We’re at the Birmingham NEC, and six teams are beavering away on what might become the next big thing in indie gaming. Musicians turn up their headphones as designers exchange ideas across the table. They jostle for elbow space with programmers, who, in turn, nudge back as they furiously type code.
The final bell goes and the teams slump in their chairs, exhausted. We’re at the Creative Assembly Game Jam at Rezzed, and 24 participants have just climbed Mount Everest.
There’s something about being at a game jam that makes you survey the process of game development through a slightly different lens – and that’s why we think every person working in or around game development should attend at least one during their careers. These remarkable acts of creative endurance are extreme versions of the game development we do on a daily basis, with much more limited timescales and resources.
They’re experimental in nature, wildly unpredictable and all the more impressive and surprising as a consequence. Game jams are Large Hadron Colliders for ideas. People, some of whom have never met before the day of the event, are smashed together; and out of this collision, under the intense pressure of deadlines, a wild new starburst of unexplored concepts and unfamiliar ground develops, and genre-canon is thrown to the winds. Or a black hole is created, consuming space and time.
But this is science, dammit, and the rewards generally outweigh the risks. There’s a school of thought that says design should work from the basic building blocks – start only with what is required and subtract the fluff.
For developers who have experienced years of designing a game, with a GDD that looks like a tome, it’s hard to imagine a world like this, and that brings a certain thrill to it for many participants, some of whom work in established studios.
You’re putting everything on the line, for everyone to see, and the line between success and failure is that much more obvious because of it. Ideas don’t have the benefit of months or years of iteration. They are bare, pure notions of gameplay, exposed right down to their cores, not disguised by layers of features.
The winning entry at the game jam was voted for by a panel of all-star judges: Chris Avellone from Obsidian, Keith Stuart from The Guardian, and the affable Ed Stern from Splash Damage – all with decades of experience of games (sorry, guys) between them, and all of them visibly and verbally impressed with the originality on offer.
To give you an idea of the brilliance that can be accomplished in just 24 hours, the winning team at produced a fantastic two-player game called 80 Spies: a game built on an extremely simple concept – movement and disguise.
The game starts with 40 randomly-moving sleuths on a dance floor (the titular reference to 80 Spies coming from the fact that they’re double agents), and each player controls one of the spies. The twist is, they don’t know immediately which agent they are controlling, so they must move the controller to first establish this without giving away – through overtly human behaviour – which spy they are.
Each spy must surreptitiously sidle on over to a suitcase containing a gun without alerting the other spy that they are not a CPU being, moving in a computer-controlled way. Once they have the gun, they can shoot their opponent, but it’s a race against time so your aim has to be true.
BEATING THE DICE
Concept, high tension: that’s quite an achievement. But all six teams managed to impress with original ideas – one of which basically beat DICE to a Mirror’s Edge sequel with its rooftop parkour, and another blew us all away with its freeform, instrument-stacking music generation.
All this after 24 hours of working together. There’s much to be said for human endeavour and the creative harmony that comes from working in a small team when you’re up against an incredibly short deadline.
We’re thinking about running our own game jams internally. As well as providing a potential breeding ground for new ideas, they create a vibrant sense of teamwork and competition that just can’t be inspired artificially.
A team is more than the sum of its parts – that much is obvious – but smashing a number of unfamiliar creative forces together can produce wholly unexpected results, and that has value for even the most established and successful studio.