ICON 28: Game Design Workshop

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This was the second year that I've run a game design workshop at the I-CON SF & Fantasy convention.  It was the second year, as well, that very few people showed up but that those who did seemed to enjoy themselves.  I've gone back and forth on the design of the workshop itself, but both years ended up with a similar setup due to the constraints of a convention.

I think that it's worth doing a bit of a post-mortem on the workshop, the workshop within the con, and just generally posting this for comment.  I'd love to improve this for other events!

Beyond the jump: Summary, Constraints of a convention, and possible revisions.

The convention as a venue brings a set of particular constraints to a workshop.  These assumptions are pretty much given for a convention or conference:

  • You have little idea or control over how many people will attend.  Unless you're well-established in the field or the con, it's a big con with attendees likely to be interested in the topic, and the con will back you on limiting attendance somehow, you need to prepare for anywhere from 5 to 50 attendees.  This is even more variable given the vicissitudes of scheduling at a con.  If you are in a central location, at an easy time (not early morning), not scheduled against something popular, you migth get a lot of people ... but you don't control any of those things, probably.

  • Digital is a terrible idea.  I've attended several digital game design workshops at Otakon and heard about others.  They always disappoint.  The computers will have problems, taking time to solve and reducing the number of participants.  You will have to teach whatever software you're using.  You will not have enough time to set up a digital project from scratch, so you'll have to set something up beforehand and have participants tweak it - which will annoy a bunch of attendees who aren't interested in that genre of game, and greatly limits what you can teach about game design.  And then, at a con that can afford a room full of computers for you, you will also have way, way too many attendees for the computers.

  • You will not be able to describe what you're doing before people arrive.  Cons vary on how much info they give out about their events, but in the best circumstances you'll have 3-5 sentences in a program that no one will read.  Mostly people are going to skim the calendar and decide based on that (and what you're up against) whether to attend.

  • You probably won't have much time.  You're unlikely to get more than 1-2 hours, which really isn't that much, given that ...

  • You'll have no control or foreknowledge of the design experience of the attendees.  You've got to set up something that's fun for (in my case) a 13-year-old who likes space RTSes and a guy who's been making software for years and attends IGDA events regularly.

Ideally, I'd give the better part of a day for the workshop, and would give out some readings ahead of time or could otherwise gauge the experience of the attendees and tailor the workshop to them.   With nearly a day, some setup time, and a way to be specific in the event description, I could even do something digital.  That's just not how a con works, though.


Given the contraints, both times I've used the Values@Play Workshop's Grow-A-Game deck for the workshop.  We talked a bit about design, then analysed games to get familiar with talking design, then did a mini design jam with the rest of the time.

  1. Design Primer - I haven't found a great way to do this, but there needs to be a way to get everyone speaking roughly the same language.  With only 1-2 hours, this has to be quick - I've given out a handout and run through it quickly (<10 min.) in order to familiarize people with the terms that I'll then be throwing around for the rest of the workshop.  The handout that I've used is below.
  2. Analysis - Everyone draws a value or a mechanic card from the Grow-A-Game deck, and then we go around the group naming games that use that mechanic or play with that value.  The value is much harder for people than the mechanic, surprisingly - I think because you have to be familiar with analysing mechanics in order to consider the values they encourage.  However, even being wrong is productive: "Sure, Final Fantasy includes buying things for money, but is that really teaching you trade?" If possible, there can be a second part of this - have everyone draw a game card and then discuss the mechanics or values that are present in that game.  
  3. Concepting - I floated around this, but the most successful system seems to be to jump right into the Grow-A-Game deck: each person or group draws a value and a mechanic (and a game if they get stuck), and then that group or the group as a whole comes up with a concept that seems to address the cards.  It's best to keep the concepting moving and to bring everyone back together quickly, because some of the ideas just aren't going to be workable or interesting.  And once you've done this to generate some ideas, you can move on to...
  4. Design - This depends a lot on the time available and the people.  Even with two hours, with a fresh set of people I couldn't get 'paper prototypes' going.  With a small group, we used this to close in on one idea to try to get it to a stage where it could be prototyped.  With a more experienced group and/or a few more hours, this has worked very well and created playable prototypes.


Grow-A-Game: A Game Design Workshop

Formal Design Elements

  • Players (audience)
  • Objectives
  • Procedures (verbs)
  • Rules
  • Resources
  • Conflict
  • Boundaries
  • Outcome

A different perspective: Play Elements

  • Mechanics
  • Verbs vs. Nouns
  • Uncertainty
  • Actors/Players
  • (Meaningful) Choices
  • Quantifiable Outcome
  • Narrative Space

Forwards and Backwards Design:

  1. Core Emotion/Experience
    ... leads to ...
  2. Mechanics that foster that experience
    ... leads to ...
  3. Aesthetics or Content that match those mechanics


  1. You've got Content
    ... which in the real world works by ...
  2. Mechanics that can be simulated/abstracted in a game
    ... which come down to ...
  3. A Core Experience or game

Further Readings:

Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman.  MIT Press, 2004
Game Design Workshop, Second Edition: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, by Tracy Fullerton.  Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 2007


Overall, this structure has served well.  No one left halfway through, and everyone seemed interested rather than frustrated or disappointed.  That said, there are some things that I'd like to do differently:

  • The Analysis stage is too dry.  Right now it's just discussion.  I'd like to make it a bit more dynamic without taking too much more time.  It would be nice to do a "vote with your feet" setup ... if there are enough people, have each person walk around the room and stand near someone else whose game card uses the value or mechanic that they have, and when everyone has connected somehow, go through the group to explain their idea.  Or, closer to the vote-with-the-feet system, repeatedly choose games for areas of the room and have people go to the game area that most strongly utilizes their value or mechanic.

  • With enough people, it would be great to make a meta-game for this.  In each of the three stages, doing the analysis or design would net your group points, and at the end the top few scores would get a free game.  ... and then the group discusses whether that was really a game, a fun one, or how it could be made more interesting.  Set up like that, it's not really a game, though, more like a grading system for a quiz; it would be nice to give it some "meaningful choices" to make it a game.

  • I haven't yet been to a design workshop for newbies run by anyone more experienced than myself.  I'd love to see what Eric Zimmerman, or Tracy Fullerton, or Mary Flanagan, or Frank Lantz, or a hundred others, would do for this.

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This page contains a single entry by Scott Price published on May 17, 2009 1:00 PM.

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