I Am A Gamer: My First Game Jam, and How You Can Survive Yours

iamagamer my picIf you are a gamer, particularly one interested in indie gaming, you’ve probably heard of game jams, events where game developers of varying discipline and experience are challenged to produce a game with a particular theme within a 48 hour period. The idea is to get the creative juices flowing and produce something that is, if not exactly polished, a fun, unique, and hopefully original take on the theme.

One such jam, the iamagamer.ca jam for strong female protagonists, took place in Vancouver (as well as Boston, San Francisco, and other sites) on the weekend of July 12th. 150 game developers crowded into the hangar space at the Centre for Digital Media to make some socially conscious games. 150 developers… including one overly-ambitious Geek’s Dream Girl writer who has a much clearer perspective on how to succeed – and how to fail – one’s first game jam.

I Am A Gamer, and So Are You and You

Iamagamer (also known as I Am A Gamer, or iamagamer.ca) is the brainchild of Kimberly Voll, instructor at the Centre for Digital Media and long time organizer of the annual Vancouver Global Game Jam. Back in March, she read an article on Gamasutra about the developers of Remember Me encountering resistance from publishers… because their hero was a woman. In their words, publishers said,  “Well, we don’t want to publish it because that’s not going to succeed. You can’t have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that.”  Frustrated by the publishers’ attitude, she tweeted offhandedly that maybe her next game jam should be about strong female characters.

From that joking suggestion came the iamagamer initiative, focused on broadening inclusion and representation in gaming and acknowledging all different kinds of gamers. The first jam theme: to create games with strong female protagonists and disprove once and for all the ridiculous notion that games with main female characters don’t sell or don’t succeed. Response was strong and overwhelmingly positive, both in Vancouver and out, to the point where several other cities set up satellite jams, and people from all over the world took part remotely. Unsurprisingly, a high number of women signed up, though it was also encouraging to see a lot men also engaged and committed to producing more and better female heroines.

Unfortunately, there was some blowback from the more vocal, traditional segment of the internet gaming community; among other things, they claimed that this was “male bashing” and that it was sexist to dwell on one gender rather than another. But in her keynote speech, Kimberly Voll pointed out that the object was NOT to denigrate men or male characters in any way… only to provide a more diverse selection of protagonists and balance out the numbers a little. After all, if you’re producing nothing but male heroes for years, having one weekend of only women is just playing catchup!

What was most interesting about the jam was to see the way the various teams had interpreted the theme of strong female characters. Some teams included explicit political or social commentary, such as Game Changer, a game where a heroine is displaced from her own title by a stubbled white knight who “sells better to audiences.” Other games toyed with unique game models and approaches not often seen in traditional games; Chloe, for example, simply allowed the player to wander around and pick up items from the main character’s life and reassemble them however they want. And some, of course, just made a traditional game that just happened to have a female main character… which in some ways could be seen as just as important as the other approaches, as it highlights how the games we love work just as well with a woman at the helm as they do with a man.

And then, of course, there was OUR game…

how did this get here i am not good with computerz

Our game was called Penny Farthing, named after the main heroine, a very imaginative seven-year-old who enjoys telling stories. The concept of the game was that Penny got home late one night, prompting her mother to ask her where she was; this results in Penny launching into an increasingly fantastical, breathless stream-of-consciousness rambling tale of her journey home, beginning with a suburban street and ending with a dragon-populated mountain-top. Along the way, she would use certain words to get past “bosses” in silly, 7-year-old-logic ways (e.g. eating a cookie so she’d be too full to take a witch’s apple). It was a side-scrolling platformer, and due to the subject matter, we ended up gearing it more for little kids, particularly when we made the player collect letters and spell out the words.

In our heads, it looked pretty simple: three level areas, three bosses, three words, and a basic mechanic. What could go wrong, right?

DOH.

While I can boast a somewhat decent amount of experience in game writing – I’ve worked on several Ren’Py games, and I made some RPGMaker games as gifts for my parents – I’m still a newbie to game development in many ways, particularly when it comes to design in platformers, puzzlers, or basically anything that doesn’t involve writing stories and dialogue. The same was doubly true for my programmer friend, whose background was in server-side and backend programming. We arrived on site with the vague idea of forming a larger team. Pretty soon, we’d managed to recruit two more server-side programmers and an artist… none of whom had ever made a game before.

If you can see what’s coming, congratulations, you are clearer eyed than I was.

For myself, I was entirely optimistic, mostly because I had been a disgusting keener and read all the How To Survive a Game Jam blogs I could. I knew what to do and what to avoid: I knew not to use a new engine, I knew to keep things simple, and I knew to get something playable as soon as possible.

Guess how many of those rules we were able to stick to? Go on, guess.

For your edification, here is a rough journal of sorts of my viewpoint during the jam.

 

  • FRIDAY EARLY EVENING: After we assemble the team, the idea of doing a visual novel is rejected; we have three programmers, after all, so we should be doing something more ambitious, right? My friend insists that as HTML5 programmers, it would probably be easiest to just pick up Impact JS (a game engine offering free licenses for the jam) and use that for a side scroller. My hesitant reminder that the survival guides recommended against using a brand new engine is ignored, but fair enough… it’s just HTML5, after all, and they know that like the back of their hand, so this should be no problem. Lead designer? Hmm, don’t have one of those. Guess the artist and I will share that hat. How hard can it be to design a level?
  • FRIDAY LATE EVENING: Things are going well. Ideas are being bounced, concept art is being created, the plot outline is pretty much fleshed out, and the programmers have all completed the initial Impact tutorials. Woot! We have this in the bag.
  •  SATURDAY MORNING: Arrived to find the team has suggested slimming the levels down from 5 to 3; this isn’t a problem as it just means cutting out some side quests and the story still works. My friend says that they should have something playable by noon, and that in the meantime, they’ll need a “minimum requirements” doc to be used for testing. Can’t wait to try this game out at noon!
  •  SATURDAY NOON: Minimum requirements document finished. No sign of anything playable. That’s okay, should only be another hour, right?
  •  SATURDAY EARLY AFTERNOON: Still nothing playable. Also, the art for the main character is taking way, way longer than expected. Wait, what do you mean the artist isn’t a 2D animator? …oops, we may have missed that in the opening introductions. Perhaps we shouldn’t have gone with animating the pigtails and scarf separately? Why DID we decide that anyway?
  •  SATURDAY LATE AFTERNOON: Still nothing playable. I’m busy writing the script, but am beginning to realize that for every scene/suggestion I write, I am inadvertently piling more work on the artist; in turn, every element she cuts from the game is making the story more and more incomprehensible and necessitating rewrites on my end. Now I understand why the writers and artists at GDC either drink together in solidarity or exchange murderous glares (or both).
  •  SATURDAY LATE LATE AFTERNOON: Still nothing playable. Artist and programmer have to leave for family dinner. My eyelash has begun to twitch rapidly.
  •  SATURDAY EARLY EVENING: Still nothing playable. Though one programmer has made a monster move a bit on the screen. Progress!
  •  SATURDAY LATE EVENING: Artist and programmer have returned. The script is done, but my pleas for feedback are swallowed up by a fevered pitch of coding and drawing. Still nothing playable, and only have enough assets for one level at the moment.
  •  SATURDAY LATE LATE EVENING: Realize with shock that there is absolutely nothing for me to do now; with the script complete and handed off to our event programmer, and with STILL nothing playable for me to test, my anemic skills are now completely useless. Attempt to compensate by singing Always Look On the Bright Side of Life. Efforts not appreciated.
  •  SUNDAY EARLY EARLY MORNING: Damn it, I’ll be useful somehow! I wake up at the crack of dawn to record over 109 voice clips from my script. The breathless exuberance of the young heroine demands it!
  •  SUNDAY LATER MORNING: Arrive at the jam site to find that we’ve cut two more levels from the game AND the intro/ending and are only doing one level in the middle, plot be damned; all but 15 of my voice clips are now no longer needed. Am beginning to nurture homicidal tendencies. Less than eight hours to go. On the plus side, we’ve at least got something for the main character to move around on!
  •  SUNDAY NOON: With nothing else for me to do, I suddenly become an expert sound engineer as I edit the sound files for time, breaths, mic drop, etc. Around me, programmers bury their heads in computers, only emerging to throw strange jargon at each other; my occasional question or clarification about conversation events is received with a distracted wave. Can no longer rein in my doubt. We’re never going to finish…
  •  SUNDAY EARLY AFTERNOON: All the art is done, and now the artist and I are left twiddling our thumbs. Unfortunately, though all the content is finished, it has yet to be brought together. The programmers sweat and strain at their computers. My fatalism grows to Aliens levels (“GAME OVER, MAN! GAME OVER!”)
  •  SUNDAY MID AFTERNOON: Wait! Vague assemblage of content is occurring! The level is vaguely playable! OH SWEET MYSTERIES OF LIFE! Maybe we can get this looking… Oh crap, only two hours to go.
  •  SUNDAY LATE AFTERNOON: Time’s up! Behold, our single level… kind of broken, kind of buggy, kind of boring and rudimentary and ramshackle blah blah blah…

And yet, goddamnit, it’s OUR level, and despite all the frustration, even a bit of disappointment (mixed, admittedly, with a bit of, “Well, *I* wanted to do a visual novel…”)…even after all that, BECAUSE of all that, we feel oddly proud.

 

M’s Tips for Surviving Game Jams

 

So, what have I learned from this jam? More than enough for a second post, considering how long this one is going! I will say that there are lots of excellent blogs such as  this and  this that gave great advice (which we promptly ignored), and there’s even a book about how to get the most out of your jam. Rather than repeat their points (unless really important), here are a few things I’d like to add.

 

  • Try to stick to that advice… but forgive yourself if you don’t.  None of us set out to ignore the advice I’d gleaned from those resources; in fact, in many cases, we genuinely felt we were following them. We thought our initial concept WAS simple and easy to accomplish. We thought our programmers’ background in HTML5 would mean Impact JS wasn’t a “new” tool. Realize that, even if you prepare yourself, the reality is another thing entirely, and it’s very easy to find yourself making the same rookie mistakes you just read about and told yourself you’d avoid. THAT’S OKAY. It’s like raiding in World of Warcraft; even if you watch the videos, it usually takes a wipe or two to get a feel for it yourself. Be willing to forgive yourself, especially if it’s your first time. I spent most of Monday angsting over my “failures” and it wasn’t fun; better instead to let your first jam be a “mulligan” and get valuable experience for net time.
  • Having said that, stick to tools you know, preferably simple ones. This is particularly true of engines that are easy to produce playable content in, like Ren’Py or RPGMaker. A lot of our time was spent with the programmers trying to figure out how to run Impact properly so they could make something actually playable; in contrast, I could have made something playable in RPGMaker in about five minutes. Obviously, if you are a programmer who knows Unity or Impact or some other arcane interface, go nuts; just be sure that you are utterly comfortable in it going into the jam, or you’ll find yourself finally ready to “start” at about 3 PM on Saturday.
  • Designate a single lead designer, or at least a project manager. This may seem a bit counter-intuitive; after all, isn’t this a team effort? Yes, but on the other hand, the importance of having a lead designer to help guide the project and manage the teammates is essential. In our team, we sort of muddled through on consensus with the artist and myself as “lead” designers, but as none of us had any experience in making a platformer – particularly not for young kids – it felt more difficult than it should to get things organized, decided, or designed. Not only that, but having a lead designer helps mediate between content disputes (e.g. “The writer wants me to do all this extra work!” vs “Without art for this scene, the story won’t make sense!”). If I could do one thing differently in the whole thing, it would be to seek out and recruit a designer/leader the minute we decided to do a platformer.
  • Try to find something for your artists/writers to do at the end. In the last crucial hours of the jam, the artist and I had absolutely nothing we could do, with not even a playable prototype to test and debug. If possible, set up your workflow, engine, or plans to give your creatives something to help out with near the end, even if it is just to go meet with other teams and get feedback.
  • Know your strengths and the strengths of the team. If you’re a great 2D animator, you should probably be doing a game that involves lots of 2D animation. If you love 3D level design, you should probably make a 3D game with levels. If you’re a writer, you should probably make a game with lots of story. While we did sort of nail this one in some ways – we identified our programmer strengths and tried to tailor our approach to that – I don’t think we took as much advantage of our artist or me as we’d have liked. The artist, for example, had a background in 3D lighting and rigging, yet we ended up doing 2D animation. While her results were great, it took longer, possibly more than a 3D game using her usual skills would have taken. And as for me, well, my skills are more inclined to story-heavy titles and RPGs, so now I know to hold out more for those sorts of games. And speaking of which…
  • Know when to hold em… and when to fold em. In other words, know when to be flexible… and when not to be. This might seem surprising as flexibility is generally a great trait; it allows you to work well with a team and generally helps things progress faster. But sometimes, in game design and development, there are times when it IS good to stand your ground calmly, respectfully, and firmly. This probably happens more as you gain more experience and have a better sense of your own goals and skills. I enjoyed designing this game, but I now know I’m more comfortable designing in RPGMaker and Ren’Py, so next time, I will ask to either work subordinate to a main designer as just writer (i.e. they make the game, I just develop the story) or stick with the systems I’m confident with, rather than waffling about, “Well, yeah, I guess I could do level design if you need me to…”

Despite all the hiccups, missteps, and frustrations along the way, though, I can’t wait to do the next one. The experience I had and the people I met made this more than worth it. If you have any interest in game creation, consider signing up for a jam. If nothing else, it’s a fun way to spend a weekend!

 

The iamagamer jam submissions are here! Have you ever participated in a game jam? What was your experience?

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