Game Jam: Saving The Australian Games Industry In 48 Hours

Could you create a working video games in 48 hours? Could anyone? The incredibly creative participants in this year's Game Jam say "yes". But Game Jam is more than just a competition - it's an event designed to help foster a new generation of Australian developers, an event designed to help them adjust to the rapidly changing Australian games industry. In this extensive feature, we go behind the scenes and speak to the people responsible for Game Jam, and watch this incredible event in action.

It’s Friday night and I’ve been left to my own devices - thrown blindly into a room packed with complete strangers. I’m clutching a piece of paper in my sweaty palm. It has a series of questions printed on it - descriptions of people I’m supposed to find. Is this a test?

Some of the questions are quite reasonable considering the circumstances: "Who is the youngest person in the room?" "Who has made a game in Unity?" Some seem utterly ridiculous – questions I couldn’t expect to ever answer. "Who has worked on a AAA title?" "Who has built a functioning robot?"

A bloody robot? Who builds robots? This isn’t Short Circuit – Johnny 5 is not alive.

“I built a robot,” pipes a fragile, female voice through the hum of chatter - and everyone pays attention. “For Halloween. It was an animatronic Squid Hat. It had motors in it. It moved around while it was on my head.”

An animatronic squid hat. Sorry, what?

The owner of said fragile voice is Jenna Fox – a smiley girl in spectacles with purple streaks though her hair. She looks and sounds like the friendliest girl in the world. She’s here for Game Jam – we all are – and this is a team-building exercise, designed to help this throng of absolute strangers come together and build a fully functioning video game in the space of 48 hours.

Yes. You read right. 48 hours.

“Who here has worked on a AAA title?” someone shouts desperately.

A slightly solemn chap raises his hand sheepishly, and the small group instantly turns their heads – collectively.

“Wow! Which game?”

“I’m working on L.A. Noire,” he says, barely audibly. People get excited.

“I worked on Medal of Honor,” says another, “and Burnout.”

People lose their minds.

I say nothing – I’m too busy scribbling down their names on my crumpled piece of paper, shaking my head in disbelief.

Pump up the jam

This is Game Jam – an annual event that forces developers and wannabe developers into a small space and asks them to create a video game in 48 short hours, a game which is then shown to a group of judges – games industry veterans perfectly placed to evaluate the output of these incredibly creative people.

“Honestly,” begins Cory Barlog, director of God of War 2 and one of the aforementioned guest judges, “48 hours? I don’t think I’ve done anything in game design in 48 hours, so the idea of doing an entire game in 48 hours is fucking awesome. I’m extremely impressed with anyone who actually completes something at this jam.

“This is the perfect example of your entire career here. This is what you’re going to go through on a larger scale when you actually start working at companies, where people have political agendas and personal agendas. So yeah, I’m extremely impressed with what people can do with this. Being able to complete something, to have the tenacity and deal with a 48-hour clock, I think that’s exactly what game development is.”

For the participants, the clock is ticking – constantly - even during the team building exercise I participated in – even during the brainstorming sessions that occur throughout. Incredibly, no one comes to Game Jam as a team – they enter as individuals. Teams are created on the fly and can change throughout the entire 48 hours. The process is simple. Anyone can present a game idea to the entire group during the pitching segment of Game Jam at the beginning, and participants can choose which game they want to work on.

There’s only one catch – the game must fit the chosen theme for this year’s Game Jam. Extinction.

“Ours is kinda like Highlander,” claims one jammer, clumsily taping his rough sketches onto the whiteboard, “there can only be one! You’re stuck in Limbo and the only way to get out is by killing every other animal that was ever made extinct.

“Once you’ve killed an animal you can use its body parts to become a stronger killing machine. If you kill all the Dodos, for example, you can use his beak to attack other people.”

“Our game is called Pluto’s Revenge,” starts another. “Pluto is really pissed off that he isn’t a planet any more so he’s decided to take it out on the rest of the universe by grabbing meteorites into his orbit and then crashing into other planets.”

And so on and so forth. At the end of the pitch we’ve had everything from basic tower defence games to procedurally developing civilisations and zombie sheep. They’re quite the diverse bunch.

Let's stick together

The creativity is mind-boggling - and a little intimidating. The fact that these individuals can merge together as a small development team, and create something tangible, is incredible. But according to Chris Lee - one of the main organisers - coming together as a group and a community is one of the main focuses of the event.

“These people are getting together and working on these games in a short space of time,” says Chris. “They just brainstorm, develop and finish it, and they can move straight on.

“If people are getting together to do this, they could effectively get together and make game after game after game – and then decide that one of the games could actually work.”

Game Jam is a major source for a burgeoning community of Australian developers, and the hope is that, ultimately, something of commercial value can formulate through the sheer weight of participation and creativity that Game Jam inspires.

“Part of our motivation is – there’s nobody hiring,” begins Chris. “But there are lots of people working on games, whether it’s mods or whatever. People are doing stuff, individually or in small groups, but as soon as we get them together they’ll start working in bigger groups.

“The idea is that within five years we’ll have this community that continues to build and it’ll have to hit a critical mass at some point where real commercial stuff starts happening and people find the commercial potential in all of this.

“It’s about preparing the ground. Putting the seeds in and helping it flourish.”

The ability to execute

In that sense, Game Jam is about making the best of a situation – transforming the negatives of an industry in decline, and directing that creative energy in a direction that makes sense in today’s economic climate.

Australia is rising to the challenge. In a time when bigger studios are struggling, smaller independents like Firemint and Halfbrick are thriving. Game Jam shows that creating a video game and publishing it is as easy as it has ever been. Within that 48 hour period is a crystallised microcosm of all that is required to brainstorm, prototype and complete an entire video game. For those looking to enter the games industry, this is invaluable experience.

“All I’m seeing here is the ability to execute,” claims Derek Proud, formerly of Krome and now heading KMM’s new game department. “Ideas are really cheap. I moved house recently and the removalist had an idea for a great game!

“It’s the execution that’s really difficult, and everyone at Game Jam has produced a playable game in 48 hours, and that’s really insane. “

Sasha MacKinnon, winner of last year’s Game Jam with his entry ‘Tentacle’, agrees.

“Basically I think the thing that Game Jam does most for you is it teaches you how to really churn something out and focus on what makes a game. Getting a game to the finishing line - having something that you can publish to the world is actually really difficult. Game Jam teaches you that, it teaches you to get the game concept down, get it finished. I think that’s the most important lesson.”

Another 48 hours

Partaking in the harsh process of completing a video game in 48 hours, and the experience you gain in doing so, is essentially its own reward. But according to Nic Watt, Creative Director at WiiWare and DSiWare specialists Nnooo, it helps prepare prospective game designers for what will probably be their next step: creating an independent game that is digitally distributed.

“These people only have 48 hours,” begins Nic, “so they have to find the gameplay really quickly and then add everything else on top of it. When you go to GDC in San Francisco that’s something they talk about constantly – finding the gameplay and rapid prototyping.”

Which is a process that works well in the faster paced independent realm – the area Australia is having the most success with at this present moment.

“There’s a big development community in Melbourne and in Queensland,” claims Nic, “the global financial situation has affected development because Australia has been doing really well, when the rest of the world has been doing really badly. So studios like Krome have suffered because they require American studios to pay them, but US studios now can’t afford that. That situation has forced developers to work independently if they want to make games.”

This is the end

It’s now 3pm on Sunday; I’m sitting in the audience. It’s presentation time. The Game Jammers trudge out in single file and they look terrible. I spot Jenna, the purple haired girl who created the robotic squid hat. 48 hours ago she looked like the friendliest girl in the world, now she just looks… vacant – dead on her feet. She’s probably slept five of the last 48 hours. Tops.

The games get demoed. As expected, considering the creative energy I felt when I first walked into Game Jam on Friday evening, they’re all typically fantastic. Some winners are announced, but it hardly matters what game was best or which game won which prize – a competition run in such a beautifully communal manner could never truly be competitive. What they’ve earned from the Game Jam experiences is what’s truly valuable.

They probably don’t realise it yet – staying awake for rest of the presentation is their next significant challenge – but each and every single Game Jammer in this room has learned one of the most valuable lessons possible for a prospective developer – how to fully complete a creative endeavour. As Derek Proud mentioned before, ideas are cheap - it’s the execution that counts.

Now they finally get to leave the building they spend the last 48 hours in. With only one last goal to execute – head home and get some well-earned sleep.


Comments

    This is such a cool thing to do for the Aussie game devs or wannabe game devs, its something I would like to start looking into. Does anyone know what I would need to study, and/or any programs/games I could play around with to understand the mechanics of games and game developing, that would be greatly appreciated.

    :)

      http://www.yoyogames.com

      A great way to start.

        Thanks BlueMaxima, gamemaker 8 prepare to be n00bed.

      Sounds like it went incredibly well. I was gonna hit up the Melbourne one, but it was the same day as the Big Day Out :P I guess I program enough games during the day, but it would be sweet to get something made in 48hrs!

      If you're in Sydney, visit Robots & Dinosaurs -- Jenna & I would be happy to teach you some things about game design :D

        That would be awesome! except I live in Melbourne :(

    Haha, well recounted tale there Mark. I've done the 48 hour film comp before so I think I have some idea of what these people went through. Would love to try doing it for a game one day too...

    This is awesome. Would've loved to enter but it was too late. Anyone in melbourne would like to join me in entering next year?

    Also, good write up Mark. And kudos to the squid hat lady :)

    Ugh... that sounds brilliant - makes me feel worse about not going on the Sunday.

    Definitely need to go next year.

    My animation teacher was one of the winners. Didn't realise it was this big... pretty cool stuff!

    Wow. This is nuts and looks incredibly fun and awesome. Thanks for this! I'd never have found out otherwise. And glad to know there's one in Sydney and... 120 other locations it seems. Sweetas.

    I'll pick up on my programming skills this year and see about participating next year. :]

    Do you know what the max number of participants is?

    I was one of the melbourne jammers whose team won the "Most Fun Game" award and I gotta say it was an amazing experience. I'll definitely be doing it again next year!

    The amazing work that was created during just 48 hours was mindblowing, and I hope that at least some of those teams continue on with their games and perhaps create indie studios.

    For those interested, the game that our team made was: http://www.globalgamejam.org/2011/space-defenders.

    Great write up Mark. For reference, I'm the "Andrew" on your little piece of paper ;)

    It was a fantastic experience. Anyone who isn't too sure about entering and is even remotely keen on being a game developer should give it a go.

    For the record: not many of us left the powerhouse museum to go sleep...we went to the pub...

    Daww "Friendliest girl in the world" You're the loveliest, Mark!

      Now I just need the girl with the Yoshi slippers to post and my day will be complete!

        She is my housemate. I'll make sure she does when she gets home :)

          Are you the guy doing the thumbs up in the pic?

            Nah, thats another mate of hers, I was part of the Press 3 to Breed team.

            That would be me, Mark. I've passed on a prod to get her to reply. Fantastic write-up by the way.

              Thanks mate - and thanks for the pic!

                No worries, always happy to pose next to someone else wearing awesome slippers. This should kick off my modeling career.

    Hey Mark, how many people were on each team which put together a game?

      It varied. Some teams where 5 people, some where just one. The average was about 3, and near to the end there was a lot of cross pollination as many people (especially working on multimedia aspects) had nothing more to do on their own games, and went to go help other teams.

    I also went to the melbourne jam, and it really did wonders for my motivation, and for my resume, too XD
    I'll definitely be doing it again next year, hope to see more people there! :D

    This is freaking awesome guys. I want to run something like this through the uni sometime soon. Don't wanna compete, so I'll do it at a different time of year :P

    Really great write up, glad to see this event get some publicity. I really genuinely hope to see more stuff like this.

    There were 5 members on our team, plus someone made us some FX and another guy some music. That's us filling out the paperwork in the 2nd last photo.

    We made Volcano Run - http://www.globalgamejam.org/2011/volcano-run

    And good job Mark, enjoyed the article, captured well what it was like to take part in it, especially the lack of sleep part.

    My team won 'Best Game' and 'Participants' Choice' at the Melbourne Game Jam.

    I'm a game design student at Qantm, and having the opportunity to not only pitch a game, but have an enthusiastic group of strangers rally around my idea and bring it to life was genuinely one of the most exciting things I've ever done.

    I got to work closely with two dedicated programmers who were determined to realize my design vision (voluntarily forgoing sleep on both nights), and a talented artist who worked closely with me on the overall look and design of each level and the interface.

    We're now planning to continue working on the game, tweaking the gameplay, adding in a heap of levels, implementing a few new modes, and releasing it as an app.

    Our game can be found here: http://www.globalgamejam.org/2011/ultra-happy-death-virus-hd

    Already looking forward to GGJ12!

      Well... I slept one night but I wasn't fully rested at any point during the entire thing. It was actually quite different to work with a game designer - heck, it's been a while since I've even been in a team with someone who can't program. Sorry for confusing you both whenever we started the programmer talk!

      Sounds like the team building exercises at the Sydney jam were a little more pronounced, but the Melbourne jam was great fun too. Will do it again whenever I get the chance.

    Thanks for the great write-up, Mark. As one of the organisers, there have been several moments in the last month that I wondered whether it was worthwhile. It's excitement like yours that makes me consider doing it all again next year.

    This sounds amazing from your account, and Game Informers. It's my aspiration to definitely compete in this one day!

    Been playing Space Defenders for the last hour. I really like the game, and the sense of humour in the story mode is smile-inducing.

    Nice work!

    I wish I knew this existed, sounds like my kinda jam.

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