Confessions of a Game Jammer

By Arjun Prakash

February 20, 2013 at 4:09 AM

It takes a special kind of person to readily to go to a Game Jam. These events usually are 48-hour crucibles that push mental endurance to the limits and to willingly give up two days in order to co-create a video game with a collection of strangers and friends. Ultimately, jammers come away with an unparalleled feeling of accomplishment and an electric pulse that will leave one hungering for more. In addition, the camaraderie of fellow game jammers will flourish into close friendships lasting for years to come.

The 2013 Global Game Jam in San Francisco was no different. The event took place in a co-working space in the heart of downtown SF. Upon arriving at the jam, I knew I was amongst my own people. The folks that had gathered were all craftsman in their own right, be that in code, art or design. After the usual pleasantries of meet and greets, we broke off into smaller groups, all ranging from single lone rangers to massive tribes of ten. Personally, I had found fellowship with a motley crew of three other characters. Maybe it was written in the stars, maybe it was just luck of the draw, but over the next three days we would come together as a tight-knit team. In the end, our collaboration produced a game that received a number of accolades from our fellow jammers.

Screen capture of PING game play

At the core of any game jam lies a theme meant to serve as the seed for a game’s creative start. This year’s GGJ theme was an audio clip of a beating heart. The key with any theme is not to take it literally, but to explore the fringes of what it could represent. After an hour or two of scheming, we had settled on a collection of ideas for the start of our entry. Taking the concept that a heart beat was a continuous signal; we chose to create a space horror survival game where the player is stranded in a pitch-black maze. The only guide for further progression is a constant “ping” or signal beckoning the player to proceed forward. It was decided upon early that there should be a feeling of helplessness as players move through the experience. To make our lives easier -- and for effect -- we designed our game mechanics so that the player would never be able to fight his enemies back but would only be able to run. We then came up with a quick concept art sketch to get the team’s mind on a single track; this also provided further inspiration as the jam progressed.

What Went Right
From early on, what drew our team together was that we were going to use Unity 3D as the basic building block for our game jam entry. Unlike most of our fellow game jammers, the team had their heart set on creating a fully interactive 3D game with characters and environments. This is also what set our entry apart from the rest. A fully walking, running and jumping 3D character is no small achievement, but, thanks to a fellow game jammer, we discovered Mixamo's character animation technology. After reviewing the basic setup required by this animation service, we had a fully rigged and working character in less than four hours. Once the basic setup was completed, the team was able to choose from a huge library of motion capture data. Using the pre-made scripts provided by Mixamo made the integration of the animation as simple as dragging and dropping items within the Unity interface. It was also a godsend that one of the key developers of Mixamo was on hand to answer any of our questions and help work through any issues that might come up. This in turn left our team to focus on the task of creating an experience instead of worrying about the minutiae of technical details.

The second major contributing factor of the overall success of the game was the visual and audio ambiance that was achieved. It has been said horror is more about what is what your eyes cannot see than what it can. By creating a contrast of light and darkness, the player was left with a sense of helplessness and fear. This was the basic core of emotion that the team wanted to convey in the overall experience. In addition, the team was able to provide a music and effects soundtrack that perfectly complemented the bleak settings portrayed in the game.

What Went Wrong
Like any game jam, time is both the principal strength and weakness. Although we were able to achieve a lot of the basic gameplay that was initially conceived, a majority was left out due to a sheer lack of time. Areas that we wished we could have explored more were a more substantial use of the light in the game as well as a better AI and Enemies. Maybe someday, we as a team will get together and try to flush out a more comprehensive experience. This could be very much be a Kickstarter in the making -- a boy can dream…

In the end, we were proud of what we accomplished in such a short amount of time. It was due in part to the technology we used while the sheer skill of our fellow team members made up for the rest. What made everything truly worthwhile was seeing complete strangers become so engrossed in something you had put your heart and soul into. With that, I can only say for anyone that has ever thought about attending a hackathon or game jam, go do it. Go do it now! Once you have threaded that needle, you will come out a changed person and all for the better.

To play the game make sure you have the Unity web player installed and click here.

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