"Did you hear about the pasta?"
It was one of the first things somebody said to me upon arriving at St Leonards TAFE, where the Sydney portion of this year's Global Game Jam was being held. You wouldn't have known that looking at the building from the outside, of course, but then game developers were never known for their extroverted marketing.
It's all about the games. And precisely what would those developers be able to create within the space of a weekend? And what would they learn about themselves and development in the process? That's what I travelled to North Sydney to discover.
But when I got there on the Sunday morning, the first thing people wanted to talk about was the pasta.
The photo above is from early on, when developers were fresh faced, flush with energy, creative enthusiasm, a willingness to learn.
The reality, I've been told, kicks in around 3:00 AM on the Sunday morning. That's the moment when, after days of planning, delays, coding, designing, artistry, composing and throwing everything out the window and starting all over again, it hits you.
That's the moment when you realise you don't have a game.
A developer described the above when we were observing one submission, a monochromatic Viking world where the player distributes legs of ham and barrels of ale to distract two tribes from killing each other.
It wasn't meant to exist. But Yosha Noesjirwan and his partner, Jared Hahn, struggled for inspiration from the moment the theme of "ritual" was announced. It's understandable if you wanted to move away from crafting something based on the obvious: summoning demons.
But they couldn't land on something solid for hours. It took them the majority of the first day before they finally landed on the concept they would later submit, and while their program was largely functional it shipped without any win condition or sense of reward.
But that's part and parcel of the Game Jam experience: learning. Of course, that doesn't mean the two didn't have fun along the way.
— Yosha Noesjirwan (@HozZAaH) January 31, 2016
I'd been told that game jams can often be more valuable for networking or training tool. Geoffrey Hill, one of the leaders of the Sydney IGDA chapter, said on the day that learning to fail was perhaps the best lesson you could learn. That's certainly true of game development, where many elements will often end up on the cutting room floor out of practicality.
But not everyone fails. Occasionally, some solid ideas emerge.
One of the more solid was Michael Chu's Mirror Ritual, a game that will be immediately familiar to anyone who played Projection at RTX Australia or earlier conventions. It's a platform-puzzler where you use mirrors to alter the layout of the level, either by removing obstacles or altering the layout of the map.
It's eerily similar to Projection, which Chu is the designer of. The sepia tone almost invites comparisons, but Chu remarked that his original choice of red and white (the colours my mind immediately jumped to) simply didn't work.
Out of everyone I spoke to, Chu had what you could describe as the most first-world problem amongst all the developers: he couldn't spend more time working on his game, because too many people wanted to playtest it. There were 21 levels by the time uploading began, making The Mirror Ritual one of the more comprehensive games I played.
Another surprisingly solid experience was Almighty Hobogoober, a 1v3 game about leading a ceremonial dance. One person plays as the Almighty, while three others play on a keyboard as heretics trying to spoil the ceremony by dancing out of time.
When I did my initial rounds of the floors where developers were scattered — developers had access to multiple rooms and open areas across three levels, while the ground area was available for relaxation and group meals — Almighty Hobogoober immediately stood out. It's a visual thing: the red against the yellow, the slightly angled font, the sound of the lightning.
Once you manage to get three people around the keyboard, it's a pretty simple process. It was also immediately fun, with defined win conditions, simple controls and an hook that people can immediately relate to. Having three people huddle around a Macbook keyboard isn't the most comfortable experience, and a percentage counter doesn't make a great deal of sense. But as a game jam project, it was an unarguable success.
But let's go back to the pasta.
It was served up late on the Saturday, and from all reports it wasn't good. One dev described it as food that was put together by someone who had only seen a description of pasta. Another said it was the loosest possible form of al dente; one called it the Early Access of food.
Outside of food that didn't come packaged in boxes (like cereal) or ordered from Dominoes, the catering lacked rhyme or reason. The picture above? That's the potatoes boiling for potato salad, although I'm not sure whether the water was from the first or the tenth batch of potatoes. It seems strange to harp on the food, but it's perhaps one of the biggest factors in a game jam or surviving any group marathon: maintaining morale.
It's also a reminder that being cooped up in a room with other developers — and not all the rooms were pleasant spaces, particularly the ones where people decided to bring hammocks and sleeping bags for them to crash overnight — isn't always the best experience.
Discovering who can and can't deal with that stress is a real eye-opener. Knowing that many developers would be tired, exhausted and bereft of caffeine, my partner and I made a quick pitstop at Woolworths to load up on bits and pieces that we figured the jammers, many of whom shared our interests, would appreciate. That looked like this.
I even brought an empty white bucket to store it all. Mark's right, I do make people fat.
But even wandering around with my bucket of goods, some people were simply too stressed, too beyond the pale to respond. Some were in such a state that the air around them felt toxic. Their development had gone poorly and they weren't coping, even to the point where distracting them for a minute or two felt like pushing my luck.
It also doesn't help if your team isn't all coming into the game jam on the same page. One dev told me he'd be happy to go through the process all over again, on the proviso that his team was more unified beforehand. It's not uncommon for developers to use the marathon as an exercise in skilling up — training themselves in 3D, using Unity or Unreal instead of Gamemaker or branching out from your traditional art styles — but when one member of the team is still getting a handle on their software and others in the team have their tools down pat, it can be frustrating.
But the vast majority of experiences relayed to me were surprisingly funny, moments that happened in the wee hours of the morning that kept people awake and kept people going through the grind.
Take the pie above. It's a pumpkin pie. Apparently it comes from Costco. It looks pretty damn good; it reminded me of the recipe Hayley unleashed on the office last year.
Apparently, it also fit into the theme of the jam. The developer told me that when he went to his first jam, his housemates got him a pumpkin pie as some decent sustenance. That's continued every jam since, and even the discussion of the pie seemed to cheer the tiring dev up. It was a happy memory, and a happy sight to see.
Another hilarious creation came courtesy of Tom Campbell, a composer working in a room alone who contributing to several projects. He wasn't the only composer selling his services — a bloke called Matt advertised his wares with some notes sticky taped to the elevators where the jammers resided — but he produced what surely must have been one of the funniest pieces.
The ritual was simple: get your morning cup of coffee. The problem was also simple: you're a chicken. And you're in an office. And there's only one cup of coffee left. So you have to race for the caffeine high.
It's called Morning Grind, and the concept alone sounds great. But then Campbell began describing a track he made for the game at one in the morning — where all the sounds came solely out of his mouth.
I almost want it for my ringtone. Give it half a minute; it's absurdly catchy.
Perhaps the biggest find was a technical accomplishment. There isn't a great deal of VR development at game jams yet, but it's something that will undoubtedly grow in popularity over the course of the next year or two. And that might be accelerated further thanks to some very clever engineering from three blokes who had a room to themselves.
Their game was simple: tennis, but with the ability to kill your opponent. The theme was actually quite nicely wedged in there, with pentagrams taking the place of racquet strings. But the coolest part wasn't just the fact that it was a 1v1 game — you needed two VR headsets to make this work — but the fact that the team got the HTC Vive to work alongside Sony's VR headset.
Performance wasn't equal across the headsets. PlayStation VR only has one screen compared to the two inside the HTC Vive, and the Vive also comes with the wireless Lightroom boxes and the front-facing camera that makes it easy to identify the limits of your physical space while you're under the VR spell.
The latter actually results in some hilarious consequences too. Whenever you come close to the edge of your space, a wireframe wall is beamed into the headset letting you know that you can't go any further. That doesn't prevent you from waving my virtual tennis racket around, a useful trick if the tennis ball/grenade got wedged in a corner.
Which then resulted in one of the developers rubbing up against an inflatable bed while trying to retrieve a ball.
But the project as a networking accomplishment sounds astounding, even just on paper. One of the devs said there's no reason all games going forward can't be cross-headset compatible. The prospect of using PlayStation VR for a wealth of games on PC is intriguing, and the door it opens up for Sony and their developers is something else.
It's also just fun to play someone in VR, even if rallies often descended into throwing rackets across the court. The bandwidth required to get everything running makes online play to difficult, unfortunately, but perhaps in time enough optimisations will be made on the software and hardware so that online multiplayer is more viable for indie projects.
That'll be a fun day.
But that's how game jams go. You never quite know what will come of them, what will come of yourself and what will happen when hundreds of developers combine in the one space.
Most of the games created will probably never see the light of day ever again. And even some of the better ones might only live on in the form of ideas or mechanics carried through to other projects.
But the relationships, the memories and the awful, awful pasta will live on.
Thanks to all the developers, North Sydney TAFE, the IGDA Sydney chapter, the organisers of the Global Game Jam in Australia, everyone who helped contribute to this story and finally my partner who amused developers throughout with creepy voices and her off-colour humour.