Dark Side of the Jam: A NASA game jam postmortem

Dark Side of the Jam co-organizer Brandon Sheffield discusses how the NASA-tied video game jam was put together, what went right, and what could have done with a little more organization.
Jams are a great way to get people to talk to each other, make games, and generally feel good about the industry and themselves. But what happens when you hook up directly with a government agency for your jam? A few months ago, some folks from the Night Rover Challenge got in touch with me, and a few others (Ryan Williams, Brendan Mauro, and Kieth Nemitz) because they were interested in doing a NASA-tied jam. And on the weekend of March 9, 40 years (and a week) after the release of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, we made it happen. Dark Side of the Jam's main site was on the NASA Ames campus in California's South Bay Area, and had everything from an astronaut's suit you could try on, to a working lunar rover robot. The aim of the jam was to create products that could be shown to kids in at-risk schools, to demonstrate some of the interesting things you can do with science. "Hey, you can even make games with science, maybe you should get engaged with sciencey things!" was the intended message, and to that end, we provided all kinds of actual space images, 3D models, and other data from NASA itself for the jam. As you might expect, there was good and bad resultant from having the jam be government-tied, and this postmortem may provide some lessons for those looking to do sponsorship or institution-tied game jams in the future.

What went right

1. Dedicated satellites Our satellite jams were pretty amazing - and with a space theme, when has "satellite jam" ever been more appropriate? We were able to make the theme pretty cohesive throughout, which helped our internal credibility. The one of the Brazilian branches (Sertao Games) really took the ball and ran with it, and got covered by two local TV stations and a newspaper. We wound up with 8 satellites, and a number of people jamming from home (or space, as we called it). 2. Smooth operations Once we set it up, everything fell into place pretty easily. We had individual wifi passwords for every jammer in the main location, with phone numbers to call in case they had trouble with their specific connection. IT was standing by just in case, but nothing really went wrong. Food, paid for by our sponsors, came from a kitchen in the same building, and was plentiful enough to keep everybody fed throughout the weekend. And if anyone wanted to buy anything beyond what we provided for free (like beer, or burgers), there was no tax! 3. Location I think everyone felt just a bit more legit jamming about space while on an actual NASA campus, next to the semi-demolished Hangar One. Speakers from various space programs came to talk with jammers at the beginning of the event, and several made themselves available for consultation throughout the weekend. One game in particular (Rocket Builder), made extensive use of the rocket scientist who stayed throughout the jam. Speakers are unusual at a game jam, and they did take about two hours off the front end of work time. We might like to shorten this in the future, but NASA wanted to be very involved, and the speakers were interesting enough that it seemed to work out as a net positive. 4. Assets We gathered a bunch of assets from NASA, from 2D images of planets and their surfaces, to height map data of luunar craters, to 3D models of spacecraft and lunar landers. Now, we could've presented these in a slightly more accessible way, since some of the 3D models weren't in immediately Maya/Max-friendly formats, but folks found creative ways to use them nonetheless. It was a lot of work by co-organizers Brendan Mauro and Ryan Williams, who also made our site, to package up what we had available. 5. Lots of games! The main location generated 23 games, and over 40 games were produced total. Themes were pretty diverse, but we did find that folks started to target the things discussed by our NASA panelists that spoke at the beginning of the jam, which led to quite a few resource managers and the like. In the future we'll need to do more to help folks differentiate their ideas, so we don't all wind up making the same sort of game. Check out all the projects here, though they're not all uploaded yet.

What went wrong

1. No-shows We had around 100 jammers at our main location, which was great, but 150 had signed up on our early eventbrite page. Only around 50 of those who signed up actually came, and the rest were hopeful walkups. This is a pretty inexcusable failure on our part, because a number of people who would've actually liked to come to the main jam made other plans, figuring they couldn't get in because our eventbrite page was full, and yet over 60 percent of those who signed up didn't come. We're working on plans to make this better in the event we do another jam - I hadn't anticipated this problem, as during the Molyjam, everyone who signed up showed up. But in that case we set up the eventbrite site just one week before the jam, which might be a good idea for the future. It gives people less time to cancel. 2. Livestream We couldn't get the livestream running easily at first, because NASA blocks a lot of the data coming out of the facility. It was also tough to find something that we could both stream from, and which wasn't necessary for someone's jamming experience. We wound up using a Kindle Fire and Ustream, but we hadn't done much promotion at this point, and didn't get quite the stream traffic we could have. It was still useful because we documented a bunch of what happened, but part of the final presentation was recorded without sound, and we overall could've done a better job of driving people to the channel. We put up the Sertao Games livestream on our projector while they were presenting, which was nice for our main jam, but I'm not sure many people outside of the actual project saw what was going on. 3. Location, red tape The location was great, but it's really far from a lot of folks. A few people flew in from LA to make the jam, which was amazing, but people without cars just simply couldn't get there. Hopefully next year we can at least get some shuttles together or something similar. There was also a lot of bureaucracy to get through just to make the location possible, and to choose a date, and to decide what we needed internet-wise, and so forth. Everything was really smooth once we got through that, but there was a lot of roundabout discussion on the front end of the jam - we had originally planned to hold it in November of 2012, for instance, but wound up having to move it to March due to site availability, trying not to conflict with other jams, and so forth. 4. Not enough community That sense of togetherness you usually get from a jam wasn't quite there for this one, at the main site. I saw people mingling with folks they new, or coming with pre-formed teams. I was guilty of this as well, tending to stick with the people whose faces I recognized. Some new friendships were formed, to be sure, but it wasn't quite what I expected, or had experienced with previous jams. We should have done more to get people mingling a bit more, or more aware of each others' games. At the end of the jam we encouraged people to hang out and look at each others' games, and some people did, but that was the first time I saw real integration. That'll be a goal for next time. 5. Poorly messaged We didn't do the best job narrowing the theme of the jam. We had space-oriented quotes up on the walls for people to take inspiration from (such as "Houston, we have a problem," or a great quote about heavier-than-air travel being impossible), but this wasn't messaged well enough, and few teams actually used them directly as inspiration. We also weren't able to theme the jam as directly as we wanted due to NASA's tentative relationship with us. Internally they wanted to do it, and back it all the way, but it was politically dangerous for them. Our original name was the NASAjam, but NASA asked us to remove their name from the title, because of flack they'd been receiving about spending money on game programs. Even though we had sponsors who covered the food and much of the lodging cost! The red tape there was annoying, and didn't seem to really even be their fault - but ultimately the NASA tie-in was great, and hopefully we can make that even tighter next time round.

To infinity, and beyond!

The jam was great fun, and most of our goals were met - but as with any venture, you can always do better, and we're hoping to improve if we do it again in the future. We're planning to survey each satellite, and get their feedback for what we can do to better support them in the future. And with any luck this project will get some more kids interested in science! Thanks to all of my co-organizers for making this possible. Yay space!!

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