Feb 112011

Clearly, I am not a very good blogger. The Global Game Jam (GGJ) ended nearly two weeks ago and I’ve been silent on the matter. The buzz is dead, and I’ve only now had enough time to really digest my experience.

The GGJ has become a significantly important educational and creative event for the game industry. It puts professional, independent, and would-be game developers together in a bounded 46 hour event with the goal to create a game. I have participated in every GGJ since its inception. I have organized two. I have stolen the idea at a local level and run local “summer jams.” Everything about the idea appeals to me.

The GA host site this year, SPSU, did an exceptional job, and ended up being one of the most attended locations in the world. As hosting the combined site may fall on my shoulders next year, my first question is, “how do I ensure that people make it up to Athens, when only a handful of our folks made it to Atlanta (Marietta)?”

My only real event-level frustration was the number of games now posted, which have interesting aspects that I’d love to see how they were produced, except that teams did not post the source code or art assets for their games. This is a requirement for the GGJ and it seems to have been dismally enforced this year. Here is one example of that. Though I could probably find a lot of other examples.

Reflections on SuperMegaTurboX64Box:

A group of us from Athens in concert with a handful of students from the Art Institute in Atlanta created a goofy little game, which we came to call SuperMegaTurboX64Box. The theme of this year’s GGJ was “extinction,” which means that you’ll find a significant number of games about animal extinction, human extinction, meteors, the game of life, evolution, and the death of punk/rock. I was pleased that our team attempted to tackle something a bit abstract. SMTX64B, which you can play online, was a game about the extinction of ideas, game consoles, gameplay mechanics, and variety amongst the mainstream game industry. For a project conceived of and created in a very short period of time, I was pleased by the kind of reflexivity it exhibited. Of course, we could be accused of navel gazing, but I’ll take that as a compliment for a weekend project.

I was particularly pleased by the way our team formed and collaborated. We were the most gender-diverse group at the jam and delivered a relatively polished gameplay experience. The overall design was collectively decided upon and had buy-in from everyone working on the project. My only frustration with the game was the additional features that we started adding near the end of the jam, which I think added a level of polish, but also felt a little tacked on.

Reflections on Would-be Developers at the Jam

More than anything, this proved difficult for me. Having been a member of the game development community for more than a decade now, I was surprised by how often I found myself rankled by the behavior of some of my fellow jammers. Perhaps having thrown jams in Athens, I had a distorted view of the situation. Our sites have always felt very inclusive, with voice actors/actresses, musicians, engineers, artists, designers, educators, and even people that just don’t know yet feeling welcome.

Maybe I’ve just become older and crankier, but it made me somewhat worried about the kind of culture bred amongst the majority hoping to become game developers. Volume was often a substitute for know-how or experience and bravado was used by many to ensure that others knew how awesome they were at game development. Of course the opposite was more often the case.

Especially infuriating was observing one young jammer ushering a visiting young boy away from our team of three female artists with the dismissive comment, “They’re just doing some pixel art,” to show him the 3D model he had created. Our artists were distressed and insulted by this jammer’s actions and it bothered me in a way I have trouble articulating. Of course later I came to realize that his 3D model was simply rendered out as a 2D image to be used as the background in the game he was working on.

I also observed a rather large group of young students, all from the same school, who banded together to create an art asset intensive 3D game. The core mechanic of the game, based on magnetism and puzzles was actually very interesting, but what was produced by the team didn’t actually reflect the work of such a large team. I observed many members of the team spending hours raiding on WoW while waiting on assignments from other members of their team. It was clear that their imagination of what a game jam game was was different from what they were able to produce. It also didn’t really speak to the theme of the jam.

Reflections on Production

I’ve heard that some people have criticized the GGJ for “simulating crunch,” which I can see, but it actually doesn’t make much sense. Crunch occurs over an extended period of time and is compulsory, rather than voluntary. A 46-hour period doesn’t even fit the definition. Further, the GGJ is scheduled more than six months in advance. People are capable of planning for the event and are aware of the demands it will make on them over that period. For example, this year, we planned to have my mother-in-law was in town, which provided me the opportunity to immerse myself in the event in a way I had not yet been able to.

There is also the matter of this being a fun activity. I’d compare it to a camping trip, or a bike rally. People interested in the same thing converge on a single location to have fun with others who are passionate about the same thing. Then we all go home feeling good about what we accomplished (or didn’t). How is that crunch?

In many ways it is an opportunity to also understand, even over 46-hours, the importance of sleep, rest, and breaks while working intensely. It could be that our team was on average older and more experienced, but I think that would be oversimplifying it too. Each night myself and another jammer who I’ve worked with before would pack up about 3AM and head over to the dorms to sleep (the best idea SPSU had). I’d wake up at 8:45AM, shower, and head back over. Prior to leaving each night, I’d talk to everyone and encourage them to sleep, letting them know it was what I was going to do and that I’d return at a sensible time the next morning. This helped establish the thought that we would be working during the day and not starting in the afternoon. All of our jammers slept both nights. All of us were back on the job by 10AM each morning. This meant we were rested and collaborating throughout the day.

This was quite different from what I observed on other teams, where people crashed in the wee-hours of Saturday morning and slept throughout the day. These people would then wake up, ready to work by mid to late afternoon (or even evening). Other members of their team would have filtered in throughout the day. This meant that the real Saturday work didn’t begin for many teams until after 5PM and those members who got up earlier in the day were left struggling to stay awake later to accommodate others.

Our collective project management was quite good. Though the marker boards were “claimed” early on by several teams, we managed well with our “redneck” marker boards, which were pieces of paper in plastic sleeves. They actually worked well, as they forced us to keep things small and focused. Perhaps I just assume the production role automatically, though I try to defer it every time. I enjoyed it this time around, as the game concept was clear from the beginning and we were able to parcel out work effectively.

All-in-all it was my favorite GGJ thus far.

Sep 282009

No, not that baby. At least not yet. No, this was a very fun talk presented at the University of Georgia‘s Ideas for Creative Exploration (ICE) “Gaming Seminar” last Tuesday evening. All in all it was an excellent seminar, connecting me with all sorts of interesting new folks at UGA who I’ve not yet really had a chance to meet. This included John Kundert-Gibbs and Brion Kennedy of Bit Brigade. Similar to my talk at the University of Utah, I used my new presentation system to deliver my talk, which you can view below.

Ideas for Creative Exploration (ICE) Presentation – Casey O’Donnell – 09/22/2009 from Casey O’Donnell on Vimeo.