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Train Jam, the IRL Hogwarts Express

The Hogwarts Express is real, and it’s called Train Jam! Train Jam is an annual pilgrimage of game developers who decide to meet up in Chicago and ride a train all the way to San Francisco for Game Developers Conference (GDC). All aboard, choo choo!

Game Developer, Staff

April 3, 2017

8 Min Read

This is a public service announcement to all game developers who are also Harry Potter fans:
The Hogwarts Express is real, and it’s called Train Jam!

Train Jam is an annual pilgrimage of game developers who decide to meet up in Chicago and ride a train all the way to San Francisco for Game Developers Conference (GDC). Train Jam is organized by Adriel Wallick and John Lindvay, and has been running annually since 2014. Growing exponentially each year, 2017 is the first year that the train was filled entirely by game developers!

This year was my first GDC and Train Jam, and I have to say honestly, Train Jam was the best part of the whole experience. What could possibly top a cross-country voyage with 300 fellow gamedev wizards and witches? Well, how about if all those magical people made a bunch of amazing games on the train together and showed them off at GDC!

Logistically speaking, the Train Jam runs from Chicago, Illinois to Emeryville, California during the week preceding GDC. Participants meet up in Chicago, get the jam theme, form teams, board the Amtrak California Zephyr Express, and jam out a game over the next 52-hours while soaking in the sights of the great American countryside. When the train arrives in Emeryville, participants disembark, take a big group photo, and head to downtown San Francisco.

Left: Union Station, Chicago. Right: Emeryville, California. (Sadly, no magical barrier to pass through on platform 9 3/4)

Atmospherically speaking, there’s no safer and more inclusive space within the gaming industry than the Train Jam. The diversity initiatives this year focused around geographic and gender diversity, providing assistance for game developers from non-western nations and for those who identify as female, gender fluid, non-binary, agender or otherwise non-male. All this diversity engenders an atmosphere where creativity reigns supreme and no game idea is too silly, cute, serious, ridiculous, or mysterious to make a reality.

This year’s jam theme was unexpected anticipation, which lead to a wide variety of games being made. Some were serious in tone, like the game my buddy Malcolm’s team made called : “What The $!#&@! Do They Need Now?” covering the increasingly difficulty and prohibitive travel restrictions imposed on travelers to the United States. Other games were silly, like the game my teammate Sam and I made, called “Bad Hombres.”

The pitch for Bad Hombres goes like this: “You know that moment in a western film where someone walks into a saloon, and you’re not sure if they’re there to shoot up the place, or just have a drink? In bad hombres, a you have to determine if each person entering the saloon is a threat, and outdraw them if they draw on you. Shoot an innocent person however, or get outdrawn, and it’s game over.”

I thought this idea sufficiently embraced the unexpected anticipation theme, providing randomized periods of anticipation while the player waits to see if the new saloon patron is going to draw on them or not. The unexpected outcome is whether or not the hombre is going to be bad and draw on you or not. In addition to fitting the theme, the idea lent itself to a simple one-screen art perspective and one-button input. My philosophy for game jams is: pick a very simple idea and spend as much time as possible polishing that idea.

Sam Elsbernd and I teamed up, with him creating the art and music, and myself doing the design and implementation. We used Unity to create the game, synced files via flash drives provided by Train Jam, and looped two sound designers Reuben Brenner-Adams and Roger Smith II into the project to make a few sounds for the game. Overall, we both spent about 40 hours a piece working on the game, and probably 10 hours sleeping on the train.

Sleeping on the train is a tricky proposition when you’re in coach class. There are a few sleeper car tickets available each year, but they go quickly. In coach, your seats will recline, but you won’t be able to get fully horizontal. It’s not particularly comfortable, but if you wait until you’re too exhausted to keep working before attempting to sleep, you’ll probably be able to catch a few solid winks. Here are a few tips for being comfortable on the train.

  • Try to grab a table to work at in one of the observation cars. This will give you a better surface to work on if you’re an artist, and will provide you with amazing views of the American countryside when the train reaches Colorado and further west. (If you plan on taking a break for an extended period of time, make sure to take your stuff with you so someone else can enjoy an observation car seat for a while!)

  • Make sure to schedule mealtimes on the train. You have to make reservations to have a real meal in the dining car, so be sure to sign up for a timeslot. There are more convenient snack car options, but the quality of the food in the dining car is much better and well worth the price. (Take care of your body, you still have a whole GDC ahead of you after Train Jam!)

  • Stretch your legs, see what your fellow gamedev wizards, witches, and warlocks are up to. Walking around the train is a great way to meet new people and give you a moment away from your jam game. The train also makes infrequent stops where you can get some fresh air for a few minutes. (Just don’t wander off and get left behind when the train moves on!)

  • Be hygienic. There aren’t showers on the train for coach class passengers, but the liberal use of deodorant, hand sanitizer, and body wipes can provide a kind of refreshment and cleanliness that you and your fellow passengers will appreciate. This year Black Box provided all of those materials to each participant in a care package. If you’ve got long or naturally oily hair, dry shampoo is also a good idea.

The development of Bad Hombres went smoothly. Limiting scope gave us plenty of time to work on polishing animations, adding sound effects and music, and score keeping mechanisms to make the game feel more arcade-like. I highly recommend working with a team of 2-4 people, and not growing any larger than that unless those extra people are going to work on aspects ancillary to the game itself, like making a video trailer for the game, documenting its creation in blog format, or acting as a producer that keeps scope limited and removes impediments from the core team members.

One of the best aspects of Train Jam is that it also makes you an exhibitor at GDC! The Train Jam has a booth on the 3rd floor of Moscone West that showcases all the games made that year aboard the train. You can sign up to help staff that booth, and use it as a kind of home base whenever you want to meet people at GDC! Simply show off your game, talk to attendees, and tell them what it was like making a game on a train! What better way to meet new people?

Train Jam is a networking accelerator. It’s a warm opener to GDC for any participant. By the time you get off the train in Emeryville, you’ll know dozens of game developers by name, and at least recognize the faces of a couple hundred. Starting off GDC week this way means that you know about as many people as you would after having attended GDC for a period of several years! There’s a value there that can’t be understated. If you’re going to be attending GDC for the first time ever, I highly recommend making Train Jam a part of your travel itinerary.

If you’d like an indication of what it costs to attend both Train Jam and GDC as an indie developer, here’s a record of my expenses for my 2017 trip.

I saved money by using hostels instead of hotels. Hostels have a somewhat dubious reputation in the United States, but travelers from abroad know that hostels are an amazing way to save money, are generally clean and safe, and can in fact be as hip and swank as a fancy hotel. The only thing you’re actually sacrificing is a bit of privacy, but even then, most hostels have private room options available as well. If I were planning the trip again, I would 100% for sure use hostels again.

I also decreased costs by paying for my flights using credit card points that I had saved up over the previous year. I’ve included the dollar amounts for those flights in the chart for your edification. One could probably save even more money on meals by strategically attending certain parties that offer free food to GDC attendees. Also, most hostels and hotels provide free breakfast!

Finally, one could save more dough by attending GDC by downgrading from an IGS Pass to an Expo-only Pass.

The total from the Train Jam + GDC trip cost me $1,764.06. I paid my own way and didn’t take advantage of any kind of diversity initiative or other subsidy. Some game developers can ask for financial assistance from their employers (with various levels of success), and if you qualify for diversity initiatives, you should definitely apply. Hopefully the numbers I’ve shared with you here can help you set a target for savings so you can make your own trip next year!

Overall, the Train Jam is one of the most magical experiences possible in the world of game development. I sincerely hope that everyone who wants to attend will be able to at some point in their gamdev careers. It’s a phenomenal way to meet other talented developers and network before attending GDC, and I guarantee the people you meet at Train Jam will be just as unique and stunning as the American countryside that the train travels through.

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