The Joys Of Making Video Games Without Power Points

train jam 2019 gcap pax australiaImage: Alex Walker (Kotaku)

Over the last few years, a group of developers have been taking a journey of a different kind to the Game Developers Conference. It's called Train Jam, where a whole bunch of developers pay a minimum of $US280 for a 52 hour trip from Chicago to San Francisco.

It's become a hugely famous event within the developer community and, naturally, people wanted to recreate those efforts here. So for 2019, around 50 developers made their way from Brisbane, through Sydney's Central and all the way down to Southern Cross Station for Melbourne International Games Week.

There was just one unique problem: Australian country trains don't have power points.

Travelling from Brisbane to Melbourne with no in-built power is no small feat. The whole journey is just over 1600 kilometres and runs over two days, since the Countrylink timetable doesn't guarantee that you'll be able to hook up with the Melbourne train once you arrive in Sydney. The leg from Sydney to Melbourne alone, which I joined on a brisk Sunday morning from Central Station's country terminal, takes just under 11 hours.

And not only is there no power, but for the vast majority of the trip — especially if you're on Optus or Vodafone, as most of the attendees discovered — there's no mobile reception either.

When you're in the middle of a jam, and you can't work out why objects on screen have suddenly vanished into space, or the camera in your Unity game is about fourty miles back from where it should be, that's a bit of a problem.

But, as Locomojam organiser and long-time director of the Melbourne IGDA chapter Giselle Rosman explained, it's also part of the jam's charm. The Locomojam is the smallest she's ever run — this year's Global Game Jam had just over 250 developers participating in Melbourne alone — but it's also, curiously, one of the more social.

Image: Alex Walker (Kotaku)

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An intriguing facet of gamejams is that while they often bring together people who have never collaborated together, those groups form their own bubbles in a room somewhere, rarely coming out except to grab some food, use the toilet, and occasionally fresh air.

That doesn't work on a train. The old Countrylink trains are a basic 2/2 configuration, so any teams larger than two people (the largest I saw was 5) had to collaborate over a much larger space, and often over (or next to) people who were working on different projects.

Devs had to get creative with the limited physical space. Image: Alex Walker (Kotaku)

It meant that people were across the work of other teams more than they'd ordinarily be in the case of a normal gamejam. Playtesting was a lot harder: passing a laptop over train seats when there's no room left on a tray table that's a little smaller than what you'd get in an economy airport seat was pretty rough.

Some people found creative solutions around this. A few had thin and light laptops, like Surface Pro devices, which fit neatly on the train. But three developers opted to bring along a small device called a Pocket CHIP, which looks a bit like a prototype Game Boy with a half-finished keyboard:

The Pocket CHIP is basically a tiny games platform for $US100. It has a touchscreen, so you can do basic level editing with a stylus, a USB port so you can plug in a keyboard for coding or USB sticks for transferring files or builds, and a sprite editor so you can do basic image editing on the fly.

Jammers using the CHIP coded their games in PICO-8, the same language which the original version of Celeste used. The small device naturally adds a ton of restrictions and complications, like the fact that there's only 16 colours to choose from.

But every good game jam is about solving problems on the fly. One dev using the Pocket CHIP found that while he couldn't add more than the original 16 colours, he was able to layer colours on top of each other and mess with their transparency. By changing the transparency of different colours, he could at least simulate the appearance of more colours.

Image: Locomojam Slack (Kieran Lord)

My favourite workaround was for the power. Knowing that they couldn't charge on the train, and the only backup available would be a halfway stop at Sydney when everyone crashed at AIE's Ultimo offices, developer Kieran Lord built his own battery management tool that tracked excessive processes eating up more than they should, while also applying an fps limit to make sure the GPU wasn't doing more than necessary.

Sitting down over a scone — probably the best item on the Countrylink menu, although one in such high demand that the train announced they were taking orders for Devonshire tea, only to run out before any of the jammers could order any during the first leg of the trip — Rosman explained that the problem solving element was her favourite part of game jams.

Truly the highlight of the train menu. Image: Alex Walker (Kotaku)

The jam was surprisingly diverse, with a wide mix of age groups — five jammers were older than the train. Around half the attendees at all game jams are generally first-timers, Rosman told me, and you often get a mix of students or those under the age of 20 sitting alongside industry legends (like Steve Williams, an alumni from Krome Studios and the lead on the original Ty the Tasmanian Tiger).

That variety led to a wild mix of games. Two developers that help with the organising of jams, Paul Taylor and Katelyn Gigante, opted to make a board game involving trains. Using Lines as the main theme, Taylor explained to me that his original idea appeared over some drinks with the Train Conductor developers.

Apparently, during the beta of Train Conductor developers found that instead of trying to complete all the objectives, players just wanted to murder everyone on the train. But there was no mechanism or reward for the train version of peep bowling. So with that in mind, Gigante and Taylor built a 1v1 board game where one player is trying to commit rail genocide, and the other is just a poor, lowly conductor trying to do their job.

Two other developers, Alex Butterfield and Kirk Winner (pictured with the excellent Locomojam wrench above, which has its own zipper and doubled as a bag), made a quietly political game called The Thin Blue Line. The idea was you played as two police officers, and you were told to let red people pass through while blocking green people — but in Papers Please style fashion, the game didn't prevent you from making choices of your own accord.

Another Pocket CHIP-made game was a horror platformer where, akin to Outlast, you had to flash a light on enemies. One developer, who was learning to code as the jam progressed, made a climate change game out of watercolours.

Some developers took the theme of lines quite literally: Williams, the Krome alumni on his first game jam, made the connection from "lines" to "lines of poetry", and made a game where you rearranged classic sonnets and had them read back to you with automated text-to-speech. Another team thought about lines at the checkout queue, and put together a game about rival cashiers at the supermarket playing cards to get more compliments (and fewer complaints) than their opponent. Another team took the idea of lines and converted it into a multiple choice-style affair where the choices were all about unpacking bizarre conspiracy theories, like "The Socks And Sandals Scandal".

16 games were made over the the two train legs. They'll all be uploaded online, but they're also being showcased at a booth in the PAX Australia indie section, with photos and other mementos.

But some of the best mementos won't be memoralised in the Locomojam booth, and naturally, they're the ones where everything went wrong.

Image: Alex Walker (Kotaku)

Crunching in the last hour of a jam is pretty common. But it's a whole different situation when your battery is sitting at less than 10 percent, all the portable generators are completely tapped out, and developers are having to beg other teams for any power at all.

Everyone also learned some valuable lessons about preparing beforehand. An update for Unity was pushed out right before the jam, causing all sorts of havoc for developers who had to update beforehand to make sure their project files all used the same version. A few of the jammers also got hit with a major Windows update, which is annoying enough as-is.

But in a new twist, one jammer discovered that the major Windows update deleted their version of Game Maker while it was updating. It completely knocked out their progress until the first leg of the journey was complete, whereby everyone relocated to AIE to sleep, shower, recharge, and in their case, redownload all the files they needed.

Spirits were kept up throughout the journey through Taylor's steady dose of memes, and towards the end while the train was held up, a 1KG bag of Starburst and leftover trail mix. The enclosed space meant that developers collaborated a lot more than usual, and there was a plus side: a group of about 50 people now knew each other much better heading into Melbourne International Games Week and the Game Connect Asia-Pacific Conference, making the whole event a little less daunting.

Australia's version of the Train Jam didn't have the glitz or glamour of its international counterpart, but then it also had some uniquely Australian challenges that are perfect fodder for the game jam environment. It also spiced up what would be an otherwise ordinary train ride. Best of all, it's likely to be a repeat affair: everyone I spoke to immediately said they'd jump at the chance to do a train jam again, even those who flew from Melbourne only to take the train from Brisbane, all the way back down.


The author's rail travel from Sydney to Melbourne for Melbourne International Games Week was provided courtesy of the organisers.

Update: Made a small amendment to the opening for clarification.


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