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Life Inside A Game Jam

Journalist Saul Alexander reports from inside the Global Game Jam -- diving into the Sydney, Australia jam to join a team, follow them from concept through to execution, and in the process discover how games and meaning can unintentionally influence each other.

[Journalist Saul Alexander reports from inside the Global Game Jam -- diving into the Sydney, Australia jam to join a team, follow them from concept through to execution, and in the process discover how games and meaning can unintentionally influence each other.]

The annual Global Game Jam, a project of the International Game Developers Association, has been held every January since 2009. Hosting thousands of developers at locations worldwide, the GGJ is a volunteer-run operation whose goal is to encourage new ideas in game development through rapid prototyping, collaboration and unbridled creativity.

Journalist Saul Alexander participated in this year's Sydney, Australia jam as part of the GGJ earlier this year. The jam's theme was "Extinction," and across three days, teams at the jam ran with that theme and formulated some surprising concepts.

Here, Alexander recounts his experiences at the caffiene-fueled jam, where he not only follows a game from concept to execution, but also discovers how games and meaning can unintentionally influence each other.

Day 1

The Sydney headquarters for the Global Game Jam is a locked-off wing of the Powerhouse Museum, a hulking structure which lurks on the edge of the central business district. I find my way in at 6 pm on Friday.

The main room is long, with tables laid out in two rows, end-to-end, like an eating hall. But all you'd be eating is silicon. Forty-odd computers line the tables, and people are already fussing around, claiming machines, implanting the software they'll need to build their games.

I'm carrying two bags -- one contains my laptop, voice recorder, camera, and so on. In the other I've stuffed a sleeping bag and some clothes. My mission? To attach myself to a team and follow the process of making a game, from conception through to result.

There are no teams yet, so I introduce myself and dump my stuff in the media area. It's not long before we're all called into the meeting room for the initial briefing. The formalities are carried out by co-organizer Malcolm Ryan, who teaches game design at the University of New South Wales.

After some general housekeeping and a warning about the potential "ripeness" of unwashed bodies, he announces the worldwide theme of this year's Jam: Extinction. Then he sends everyone off to brainstorm game concepts.

Still without a team to latch onto, I plop myself down beside the embryonic team forming around Dan Graf (founder of the IGDA's Sydney branch, and a friend of mine). They decide that their game will feature three levels, each involving the protection of an endangered species from a vicious predator, moving step-by-step up the food-chain from plants to insects to birds.

It's not many minutes before they're pitching their plan to the crowded meeting room, alongside (among others) pitches for a game about "zombie sheeps" (sic) and another called Pluto's Revenge: "The basic idea is that Pluto's really pissed off that he's not a planet anymore."

Both those pitches make me giggle, and both have well-defined game concepts which seem to be of a suitable scope to be constructed in two days. The sensible thing would be to approach one of those two teams and ask to tag along. But I've never been interested in "sensible" games, so instead I chose these guys:

"The general idea that we have so far is that it's going to be (rather than extinction of species), extinction of culture and language... we want to take it away from Earth and give it a bit more of a space feel (and) have some aliens in it, so we can explore some more interesting concepts."

Cultural studies in space? Yes, please.

I locate the group that will be known as Team Decimation in the twilit courtyard, and they agree to let me join them, warning only that they are a long way yet from settling on a concept, let alone beginning to build it. That's fine with me.

There are five of them, and it doesn't take long for the ringleader to emerge. Greg Louden has taken on the role of lead designer. In Real Life(tm) he works as a programmer in the animation department of a film studio, but he has a passion for games and has worked on several previously. He is adamant that the concepts the group has been discussing not be diluted by such clichéd pettiness as violence, and he shakes his head decisively when someone suggests a "culture bar".

Peter McIntosh is the pragmatist. He's worked with Greg before, at last year's Jam. Whenever Greg's high-concept musings float too far from the realms of practicality, he yanks the rope to pull them back. "We have to make the mechanic simple," is his catchphrase, and a fair one given the shortness of the time available.

Exactly how short is the time? From the opening spiel to the public awards ceremony at the end, everyone was all "48 hours this" and "made in only 48 hours" that. However, given that the brainstorming didn't even begin until at least 6:30pm on Friday, and the final whistle was blown at 1pm on Sunday, that's five or six hours that have gone AWOL along the way.

So let's say 42 hours, and that's before the real planning has begun. In my team's case, it's a long time before. The discussion meanders on as the minutes tick solemnly past, sometimes progressing, often circling back on itself.

At this point, ideas are king. Aram Dulyan, who was born in Armenia and speaks four languages fluently, is the originator of the "extinction of culture and language" idea, and Greg is its willing champion. The initial concept is to have the game represent a number of cultures, which will interact and eventually overwhelm each other, but no one is yet able to translate this into a workable game.

Other ideas that surface in this first discussion are for the player to piece together a mystery based on fragments of an ancient text, or to subvert their expectations by gradually allowing linguistic understanding as they travel through a foreign country.

Someone suggests an Aboriginal art style, but that is rejected because it could be seen as culturally insensitive. They're very aware that a game which focuses on the destruction of culture could be misconstrued by any number of cultural groups -- which is ironic, given what comes later. They decide that sticking with aliens will help protect against that possibility. Plus: Benjamin Rayner (the group's artist) draws good aliens!

We adjourn and disperse in various directions, Greg heading off for a walk that he hopes will clear his head. It's 9 o'clock by the time we reconvene, this time in the meeting room. Peter suggests a fresh brainstorm and more concepts flow in: "you're a spirit trying to escape the underworld"; "you're the last of your kind, running from a society that doesn't understand you".

"I'm not actually sure of the core idea," says Aram, not for the last time.

"It's worth spending a lot of time... to get to an idea that everyone agrees on," says Greg. He sounds almost convinced. By now everyone's struggling a bit, myself included. The discussion still seems to be moving in circles. We take another short break.

I have a word with Jonathan McEwan, Decimation's fifth member. I suggest that some people in the group seem fixated on certain ideas, possibly at the expense of progress.

He nods vigorously. "I'm just happy to do whatever," he says. He tells me of his experience in a similar event, the Brisbane 48-Hour Game Making Challenge. That time, he was part of a group of students who'd worked together all year. "It was very different. You've got to learn how everyone else works."


On the way to the bathroom, I walk past Dan Graf's desk and see that he's already working on animating a 3D insect for their game. The night seems to be slipping away.

Aram to the rescue! We're called back into the meeting room, where he has sketched out the first concrete game idea that anyone's really put forward. It's a partial map of a city, with docks and winding streets. The idea is that foreign packages arrive at the docks and little citizens run to collect them, enthusiastically exclaiming the English names of their newly-imported goods.

The player has to run around and intercept them, correcting them by shouting out a local name for whatever it is that they're holding. Aram compares the player's role to that of the French Ministry of Culture, which works tirelessly to protect the mother tongue from the degradations of imported English-language lexicon.

Somehow, Aram's idea doesn't stick. I can't recall any specific objections, but the discussion keeps pushing on.

In desperation, Peter throws in another idea -- an inverted, hollow world, whose contents have been shaken up and jumbled. Your job is to run around and collect the scattered relics of your own culture.

This concept detours into an idea about a world literally built from words, then back to a simple, single-screen game where cultural artifacts drop from the sky and anything you touch changes you, for better or worse. Peter's ranting now, describing rains of hamburgers, something about an overweight girlfriend. No-one's following.

"Draw it!" says Jonathan, thrusting a pen in Peter's hand. He takes it.

"I'm terrible at drawing," he says, "I once drew Pac-Man as a circle." At this time of night, it's the greatest joke ever. Everyone cracks, falling around in delirious laughter.

It's nearly midnight. When the laughter stops, Greg suggests that if they just start working, something might emerge. They've got so many ideas, he says, "all we need is the mechanic, and the game's done." I want to start laughing all over again, this time at the absurdity of it all.

Instead, I reach a decision -- we're going in circles; my notes are getting sloppier and sloppier -- it's time for me to go. Everything will look better after a proper sleep in a proper bed, beside my real girlfriend. Like an inverted Cinderella, I flee the ashes of Global Game Jam day one. It feels a bit like cheating, but by this point I don't care. My princess is in another castle.

Day 2

They have something.

I've arrived mid-morning to find Jonathan, Greg and Peter's screens adorned with a green oval, looking something like the graphic they use to show scoring in a cricket match. A hush of concentration fills the long room.

The guys explain that they're developing a hybrid of Aram's "foreign packages" and Peter's "stuff falling from the sky" concepts, which they finally settled on at 2 am. The circle represents the player's city, the last remnant of a dying culture, which will have to fend off the incoming agents of the dominant culture in order to preserve its native language. The idea is that the four colored buttons on the Xbox 360 controller will represent four ways of responding to these "invaders".

I locate Ben, lit by the glow of his laptop in the windowless meeting room. He's working on a 3D model -- a strange spiked ball which will be used as the basis for the player-controlled sprite. He tells me he got a few hours' sleep, as did most of the others.

Aram got no sleep at all, but that's not the only thing that separates him from the rest of the group. In fact, he's not even part of the group any more. Having "fallen in love" with his "foreign packages" concept, he's decided to split himself off and pursue that idea solo. No-one seems overly perturbed when they discover this turn of events, although I privately wonder if it's a wise move.

All the other teams are at least four people strong -- Aram's the only one going it alone. Still, Game Jam is all about testing the limits of what you can accomplish. He's certainly doing that, so good luck to him. He tells me that the reason he hasn't slept is that he's been attempting to write his own pathfinding algorithm in order to handle the complex movement through the tight city streets, as the one that came with the Pygame (the development package he's using) has proven inadequate.

Leaving Aram to follow his own path, I turn to Peter, "So ... what needs to be done?"

"Lots of stuff. Basically we need to make a game, or some shit!" he exclaims. His current task is to create the "enemies" which will spawn around the edges of the screen. It's only in writing this after the fact that I notice the implications of that word, part of the implicitly combative language of games that we all take for granted -- the same lens through which this game will end up being judged. "Spawn! Spawn!" Peter keeps exclaiming, but his code won't co-operate.

Finally it spawns -- a horde of colored squares descend upon the city from two sides, becoming more and faster and more until they obliterate the screen.

"You've got a riot on your hands," comments Jonathan, with a wry grin.

A little later, Greg and Ben sit down for an interview with the Jam organizers, and I sit and watch. Greg has just described to Epona Schweer, the interviewer, how long they spent brainstorming --"probably longer than any other team."

"And has that helped -- having the mechanic solid before you started developing?"

"Yes," says Greg, put on the spot. I can't help but have a little chuckle at that, because the last I saw there was still a way to go with the mechanic. But the guys have faith that it will all come together, and I'm beginning to see that that's maybe the most important thing to have under this kind of pressure.

I learn that the interview is to be shown in the main area of the museum. They're screening three updates a day, in order to show off the event to the general populace. I decide to head up there, to see what the public makes of it all. But there are technical difficulties. I sit in the theatre as curious people arrive and then leave.

When the screening finally gets underway, it is a highlights real from Friday night -- well-put together, but unfortunately plagued with a glitch that pauses the video every few seconds. The audience is small, and obviously frustrated by the video problems. Still, that's computers for you -- perhaps not such a bad representation of what the Jammers are wrestling with.


I get a brief chance to speak to Helen Nicholson, the public programs director at the Powerhouse, who is responsible for making the Jam happen. Her enthusiasm is a nice counter to the underwhelmed audience.

"You just wait 'til [the presentation at] 3 o'clock tomorrow... it blows me away. I was almost speechless last year... to see what they'd done."

I head back downstairs, where Team Decimation has made some progress. There are more dots, and the enemies are behaving slightly more sensibly, but there's still a long way to go.

It's hard for me to be closely involved now that everyone's constantly glued to their screens. The iterative process of implementing and debugging game features is only sporadically interesting to watch, so I go for a wander.

Dan's game (which now has the title Press 3 to Breed) is looking impressive -- the team has built Venus flytrap-style plants and an undulating 3D landscape.

Heading outside feels like a complete change of climate after the gloom and inexplicably icy air-con. One of the Jammers has stuck up a hand-drawn sign by the outside seats: "Achievement Unlocked: Vitamin D Exposure".

The rest of the afternoon drifts by. The first asset goes in -- the player-controlled spiky ball, which someone suggests represents "the spirit of the culture", but which looks like nothing so much as an underwater mine. It's curious that such an abstract idea has taken on such a militaristic aspect as soon as it becomes concrete. Thinking back, I'm not even sure when it was decided that the player had to control a concrete "character". I just accepted it, because "that's how games are".

The guys have also finally locked down that pesky core mechanic. Four colors of "enemies", each of which needs to be turned away from the city by the press of the corresponding controller button, Guitar Hero-style. Greg still wants more depth and complexity in there -- he's worried it's too much a simple variation of a "missile defense" game, that the layers of meaning are gradually being eroded. I tend to agree, but there doesn't seem to be any choice on such a short development cycle.

All the teams are asked to get up and talk about where they're up to. Everyone seems fatigued, most of them mumbling into the microphone. I decide it's time for me to disappear and enjoy some of my weekend.

Day 3

On the way in on Sunday morning, I run into Helen Nicholson again. She's just visited the Jammers, and she informs me that her maternal instincts have kicked in.

"I just want to give them big hugs and say, 'Oh, you poor things -- it will be over soon!'"

I prepare for apocalyptic scenes, but everyone seems to be coping reasonably well. One team had lost their programmer, who had gotten his mum to come pick him up, taking all their code with him. But any complaining was very mild-mannered.

"I felt like, yesterday, everyone was more enthusiastic about where we were," says Greg.

The game now looks like a game. All the major assets are in -- the big green oval has become an isometric city, and the enemies are little green alien beasts, all rendered in an attractive archaic-yet-painterly style. It even has a name: Duat, which is the Ancient Egyptian word for the underworld, Osiris's home.

Ben is feeling dizzy and blames the Red Bull they've all been slurping to get them through the night. I finally get around to asking him about his background. He did a games course at a technical college in South Australia, and he now works in film, for the same studio as Greg. Greg was the one who invited him along for the Jam, and says he's had a blast, despite the exhaustion.

Back at the programming coalface, the approaching finish line seems to have galvanized everyone. Peter is fine-tuning the spawning, while a Jonathan picks through the code, fixing bugs and suggesting improvements. I ask him if his day job is in games.

"Actually, I work for BT Financial Group." He reckons working in games is too immature -- "If I want to do it, I'll do it when I'm older!"

I check in with Aram, whose ongoing battle with the pathfinding has lasted all night and all morning. He eventually resorted to writing the routine externally in C++. With two hours to go, there's not a lot of time to add the rest of the intended features.

Soon it's the final hour, and all that's left for Team Decimation is to add the title and team splash screens. Having finished his part, Ben wanders out.

"They were right about the smell," he says.

Showing off the near-complete game to other Jammers, and describing how it's played, something uncomfortable starts to nag at a few of our minds.

For the past decade, "protecting" the borders from the tiny trickle of refugees who arrive in Australia by boat has been a hot political issue, the major parties playing on the self-entitlement and primal fears of the populace to score political points. At the last election, one party leader went on and on about "turning back the boats". This situation obviously has an analogue in the US and in countries around the world.

I marvel that it's only at this very late stage that any of us have seen that the game could be open to this interpretation. And even as it glides into view, we push it aside -- Team Decimation has a game to finish.

The last thing they do is add the credits. "We have 20 minutes to choose a good font! Typography is super-important," says Greg.

At seven minutes to 1 pm, the game is transferred to a USB stick and ceremoniously carried into the judging room to be installed on the demonstration computer. Everyone breathes out. The hard part is over. The judges (industry veterans and a past Jam winner) drift in and are escorted around to each game in turn. Food is served. In between eating, everyone has a chance to poke around at the other teams' games. There's some good stuff there, but no one clear winner.


As everyone's lined up, waiting to head into the museum proper for the presentation, there's a last minute drama. Press 3 to Breed won't run on the demonstration computer, so the team is planning to demo it on a personal laptop. The only problem is the laptop won't connect to the projector. A cry goes up: "Does anyone have a VGA adaptor?" Luckily, this is a gathering of fifty computer geeks, and they've brought all their geek toys. An adapter is located and we march into the museum.

The ceremony is presided over by Jeremy Ray, aka Junglist, who's well-known in these parts because he used to co-host a gaming show on TV. He interviews the judges, who spout stuff about focus, working in teams, iteration and -- rather terrifyingly put by Derek Proud of KMM -- "the ability to execute". It's all very sensible advice, if rather predictable -- you can read the same all over Gamasutra and across the web.

But I wasn't here for them -- I was here to see the heroes of the hour. After Pluto has had his revenge, Team Decimation is clapped up to the stage. Greg gives a little background on the concept and then Peter runs us through the gameplay:

"So as you can see, we have this alien cultures coming down with their own ideologies and other thoughts and whatnot... they are attempting to pass [their culture] off into ours... and you need to try and push them away.

"As you go along, more cultures come, there's more ideas, there's more competition... as you fail, the other ideas come into your city. Your populous will start to pick them up. So you need to go back and remind them that you have a culture, you have an identity, you don't need the rest."

Ouch. Greg takes back the microphone and tries to recover by reiterating that the game is about indigenous cultures becoming subsumed by the larger cultures around them. But the damage is done.

"Immigrants..." quips Junglist, as they leave the stage.

The other games are demonstrated. Aram's game looks lovely, visually, but his path-finding problems mean that it's quite a way from being finished.

Team Decimation wins "best use of concept", which is pleasing, even if said concept backfired somewhat. It seems the judges are prepared to give the benefit of the doubt. The grand prize goes to Dan Graf's team, whose game is very pretty, if a bit dark. Interestingly, it works rather similarly to Duat, albeit with a resource-management aspect and a touch less controversy.

The Accidental Racists

Chatting to the guys afterwards, they're pleased with their prize, if a bit chagrined. Peter, ever pragmatic, describes the game as "quite blatantly racist", but Greg is upset and disappointed that it was interpreted that way.

"I hate that," he says. "I'm not racist at all." And I know he's not, because I've sat with him for the last two days -- none of them are. So how did they end up creating a game that gave that impression?

My theory is this -- it all comes back to our assumptions about games, which are based on what they have traditionally done well. To be fair to Duat, it is non-traditional in a number of ways, not least in the fact that it doesn't have either a scoring system or an ending. Once enough of the "enemies" (there's that word again) have infiltrated and spread their culture across your city, you can no longer fend them off. Your culture has been lost and thus your part in the game is over, but it keeps running indefinitely.

The intended message, then, is not "foreign cultures need to be kept out", but rather "it is inevitable that cultures will be subsumed into other cultures, whether or not you try to keep them out." The trouble arises because of the way we're used to playing games -- Duat contains clear "enemies", a clear player goal, and a clear end to the player's involvement, all the aspects of a traditional video game. You "die" and you take it personally -- you feel you've failed at your goal, which was to keep the "immigrants" out.

Perhaps some differing design decisions could have changed that impression. A more abstract control scheme, more focus on keeping culture alive (rather than keeping it out), or a more primitive representation of a city -- any of these might have made a difference, but that's immaterial now. The fact is that there was very limited time, which meant that the game's design tended to drift back towards what was traditional and practical.

Conclusion

For me, the main lesson of my Game Jam experience has simply been this -- it's bloody hard to transform complex, abstract ideas into a playable game. While the two day development cycle is a fantastic way to learn teamwork and all kinds of practical skills, great ideas need room to breathe. It's easy to become blinkered while maintaining the kind of focus that the Jam requires.

In the case of Duat, these blinkers prevented all of us from seeing (until it was too late) that the little, practical decisions made in the course of putting the game together were stacking on top of one another to form a structure which veered precipitously away from the initial blueprint (which was already hastily scrawled and incomplete in places).

All of the above notwithstanding, Duat is an impressive piece of work, and one which I hope will be a stepping stone to bigger and better creations for the guys in Team Decimation.

I had a blast at the Global Game Jam 2011, and I'd like to thank Jonathan, Ben, Peter, Greg, and Aram for letting me tag along, as well as Dan for getting me involved in the first place. And congratulations to all the Jammers around the world for the extraordinary amount they created in only two days! All the people I met in Sydney were extraordinarily agreeable and (as far as I could tell) none of them are racists.

Maybe in 2012 I'll do more than just watch -- maybe I'll join you guys and be a Jammer. See you all there!

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