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Nordic Game Jam 2008: 134 Game Developers, 40.5 Hours and 19 Game Demos

'Game jams' - in which developers get together to improvise and create games in a limited time - are a key source of creativity, and Gamasutra has a full report from the rapidly expanding 2008 Nordic Game Jam, including game links/downloads.

After WW2 in the 1940s, jazz musicians started jamming together in the clubs. The purpose of the jam was to play with someone other than usual people, to show off your skills and creativity with your instrument, and to get respect from your peers and the audience.

In early February, 134 game developers came together at the IT-University in Copenhagen for the Nordic Game Jam '08. Their purpose: to work with other people than the usual, to show off their skills and creativity and to get respect for making the coolest game in 49 hours. The participants were a diverse mix of professionals, amateurs, students, and curious people and when the dust settled Sunday, 19 new games saw the light.

Nordic Game Jam '08 was the third annual game jam in Copenhagen. The event is non-profit, and organized by the Danish chapter of International Game Developer's Association, Diginet.org and the Center for Games Research at the IT-University.

IGDA is focused on improving developers' lives through community, Diginet.org focuses on connecting the creative industries in the Copenhagen-Malmö area and the IT-University is focused on educating game developers and world class game research.

The combination of these three partners -- IGDA for network & technical knowhow, Diginet.org for organizational skills and ITU for facilities and IT-resources -- has helped facilitate the Game Jam with great success. Participants came from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, the U.S., Switzerland, Spain and the U.K. With 134 participants, the Game Jam included around 10% of the Danish developer community.

The first Game Jam in 2006 had 40 participants and it has grown ever since. The purpose of the convention is to give people a creative space for game experiments and connect game developers with each other -- they come to do something they can't do in their daily job, and with a different team.

Kick-off: Talk, talk, talk

The Game Jam kicked off on Friday afternoon with a series of tech talks and art talks, to set the frame for the event and introduce some of the technologies that were available for development at the event.

The participants were free to use whatever technology they saw fit for their game, but the IT-University had a series of game editors pre-installed in their hardware for classes -- among these CryEd, Valve's Hammer and even GameMaker.

As an extra service, a couple of companies had volunteered for the tech talks to present their development tools and make them available for the participants.

CEO David Helgason from Unity Technologies presented the Unity Editor, which was used during the jam to make a Wii game. Morten Pedersen from Microsoft presented the Microsoft XNA development kit and as a very special bonus Chris Hager & Jesper Taxbøl presented the "One Laptop Per Child" computer as a development platform.

In the arts talks, Katherine Isbister (formerly of Stanford University, now at the IT-University) talked about development and character design, lead sound programmer Torsten Kjær Sørensen from IO Interactive talked about adaptive sound design for Kane & Lynch, and as an inspirational talk, cognitive researcher Andreas Lieberoth talked about taboo themes from a sociological and cognitive perspective.

As the keynote for the talks, Jonathan Blow (known from the Experimental Gameplay Workshop at Game Developers Conference) gave a talk on how to develop high-quality games as an indie developer or a student.


...and we're off!

The Game Jam officially opened at 19:00 to give participants from the industry time to get off from work, get their gear and go to the IT-University. After a brief welcoming presentation by Miguel Sicart from the IT-University, Gorm Lai from IGDA (also co-founder of developer 3 Lives Left) and Henriette Moes from Diginet.org, the jamming started with a mingling exercise.

All 134 participants was dragged into the main room at the IT-University and was asked to split up in groups -- first according to age, then according geographical place of origin, favorite vice and favorite game character. Henriette Moes from Diginet orchestrated the exercise and it shook people together well. Then the participants were told to gather in teams of three, and come up with game concepts based on the theme, two from each group.

The theme was "Taboo"; this was chosen to make sure that the participants would have to work on themes of a more artistic nature that they'd never work with it commercially. We were a bit scared that theme might inspire participants to make a game that would provoke religious resentment globally, but the participants handled the theme in a fairly mature manner. On top of the theme, we included three game play restraints.

The game had to have a game loop and be winnable (which excluded digital toys and screensavers), the game had to be playable with a controller and not just mouse & keyboard, and the game had to be multiplayer, either against an AI or another player. The jury would judge the games on these criteria.

All of the participants gathered in an auditorium after the brainstorming, and those who wanted to advocate a concept presented it to the crowd and lobbied for people to sign up for it. The presented themes ranged from torture, pedophilia and cannibalism over sex parties and PMS to lighter topics, like farting in an elevator and the associated social pressure.

In round two of the pitching, the advocates placed a piece of paper on their chest with a description of the concept and a "wanted" description for the people they needed; everybody mingled and people signed up for the teams. At 22:00 the groups spread out over all of the IT-University to develop their games. Hectic teambuilding was replaced by further game designing and focused work.

Crunch, crunch, lovely crunch...

The game industry has a reputation for crunch, those extended periods of time where teams work nonstop to finish a delivery and make the milestones. This is almost universally loathed; few teams survive crunch unscathed. One of the conundrums of the NGJ '08 was that teams had approximately 40 hours to finish a game demo, including time for sleep. So the participants paid to experience conditions akin to crunch... and they do so in very high spirits.

Unfortunately sleeping isn't allowed at the IT-University, so people had to go home or to their hotel/youth hostel to sleep. More than one team was rumored to plow through, ignore sleep and work for 40 hours straight. However, a local journalist photographed one such team early Sunday morning while they were thinking truly deep thoughts while resting their heads on their keyboards.

Everything was very quiet during the development period. The only interruptions were the morning status meetings, where the teams discussed their progress and potential issues and the three daily meals. We decided early on that we wanted good food at the event and that it had to be more than adequate to keep the teams going through the entire event.

Thanks to our sponsors and an excellent catering company we managed to provide a hotel-style morning buffet (no Danish, though!), a traditional Danish lunch and a hot meal at dinner. The catering company also gave us an excellent offer on Cuban beer, which was sold alongside sodas throughout the entire event.

Almost 300 beers were drunk during the event. We topped off the catering with as much coffee and tea as people wanted ; it wasn't uncommon for a team member to come down to the catering table and pick up three or four canteens of coffee for the team; come Sunday afternoon it was sorely needed.


Development Process

The development process took place in hanging meeting rooms around the central atrium. Most of the groups focused on a very quick concept development and started working right away. Some of the concepts resulted in some very unusual tasks.

A good example would be the audio designers of Dark Room XX. The game takes place in a dark room in a sex club and doesn't have any graphics. The player has to use sound (in lieu of tactile sensation) to navigate the room and find a partner, with which he/she has to use the audio to find the right rhythm in their interaction.

The audio was a rather important part of the concept, so the audio designers ended up using more than 20 hours surfing erotic movies to find the right sound bites. They looked pretty haggard in the end.

Going gold(-ish)

The teams were expected to hand in their game demos on Sunday at 15:00 sharp. Deadlines being what they are, and developers being what they are, the deadline was extended a bit.

Still, a surprisingly large number of the groups were ready at 15:00... although not without issues. For instance, the Social in an Elevator group had a functional prototype with all the relevant features up 'n running until -- two hours before the deadline--– they merged their code and lost approximately half their features. Unable to reverse to an earlier version, they spent the last two hours trimming their remaining features to minimize the loss and handed in a polished, but feature-reduced version of their game.

After the hand-in, the participants had 2 hours before presentations to rest, recover and peruse games from the other groups. At the same time the jury was lead from group to group to have the games presented to them. All of the participants gathered in the auditorium and took turns in presenting their games.

The presentations were interrupted with quick dinner; after the final presentations, the jury withdrew to deliberate. Meanwhile the participants voted for the Participants Award.

Nineteen games had been made and this meant that each group only had around 15 minutes to present their game. Some of the presentations made a impression, especially the aforementioned Dark Room XX, where six people stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the same keyboard trying to match each other's rhythms according to the moaning and without any graphics to support it. It was quite... evocative.


And the winner is...

The jury 's task was to find the game that best lived up to the criteria for the competition. The jury's members was picked to give a good spread from industry and academia; from the industry it was Alessandro Canossa from IO Interactive and Stephanie Munck from Deadline Games, from academia Troels Linde from the University of Gotland in Sweden and as wildcard we had Erik Robertson, Director of The Nordic Game Program, which supports the game industry in Scandinavia and is responsible for the annual Nordic Game Conference in Malmö near Copenhagen.

The jury didn't take long to decide. They chose Love Child as the winner of the Jury's Award. Love Child is a 2D cooperative multiplayer-game and a comment on genetic screening of fetuses. The players play the parents of a baby. Good and bad genes rain down, and the parents have to toss the baby between them to catch the good genes and have to shoot the bad genes. The game was made by a group of four people for the Gamemaker platform.

The rules for the Participant's Award were rather straightforward: vote on the game that you like to best. Luckily the voting wasn't tied. Segregation came out as a clear winner, with Dark Room XX as second and Mass Salvation as third.

Segregation is a 2D top-down action-puzzle. Each player has his home in either end of the level, and must draw a path for his followers to his home, so they can follow it home. If followers get entangled where the two players' paths crossed, or were left alone for too long, they'd become aggressive and attack the other player's followers. The purpose of the game is to segregate the followers before violence breaks out (developer diary and game available here).

NGJ'08 officially ended after the award-ceremony, but the student bar at ITU -- Scrollbar -- opened and participants went for a beer, to mingle and exchange development stories from two days in the trenches.

A good time was had by all, and it's our general perception that the vast majority of the participants plan to return next year for Nordic Game Jam '09. One U.S. student from the ITU told us that he was considering going from the States to the Denmark next year primarily to participate in the Game Jam.

In conclusion

We had a blast making Nordic Game Jam '08, and we can promise -- without a doubt -- that there will be a NGJ'09. However, NGJ doubled its size this year, which put a lot of strain on the organization. And there is no reason to assume that event is going to be smaller next year.

We are currently looking into various types of funding to make sure that NGJ'09 is going to be just as good as this year -- with a tight focus on innovation in games, experimental games, and a bit of academia. The ambition is to make NGJ the event to be at in Northern Europe if you want to test your skills and creativity and make the most experimental game in 49 hours straight. We hope to see you next year!

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