For this years GGJ15 I created a user-generated interactive chain story called ESCALATE! - a game I had to sail far out of my normal comfort zone to develop.
When this year’s theme "What do we do now?" was announced it was pretty clear to me that none of the ideas I played around with the previous weeks would really fit. But soon the idea of making an interactive chain story evolved where each scene would use the same dialogue mechanic as used in the Telltale Games but the whole thing would have a chaotic MCPIXEL-like feeling (meaning that the player should constantly have no real clue what’s happening before it is already over and the next crazy situation appears).
My first problem was that as the game took shape in my head it was pretty clear that there would be no real need to team up with other programmers as the functionality for such a game could be programmed on the first evening. And as it should have a very trashy feeling to it there was no real space for additional graphic or effect programming.
That was pretty much the opposite of my plan as one of my goals for this year’s GGJ was to team up with another more experienced programmer to improve my own coding skills.
My second problem was that I am actually not the kind of guy who can write something with a MCPIXEL kind of humor and I feel much more at home doing non-story driven games that very much focus on game mechanics and visual style. (… and then it rained is a good example).
So I was already mentally on the way to trash the game when I had the rescuing thought: What if not I would write the story but each scene would be written by a different person who would also need to make the background image for the game? And what if the name of the game would be Escalate! and each scene needed to escalate the previous one story-wise? If everything would work out it might become something like the Major Bueno party game where, each character is drawn by a different person.
This sounded like something with the potential to become pretty epic so I started with the prototype, which was finished during the first night and I was pretty happy with the result when I went to bed.
When I woke up the next morning I slowly started to realize what I done. I had created a game which main work over the next two days would consist of me trying to get as many people as possible to contribute. I had created a social media monster! And I was afraid!
From all the different works one has to do as an Indie Developer, marketing is the one thing I always felt most uncomfortable with. And now my whole weekend would be nothing but. This was the moment I decided to make a different game (arcade game – minimalist - no story) and if it wouldn’t be for a motivational speech from a fellow indie I would have quit right there. But instead he made me realize that I could make a minimalist arcade game every other day of the year, but a crazy user-generated interactive chain story is what events like the global game jam are for.
So my first step was to create a tumblr to explain the rules and have an overview of all the branches people could choose from and I went on to post news about the game in different indie game forums and Facebook groups and started spamming my small amount of Twitter followers.
What happened was exactly what I was most afraid of: nothing! A few people expressed their opinion that they really liked the idea but no one really wanted to be the first to contribute.
This was my first learning about user-generated content games: Make sure that there is already user-generated content available when you start. I guess no one wants to be the first to stick his toe in potentially cold water.
So I changed my strategy and instead of asking random people on the internet I started to personally write to people I knew and who I thought might wanted to participate in such a game. This is where I ran into my second big problem. They all said they would really like to do something but just not today as they were all busy with their own GGJ project.
This was my second learning: If you make a user-generated game don’t make it on a weekend where everyone is already busy making their own stuff and where every 30 minutes count.
Fortunately there were some kind people who liked the idea and who didn’t had the time to participate in the GGJ but who were more than willing to spend a little time of their time to get my story experiment rolling. When the first scenes came in it was pretty clear that the idea would work. There were mutated shoe cabinets filled with melons, super-heroes and John Carmack. Every scene was crazier than the previous one and it was really fun to watch how the different story branches unfolded.
This was my third learning: If you make a user-generated game, just trust in the creativity of people – you won’t be disappointed.
The more people contributed the easier it became to find even more people and some even wanted to do more than one scene because they had really fun developing the different story branches. At the end of the evening I had around 15 different and crazy scenes together which made a pretty good proof of concept. I went to bed with the slight hope Escalate! might really become the epic chain story it could be.
I spend most of the day “polishing” the interface (which meant in this case making it more trashy), preparing the upload and trying to get more people to contribute but it soon became clear that Sunday mornings during GGJ are not the best times to ask people to abandon their own projects and do something for your own game. And even now with more than 15 scenes already made it seemed like it wasn’t enough for the game to get a social media momentum of its own.
Still, when I finally uploaded the game and presented the game afterwards people had a lot of fun with the different crazy story branches and although the game had less content than I hoped for it was still more than enough to make people laugh.
The truth and my final learning was: They probably laughed way more that they would if I had presented my minimalist arcade game and I honestly think that forcing myself to make a game in an unfamiliar genre and in personally uncharted territory created something way more creative than just doing the kind of games I would naturally do.
As for the fear of doing social media? It seems that it doesn’t matter whether you spend eight month making a game or three days: The more you talk about the easier it gets and the less uncomfortable you feel to tell other people about the things you do. For me this was rewarded with Marius from Major Bueno contributing a beautiful scene after I asked him on Twitter.
Although GGJ is now over ESCALATE! is still running and every one is invited to participate. Maybe it can still become the gigantic interactive chain story with hundreds of scenes that would just exist because it would be as awesome as pointless. Just take a look at the tumblr and write me at daniel (at) megagonindustries.com or https://twitter.com/DannyHellfish which scene you would like to continue.
- Make sure there is already content when you invite people to join.
- Be sure not everyone you know is busy with their own game.
- Trust in the creativity of others
- Step outside your comfort zone
- Talk about what you do
At the end I want to thank all the wonderful people who were a part in this experiment:
Thomas Bedenk, Miriam Komorek, Benjamin Scharff, Gregor Haase, Julian Hühnermann, Christopher Hecht, Johannes Kristmann, Marius Winter, Severin Brettmeister, Markus Bedenk, Csongor Baranyai, Norbert Haacks, Benjamin Schug, Matthias Löwe