Not all of the coolest video game ideas are coming out of marquee-level video game studios, complete with Hollywood-level budgets attached to them.
A growing number are coming out of game jams: weekend-long events where anyone with an interest in creating a video game can meet up, join a team and begin to create a working game over the course of 60 hours. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a programmer; if you can write a story, contribute art, compose music or test play, you’re good to go. And some of the projects that have come out of these events have been as weird and amazing as any pixellated dream you can conjur.
At a recent game jam event, hosted by California State University East Bay, roughly three dozen on-site participants filed in on a Friday afternoon. Many were students at CSU East Bay, while others lived in the area or had heard about the event via its Facebook page. After settling everyone down in an auditorium, Ian Pollock, a professor at CSU East Bay’s Multimedia Graduate Program and coordinator of the game jam events at the school, introduced the jam’s theme: bridging the physical and the virtual worlds.
Once the theme has been established for a game jam, participants form into teams, decide on roles for the creation of the game and, in the case of the CSU East Bay game jams, begin spitballing game ideas while scribbling loose notes and drawings onto poster-sized sheets of paper. Walk through the room and you’ll see a crazed outpouring of ideas, including medieval strategy titles, games with space monsters, role-playing games, a music simulator—even a PTSD simulator based around the real-life experiences of veterans.
From early Friday afternoon to Sunday evening, when the games are scheduled for peer review, the teams grind away on their titles. Some go the traditional route and hunker over graphics, audio files and line after line of code, while others lay out plans for tabletop board games or head down to the campus shop to begin working with a laser cutter, 3D printer or X-acto knives.
Throughout the weekend, guest speakers lecture on topics like code, storyline, strategy games and how to navigate the video-game industry. Mentors are on hand to help with more difficult questions. The next few days tick by in a blur of coding, adding new elements, making last-minute changes, scarfing snacks, staving off sleep and the final sprint to test titles and make sure they’ll function for the final presentation, when the work is projected in the packed auditorium.
Over the course of the game jam, one team pulled off something that caught everyone off guard. A four-person team split their time between the computer classrooms—where pretty much everyone commanded screens, graphics tablets and digital audio systems—and the Construct 2 room, where they had access to intricate tools. They began fabricating strange elements out of pieces cardboard. No one else had a clue what they were aiming for.
The result was brilliant. The team had attached small, wireless Arduino sensors to the cardboard pieces and built both a cardboard city and a monster suit—complete with a cardboard head, giant claws and feet—for the user to wear, allowing him or her to score points within the game by destroying the city while a fog machine blasted out smoke across the darkened auditorium.
The team then strapped Glenn Brooks, a 26-year-old Multimedia major from the Bay Area, into the suit and let him loose upon the cardboard city. Brooks picked up cardboard buildings and tanks and threw them into the remains of the city while sensors recorded the destruction and displayed his bonus score via projector.
“It was pretty freaking awesome,” says Brooks. “As soon as I saw the monster head and the claws, I was like ‘Oh man, please let me wear that, please.’"
But the jam’s rewards went beyond wanton cardboard destruction.
“What’s really interesting and seems to be working really well is that through these design activities, people explore and develop new skills,” says Ian Pollock, the event’s coordinator. “Some of the commentary we heard was like ‘Oh, I didn’t know where to start.’ It’s kind of like you get thrown into this big pile and discover there are all these possibilities.”
Game jam participant Adrian Ubiarco echoes the sentiment: “I want to be really well rounded. I don’t want to focus on one thing, like just focus on the art or focus on the coding. I want to be able to be self-sufficient.”
The products of game jam events are prototypes, but they represent where a game can go, especially if the team decides to stick together. Some titles, such as Goat Simulator, have gone on to become full-fledged commercial games available on platforms such as Steam, while others have grown into green-lit and funded games in development. Clearly it’s not only the developers in the luxury offices who are making a difference; it’s also the people coming out of the woodwork to find a role in their first-ever game jam, tapping into unknown or underused talents and making the gaming ecosystem a little more fun, diverse and wild.