak. Hopefully we were clear enough.

Many arguments have been had already that this means only a Game Director has power and responsibility. I disagree. Designers can be of entire projects (and usually are at the indie level) or of particular silos at the AAA level (features, levels, etc.) Together, junior designers and senior designers must share the ownership while still maintaining a unique and unified vision. It is certainly tougher at the AAA level, but there is more at stake.

Declaration three is another attack at designers as arrogant controllers. We understand that design is a craft that can be honed. Horseshoe had hundreds of collected man-years of experience present, yet none of us there considered ourselves masters of the craft or else we wouldn’t be attending and trying to hone that craft.

Declaration four is a follow-up on declaration two. Because we must drive the vision, we must understand all of the components of the project. To ignore business because of design concerns would be just as bad as the status quo where design is ignored because of business concerns.

Declaration five sounds revolutionary but truly isn’t. Since we are the project’s champions, we must act the part internally and externally. In order to bring design forward in the public consciousness, we must represent it by being honest and proud of our accomplishments. Companies that attempt to silence their talent are working against their best interests.

Declaration six is a direct response to the social games revolution of the past few years. Many designers were taken aback by this new genre and its ramifications. But successful designers have nothing to fear by shifting ground because they learn and adapt. Social games have not made designers obsolete, it has only made designers who stick their heads in the sand and let themselves get replaced by A/B tests obsolete.

Declaration seven is, to me, the most important. When we read this at the Horseshoe presentations, we received a round of applause. Design is not a formula where you can plug in some variables and receive a solution. It is an iterative process where one can get better with practice and re-implementation. Business-oriented folks do not like this because they cannot plan as specifically. But whether you care about it or not, it is a fact that the waterfall method does not work for game design. Hundreds of GDC talks and papers, postmortems and barside discussions support this. In order to be respected as a craft, we have to stand up for the methods that will allow us to succeed and simply providing the resources to allow for failure is the most critical method we can advocate.

Declaration eight is purposefully argumentative. There are employers who exploit designers as if they could be milked for design monads as if they were assembling widgets. Designers all over the world are being treated as commodities. Design is not a commodity. This will continue to be vogue until talented designers stand up. The prevailing attitude is “My way or the highway.” But the economy is poor and we tend to be conservative and scared. We have to be willing to pick “the highway” if conditions do not improve. Look at all the designers living their dreams as indies. Why can’t they be successful in corporate environments? There is nothing stopping them but a change in culture. We intend to change that culture one designer at a time.

All of us encourage discussion on these points. This is only a starting document. There is much work to do and we hope that you will share these and discuss them with others. Where are we horribly mistaken? What do we have right? Only with your help can we start to change a culture. Please comment here and other places and let’s bring these issues to the forefront.

I’ll comment about next steps in subsequent posts.

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