A Little Bit of Challenge Is Good: Surviving Melbourne’s Game Jam
For Game Onâ€™s first post on the Melbourne game jam, click here.
â€śTheyâ€™re pretty casual,â€ť says Giselle Rosman, the organiser of the Melbourne chapter of the Global Game Jam. Itâ€™s 2.35 on Sunday afternoon, and the 110-odd participants at La Trobe Universityâ€™s Bundoora campus have been making videogames almost non-stop for forty-eight hours. Most have had very little sleep, and theyâ€™re due to submit their final creations in twenty-five minutes.
Rosmanâ€™s eyes begin to twinkle. â€śI need to make them more stressed.â€ť
What kind of thing is a Global Game Jam?
To the world that doesnâ€™t participate in Global Game Jams, it must look like a strange thing indeed. Over last weekend, there were 246 jam sites over the world in forty-eight different countries. Over eleven thousand people participated world-wide, and almost two and a half thousand videogames were created from scratch. The theme, which jammers are instructed to respond to (though in practice translates to varying levels of creative and loose interpretation), was this year simply an image of an ouroboros.
To take part in a game jam is to voluntarily put yourself under extraordinary levels of stress for potentially little material gain, imbibing energy drinks and suffering an intoxicating aroma of sweat, stress, and still, hot air for two full days.
A game jam is a strange thing indeed.
â€śCan you test this for us? We really need someone to test our game,â€ť says Harry Lee as soon as I enter the jam on Sunday. I didnâ€™t meet Lee on Friday but despite his relative youth at only 18 years old, heâ€™s an old hand at game jams, having recently won the Ludum Dare competition with the quite wonderful Midas. The game heâ€™s asking me to test is called Hatch, an engaging puzzle game that involves multiplying turtles and projectile eggs. Itâ€™s actually very interesting and perplexing, in a Peg Solitaire kind of way. Itâ€™s more-ish.
Iâ€™m hopelessly stuck on the third level when Andrew Brophy, one of Leeâ€™s teammates, is forced to intervene. He tells me that they hadnâ€™t yet tested the progression of difficulty â€“ possibly because Lee has been simultaneously working on a second game over the weekend. All I catch is that it involves a mass of post-it notes, self-portraits, and every single jammer on site in Melbourne. â€śBut thatâ€™s just Harry being overambitious,â€ť says Brophy, with a laugh.
In the next room along, team Technicolour Yawn, who I spoke to on Friday night, are having problems. Each person of the five-member team is glued to their screens, the stress clearly visible. I ask how the jam is going. â€śWell, we donâ€™t have a functioning game,â€ť says Breton Slivka, without turning from his screen. Itâ€™s currently about two hours until deadline. â€śThings are tense,â€ť he adds. Bloggers are not wanted here.
Meanwhile, Jenn Sandercock is making merchandise. Her team is busily sewing together the final threads of their abstract reproduction-themed game, Soulmate, but Sandercock has somehow found the time to create magnets and t-shirts featuring Soulmateâ€™s cute geometrical characters. I spend about twenty minutes helping Sandercock ready her iron-on patterns for the Soulmate t-shirts, and Iâ€™m so happy to be doing something useful that I only notice later that Sandercock had the foresight to bring an iron to an event like this.
Despite her amazing powers of organisation, Sandercock isnâ€™t that happy with the progress of Soulmate. The team is there for the experience, and theyâ€™re pretty relaxed, but she would have liked more to have been done, she says. She looks over to Lee, who has returned to work by himself on his second game for the jam. â€śHeâ€™s just going for a walk in the park,â€ť she says.
Itâ€™s the last three minutes of the jam, and noise levels are noticeably raised. Rosman roams from room to room, reminding everyone that they now need to be uploading their game to the competition server. The jammers donâ€™t need Rosmanâ€™s help in amping up the nerves anymore. People stand up, people sit down. â€śI didnâ€™t think this through!â€ť exclaims a designer as he rushes past me towards his computer.
â€śTwo minutes!â€ť yells Rosman. More shouts and furious tapping of keyboards. â€śOoh, stress,â€ť mutters a tall man as he lumbers out of the room.
Itâ€™s the final ten seconds, and everyone turns to face the projected clock to count it down. Finally, itâ€™s finished. There are shouts of congratulations and screams of excitement as the words, â€śGame Jam Overâ€ť fill the projector.
â€śThat feels good,â€ť says Lee, as he and his teammates share high fives.
Being part of the Global Game Jam, even as an observer, is invigorating. Such concentrated creativity and pressure would be mesmerising in any form.
But still, questions linger. The Global Game Jam might be a great way for participants to see a game through from start to finish (something that is often surprisingly difficult to do otherwise), but it can often also feel a bit more like an assembly line than a creative exercise. Do the game jammers see themselves as artists or artisans?
Simon Boxer, and Spencer Rose formed the two-man team Mystery Pantomime for the weekend, having never worked with each other before. Their approach to the jam is illustrative.
â€śWeâ€™re opposites,â€ť says Boxer. â€śPersonally, Iâ€™m more interested in the experience of games. Iâ€™m an artist, and as an artist I want to find a way to move people.â€ť
Rose, on the other hand, takes a different approach. â€śIâ€™m a very technical person, so I donâ€™t focus too much on the immersion and the experience of the game. I think we work well together, because Simon has a great eye for the artistic side and the experience and that sort of thing.â€ť
For Jenn Sandercock of Team Mate, creativity was crucial to Soulmate. â€śThe success of our game is in the artistic content,â€ť she says. But for team member Pouya Aflatoun, the question of engineer-versus-artist is irrelevant. â€śForty-eight hours is not a long time. To be honest, we didnâ€™t have time to think about that. We just went for it.â€ť
Finally, after a long clean-up and a much-needed barbeque for 110 very tired game jammers, the awards are announced. The Best Game award is given to Kumobiusâ€™ popular Omlette Boris, a quirky platform-puzzler that involves controlling a chicken while it transforms itself back into an egg. Another popular choice was Streams, a simple line-drawing game that had me returning for multiple play sessions, which received the Most Fun award. And of course, Best Teamwork was awarded to the cult of Harry Lee.
In the end, forty-eight hours is not a long time to make a game, so those who leave empty-handed arenâ€™t bothered. â€śI came here to learn, to experience something new,â€ť says Sandercock, whose Soulmate may have had the only merchandise for the weekend but left the jam unawarded. â€śThatâ€™s what Iâ€™m going to take away from this. If you need to, you can get something good done in forty-eight hours, so I shouldnâ€™t be daunted.â€ť
Her team mate, Michael Theiler, agrees. â€śA little bit of challenge is good.â€ť