A tiring but rewarding 48 hours at the Global Game Jam

By Chris Walden, Co-Founder, Very Scary Scenario.

I’m taking off my Microsoft hat for this article as I’m representing the now one-year-old Very Scary Scenario. We were originally a group of four ex-university students who wanted an excuse to get together for a weekend and make something silly, while trying to remember everything we’d long since forgotten after finishing our higher education. This year we expanded as a new member joined us for the annual 48-hour game making slog.

While I could tell you about all the reasons why you should participate in the Global Game Jam, especially if you're involved or interested in the games industry, I covered that last year in another blog. Instead, I’m going to go over a list of things to expect and plan for. The first of these is really important: make sure you have a travel plan, and when you do, make a back-up travel plan.

You’d think that the journey from Reading to Stafford would be relatively simple. Typically, this is a journey that would take a couple of hours on a direct train, but with it being the weekend of the Jam, it wasn’t ever going to be that simple. Instead of arriving at 2:30pm to meet with the team for lunch before the event, I eventually showed up closer to 5:30pm, after battling train delays, cancellations and carriages being full to capacity. I should have sat down at Reading and figured out what the best route was to avoid the delays, and headed via London instead. No harm done besides missing lunch, but a bummer nonetheless!

By the time we’d walked to Staffordshire University from the train station, luggage in tow, we’d missed most of the keynote. With only a few minutes before it was due to finish, we set up camp and got ready to survive the weekend. We had planned to use Twine, an open-source program that allows you to create branching stories akin to the old Choose Your Own Adventure books. Last year we made A Conversation with Ymir, a game that is text-based, because we knew from previous game jams that we didn’t have the time to get anything 3D and interesting working in time. The game was also made from scratch, as we were not familiar with tools like Twine at the time. We have the coders, the designers and everything else we need to make something silly, so we opted for something we felt we could comfortably make in 48 hours. The same applied this year.

We were a person down when everyone began the design stage at around 6pm on Friday. Such is full-time employment I suppose, but instead of going ahead and starting without a full team, we opted for the “play Nidhogg and Samurai Gunn until they show up” approach. We lost a few hours of development time this way, but the biggest reason we were all there in the first place was to hang out. Making games is cool and all, but friends are pretty good too! I did take the time to play with Twine and create a tracker for our missing teammate, though.

With our team intact, we left the very loud and excited room of jammers and found an empty classroom to think of ideas. The theme for this year’s jam was “What do we do now?”, which is perhaps one of the best themes we’ve had so far. While prior themes like “extinction” and the sound of a heartbeat have been interesting, you always find that teams gravitate towards making similar games. “What do we do now?” can be applied to basically anything, so it meant there was a lot more creativity in the final products. Try and think outside the box, but at the end of the day, make what you want to make.

It took us about half an hour or so to figure out which direction to take it. We’d thought of doing a game where you’ve just killed someone, leaving you to figure out how to get away from the scene successfully. We also looked at a replayable game that has more parts of the story open up as you ‘relive’ scenes over and over again, but decided against it due to the repetition. In the end we kept things aligned with Ymir and decided to work on something stupid. What if you woke up in an office with no idea who you are, and were informed that you had an important meeting in five minutes time? That was the game we were going to make.

I should clarify here that the Global Game Jam is by no means a race to finish a game. In fact, the vast majority of the games are unfinished and will remain that way, so they’re more akin to tech demos and prototypes than anything else. It’s a great chance to meet some new people (or like us, meet up with some old friends!) and learn something new. Having something playable is always a bonus, never the goal.

We decided to split the game into two halves. The first would be time-limited; a five minute rush to gather as much information as you can before you are forcefully carted off to the important meeting. The second half would make up the meeting itself, and we had originally planned a ‘three strikes’ system for the mistakes made during the meeting. We scrapped that idea towards the end because, as we learned with Ymir, people aren’t likely to return if they are booted forcibly from the game. We tried to make up for the lack of urgency with the ability to flail about the meeting with sillier dialogue.

After about 12 hours, we made another change. I came to the realisation during a pretty awful night of not-sleep that our game was basically a visual novel, and we weren’t treating it as such. While a few of us had spent some time playing with Twine before the event, we’d not really considered whether there was anything more suitable. Early on the Saturday morning, the game shifted from Twine to Ren’Py, a visual novel engine that could be tweaked with Python.

While the lack of sleep was somewhat useful in this instance, you should prepare for a few rough nights. Bring a sleeping bag and a pillow, and if possible, an inflatable mattress. If you snore the house down like myself, take a look at medicines you can take to give other people a better sleep, or prop yourself up against a wall so you can’t roll onto your back. Don’t expect everyone to do that though, and perhaps bring some earplugs! An eye mask is also a good idea if you’re sensitive to sleeping in light, as you can’t guarantee a room that is dark.

None of us had used Ren’Py before, and the one person that was able to code in Python was busy making “shitty visual novel music”. Because of this, at least two of us had the opportunity to wrap our heads around the basics of Python. I’d even say that I was enjoying it, and that comes from a total non-coder. The people making the art were not artists by trade either, and while it might show in our final product, we were all happy to learn as we went. It’s part of the fun, after all.

The jobs were split up so we had people working on art, music, dialogue and the extra code we’d need to force a time limit. We had Skype installed on our machines for being able to quickly share links, and Dropbox for working out of, as well as sharing code and images. We tried to make sure that all of the work was easily accessible and not in risk of being lost in some mishap, which is nice not to have to worry about while you’re crunching out the last of the game in the dying minutes of the jam. Make sure you talk with your team and set up a solution that works best for you, as it’s better to sort this all out before or early in the jam to save time.

When we made Ymir last year, we put a lot of effort into trying to capture what it’s like talking in a real IRC channel. We then had story branches and alternate dialogue depending on your input, and while it wasn’t perfect, it was something we were very happy about after the weekend. This new game had some interesting ideas, but having a timer wasn’t that exciting. Our Python wizard made sure that we had some crazy stuff going on, which eventually included the use of the Youtube API and clipboard access towards the end of the game.

We bought most of our food and drink during the jam from a local supermarket. Snacky food like biscuits, chocolate and fruit were pretty good for staving hunger off as much as possible, and drinks were limited to water, energy drinks and Irn Bru. Buy more than you need to save on the time spent on an extra trip, as you can always take things back home with you. Also, if you plan to order food for dinner, ask around the other teams. A lot of local businesses will offer you a better deal or throw in extra food if you make a large order. It’s also the polite thing to do!

The game became playable from start to finish with about an hour to spare, but this was always intended to be the bare minimum for us. We added extra dialogue into the first half of the game, added some optional dialogue into the meeting based on whether you met certain conditions in the first half, and tinkered with an interesting feature that shows up in the final moments of the game. A little bit of polish and tying up loose ends to round off Very Scary Scenario’s second outing to the Global Game Jam.

There are two big reasons why we enjoy jamming at Staffordshire University in particular, besides three of us having studied there previously. The first is that they opt to not make it a competition. Some jam sites do this and offer prizes for the best game, but in my opinion this ruins the spirit of the event. Knowing that people might not be as experimental with their designs because of a token prize is a real shame. The second reason is that once the jam is over, everyone gathers in a lecture theatre to watch short videos of everyone else’s games. Every team gets to show off what they got up to, and there’s always something there that’ll get you thinking. You can also watch the videos from Staffordshire Uni’s 2015 games, but two of my personal favourites are Derek’s Quest! and Before it Burns.

The entire event is great fun, and I know that we’re already looking forward to the game jam next year. There are many ways you can spend a weekend, but when you can meet new people, hang with friends and have something to show for a brief period of productivity, there’s little else out there that tops a game jam.

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