Last year in January I was shipping my first game. In the middle of the most intense crunching a wild jam appeared: I was asked to judge the entries and pick a winner at the Finnish Game Jam 2012. Welcoming the chance to get out of the office for a few hours, I travelled to the jam site a couple of times over the weekend to check out the games in progress and then review the final entries. It was weird, the walk to the site from the office and back my only respite from the brutal final push to release my own game.
It’s not unreasonable to say that last year’s Global/Finnish Game Jam was the only positive, living, inspirational thing in my winter. I didn’t see my wife or friends for months. So that may be a part of it, but what I saw was so profound, so energetic that I knew I had to be a part of it. I was jealous to the people working on their games, even as I was getting my own title out of the door.
(Maybe it’s worth mentioning that I’m very happy with the final game we released, super proud of my team, and still working in the same studio. It’s just that those final months were a bit much.)
I had to participate in the Global/Finnish Game Jam 2013.
I was a bit hesitant because I felt I was so much older at 35 than most of the jammers. I knew that I wasn’t up for all-night creative binges anymore. I wanted to sleep in my bed, not a concrete floor. My body couldn’t take a weekend without proper food. What if I wasn’t good enough? What if my collaboration with my best friend wouldn’t work out?
Come end of January, 2013, we were going to make a video game in 48 hours. Actually, make that 24, with sleeping and planning removed.
The night before, I hung out with my collaborator. We had designed games and talked about them for a very long time (closing on two decades), but we had never worked on a video game together. Our backup plan was for me to do everything in Photoshop and Game Maker, so we went over my capabilities, what’s easy and what’s difficult. I showed the kinds of games I can create in a couple of nights. We talked about what would be cool, but didn’t settle on anything.
17-19: Opening words, practical information. This year’s theme is revealed: audio of a heartbeat is played. I can see there are more people in their thirties than I recalled from last year. More professionals, too. Way more women.
19-20:30: Forming ideas in groups. I like the idea of finding the dancing partner with a matching heartbeat. We end up putting together a “Finnish retail experience” pitch where you look for groceries to fill out your shopping list while anxiously avoiding eye contact and personal proximity with other shoppers and over-eager clerks.
19:50-20:20: Putting together our “own” game idea with my friend. We were determined to work together and see if we can find any like-minded help. It comes very easily and naturally, we gravitate towards a spaceship we see in our mind’s eye, thinking that the heartbeat could also be an engine. It’s all done in half an hour. Love the poster, the header is bigger than anybody else’s. Also, gigantic picture.
20:30-21:00: Pitching. I’m more nervous than when meeting people in a Hollywood studio to discuss games based on movie properties or visiting the Microsoft campus. Our game “Pod Of Stars” is the first one to be presented and gets a laugh. I also present the “Finnish Retail Experience” and get a big laugh. It feels great. The guy making the “Retail” poster did a great job on the picture, it’s the nicest picture on the wall.
21:00-21:30: Forming the team. People come forward and we don’t have any issue filling out the team. It pays to be first in this sort of situation and be super confident in what you’re proposing, even though you don’t really know what it is, actually. The big lettering and picture probably help, too.
I can step down to a designer role with my friend with two Unity programmers stepping up – I’d planned to do it all in Game Maker, but now I don’t have to. So it’s going to be a 3D game, then… Hmm. I’m elated and a little bit disappointed that a musician volunteers, as I was getting into the idea of making the whole soundtrack with my inept guitar skills. I had discovered the previous night that I can just plug my guitar into my computer with Rocksmith’s USB dongle and record it in Audacity. He doesn’t want to do sound effects, though, so there’s still that. A plan is formed with my comrade in arms to record voiceovers for the game’s AI.
21:30-22:00: Setting up upstairs after a tour of the premises. Computers need power and ethernet cables. Go over initial design so that the artist and coders can get started while we still work on the design. We’re working in the same youth center space I host a game development club in on Mondays. It feels empowering to be on home turf.
22:00-23:00: Paper prototype of game design with my co-designer. Lots of ideas are chucked and hatched and refined at this stage. It works a treat, we basically turn the real-time game into a turn-based game. It’s very straightforward with our extensive board game and pen and paper RPG experience. We came unprepared, though, but one of the coders really saves the day by having packed a number of different dice and excellent wooden counters and stuff. We take notes on Post-Its.
Note: paper prototyping is essential, we would’ve made a lot of bad calls without sanity-checking this way. I’ve always believed in paper prototyping, but this really proved the point for me.
23:00-23:20: Writing down the design as user stories into Google Docs. It was essential because the actual “design documentation” was a pile of Post-Its taken during the paper prototyping nobody else could’ve made any sense out of. These weren’t really used in the end, but it was essential for myself to make sure I had thought of everything. User stories really work.
23:20-23:40: Go over the design with team to make sure everybody understands it. Get buy-in from everyone. Answer questions. Agree on tasks. Coders have got Unity up and running at this point and we have the first 3D model done (a monkey) (this is surely a good omen).
23:40-02:00: Build a Tumblr for the game as there’s narrative stuff we need an outlet for and realistically it’s not going to fit into the game, register on the Global Game Jam website, arrange coffee, take a break. Write script. Work on logo. Start thinking about menus.
02:00: Head home for the night. Worry about having too few worthwhile decisions/choices in the gameplay. This ended up a baseless worry as I didn’t take into account that just coping with the rapidly devolving situation in realtime is enough for fun. Worry about art styles clashing between in-game and menus. This was a proper problem that required corrective action later on.
02:20: Sitting in the bus, utterly psyched by the progress so far and especially all the off-game stuff (logos, insignia, poetry, Tumblr). The paper prototype fucking rocked. Soundtrack for the voyage home: Swedish House Mafia, Sinead O Connor.
So high I could just scream.
2:30-03:05: Text messaging with co-designer about script. So psyched, trouble going to sleep.
08:30: Awake after 5 hours of sleep. Feels like the right amount, I’m alert. Thinking about where to grab breakfast, not that many options available. Think longingly back to last summer in the US with breakfast options on every corner. Stomach demands something warm. It feels like getting up too early to head for the airport for a business trip.
Make mental notes in the bath: think about the “interesting decisions” problem (needlessly), prepare voiceovers (that weren’t used), maybe work on sound effects, make sure everyone’s registered correctly on the GGJ site.
10:15: Back on site. Check on progress. One coder and designer still at home sleeping. Musician has delivered a title track. It’s great to have something to tangible. The game feels like it’s getting a form.
10:30-11:30: Twitter #fgj13 #ggj13. Comment on art and animation. Make main menu, readme (help) graphics. Update official game page and Tumblr. Think about sound effects and script.
11:35: Heartbeat audio integrated into the game. Makes it feel entirely scary and foreboding! Seriously at odds with the chunky cartoon graphics. No idea how it’s going to work out.
11:40: Script for voiceover.
We have fried rice at a nearby Chinese place for lunch at 14:00 and a nice pita bread for late dinner at the place run by the Australian hipsters across the street from the Chinese, around 21:30. I do need to get away from the people from time to time, it gets a bit much as everyone’s so focused and hyper and tired.
My friend’s ability to find and modify the right poetry and lyrics to fit the game astounds me. We keep adding to the Youtube channel through the day as the game starts to come together.
The coming together proves slow. The other coder comes in late and doesn’t have the charger for his laptop. It’s not ideal. We’ve got almost all the mechanics working, but putting it all in one build could happen faster. At around 21:00 it looks like there’s little else for me to do except make sure we drop everything that isn’t critical.
A judge (the guy I was judging with last year) comes by. He loves the look, but is confused and concerned about our lack of feedback. How does the player understand what he’s supposed to do? How do you understand what the animals are going to do – or not? It’s all very concerning to me. We start thinking about it as obviously we won’t have the kind of polish time I was banking on for figuring out all this.
At midnight it’s finally starting to work. We can make builds and test the game. The bugs are so plentiful it’s hard to understand what’s happening even though you’ve designed the mechanics yourself. I am losing faith a bit, but decide to be doggedly fatalistic about it. Come what may.
I love the game over screen I put together. My friend wrote the best content for it. The “you win” screen is almost as good. I really want people to finish the game to see them. (They don’t work so well in the context of the final game’s flow, but they’re still awesome.)
Right after midnight magic starts happening, like it always seems to, right at the end of a game project. Every ten minutes one of the issues plaguing the build is eradicated. Issues with mechanics are discussed and resolved right away. In two hours it becomes something I believe we can finish the next day, only lacking the UI (layout and elements done, just need integrating) and tuning the player experience (instructions screen, improved feedback). Oh, and the game end states…
I wonder if I should’ve done anything differently and can’t really think of anything. Bloc Party takes me home on the same bus as last night, 2:11.
Awake at 8:10, unassisted, after just about 5 hours of sleep. Excited as all hell to finish this.
10:40 Have re-done the help/readme/tutorial screen to reflect latest changes and player questions. Hugely improved. (Still managed to miss one of the three key interactions in the final version.) Want to cut even more features that now seem unnecessary. Fortunately they don’t mean any additional work, but I still need coders in to do it.
As with my dayjob as a producer, preparing to ship, I begin writing down a list of critical stuff I can’t live without. General debugging, broken teleports, replace changed menu assets, add the two important UI elements – progress bar and health bar.
This is my main method of getting my job as a producer done: what are the things you can’t live without (or live with, as the case may be)? Fix those and shut the hell up about everything else. That is, if you want to ship.
11:30 Essentially waiting for coders to arrive to get things done. Would be nice if I could have a recent build.
11:31 Hey, wait! There is a new build on the Dropbox, made at 08:00. It’s sweet! It actually plays like a game! A buggy game, but still!
14:00 Still missing the damage counter and credits notifications. Will be done in time. The progress bar I had made needs to be re-made by the artist as it sucks.
15:15 Upload a backup build as we’re fighting with two annoying bugs still. The GGJ site dies under pressure. Backup instructions arrive, also DOA. Build is uploaded the next day.
MOMENT OF TRUTH
We get to present the game at around 17:30, again going first. It’s a great feeling to show this thing we’ve created out of nothing.
Not even a figment of it existed two days earlier and now it’s a thing with music and animation and everything.
I’m enormously proud, but also relieved that we delivered at all. All the leftover things and less than ideal parts of the project feel inconsequential.
Post-mortem style, we should’ve pushed for an earlier playable prototype, no matter what. I’m very happy that the design weathered the onslaught, suffering only cuts, no added features. I do realize that’s mostly because our two coders were really proficient and didn’t shy down from a challenge. All told, it’s exactly like professional game making, evoking all the same scenes and feelings and moments, condensed down to three days.
I am amazed at the quality of the games made during the jam. Almost all teams made it, a total of twelve games are presented on the stage. The majority of them could be commercial with maybe a week of polish. It’s astounding.
Some of them are so good I feel I should rush out and hug the guys responsible. (Obviously I don’t, I’m Finnish.) Just seeing them there, on stage, makes me… feel better. I can’t believe all these things have been born within these walls just now.
It’s a strangely spiritual experience, sitting there, these creations being presented to you, like creative offerings to whatever it is that makes us breathe and make games. It’s like someone is playing Mogwai’s Auto Rock somewhere off-stage. The congregation is into it.
I’m reminded of walking through the redwood forests in northern California last summer, being awed by nature and time – it’s the same feeling, but awed by human creativity and passion and expression.
Afterwards, there’s a rooftop sauna and after-party. I hang out for a while and could totally stay all night as we finally have some time to talk to each other, not being too busy being creative under pressure, but I’ve got to get home to my neglected wife.
I need to tell her about this wonderful thing that happened this weekend.
Monday-morning, I’m exhausted, but get to work with a newfound clarity.
It’s like I understand games for the first time after having spent decades making them and talking and thinking about and playing them. In a game hides a soul and in a jam you can glimpse it.
The GGJ/FGJ is the best thing I’ve ever done in three days.
It’s helped cement some of the things I’ve been going through lately – namely, I need to be in design and actual, hands-on gamemaking. It’s made me realize that this city is full of incredibly creative, passionate people I now want to work with. It proved that you can get together some 70-80 people to devote an entire weekend in January to creating full games out of nothing but sheer enthusiasm and talent (that’s over 500 people in Finland and 12 000 worldwide!). It’s made me think seriously about how we create games as professionals. It’s made me plunge headfirst into making my own projects, except now with a collaborator. I can now see the value of shipping stuff, even if unfinished.
I don’t know. I’m utterly in love with the jams and all the people making them happen.
POD OF STARS
Global Game Jam page: http://globalgamejam.org/node/1356
Youtube channel with work in progress and marketing videos: http://www.youtube.com/user/PodOfStars
Blog with in-character fiction: http://podofstars.tumblr.com/