So about a month ago I attended the 5th Global Game Jam at Collin College. To sum it up it was quite an experience. It was my first time doing a game jam with other people in the same place, it was a really awesome environment to work in. It seemed like every few minutes someone was doing something really awesome. There were about 40 people attending and 12 groups, most of which were able to finish a game.
My group was not one of those.
The theme of the jam was the sound of a heartbeat. Some of the games people made from that are really cool and I encourage readers to check them out here. But I’m not here to talk about those.
My idea was to have a simple auto-running game in which the player doesn’t directly control the character on the screen, but instead controls the pacemaker of the character on screen. The character was a jogger, and the faster his heart pumped due to the pacemaker, the faster he would run and higher he would jump if necessary. If his heart rate went too high or too low he would die from it and the game would be over. To make things more difficult along the way there would be things that would make his heart rate increase or decrease. These ended up being implemented as a ghost, or a poster of a cat saying “stay cool!”. When we were pitching ideas to each other, I was able to find a team that seemed interested in working on it with me and we got started the next day, since some of them had to leave that night. On the team we had Matt, an artist who specializes in concept art and painting. Nik was interested in doing level design, and Travis who worked with flashpunk. I was doing game design, pixel art, and music, as well as organizing the project.
On the first day I really don’t think I explained my design idea well enough. I probably should have tried to make a cohesive design document to get everyone on the same page. However on the first day we didn’t have access to the PC lab and nobody on the team had a laptop with them, so most of the team decided to call it a night early, Travis said he would start a prototype version at home. So for the rest of that night I just helped other teams with their designs.
On the next day we finally got started when the lab opened up in the morning. When Travis got in to show the prototype he had worked on I realized my mistake with presenting my design. The game worked to an extent. The timer for counting how fast the player was pressing the buttons to control the “heart beat” was impressive and worked fairly well. There were some issues with how the game worked, and with the structure of the levels, but I decided since we were already late starting we should just work with that.
This part of the jam was probably the most fun I had there. Matt had brought in some concept art and it was great, the character in the game quickly came to life for us, and we decided he needed a name. From the concept art we determined that he was kind of a happy-go-lucky meathead jogger, completely unconcerned with the state of his heart. His name had to be something that described his completely amped up state. After a few suggestions we came up with the first name of Pump to fit the heart theme. Shortly later Pump Jackson was born, and it was great.
After this things were on a roll. I came up with the name of the game “Pace of Cake”, and Matt and I began churning out assets. After we were done this is what the game was supposed to look like.
This is most of what we got done that day, I was pretty happy with the way things were turning out. The system was pretty janky but Nik was doing a great job making levels that exploited the strange system and made it something still fun with a lot of depth to it. It was turning into a much different game than I had planned but it was still fun in a way.
This is where things started to go downhill. Most of the team was getting tired. The jam had provided like 20 cases of NOS energy drinks and a big ol’ box of candy which I carefully avoided, and I think it was causing a lot of people there to start to crash hard by the end of the night. We wrapped up what we were working on and called it a night. We were pretty sure we could wrap everything up and get the final pieces implemented before the deadline the next day, after all it was pretty much playable.
The last day of the jam was when the game died on the tracks. Travis emailed me in the morning to tell me that he had gotten sick and wouldn’t be able to make it in that day. I did what I could to try to recover it. I have worked with actionscript before and FlashPunk is somewhat similar to my engine of choice, Flixel. However I quickly realized that it was a futile effort.
Jam code is always messy, it can’t be avoided. To make a game in a weekend you can’t spend a lot of time cleaning as you go. When I finally got into the code I was horrified. I couldn’t determine anything about it at all (and of course being jam code there wasn’t a comment to be found). I was hoping to be able to at least implement the tileset I had made for the game so we could just build a series of levels and loop them, but the game wasn’t really structured for tiles. It was based on different sized horizontal blocks, so many of the decorative elements I wasn’t able to implement. In the end all I managed to do was put in a couple of static sprites and re-skin the blocks to look like the tiles I had made. I put music in but the way the game was written it restarted the whole scene every time the player made a loop around the one level we could implement. I wasn’t able to find a way to get the music to loop without stacking onto itself.
The last version of the game is here if anyone wants to try it. Turn your volume down if you do, the music stacking gets pretty bad. The only controls are the control keys, and you just spam those to play.
To sum things up, in postmortem tradition…
What Went Right:
- Had a lot of fun.
- Had a good asset workflow for a day, though most of it didn’t get implemented.
- I realized the power of good level design. I wish more of the levels that Nik made were playable, he managed to really make something out of a broken system.
- Made a character that will definitely be back to haunt my games.
What Went Wrong:
- I should have worked more closely with Travis, if I had been working with him while he made the game I would definitely have been better equipped to take his place when he got sick.
- Started on a vague design. My plan for the game was a much more horizontal, open level design, with very different pacing. I should have made that clearer and given a guideline on how it should have been structured.
- Give the programmer a structure outline to follow. As the project leader I should have made sure that the code would work with the assets we were making, things didn’t quite fit together in the end.
All together, the project was a failure but the Game Jam was incredible. I don’t have any regrets about going. I made friends there and got to work for the first time with a lot of creative, like minded people in a face to face setting. I learned a lot about working with a team and I can’t wait until I get to do it again.