Global GameJam (Sydney) 2011
February 04, 2011

* This is my largest ever blog. You will work out whether or not it interests you pretty quickly. Some photos are scattered throughout.

From 28-30 January I took part in the 2011 Global GameJam at my local Sydney venue, the Powerhouse Museum. About 40 local gamemakers and artists formed teams on the spot, then lived in the venue for 48 hours with the goal of turning out a game on this year's theme: "Extinction".

This is the me-cam story of my team's experience as we turned out a strategy game prototype which we eventually called "Impacts".

The game runs on Mac OS X and Windows and is here:

Nerd speed-dating

After a fun getting-to-know-everyone-else session on the initial Friday evening, the theme of Extinction was revealed to us jammers, and then we were encouraged to brainstorm ideas and form teams around them. I had met a couple of programmers named Tim and Jacqui, who invited me to join them when they heard I was good on music and sound. They also brought to the team Katherine, with the awesome power of visual artistry.

At our team's brainstorming session, Jacqui started to describe an idea of hers involving people bouncing off volcanoes and something about Final Fantasy. It was amusing but I can't say I understood it.

Then I pitched an idea which everyone on the team liked enough that it became the one we ran with, a butterfly effect kind of thing. The screen would be split into two windows. On one side would be the present, in which you, the human, could walk around doing things like treading on flowers and interacting with animals. The second screen would show a point in the future, which would be a projection of your actions in the present. So if you killed all of a certain type of animal, or trod on every instance of a type of flower, that lifeform would be erased from the future, and there would be an alarming sound effect and a big graphic that said EXTINCT!

We weren't sure of ultimate player goals yet, but we had our main idea, and after pitching it to the room, accompanied by a mock screenshot drawn on butcher's paper in the scale and perspective of Pokemon (a scale we all agreed upon as we all knew it) we set off to nab a cluster of workstation computers in the main room.

(Jacqui, Kat, Tim, Wade)
"So we'll be working in the scale of Pokémon, agreed?"

Pretty quickly I discovered that the promised Ableton Live Suite software had not actually been installed on our computers; an administrative mistake, I guess. I had intended to use Live to do both the music and sound effects, and had left my own laptop at home because of my expectation that I would have access to it. I decided I would have to get a friend to bring my laptop in to the museum the next day. Chances of a late Friday drop off were nil, since everyone in my social group was at that minute drinking at the Bavarian Bier Cafe.

To see what software I did have instead, I sifted through the workstation and found Audacity, a simple and not-bad audio editor, and started downloading animal sounds from FreeSample. I was soon able to start treating and stitching these together in Audacity.

At this point we had committed to bunnies, cows, wolves and fish appearing in the 'present' screen, and worked out that for each animal there would be noises for when they appeared, when they bred, when they died, etc. I made all of these sounds realistic except for the bunnies, since none of us could think of any conspicuous sound we knew that bunnies made. I made a popping sound for when they bred and a squishing sound for when the player clubbed them to death.

The presence of other animals also raised some weird questions, sound wise. What sound does a cow make when it dies? How about when it breeds? Probably pretty much the same stupid sound, I figured.

By the time I was done with the animal FX it was 4 AM. While the rest of my team ploughed on, I mooched off to the dorm, basically a dark room with lots of space in it for people to lie on the sleeping bags they had been advised to bring. Having underestimated the hardness of the floor, I woke up groggy, but still better off, five hours later, and found all of my teammates glued to terminals as I'd left them.

I should point out that my teammates are all a decade younger than I, and that the antidepressants I take screw up my sleep anyway, so I had zero interest in trying to stay awake unnecessarily. Both programmers in my team went with very little sleep, and probably had to to do what they needed to get done. I think Jacqui didn't sleep at all on night one, and Tim was taking power naps of 20 minutes every six hours.

While waiting for Andrew to deliver my laptop that afternoon so I could proceed with our game's music, I decided to ask around to see if any other teams needed sound effects done. The only other audio-oriented person amongst the entrants was already working on behalf of six groups (me and him were the only two audio purveyors, hence our popularity at team building time) but I still found another group that needed help. The team doing the "natives flee from an erupting volcano" game needed a bunch of comical death, grunting and cheering noises. I found I was able to put these together way faster than I was able to assemble the assorted animal noises required for our game.

What state was our game in at this point? Well, when Tim and Jacqui had begun programming on night one, they had asked Katherine to provide the most important graphic tiles first, like the grass and trees, so they could start working with something on the screen as soon as possible.

My memory is already blurry, but I think it was on the morning of day two that they had established enough algorithms to be able show us trees growing and spreading, and that we could chop trees down. But from then until the evening of day two, the programmers' work was fairly inscrutable to onlookers. Whenever I looked at the screen of the game demo, I just saw trees thrashing about, but I knew Tim and Jacqui were working flat out building the engines, and I could see how intensive it was. I realised that since they had done the hard work of defining the rules for how everything would interact in this game, going far beyond the vague ideas we had talked about in early team meetings, I needed to just trust them to do that work.

That afternoon I completed my favourite individual task, composing the game's music with a mouse and my laptop. The track has an insistent and programmatic sound which I think suggests inevitability when you hear it, but also constant change, both relevant themes in this game. I described it to Katherine as sounding like the theme song for a particularly stressful gameshow.

That evening I was again on top of our game's sonic workload, and helped another gent named Aram sort out the soundtrack to his own game "Lingua Franca". This was an interesting challenge involving sourcing some relaxed old European-sounding music which would fade out and be replaced by aggressive rock music if you were losing the game. I found a couple of relevant tracks and looped and pitch-shifted them so they fit together in a nasty way. Unfortunately Aram didn't complete his game by jam's end, so I didn't get to hear this mechanism in action.

Me right. I assume I was thinking deeply..

At some point that night we had our umpteenth team meeting about what our game might be called -- plus our team was still lacking a name. The Internet Random Game Name Generator had us in hysterics with its stupid suggestions, one of which, "The Horrifying Octopus Girl", became our team name. But mostly we were procrastinating.

At another evening meeting, Tim and Jacqui were in game feature prioritisation mode, since the deadline was at 1 PM the next day. Tim was saying, "My priority is to get the future working". I have to admit that when I heard that I was wondering how much game we would actually have functioning 17 hours later. But there was nothing more I could do or needed to do myself at that point, so I went to bed at the very reasonable hour of midnight.

When I woke up, I was amazed to see how much of the game T+J had made active during the night. The player sprites were in, you could perform most of the actions, the bunnies were running around the screen and they were really cute, and the future simulation was working pretty well. I think we only had an hour to go when we put the music in and tested it out. It worked wonderfully. We only had to adjust a few of the volume levels to make sure that particular sound effects remained audible, otherwise it played very well with the action.

(I'd initially intended to have the music play just over the title screen, but I'd realised the judges and audience would be looking at our game for only a short period of time and would hardly have a chance to hear it there, so I recommended on the morning of day three that we loop the track over the whole game.)

We still hadn't sorted out the game's title. Tim kept barracking for his two day-old suggestion "Nexus", which did make extremely good sense, however something about it kept bugging team members. Katherine said something about Star Trek, and I was starting to feel the name was a bit too heavy or literate for our particular game. Jacqui mentioned "Consequences of My Actions". Eventually Tim ventured "Impact", and I recommended we add an "S" to the end of it to make "Impacts". There was still grumbling and indecision in response, and I was reminded that Katherine had pointed out earlier that we often had team meetings that ended but still left her not knowing what had been decided, if anything. If our team had a fault, this was certainly it. So I doublechecked that nobody actually hated the title "Impacts" then announced that it should be locked in, to end our suffering.

The last hour before the deadline was a mad dash to add things like a title page, some instructions about the controls at the bottom of the screen, and to eradicate a few bugs… the last 15 minutes before the deadline were especially exciting and nerve wracking.

I've already said I was amazed by the state of our game on the morning of the last day, but I continued to be amazed every time I got to try it. Even though it had no ultimate goal, since we have not been able to implement the full range of animals, human population and mechanics before the deadline, it worked very well as a simulation you could play with, and I kept noticing fine features that Tim would point out to me.

For instance if trees grew all around a field of flowers, the flowers couldn't expand further in the future. If animal numbers were reduced to one, they would cease to breed. The bunnies had many mechanics, like how they would eat grass, creating dirt patches. If a square was entirely surrounded by dirt, it turned into a desert space and was not recoverable. You could also now build huts, and if you did so, skyscrapers would start to appear in the future. Flowers and trees grew constantly, and we had in the EXTINCT! message and sound effect. And something that really impressed me was that as the present approached the fixed date of the future, the two displays would start becoming extremely similar.

So what I was conscious of was that while I had come up with the initial idea, Tim and Jacqui had embellished it with all these excellent details and had worked out all the rules for the simulation. Katherine's art was very cute, my sounds worked okay and the music glued it all together.

After the deadline, each team posed for a photograph, installed their game on a master machine, then got to demonstrate a copy at their workstation to the judges. Amongst the judges was the lead designer of God War 2, and while I try to avoid namedropping generally, I will explicitly point out that he commented on the music being really good. All the judges were pretty impressed with our game in general. I did think we had definitely made the right move putting the music across the whole game, because every second jammer who tried the game remarked on it.

After a hasty lunch, we had to prepare to demonstrate our games again, this time on a giant screen in a lecture hall of the museum to members of the public who had paid $10 to see and hear what us nerds had been up to for the past two days. This was potentially a bit confronting, because one minute you're in the terminal room, where you've been hot-housing it for two days, the next you're being filed into a strange hall before an audience to show your game and talk about it. I had been taking the lead in most of our demo sessions, so I did so again now while Tim played the game for the audience. When I got stuck I handed him the microphone. This session was hosted by local game guy "Junglist" Jeremy Ray, plus the judges were present on a panel.

Me explaining the game to the audience while Tim plays it.

When they gave out some awards, we were very pleased to secure "Most Innovative Game". We got actual trophies, which are jam jars on trophy bases ("The Jammies", get it?).

The event was physically gruelling, and in spite of the excellent catering, I felt pretty washed out at the end of it. Our game is best described as a prototype, but it is a fully working prototype and one with some subtle possibilities. It is certainly sophisticated beyond what could be fully demonstrated at the short sittings we had at our disposal at the Game Jam. That the game has this quality, that we started with nothing and turned out Impacts in what was probably 40 hours, and that the game was unlike anything else turned out at our jam (which is why we got that award) are all things I'm really pleased about.

I hope to go to this event next year and would encourage anyone else reading this to do the same at their local venue. Given the time constraints of the event, I think you do need to have a practical game design skill if you want to participate in making a video game - IE coding, producing graphics or producing audio. Longer haul skills like writing get less of a look in. However, you are allowed to make a game of any kind, whether it's a board game or even a no-props game, like Mafia. It's just that the majority of entrants go for video games. To do something else may require bringing a team whose goal is to do that something else, or that you do it on your own.

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zigfried zigfried - February 05, 2011 (10:01 PM)
Cool tale. I had looked at the website for GameJam but then forgot about it after that. Thanks for sharing!


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