Game Chef Talk

Whenever I read someone’s screed about things they’d do different about Game Chef, one inevitable topic is that 90% of what gets submitted is unplayably rough. That the bar isn’t high enough. Which, you know, fair point. Really fair. Hell, MadJay Brown and I experienced the horror of playing Gregor Hutton’s 3:16 from a Game Chef draft and, yup, unplayable. (The final game is a whole different story, but you wouldn’t know that if you’d dismissed the contest draft.)

I think there’s a problem with expectations amongst some of the participants, but what I reeeeeally think is going on is that a lot of people want to see more like…an invitational. A closed, tight, very high-end competition that’s maybe judged by a small committee rather than random strangers who may or may not have any shared aesthetics. Or the deep critical background required to understand what a game may be trying to accomplish, whether it’s something you’d “like” or not.

Lots of entangled issues here of course. There’s not much formal game design critique out there, and the informal stuff tends to be incredibly subjective. And then there’s the epic sprawl of game design itself. But I think those can be set aside (honest!). 

Is that something folks would like to see? Let me be clear: I am not actively proposing I do this or anything like it. I’m just talking. For now. 

Or have I completely misread the “why isn’t there a higher bar?” thread of GC talk?

Side note: I’m also super-aware that there are other objections to the contest format that have nothing to do with quality control. Totally get that the contest part of the “contest” is overblown, that people (me included) get bad-neurotic about elements of that, that the quality of feedback is commonly somewhere between iffy and useless (with the occasional shining gem). This thread isn’t about those topics.

0 thoughts on “Game Chef Talk”

  1. Are people having that conversation? Because I’m happy to go tell them off. Game Chef isn’t about polished games, it’s about finishing a playable draft (that probably has loads of problems, including maybe some fundamental ones).

  2. I’m not sure what else people can be expected to design in a week. Even short games are often complex enough that it’s hard to finish more than a draft.

  3. I would love to see a thing that has a higher bar for the level of critique. That other stuff, I could take or leave, but the real value of GC, at least for my experience with it, was that I got really good conversation out of it and learned a lot from the judges and fellow contributors. I would be so excited to have that learning opportunity again.

  4. What I’m saying is that some of this might be brought upon GC itself! Wait, dang it, let me just look at the website again…

    Nope, I’m dumb, it’s right there: playable draft.

    So I dunno. I know that, early on, I was kind of horrified at the obviously unfinished level of work I saw (and produced). And then I got itchy about submitting anything at all because I couldn’t live up to my own expectations. So I can sympathize with the “the bar isn’t high enough” folks, although I disagree with them as well.

    I think getting something to “playable enough that folks can see what you’re getting at” is kind of a specific skillset. Also recognizing that that’s what you’re reading for, not “oh god this is obviously broken, how was this even submitted?”

  5. Shreyas Sampat the social component has been interesting and problematic through the years, hasn’t it? I met some really great e-buddies and made lifelong e-antagonists.

  6. Yeah, especially if it was a “finish a half-finished game,” I would be excited about that. Maybe an All-Stars mode, if it didn’t just come off as elitist and dismissive of newer designers.

  7. Does anyone have any sense of how well Game Chef succeeds in terms of welcoming, developing, meeting new developers? Has that particular metric, or something like it, ever been studied I wonder?

    I sat there for a couple minutes even trying to come up with the right verb(s). Something-ing new developers.

  8. Yeah, I know exactly where this is coming from.

    Agree.  Much of what makes Game Chef awesome is that it’s open and (mostly, almost entirely) very encouraging to participants.  I am glad that Game Chef remains this way.  And nothing is stopping people from creating the contest they wish to have.

    [Here is where I bite my tongue about a rant regarding people treating the feedback portion as a chore on the path to their own game’s obviously due recognition.]

  9. The way I see it is that there are two parts of your responsibility in reviewing the required 4 games. The first is to weed out three games so that the organizers have a manageable number of games to sift through in order to choose a winner. This is the aspect of game chef that is a competition and I keep this element separate from everything else. This responsibility is actually really easy. Read 4 games, choose the strongest. If a game is confusing or uninteresting, you don’t really need to keep reading for this duty since it probably won’t get chosen to progress further.

    The other part is to critique the games to give feedback to their authors. I have read some such critiques that read like a book report, summarizing the game, and others that use specific systems to judge games reliably, but to me this misses what is most effective in the critique proccess, what will improve the game. I try to focus my critiques on what I think needs to change and what is strong and should remain in grow. I worry less about how much praise I give out, what is good is good, but what isn’t working needs change. Likewise, it shouldn’t matter how playable a game is at this point since the goal is to improve the game no matter what stage of development it is in.

    These two principles can interact in very odd ways. The game I recommended to continue was the one that I felt needed the most changes. It also happened to be the game that obviously had the most work put into it, but that didn’t really affect my decision. The reason I chose this game was because it had a concept that I felt best embodied the theme, had the strongest core concept, and was the one that I most wanted to see finished. I had a lot of critiques about the game and huge concerns over it’s implementation, but at the same time I felt this game had the farthest it could go.

    So I guess my thoughts are that maybe we need better principles for what needs to go into the separate aspects of our roles.

  10. Inviting, encouraging, supporting, these are all part of the goal, right? Game Chef shows people who “have an idea” that actually writing it down is the hard, worthy part, even if it’s rough and unplayable.

  11. Quick note: first year under a new regime too, right? With a bunch of new people participating? Give them another year and I bet they’ll sort most of that stuff out. My first year in charge I almost destroyed Game Chef entirely.

  12. I may not be giving critiques that everyone likes, but I’m really enjoying the process of trying to get through every Game Chef entry this year and holding them against a fairly consistent scale. I love seeing many of the different things that people have injected into their entries, and seeing patterns across the whole. (maybe it’s due to all my study in education and sociological trend analysis lately)

  13. I have no criticisms of Game Chef organizers, past or present. Doing the actual work of organizing an event like this worth far more than any amount of criticism.

    David Rothfeder yeah, the last mile on a game can be extraordinarily tough. When you can’t stand to look at it anymore, the game is probably ready for release.

  14. Larry Spiel​ let’s scream about that particular topic in a couple weeks.

    I mean it’s great to have some recognition but the mutualism needs to be hammered all day every day these days.

    I blame millennials.

  15. Willow Palecek​ what do you think? Would you be into a more invitational type event? Something designed with an eye toward critical achievement, rather than participation ribbons?

  16. Paul Beakley , I think I’m perhaps contrasting my experience too much with the Ronnies, which have almost identical rules (ingredients, usually no theme), but produce much more polished and interesting games- although there are less of them.

    I don’t know what the solution is to weed out entries that read like they were ripped from TimeCube.  Maybe there shouldn’t be, and maybe that’s useful feedback: “I can’t understand your game.”

  17. I gave exactly that feedback twice and didn’t feel guilty at all. Is that a waste of time? Probably for certain values of “waste.”

    Probably the world needs the Ronnies and Game Chef. I don’t know the event that well though. What led to the better/fewer mix?

  18. Re: Ronnies. I still have trouble believing that Ron told us we could only do Game Chef once a year and then made a new design contest that he named after himself.

  19. Very interesting topic!

    Complaining that Game Chef doesn’t create more polished games is like complaining that NaNoWriMo doesn’t produce more award-winning fiction. Award-winning fiction isn’t the point of that, the point is to push people to make more stuff.

    I think the fundamental issue is the fact that the critiques are open to everyone who designed a game. Design skills and critique skills often do not overlap. Critiques are as likely to be useful as from a random sampling of the population, more or less.

    Which means a competition with a panel of skilled critiquers. That sounds very interesting! Problematic, of course, but it certainly could be done.

  20. Game Chef is big, widely advertised, and particularly encouraging to new designers.  You only knew about the Ronnies if you happened to be around when Ron announced them on the Forge, so there was a much smaller target audience, who happened to be people who were already game designers who thought deeply about games.

  21. I think that qualifies as a sort of invitational! I wonder if that community exists any more?

    It’s probably some subset of private circles that we’ve all curated, which is…sort of the opposite of a “community.”

  22. Willow Palecek I’m a populist when it comes to game design (the more people designing games, the better; quality is secondary), so we may have different concerns there.

  23. I could be wrong, but I don’t think Ron viewed the Ronnies as having any element of being “invitational”. From my POV Ron seems to have an idiosyncratic element of egalitarianism where he thinks beginners and veterans are equally capable of designing an RPG.

    Personally I am annoyed with the way Game Chef doesn’t really value the things I think are important, but an “invitational” contest seems like an odd idea to me. Why not just do things with the structure of the contest itself to emphasize different priorities, and then rely on self-selection the way other contests do?

  24. Paul Beakley Yes exactly, the social thing is super important to GC and it’s been many years since I’ve felt like it’s a social thing that I, personally, can engage with successfully.

  25. Don’t forget the need for perfection. Engendered by teachers who are afraid of disappointing kids because they haven’t the courage to correct mistakes.

  26. To be less of a jerk about stuff (apologies, I was in the midst of stressful/emotional post-con travel), I totally agree with Willow Palecek that smaller contests (including Ronnies, but there’s also been dozens of others over the years, most recently Golden Cobra) often give better feedback — from one or more volunteer judges, usually — and sometimes produce more polished games because designers self-select to be involved in them and they’re not aiming for the broadest possible participation. I’ve had multiple games come out of small contests and have run several myself (Murderland, Stage One, etc.) that have led to some notable games, like Nathan’s Be Ashamed Young Prince. The Indie Mixtape basically works on that model too, kinda. So I totally agree that those are also important to the game design ecosystem and community.

  27. J. Walton​, professional jerk.

    (I totally did not intend to set traps or gotchas with this thread at all, and I think we’ve covered done interesting ground.)

  28. I’m going to preface this by saying that I’ve tried to write something for two Game Chefs so far and failed both times. I like the lower quality bar. Given the time line I feel like anything higher would discourage new and inexperienced writers from taking part… which would be a big loss for us as a whole, since people need prompting and patience to become experienced.

    I also think you’d need to relax the time constraints if you raise the bar. Unless someone is freelancing full time and has the saved up money to not work that week (or has a “real” job and is willing to burn a week of vacation on writing a game… haha, no!) that is just flat out not enough time to go through the cycles of consideration and playtesting you need to publish something.

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