Monday, November 7, 2011

This Metatopia Thing

A while back, Vinnie had an idea.

Vinnie, for those that don't know, is the robot brain behind Dreamation, Dexcon and a host of other nerd events in northern New Jersey. I've talked in the past about how good Dreamation and Dexcon are, and a lot of that is a reflection on how hard Vinnie works.

These conventions have historically been hotbeds of game design activity - a place to run playtests and to talk with designers of small press games. The problem is, the streams don't always mix well, and this came to a head at a previous convention, when confusions between what was play testing and what was actually a game to play interfered with some people's experience.

So, Vinnie pitched the idea of peeling off some of this and creating a designer-centric convention, one explicitly for playtests, discussion groups, seminars and roundtables. There was a lot of support for the idea, but a lot of uncertainty regarding what such a thing would look like. I admit, I shared in that uncertainty.

This past weekend was that convention: Metatopia. We got to see how the idea translated into reality, and from my perspective, it was very nearly miraculous.

I drove up very early Saturday morning, so I missed some of the fun on Friday night (including a panel of Ken Hite and Fred Hicks talkign about how to steal from other games) but I got two full days of goodness in. I didn't know quite what to expect, but I jumped in enthusiastically.

There were three major activities at the convention: Seminars, Playtests and Focus Groups.

Seminars are what you would expect: one or more people talking about some subject or other. This doesn't sound like much, but it's worth noting that the sister conventions have historically had a fairly anemic seminiar track. The reasons for that get a bit chicken and egg, but the bottom line is that it was really nice to see good seminars with enthusiastic attendees. It was good enough that I want to see what I can do to help with seminar tracks at Dexcon & Dreamation. It also provides a double excuse to try to drag Chuck Wendig back - we totally need to get him to talk about writing.

Playtests are also reasonably self-explanatory. Designer shows up with a game, runs it, and gets feedback. These are interesting because their value really depends on the GM's attitude. For GM's who came into it looking to really tear into their own game to find what made it work, it was a godsend, and you could spot those GMs because they were the ones making changes in response to play experience. For GM's who felt they had a finished game, I think it was a lot less useful - fine tuning is something you do over time. The feedback you could get at this convention was more suited to the guts of your game than the chrome.

This actually kind of hurts as a designer, because I'm not sure how to provide feedback on it, especially when it's clear there are problems with the game. Even moreso when it's clear the problems maybe things the designer is already married to. I don't want to discourage people from playtesting their game in this context, but if you're not ready to be told your game doesn't work, it's probably not helpful.

The last (and most interesting to me) were the focus groups. These were for people who had an idea for a game, but not necessarily much more than that. You sit down in a room and talk about your game and your ideas, and you proceed to brainstorm. For folks who've attended the Indie Roundtables, it's rather like that, but more focused. I LOVED these, and I wish I had done more of them - something to make a note for next year.

Anyway, there's a lot more to talk about, but for everyone who has wondered, I just wanted to make sure you had a sense of what this Metatopia thing is.

(I should also add, enough people at the con had nice things to say about the blog that I'm now feeling guilty about my half-assed writing schedule, so we'll see if that can be fixed. Also, if you attended my seminar (thank you!) I'll be posting my notes soon, probably as tomorrow's post.)


  1. So, I've known "kill your darlings", but this con really helped me spot the things that I had loved so much that I was hiding from myself in my design. I've murdered them with an axe now. I may resurrect their zombie corpses if I need to, but man it felt good.

    I'm sorry I skipped out on your seminar, but I had been sitting in that room for three hours straight, and I had to move.

    One thing that there was that you left out was something between the focus groups and the playtests, the workshopping. You have a game that you know doesn't work, you play little sample bits, and talk about it as you play and use that to work out kinks in your thinking. That's what I did with Arcadia the second time it ran, since the first showed me how the core of what I had didn't work.

  2. One thing that I thought was great about Metatopia was how energizing it is to just talk shop with a bunch of game design nerds. All of the events had this thread running through them: the simple act of talking about mechanics makes you think more about them, and even if you're not talking about your own game, you come away with ideas and energy that you can bring to it.

    I didn't fully understand what Metatopia was when I signed on, and thusly did not bring The Demolished Ones to be focus grouped or workshopped (it wasn't ready for play yet). I really wish I had, but even not having done so, I have quite a few ideas and bits of advice that I plan on implementing as a direct result of simply attending.


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