The Game Design Forum

Scenes from a Game Jam

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They have forty-five hours to make a working videogame. Ten teams, seated in a small section of a huge expo hall, start at 6:00 PM on a Friday night with nothing but their partially assembled computers, paper, and snacks. They will finish—they hope—by 3:00 PM on Sunday, with a functional videogame. They have a theme: in honor of Mother’s Day, they must somehow incorporate the theme of “mothers” into their game. There are no other requirements, except that the judges must be able to play it.

Oh, and it’s a competition.

This was the Philly Game Jam, which took place on the weekend of May 6-8, at the Too Many Games (TMG) convention held at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center north of the city. The Jam was one of a series of similar events sponsored by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) all over the world, although the Philly Game Jam is unique. The other jams are collaborative efforts where teams are assembled on-site of the people who show up as individuals. In the Philly Jam, teams come in groups that they form ahead of time. These teams included a number of university teams, local amateurs, and two professional studios. There are prizes in various categories, including “Best Use of Theme,” “Most Innovative,” “Judges Choice,” and the “WTF? Award.”

The broad spectrum of awards was necessary. No two teams (nor the games they made) were the same. They all had different processes, different ideas, different relationships, and different results. But in another sense, all of the teams were exactly alike in the reason they were there, and it was a great reason—but that comes later. I should also say up front that this isn’t a strict piece of objective journalism, nor does it adhere to all the rules of the brief news format. Rather, this piece is ultimately about the Jam and what it says about the industry at large. Lastly, since I’m not a disinterested party I’ll apologize now to anyone from the Jam whom I couldn’t fit in the story; time and space were limited as they ever are.

Friday, 4:30 PM

I arrived before the event, before almost everyone on Friday. There was already a short line at the convention hall door, but that line was for the GXL LAN tournament that was taking place at the same convention. “What’s your game?” I asked one of the lined-up participants. “Actually I’m an official for one of the sponsors,” he told me. “But we’re gonna play some.”

I quickly learned the value of being on the press list when the TMG staff took me on a tour of the whole event before anyone else could enter. The main hall looked like an airplane hangar full of—well, the internet; there were dozens of LAN and power cables dangling from the ceiling over the GXL area. Sitting beside it were a few rows of smaller tables set up for the Game Jam itself, looking tiny by comparison. I stole a quick look at the vendor hall where there were not one but two copies of Secret of Mana for sale in the original box although one of them didn’t have an instruction manual. Fortunately the nostalgic desires of my heart were overmatched by the interest on my wife’s student loans.

The staff finally opened the doors to the expo hall, and hardcore gamers—all of them with computers that would make my desktop look like a graphing calculator—began to set up for the competition.

Understandably, because of the immense task ahead of them, the Jam participants weren’t exactly storming the door. Dan Fischbach, of the Running with Scizor (you know, the Pokemon) was one of the first Jam contestants to arrive. He got his M.S. in making games from the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, and it showed. The first thing that Dan did—actually it was one of the first things that happened at the Jam—was Dan unpacking and connecting his own server, the hub that his team would use. I announced my amazement at his level preparation and he looked at me like I was astonished that he was wearing shoes. “Yeah,” he said, in brief acknowledgement before going back to his work. Of course he has a server. Nobody else seemed as impressed as I was.

Various team members began to file in, piecemeal, setting up a string of equally impressive yet very different computers. The GXL competitors had desktop towers half as tall as they were, blazing with iridescent stylized light, and PC mice the size of a bear’s paw covered in twenty buttons. The artists of the Game Jam had more modest processing power in their towers, but one of student competitors out of Drexel had the biggest dedicated computer monitor I have ever seen.

On the other side of things, the last two to get set up before the event got started were Jake O’Brien and Parker Whitney of the studio Flyclops in Center City Philadelphia. They created and released the iPhone game “Brainarang,” whose tagline is “Kill zombies with boomerangs. Period.” They walked in very casually, clearly in no rush. Their equipment wasn’t quite set up by the time the contest started, but it didn’t seem to worry them. They broke out a modest two computers; one laptop and one desktop, along with a drawing tablet. While other teams were synchronizing to Drop Box, O’Brien and Whitney were chatting up the other contestants.

Not all the contestants had checked in when Grant Shonkweiler of the Philly IGDA called everyone over to announce the theme around which the contest would revolve. Grant and his fellow staffers introduced themselves briefly. Then, he explained: “In honor of Mother’s Day, the theme of this Jam is Mothers.” The contestants were given a moment to ask questions. Questions were few, however, as everyone was very eager to go. Shonkweiler dismissed everyone without wasting too much time. Forty-four hours and fifty-eight minutes later, they would need to have a game.

Friday, 6:00 PM

The group UC15, made up of Drexel University classmates, immediately formed a small circle with chairs. Their process of design was very democratic, in a sense. Anyone with an idea would submit it to the circle, at which point everyone else would comment first on its appeal as a design idea, and then turn it over to the programmers for feasibility: “The plinko egg-drop, that’s just a sphere in Unity. That’s easy.” They stayed like this for nearly three hours, getting a detailed plan of action for what would eventually become a three-level game with a boss fight.

The Drexel Game Development Group brought a whiteboard. Kevin Sheehan, the first team member there and the one who drove a lot of the design choices stood over the board, moving restlessly while his teammates sat.

“Here are dry-erase markers,” he said to open the meeting. “Go.”

Sheehan struck me as the kind of guy who’s so intense about what he does that he can be a little intimidating to work with. But there’s no doubt about his commitment to making a great game. He was constantly on the move with his ideas, and anytime someone spoke up with a suggestion he would be the first to engage them. You could see the physical effect of an idea striking him; his hands and head would twitch slightly, and he would immediately begin with a shout for the first couple of words in the sentence, as if inspiration were exploding out of him. Sheehan suggested the core design idea that they eventually executed very early, although the entire team added their ideas across the course of the Jam.

Team Capitol Crunch, most of which had come up from the Washington DC area, had a very interesting dynamic going on for their design phase. Artist Nikko Davenport was clearly the most excited member of the team, pouring out design idea after design idea. Programmer Sam Levine would mediate this constant flow of ideas, choosing what was best and offering his own suggestions. Davenport, much like Sheehan over at the next table, was a big-picture kind of guy with a lot of ambition and enthusiasm. Levine was more of a detail-oriented thinker. Their creative interplay had a kind of Hironobu Sakaguchi/Hiromichi Tanaka (the Final Fantasy creators) kind of vibe to it: two different ends of the creativity spectrum working well together.

On the other side of the table were programmers Zaal Tonia and Nate Maton, who would frequently chime in about what would be possible, easy, or outrageous. “Mommy Rehab” was an idea that bounced around for a while as a joke. Tonia, an amateur physicist, made it clear that some kind of platforming mechanics were going to happen. “If we don’t have gravity,” in the game, he said, “then there’s no reason for me to be here.” And so they resolved, quite quickly, upon a puzzle-platformer, and they got to work.

A number of teams went out to dinner to discuss their plans. The two-man team O’Brien and Whitney brought back Chick-fil-A and a case of beer. After what they called “a walk in the woods” they had a design and set to work at a leisurely pace. Many of the other teams had missing members who wouldn’t show up until the next day, but in every case they were already hard at work, with or without the missing pieces. UC15 seemed to have someone bringing in pizza every few hours.

By 9:00 PM everyone was focused on the task of creating their first working systems. The contest area was mostly quiet, punctuated by occasional “Hey, hey, check this out,” and echoed screams from the LAN area. Around 10:00 PM I checked out for the night.

Saturday, 8:30 AM

Very few people had slept at all, and not all of them were choosing to remain awake either. There were supposed to be rooms away from the action where Game Jam and GXL contestants could sleep, but that didn’t happen because of a staffing problem at the event. So, obviously, the natural choice for everyone was to sleep on the floor of the men’s room. This made for an awkward bathroom trip.

“I was stepping over people,” Zaal from Capitol Crunch told me. “There was a carpet of dude.”

Not that there weren’t any people succeeding at sleep to varying degrees. It seems, however, that this kind of sleeping requires a certain amount of practice.

When I came in, Kevin Sheehan, the intense designer from Drexel Game Development Group, was tossing on a thin mattress on the floor, and, of course, he had his notebook with him. Every now and again he would jerk halfway up to a sitting position and start writing something in his notebook before flopping back down onto the mattress again. He did this for a while until he finally gave up sleeping and went back to his group’s table.

I also noticed that most of the members of the Jam had changed into much warmer clothing. At first I wasn’t too cold, but after about half an hour I began to understand. Most of the expo center’s windows were blocked off so that the GXL tournament members wouldn’t have any glare on their screens. There was one source of natural light at the very pinnacle of the two-stage roof, but direct sunlight wouldn’t hit the hall until the mid-afternoon. There were only a few GXL contestants still in the hall engaged in overnight tournament play, and many of the machines were turned off. This had a kind of ecological effect: without sunlight or the warmth of hundreds of gamers and their machines the temperature in the hall dropped about fifteen degrees.

This didn’t affect the members of team "Greasy Eddie's Discount Game Garage," Jake O’Brien and Parker Whitney, who walked in after me with breakfast sandwiches. I asked them if they had any plans to spend the whole night on Saturday, and they told me no, they weren’t doing that. In their last Jam they tried that, and it didn’t end well for them having to go back to work the next day. They told me they weren’t worried about not finishing; that wasn’t the point.

The differences between teams were clearest at this point. Dan Fischbach of Running with Scizor showed his training when he took up an administrative role for his team. Every moment of his time was taken up solving technical and scheduling problems, making sure that everyone was synced with the server and staying on task. His job was to make sure that everyone else could do their jobs. In that sense his was the only team with an executive producer guiding it.

That’s not to say that he was the only person in an administrative role. Anna Crestfield of TCNJ and the Chamber of Secrets officially occupied the role of team artist, but by Saturday she had acquired a few necessary administrative duties. As most of her team was experiencing the effects of fatigue, she took it upon herself to make sure everyone was awake, on task, and eating cookies with (I didn’t get the recipe down) at least three sources of caffeine baked in.

By 11:00 everyone was up and back at work. Saturday saw all the team members for each group present and working. The reigning champions of the 2009 Philly Jam, “In it for the Pinball,” turned their production around in a big way after having to wait for their artists the night before. In the space of one afternoon they went from having almost nothing to having a nearly working prototype.

Saturday afternoon was also the height of the convention at large, with a number of panels including the Angry Videogame Nerd—who is decidedly more levelheaded in person—and a few local game studios, including South Jersey’s own Island Officials. I had never heard of them, but they gave a great panel on the iPlatform and development. The panel made convincing argument against Satoru Iwata’s now-famous speech about the unregulated indie market, although I had never heard of them before that day, so the jury is still out on that one. Still, they’re a very cool group, and not afraid to take risks on their projects, which is great to hear.

I saw a bunch of the Jam contestants milling about the retail floor and the panels, taking their first real break from the Jam. I also stopped by Cipher Prime’s booth; they’re another Philadelphia-based development studio and the authors of last week’s iPhone game of the week, “Pulse.” The game plays kind of like “Step Mania,” on a touch-screen in a circular pattern. Okay, maybe it’s not like Step Mania. It’s a cool game though, honest.

The Jam contestants had a decent amount of energy Saturday afternoon, so I took the opportunity to ask them about the development process. The most widely used program by far was Unity, the off-the-shelf level creator that combines a lot of flexibility with a relatively easy-to-use interface. There were a couple teams dabbling in Flixel, and the professional studio Space Whales, showing up late to the contest, decided that they would all learn a new programming language just for the contest. (They did end up completing their game.)

What’s interesting about all this is that the Unity engine plays a similar role for indie teams that the Unreal Engine did for mid-market studios a decade ago. It gives them a way to step up their perceived production values while saving development time on a relatively low budget. Moreover, Unity looked very approachable. Whereas in the past a would-be developer had to learn more traditional programming before they could even think about moving on to something as complex as games, Unity aims to make level and game design something that can be learned in its own context. How much it has succeeded I don’t have the expertise to say. Regardless, a fair share of the Jam participants who identified as artists (and definitely not programmers) were very comfortable integrating Unity with their rendering programs.

(This would lead me to one of the few tips I’ll hand out: if you’re a 3D artist, the most important technical skill you can have is to know how to set up an assets server.)

Saturday night was the peak of the LAN tournament, during which five man teams were playing head to head matches. It was easy to tell when rounds would end as ten people in unison would all shout at the same time, a mixture of enthusiastic victory and enraged defeat—a composite that sounded to us over in the Jam like a shriek of mania.

The Jam contestants were locked in—so to speak; they were free to go if they wanted to—and so I made an early exit from the premises so that I could be back early the next morning.

Sunday, 8:15 AM

Sunday morning saw everyone in a silent haze. When team members would talk to each other, they leaned across tables to whisper. If anyone moved it was to get doughnuts or one of the few remaining energy drinks. Most spent the time sitting or sleeping, except for Christian Plummer of Quadratron Jammers. He stood at his computer, playing his prototype on with Xbox controller. He looked fairly energized; I asked him if he’d slept. “Yeah,” he responded, cheerfully. “About three hours.” His teammates were both on uncovered air mattresses directly under the production table. I stepped over Gabe Bellace to get a look at how their design was progressing; he didn’t seem to notice.

At this point the focus of the development effort was squarely on the shoulders of the programmers. A number of artist and musicians working on the projects had started watching an ongoing StarCraft 2 match. Brian Mayer of one of the TCNJ teams let me help them debug a bit as they put the finishing touches on the UI of their game. I think he was actually glad to have a few seconds where he wasn’t play-testing it. The game itself was kind of like Frisbee golf, with a Russian-doll effect and black holes. It was the kind of game that could really see a lot of level-design development.

With only a few hours left I talked to Dan F. of Running with Scizor to get his perspective on working with his team. I mentioned before that he’s got a M.S. in making games, and obviously a lot of experience comes with that kind of training. His team was the most diverse in terms of backgrounds and levels of experience. “It turned into a scope bomb,” he said of the game. “They’re working on getting it done, and we’ll see.” He explained that there’s tension between the need to funnel the excitement of a 45-hour competition and the prudence to not over-scope the project. In the end, his group did get their project done. It was a pixel RTS game, not all of the features implemented. It looked good though, considering what they had set out to do.

The guys from Flyclops at the table next to them weren’t quite so lucky. As it came down to the wire, they were nearing completion of what would have been a clever (and hilarious) time-management game. When time was called they were still “about an hour of development away from a finished product,” they said; but the judges had arrived and everyone had to stop coding, finished or not.

The judges played everyone’s game. For the time being I’ll leave out detailed descriptions; some of the games themselves will be linked when this story updates, and you can play them. The results of the judging had UC15’s “Winston’s Eggventure” as the Judges Choice, Drexel Game Development won the Best Use of Theme, for their game “Effection,” which, when I saw it last was begging to see a version for the Nintendo DS. The reigning champs, In it for the Pinball, won the Most Innovative award for their multiplayer pollen-gathering game “Honey.” (It reminded me a lot of “Blueberry Garden.”) And the pros over at Space Whales ended up with the WTF award for their game “Duck This.”

Why They Jam

I asked Parker Whitney of Flyclops why a professional game developer would want to spend two sleepless weekend days locked to a desk.

“Eh,” he said with a shrug and a grin. “For shits.”

To some degree, most of the contestants felt that way. Why come here and exhaust yourself making a game if you’re a developer already? Why come if you’re a student who has to go back to class doing very nearly the same thing on Monday? Whitney says, “To do game design for fun, not worry about everything, just react. Obviously we do this for a living because we like it, but this is just for shits, to see friends.”

Zack Thacker and Tucker Abbott, programmers for Drexel’s UC15 said it even more directly. When I asked Zack why he was there he responded very quickly, and with complete confidence. “I’m good at it, and I like doing it.”

“When we actually get eight people together and a prompt, you can make some really great stuff,” Tucker added.

They weren’t bragging either; without much more than a brief nap the two of them managed to do enough coding to keep up with a team of six artists. Their project, “Winston’s Eggventure” won the Judges Choice deservedly. It was clearly the best-developed project there, featuring three levels, a boss fight, and great graphics for a 45-hour prototype.

Nikko Davenport, the artist from Capitol Crunch put a different perspective on it. He told me that he had never made a game from start to finish before. “I’ve tried this with friends, and the motivation’s not there.” He explained. “But with these guys, here, everyone’s obliged to do it. You’ve got 48 hours, you’re locked in—let’s pound something out.”

What impressed me most about everyone at the Jam was that, for the most part, they were there because they loved what they were doing. There wasn’t any money at stake, most of the people at the Jam already knew each other from previous Jams and time for conversation was minimal, so networking wasn’t exactly a significant side benefit. It was about making games.

At one point I overheard the members of Quadratron Jammers laughing about the whole process. “We can’t work on our game,” they said. “We’re having too much fun playing it.” Their process was all about play-testing, bug analysis, design modifications, rinse, and repeat. There was almost no difference for them between playing and designing; why would there be? It’s a game; it’s supposed to be fun. You don’t achieve fun by having a long, ever-boring development process and strict adherence to your first design doc.

I’ve been asked, as no doubt many of you readers have been, why I have a serious interest in games. Why would I want to make games my life when it’s not the most glamorous or high-paying industry? The answer for the contestants at the Jam is obviously that they love what they do. Why else would they spend their weekends at an exhausting development marathon, except that it’s the most fun they could be having that weekend? I can’t do what the Jam contestants did; I neither program nor tolerate energy drinks well. But where I am a critic (and occasional low-quality journalist) interested in games I feel the same way about working in the field of games that they do. This is what we love to do, whether it’s coordinating everyone’s work, writing music, drawing concept art, or crafting collisions in Unity. We who work in games do it because we love games. We love making them, we love playing them, and we love talking about them.

I suppose it answers, tangentially, the point raised by Dan Cook earlier this week. To be fair, because I know him, Dan was writing late at night and was clearly expressing a more general frustration, but doing so in a public forum. Also, he certainly does publish drafts—it seems unusual to us but he does. Still, the essential question of “why bother with this stuff,” when it isn’t exactly achieving anything? Not all game criticism achieves something lasting. But then again the Philly Game Jam didn’t achieve something “lasting” either; the games probably won’t see real publication. Was the Jam a waste? I don’t think any of the participants would say so. And I don’t think anyone would tell a group of people who so enjoyed the process that their efforts were wasted.

In the field of games, we love what we do. If the product of our joy is occasional navel-gazing or exhausting marathons of design that achieve nothing permanent, what of it? Should we cancel the contests, should we take down the writing, should we give up the pursuit?

We work in games; we’re serious about our fun. That kind of paradigm doesn’t exist for everyone. Let’s be glad it does for us, whatever the results.

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