Metatopia: Where Game Designers Come To Play

As I mentioned in a previous post, I rode out Hurricane Sandy in Jersey City with some amazing gamer friends of mine. Yet all I could think about while we waited two and a half hours on line for gas, or when sitting in the dark by candlelight playing Munchkin, was that I needed to escape. Not because I don’t love my friends (though I got cabin fever something wicked). No, I needed to get down to Morristown NJ for the second annual Double Exposure game design and playtest convention, Metatopia.

Metatopia as a convention is near and dear to my heart. I cut my teeth on running LARPs and tabletop events at the other two Double Exposure conventions, Dreamation and Dexcon. I also got my first taste of pitching and developing a new RPG idea by attending the indie gaming roundtables hosted at those two conventions, where green folks interested in creating a new roleplaying game could come and pitch their ideas to a table of industry professionals. I was blessed in that time to have folks like Rob Donoghue (Evil Hat Productions) and brilliant editor John Adamus give me advice at these conventions that drove me towards taking game design seriously as a career option for my future. So when the convention’s director Vinny mentioned an entire game design convention, strictly for the sake of bringing game designers together to share information and feedback on developing games, I was excited as hell. Last year’s Metatopia helped me develop my game, Wanderlust, into something approaching a coherent document. GenCon and the First Exposure Playtest hall, run by the Double Exposure folks, gave me the next step. And then came this year’s Metatopia. Here are the convention highlights:

  • Wanderlust Focus Groups: So as I may have mentioned, there was a wee problem of being trapped in Jersey City during the hurricane. That meant that I did not get to go home to Brooklyn and get ANY of my play test material (or business cards, or, y’know, clothes!) going into this convention. Instead of presenting a working playtest, I instead presented two focus groups on my game. One hour focused on the game mechanics and the second on the game world setting and character types. I was blessed to have folks like John Adamus, Michael Consoli, Caius Ward and the amazing Darren Watts sit in to give me feedback (there was a final gentleman at the table whose name I did not catch). I was excited to find that the changes I made after the GenCon focus group seemed to work better and with the feedback from these talks I’m now ready to go into testing to get this game out the door! I also came across a very good saying about my game, it seems: “The act of discovery isn’t gentle or easy.” Take that as you will…
  • Hey, I hear you like panels, so I put some panels on your panels: Who needs breaks? Or food? I’ve got panels to go to! The schedule for Metatopia was jam packed with great games to playtest, but the highlight for me was the amazing panel track. Darren Watts worked very closely with the Double Exposure organizers to put together panels on everything from How to Cultivate A Fan Community to The Care and Feeding of Artists to How Not to Be A Jerk In Your Games. I was delighted to be on three panels as a speaker, including Women in Game Design, Sexism in Gaming, and a long talk on LARP. I attended numerous panels with folks like Brennan Taylor (Galileo Games), Kenneth Hite (Pelgrane Press), John Stavropolous (NerdNYC), Amanda Valentine (Editor Extraordinaire for numerous companies), and Jason Morningstar (Bully Pulpit Games, writer of Fiasco). My favorite panels included the Evil Hat Productions panel, the panel about dealing with artists, an intense panel on how to pitch your game and John Adamus’s writing panel. There were so many I didn’t get to go to, but there’s only so many hours in the day!
  • Pro Tip: Don’t Ever Walk in Late! My most amazing moment of the weekend came on the heels of an epic zonk-out by me on Saturday afternoon. I was rocking a cold so I took a nap, only to wake up late for the RPG Development Panel. I shook a leg downstairs to slip in late to a room full of some of the best folks in the industry up in front of the room: Fred Hicks and Rob Donoghue from Evil Hat, Darren Watts, Jason Morningstar, Cam Banks from Margaret Weiss and the illustrious Kenneth Hite. I got to my seat just as another designer was finishing up pitching and talking about his game. When nobody else raised my hand, Rob decided to toss me to the lions to ask me about how Wanderlust was doing! After mumbling something about just waking up from a nap (I’m so articulate when sleepy) I brought up the pitch I’d worked on at Mr. Hite’s panel earlier that day and tossed it at the panel – and it went great! I got to thank Rob later for tossing me in front of that truck, but it was worth every second.
  • State of LARP Address: It was my privilege to sit on a panel of four to talk to a room full of people about LARP. Considering that I want LARP to be the focus of my academic career at the NYU Game Center, I was glad to get the opportunity to discuss my passion in a serious discussion. What I discovered is that… well, there’s a lot to talk about. I also discovered that while opinions may vary on aspects of the hobby, there are universals across different kinds of LARP that we could all come together about. I was also super excited to hear that Jason Morningstar is developing a LARP version of Fiasco! I can’t wait to give it a shot. I also got the opportunity to speak with William White, one of the authors of Immersive Gameplay, and share some personal insights into the best practices when running and playing a LARP.
  • Women in Gaming? We Have Those! Two other great panels that happened at Metatopia this year came about as a result of some work between myself and Avonelle Wing, one of Double Exposure’s organizers. She and I got into this five hour discussion over the state of women in the gaming industry, both on the professional end and within the community, as well as about female representations in game content and art. We then made sure there would be two panels talking about the problems we saw. One, Women in Gaming, brought together myself, Avonelle, and two amazing women, Amanda Valentine and El Wood. We tackled issues of subconscious bias, confronting sexism, cultivating a female-friendly community, and the duty of women to support one another, without ever once dealing in man-bashing language. I felt a particular thrill when I was able to say to the audience, “First of all, I don’t believe feminism is a dirty word” and got a round of applause. Thank you, Metatopia, for engaging in a great debate about women’s issues and letting me be part of the discussion.
  • Above All, Metatopia Is About The People: The best part about coming to Metatopia had to be the people I got to spend time with. while many folks might spend their time at a convention like Metatopia focusing on the formal aspects of the play testing (because that’s what we’re there for!) or trying to network like mad, I found that I genuinely enjoyed just spending time with and getting to know folks from around the gaming community. I really enjoyed shooting the breeze with plenty of people who I previously had felt too shy to approach. This convention really taught me that, despite my shyness and the intimidation I may have felt to approach some people because of their fame in the indie community, as soon as I relaxed, people were open, friendly and genuine. I was also humbled by how supportive tons of folks have been in regards to my game and my company, Phoenix Outlaw Productions, lending advice, ideas, critique and encouragement while I bring this company and my RPG from dream to reality. If I had to thank everyone it’d take all day, but I can’t imagine not saying a special thanks to Rob Donoghue, John Adamus, Fred Hicks and Brian Engard for being so awesome.

On the heels of Metatopia, I’ve got a bunch of killer notes to update for Wanderlust and preparation for play testing to begin. I’ve also got the name Metatopia going around at the NYU Game Center, because how can these two amazing forces of game design and play testing not come together for more awesomeness in the future? I also obviously cannot wait for next year. Considering the last two years, I want to pledge to myself that come next Metatopia, I’ll be able to talk about the process of finishing and publishing Wanderlust and then going on to the next game on my mind! But if I want to do that, I gotta get to work. Once more, I want to say thanks to the great folks who made Metatopia this year what it was, and I can’t wait until next time!

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