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.

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