day one: friday
The Global Game Jam is the world’s largest game jam event. Every January the IGDA challenges game makers to develop a game from scratch in just 48 hours. Games are to be built on a common theme, not revealed until the start of the event. The 2012 event kicked off January 27th at the same time of day in over 245 locations all over world. More than 10,000 earnest individuals develop alone or on self-formed teams, resulting in over 2,000 inspired game projects every year.
first time jammer
Though I’ve worked professionally for over 10 years developing console and PC games at mainstream studios, this was to be my first “game jam” and anticipating the GGJ for several months, I was excited to challenge myself, meet and collaborate with a variety of developers and eventually get to share my very own game creation. I caught a cold a few days before the jam, but it wasn’t bad enough to keep me from participating. The jam location site I chose was at the University of Denver. Because most of the teams were already formed, I was planning to work alone but was open to the possibility that another group’s idea might persuade me to join them.
DU’s art building was well equipped with Mac Pros and Mac Minis. The toolset I chose (Stencyl) wasn’t installed on the University’s Macs, so if I was going to work alone, I’d develop on my Macbook. I could’ve installed Stencyl on one of the University Macs but in theory, using my own laptop would make it easier to take my work home if I needed to. However in practice I was so exhausted by the time I got home the two nights I slept that I never took it out of the bag before falling asleep and waking up. I wound up just eating, sleeping and saying hi/bye to my wife.
sizing up the crowd
The ages of the majority participants seemed to hover around 20. Most of the 70+ jammers were computer science and game design students from DU itself, giving them the advantage of jamming on "home turf." Many others were students from other local colleges and trade schools. There were a few "old guys" like me, most of whom were instructors. We were all waiting for the event to kick-off. Most jammers at this time were either clustered in small groups or scattered around with open laptops. Waiting, I was eager to hear the keynote address, which was to be delivered via pre-recorded video from my personal hero and ex-colleague WIll Wright. After the keynote, the theme would be announced. The previous year’s theme was “extinction” and I had spent most of my night before uncontrollably anticipating the possibilities for what it would be this time around.
The Ouroboros (or Uroborus) is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail.the theme: a symbol
After a fun and insightful keynote, the theme was announced or rather unveiled to be not a word or even a concept but a symbol which I’m sure left any participating localization producers to throw their hands up in disgust. The symbol was the Ourobos - the image of a snake swallowing it’s own tail forming a circle. This was interesting as a symbol representing many concepts, it could be interpreted and expressed in a game in many different ways.
ice-breaking and brainstorming
The event was hosted by designer and DU instructor Rafael Fajardo who proceeded to lead the group in fun and interesting ice-breaking activities and brainstorming discussions. The whole event had a positive affable flavor and everyone was friendly and supportive.
going it alone
Among all the participants, there were a plethora of programmers, but very few artists, designers or audio personnel. I could have easily contributed to several teams’ projects by making music, sound or art, but I wanted to make my own game-play and to iterate as quickly and as agilely as possible so I decided to indeed work alone and see what I could come up with.
While groups were forming and presenting their ideas, I stepped aside and discussed my vague notion of an idea with another “lone ranger” jammer. I told her that my favorite interpretation of the Ourobos symbol was the emphasis on the cycle of creation and destruction which made me think of the Hindu god Shiva. Eddie Izzard has a hilarious part of his stand-up routine where he mentions how handy it is for a god of creation to also be the god of destruction so that his garage doesn’t fill up with failed prototypes of worlds. Perhaps I could create a game where Shiva in the form of a UFO - I'm entertained by ancient alien theory, purely as entertainment. The player flies across a landscape and creates a forest or town. This would be followed by a pass over the same plane, but with the goal of destroying the world that had previously been created. My fellow jammer was encouraging and said I should pursue the idea. Her positive feedback was good. “Ok” I thought, “I’ve got something here I can develop.”
I decided to get some dinner. I went through a local drive-through burger joint and ate alone in my car, while jazz played on the radio. If I could get my mind to go, I could start implementing tonight. I had some ideas but nothing was jelling so I returned to the campus. I spent those first four jam hours in an unnecessarily frantic, internal brainstorming session, trying to shape and evolve my idea into a concept for a game I’d be proud to submit.
I realized that the pressure I had put on myself was only leaving me more uncreative. I was letting the self-imposed stress of the short deadline paralyze me, so I tried to calm down and just let my ideas flow. I opened up Photoshop and started warming-up and creating some gesture drawings to start getting my mind going. Eventually I relaxed and started to create a super-rough concept drawing of the UFO flying across the screen destroying a stuff and sucking the material up into a disc shape orbiting around it. I used a graphics pad which proved very useful in getting me to a comfortable place (drawing) loosening me up and getting my ideas visually onto paper.
I had been up since 4am and decided I should go home and sleep and let my subconscious fire up and return early in the morning. I find sleep cycles incredibly beneficial for creativity. I often envision key game ideas and features in the moments before and after sleep.
Driving home, my mind began to quiet and I realized that there was no way that I would have the time to make a whole village for a UFO to create and destroy. It would take much too long to create the art assets myself and program the game. I began to second guess my decision to work alone. What I needed was to enforce some limits of scope on myself. By expressing the game more abstractly, I could reduce the level of detail I’d need to put into the art assets. Gameplay could focus simply on the creation and destruction of blocks.
I still needed a feature that would challenge the player. If the game focused on creation and destruction, I would need something to affect the player’s ability to create or destroy the world. The idea sparked while passing the water recycling plant on my way home- I could start the player off with a finite amount of resources to create the world. The player could only create while in a limited time or space and with a finite amount of resources. Then the game would deduct the amount that the player failed to create and they’d then only have so much resources to destroy limiting the amount of points they could earn and so on. Whatever the player fails to create or destroy at the end of each phase, would be deducted from what they’d have to create with for the next cycle and so on until the player would reach a low limit of resources and the game would end with their score based on how much they created and destroyed- a “fail state.” I got home and excitedly explained my idea to my wife before falling asleep. I playtested the prototype in my mind all night. I had to utilize all of my 48 hours afterall.