I felt dumb. I stood in a room full of game developers -- a mix of students, amateurs, indies, and professionals -- as they worked their way through this year’s Global Game Jam. Ideas were flying everywhere, chunks of code ran their way across screens, gorgeous pieces of art and animation came to life -- my goodness, these people were talented. And in the middle of it all I stood with my notepad and pen, feeling dumb. Well, I’m about to put an end to that. I’m a journalist by trade -- I have never wanted to do anything else. I cannot program, design, animate, or bring anything to the video game development table. Once I tried to create a game of Snakes and Ladders on paper and the whole thing caught fire and everyone cried big girl tears. Clearly, I’m not cut out to be a game developer (or a handler of fire), and I am totally OK with that. Well, at least I thought I was OK with it.
At this year’s Global Game Jam I witnessed something that made me terribly envious. Teams of enthusiastic developers were working together on brilliant games based on whacky ideas – they were making something that they could share with each other and the rest of the world – there was a wonderful team spirit and it was incredibly inspiring to see what they came up with. I stood there watching them thinking how much I wanted to be a part of it. Even if our game turned out sloppy or caught fire, I wanted us to at least give it a try; to work together to make something we could call our own. And when I realised that I had absolutely no skills that could make this happen, I felt dumb.
The Brains Of Grandpa
I met Craig Duturbure at the Games Connect Asia Pacific summit in Melbourne. Craig is an industry veteran -- he’s worked for almost every major game development studio in Australia and has more than 18 years of experience under his belt. When I met him, he had just started his own indie studio. He gave me his business card – it was covered in images of little orange grappling hooks – his studio is called Grapple Gun Games.
“Do your games have grapple guns in them?” I asked.
“Nope!” Craig replied.
“Well that’s just misleading,” I said, shaking my head. I then smashed a vial of smoke potion onto the ground and disappeared into the night (I am very mysterious).
Months later, as I stood in Sydney feeling dumb, Craig was in Melbourne judging their Game Jam. The theme this year was the Ouroboris -- an image of a snake eating itself -- this could be interpreted as a cycle, infinity, life, death, or anything else, really. As a judge, Craig couldn’t enter the game jam, but being a game developer, he had more than a few ideas crawling out of his ears. Craig sent out a tweet on Twitter.
“Home, writing up notes for the game I would have made at #ggj12, if I'd had the stamina to do it. Alas, "Tasty Tasty Grandpa" goes unmade.”
Tasty Tasty Grandpa! I had no idea what this was, how it would play, or what would be involved in making it, but I smashed another vial of smoke potion on the ground, magically appeared in Melbourne (via Twitter), and raised my hand to help make it. I was not actually being serious. Craig was totally serious.
The Gross Birthing Of A Grandpa
An email exchange began. I reminded Craig that I had no skills to bring to the table unless he needed vials of smoke potion as part of his project. He reminded me that I could paint and could thus contribute background art. I thought about it -- background art is something I could definitely try to do -- I agreed to sign on.
He sent me a game design pitch which I, stupidly, confused for a game design document. Apparently a pitch is just a summary of what the game is, the characters and settings involved, and how it will play. A game design document is often an 80+ page monstrosity.
“Do… do we need a game design document?” I asked, hoping he would say no.
“Not necessarily; not for a small iPhone game,” he said. Phew! “Game design docs are going out of fashion anyway.”
“Oh. Of course,” I replied, putting on sunglasses.
Craig’s idea was simple but intriguing. You play as a baby who crawls his way through a mouse wheel-like world, eating anyone older than yourself. When you’ve eaten enough people, you “level up” to become a child, then a teenager, then an adult, and finally a grandpa. You can be eaten by anyone younger than yourself; to grow, you must eat anyone older than you. By the time you’re a grandpa, everyone is after your scrumptious, scrawny goods. The game finishes where it begins -- at the hospital where your baby self was born.
Craig is a game designer, I’m an amateur painter -- the two of us would not be enough to make a game happen. We needed a programmer, a character designer/animator, and an audio person. And this was where I learned my first thing about game development: when you don’t have money to pay people, it makes it very difficult to get anything done.
As a games writer I often interview indie developers and they tend to tell me how they’re doing it for the love, how they’re not getting paid for their work, and how they don’t need a cent to make a game. I had come to think of this as the norm -- that indie developers don’t need to eat or sleep, they photosynthesise. Joining Craig’s team, I quickly learned that developers -- try as they might -- do not know photosynthesis and actually need money to survive.
Fortunately, we found an incredibly talented character artist – Damian Pin – and one of the country’s best coders -- Stuart McVicar, both of whom were willing to volunteer their time. We’re also being joined by an audio designer, Matt Christensen, who is a master saxophonist and plays lead woodwinds for Annie: the Musical!
We’re all working for free, we’re all doing this in what little spare time we have and, in my case, for the sake of full ethical disclosure, if the game makes any money I will donate my cut to a charity.
And so begins my indie game development adventure! I am going to start creating concept art tonight. We are going to have our first Skype meeting soon! Craig has created a spreadsheet with a to-do list! I am incredibly excited. I’ll be posting pictures of the art we come up with next week. In the meantime, I will try to not set anything on fire.
Main image is early concept art by Damian Pin for Tasty Tasty Grandpa.