Game Jam Letters: Good Morning From Melbourne

Game Jam Letters is a series of letters written by Kotaku AU about our time at Game Jam 2012, a competition where participants must create a fully-functioning game in 48-hours. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. In this letter, Katie says hello to Game Jam Melbourne.

Dear Tracey,

Hello from the Melbourne Game Jam! Mark and I are writing to you from the Bundoora campus of La Trobe University, which is set in thick bushland and has its own bank outlets, jewellery store, and even a cinema!

But we are not here to watch movies. We are here for something far more entertaining: we will be watching game developers put themselves through the hell of sleeping on floors and overdosing on caffeine to get full games made by Sunday afternoon. They call it “jamming”.

The first day has been a doozy, not least because I finally met Mark for the first time! He was very clearly not wearing a lumberjack’s shirt, probably because he anticipated that you would expect me to pick on his dress sense in my letters to you. But worry not; it won’t be difficult to find other ways to antagonise him

We were treated to a presentation featuring recorded keynote speeches by the likes of John Romero and Will Wright (whose office is apparently crawling with large ants), followed by a panel chaired by the GDAA’s Tony Reed. You will be relieved to know that Giselle Rosman, organiser of Melbourne’s game jam, took the opportunity to stress that health and hygiene were of utmost importance this weekend, and declared that she would be marching game jammers to the campus showers each morning.

And then, finally, the unveiling of the year’s theme, which we were told is top secret and not to be divulged to Kotaku readers until all game jams worldwide (that’s in 48 countries!) had commenced. We’re sorry! It’s the downside to our living here in Australia; we were the second country to have been made privy to the Top Secret Theme (beat only by New Zealand), and we eagerly await the official reveal so that we do not have to talk in riddles.

Jammers streamed out of the lecture theatre afterwards, furiously bandying about ideas. I made a beeline for the computer labs, along the way encountering a man dressed as a purple dinosaur. Could you possibly resist such a thing, Tracey? I had to ask him: “Why are you a dinosaur?”

“Why not?” replied the dinosaur, who I soon learned was Paul Taylor, a games teacher at La Trobe and game jam participant. “There aren’t many occasions when it’s acceptable to dress as a dinosaur for an entire weekend.”

I wondered how this view might inform other participants’ approaches to the jam. Was this a hedonistic pursuit? Was this whole crazy endeavour an excuse for developers to stay up all night and eat free food?

Nope. I will admit I soon learned that, for all the joshing that goes on between participants, creating games from scratch is serious business. Except, of course, when the free food comes out.

As we entered the building where all the jamming would take place, we passed a small office, through the window of which we spied masses of food, as if someone was stocking up for an apocalypse. Fitting, really, given that the introductory animation suggested the first iteration of many jam games would result in a mushroom cloud…

Some teams were already fully formed and seated at their computers when I arrived. A projector in one of the labs, set up by resident tech guy James, played screengrabs of random computers on the network, allowing a voyeur’s eye view of jammers’ progress. I giggled as the screen switched from a boxful of code to a hastily scribble MS Paint warning that read DO NOT TOUCH OK. Each screen was accompanied by the name of the person using the computer, and a clock counting down to the end of the jam.
When I last looked at that clock, there were 44 hours remaining. I will not deny that I rubbed my hands together evilly and imagined the mental breakdowns that might occur at the three-hour mark.

I was hesitant to approach the huddled groups, not wanting to interrupt what looked like an intense idea-formulating process. Still, I gravitated towards the charismatic Harry Lee, a 19-year-old recent Ludum Dare winner who had featured on the introductory panel wearing a suit, and questioned him about his team’s progress.

“There are fifteen of us,” he told me as all fourteen of his teammates turned to greet me at once. “We even have one guy jamming with us over Skype!”

I later spied the same team standing in a circle in the field outside, throwing a ball amongst themselves. Who says game developers spend all their time indoors, huh?

Back in the hallway, I bumped into a smiling girl named Wendy, who insisted I meet her friends, mother-and-son jammers, Kai and Marion Lynk.

“I’ve worked in video games and animation for twenty years,” Marion told me, “so Kai grew up in that kind of environment too. He’s tuned into the IGDA and everything, and he talked me into coming along to this game jam.”

Kai added: “I used to go into my mom’s office on school holidays to check out my mom’s work, play around with Photoshop and Flash.”

Though the two are clearly close, they are actually competing against each other in different teams during this jam. Can we expect some familiar rivalry here? I will keep you posted.

By the time dinnertime rolled around, I had mentally gathered a number of things to write to you about, and had many arguments with Mark over what topics we could cover specifically. Unfortunately for him, he was blundersome enough to accidentally reveal some topics for me to steal shamelessly. Like those alarmed doors. How about those alarmed doors, eh, Mark?

(Fear not. I am sure Mark will regale you with tales of the doors in much more detail later today. They did, after all, keep him locked outdoors for a good hour.)

As we filed outdoors in the wake of grumbling pizza delivery dudes, the GDAA’s Tony Reed bundled past me with boxes tucked under his arm. “Ice cream,” he explained with a wink.

The pizzas were laid out at about 7:05pm. When I checked my watch after my last slice of pizza, it was 7:18. That’s right – the pizzas were devoured in under a quarter of an hour!

The effects showed. I returned to one of the computer labs to find a guy rolling around on the floor.

“We just finished eating and I had a lot of pizza and gelati and now I’m coming down from the sugar hit,” he moaned.

Other teams were straight back to work, however. I saw two teams using post-it notes to brainstorm, one of which even colour-coded its notes into categories such as art, coding, and design. Other notes clustered around in circles, whiteboards with indecipherable notes resting on their knees.

“You can tell who has done this before and who hasn’t,” said Shelley, an artist, who was foraying into the crazy world of game development for the first time. She was taking the full plunge; she’d lugged a chest full of art supplies into a corner, and was planning on staying the entire weekend, just like all the other jammers.

Towards the end of my night I ran into Ben Britten of Tin Man Games. He was not participating, but observing the brainstorming the early development process, chatting with participants in the lead-up to his eventual duty as Jam Taster.

That’s right, Tracey – the judges here don’t simply test games. They taste them. Mark and I will, in fact, be joining in the tasting at the end of the game jam this Sunday. Will you, too, be tasting the sweet,pulpy goodness of the Sydney jam?

Please write to us and tell us of the interesting jammers you’ve met at Rosehill. Do they rival our jammers here in Melbourne? At what hour did your first jammer pass out from exhaustion? And how many boxes of pizza were required to feed them all? Important questions, Tracey.

Tell us all.

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