GameJams

Gamejams are where game developers get together and make games in each other’s company, usually with a time limit and a specific theme. Sometimes the games are collaborations, sometimes they are solo projects.

Over the last two months and a bit, I’ve been to five of these events, and I’ve enjoyed them enormously. I’ve been trying to make games in 48 hours, 24 hours, 12 hours, and often just 3 hours or less.

It wasn’t that long ago I first started feeling like I was maybe getting the hang of this programming business, and could keep working on something without having to spend two weeks solving a problem for every hour of progress. But now I sometimes start these gamejam projects with ideas that feel far too ambitious for the time available, and then find myself completing them anyway. Being given a theme for a jam will become inspiration for an idea I would never have thought of otherwise. I’m constantly surprising myself.

Not everything gets finished, and not everything is any good or has any potential. But it’s generally an amazing experience. I met Terry Cavanagh at these events, and his enthusiasm for these things is an inspiration. His talk at World Of Love was about how his process is almost dependent on the focused creativity of gamejams.

My first gamejam was one organised by the university. It was a 12 hour event, where I worked in a team of five with other students. The majority of students taking part were from the arts courses – I was one of the few confident programmers.

We were given the theme of “two players, two buttons”, and tried to make a co-op tower defense type thing with 2 button controls. The game itself was pretty terrible, but the art and sound themed on zombies, pirates, robots and ninjas that the other students made possibly saved it.

The weekend after that, I met up with some local indie game developers for the 17th Ludum Dare challenge. Ludum Dare isn’t usually done as a gamejam. It’s an international 48 hour solo game making competition, but we were going to work alongside each other to make it a more social experience.

The theme for the event was “Islands”. My instincts were to try to make a game with a meaning that related to the theme, rather than superficially dressing a game with it. I ended up trying to do something based on the idea of an island as isolation – social isolation in particular. The quote of “No man is an island” was possibly partly inspiration. I gave it a working title of Isolated.

This was one of those projects that was hugely ambitious for the time available, and I utterly surprised myself that I actually created something that appeared to work. I got a few people to play it after the event, and the idea of it seemed to resonate with them, even if the underlying mechanics of it weren’t up to the task. I thought there was still potential for me to make it provide the experience I intended with a few small tweaks, so I decided to spend some time improving it.

That was two months ago, and I’m still working on it. But the latest version was on display at the Brains Eden exhibition at Anglia Ruskin University this week. It’s still clearly not very good at explaining itself, but I got to demonstrate it to a few people who found it interesting. I said to a couple of people that the game would be available on this website sometime this week, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case. There’s still more I want to do to it before I release it to the world.

But if you are interested in it, send me an email and I’ll give you a link to the latest build.

Near the beginning of june, there was TIGJam UK 3, hosted in Cambridge. This was three days of three hour challenges. Everyone would write down a theme on a piece of paper, then two or three would be randomly picked to be the themes for the next challenge.

Getting something out in three hours still feels slightly beyond my abilities. I found myself getting stuck on the themes a lot at this jam, trying to find something that was both possible in three hours with the skills I possessed, and dealt with the themes in a way I was happy with.

The first challenge had a theme of ‘fish’, for which I made a unity toy called Fish Are OK At Swimming. Like most of these three hour jams the most I was able to do was a basic implementation of a single idea – that of fish that moved in a somewhat fish-like way and followed the mouse cursor.

The second challenge I attempted was much more difficult. The theme was “antidepressants”, and had a time limit of two hours. There are things I would like to say about antidepressants, and that I could possibly say through games. But I couldn’t think of any way of approaching that subject in two hours with techniques I already knew. I ended up abandoning it, and that was a pretty disappointing way to end the day.

Considering that experience, on the second day I attended I chose to try to use the challenges as an opportunity to learn new skills. For the theme of “Garden of Delight”, I experimented with joint physics in Unity, trying to make segmented plants that could be blown about by the wind when you swept the mouse over them. I didn’t get anything presentable by the end of the three hours, but I learned a lot and I’ve ended up using the code I wrote for it in other projects since.

Two weeks ago, I went to the World Of Love indie games conference, where there was a gamejam attached to it organised by Terry Cavanagh. It followed the same format as TIGJam, but with a different mix of people.

The games I made for it were pretty unremarkable, I used them mainly as attempts to put together game elements that would be useful for larger ideas I had swimming around in my head. I mostly enjoyed the event for getting to chat to people like Tom Betts, and give out terrible advice on programming in Unity.

Finally my most recent gamejam was another organised by the university. A bunch of teams of five students came from universities around the country to Anglia Ruskin to take part in a 24 hour gamejam attached to the Brains Eden event.

My team included Pete Sperring and Daniel Servante from an audio tech course, and Ross Martin and Craig Dockerill from arts and visual effects courses. I had worked with Pete and Ross at the last uni gamejam, and was hugely impressed by them then, so I was confident we could do something good for this with twice the time.

What we made was an arena shooter called Destroy The Brain.

The initial idea was you were attacking a space station, and could destroy it piece by piece in a style inspired by Warning Forever. Our twist on that formula would be that the player is invincible – the consequences for being hit merely being that you are pushed back by enemy fire, making the task harder. A moment of curiosity when setting this up made me try enabling physics on all the projectiles and putting them on the same plane. Suddenly you could shoot your enemy’s bullets out of the air, and I was having so much fun playing my test scene I was having trouble getting back to work.

On top of these interesting mechanics, we poured layer after layer of insanity with the visuals and audio. The centre of our space station was a giant spinning brain. Attached to it were two enormous comedy and tragedy theatre masks that played ludicrous music as they span past you. An enormous hypnotic disk rotates in the background. The brain taunts you in a silly voice as you come close to destroying it.

I think we came up with something genuinely interesting in those 24 hours. All it needs before we properly release it to the world is a little polish to make it easier to pick up and play.