Global Game Jam 2016: On Making a Game in 48 Hours

“So is this it then?” I asked one of the Herzing University professors leading the 2016 Global Game in Madison Wisconsin. “We just play each others’ games for two hours and then you kick us out?” By this point, my sixth wind was gone and all I wanted to do was crawl into a small, dark place and sleep forever.

“That’s it.”

“Why the hell do we do this? It’s crazy!”

The professor, whose name I don’t remember and who I’m strongly paraphrasing because I was rocking maybe seven hours of sleep over a 48-hour period, grins and says, “There’s something off or broken about game designers, but the fun thing is, it’s always the same thing. I dunno why we do it. But we do, and we love it.”

I laughed, because it’s true.

My brother is a programmer, and a damn good one at that. This is his third or fourth Game Jam, and the wait leading up to them is basically his equivalent of yearning for Christmas. Given the people I worked with and talked two over the weekend, I’d say he’s not the only one who thinks that way. These are people who live to draw, to color, to design, to create music, to program, to…well, make games.

There were around 40 of us in all, perhaps a bit more. We first crammed together into a small classroom to get a rundown of how things would go and what this year’s theme would be. As I looked around, it really hit me how diverse gaming and game making is. Interacting with people online is faceless and text voiceless, so it can be hard to tell what kinds of people play and make the things we love.

As it turns out: anyone and everyone.

But though us 40 or so people acted as a colorful, diverse cast of characters, we were hardly different. The lot of us are nerds. Big nerds, small nerds, white nerds, black nerds, European nerds, Latin American nerds, girl nerds, male nerds, nerds, nerds, and more nerds. Or geeks if you prefer. The words are honestly synonyms in my eyes.

The very first conversation I got into at the Game Jam was about the new Star Wars movie. There was no, “high my name is…” prior to this; it was just, “Hey, we need to talk about Star Wars right now!” We did.

Everyone wore their passions on their sleeves here, and it was absolutely awesome.

With a brief presentation concluded and our theme given (this years was Ritual), those with teams left and those without assimilated into groups. My brother and myself already had a team put together, so I followed him to what he assured me was the best room for this event. At this point, there were only two of us; Courtney would show up later and Trent was going to remote in from across the country. Both are artists, and both are really, really talented. It was an absolute pleasure working with them.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The room we entered was, like most of the rooms at a school with a game development program, filled with computers. It was also surrounded with glass. The students at Herzing collectively refer to it as the, “Fishbowl,” and it’s the only computer lab with a view of the outside world. If the sun is out, you get real sunlight; if the sun has set, you get starlight.

I am no stranger to locking myself in a dark place and working, but having honest-to-god windows available really helped with morale. It’s easy to feel trapped or suffocated when in a basement or window-less office room.

The problem was, the computers in the Fishbowl weren’t as up-to-date as many of the others throughout the school. The room was deserted, and we had to track down an IT guy (super cool dude and the unsung hero of the event) to help us out. This cost my brother an hour and myself two, since the first computer I grabbed had a bad habit of turning itself off without my permission.

Once we were set up, we got started!

It was around this point that what I thought was a tickle in the back of my throat due to dust exploded into a full-blown cold complete with loss of appetite and a low fever. Two hours in and already I wanted to go home.

It was also around this time that the Fishbowl got some company. Two Herzing Alumni showed up, ready to work on something. They weren’t really sure what. They logged into their respective computers and were dismayed by the lack of any useful programs. They didn’t know what to do, since neither brought their own PCs.

I assumed they would either work with what was available or simply head home and call it a jolly good try. That latter was what I would have done and what I wanted to do at that moment. Instead, they left for home to grab their rigs. They returned at around 5:00 in the morning and set up.

These two were not going to miss this Jam for anything, and if that meant a four-hour drive and a completely sleepless night, then so be it.

And in the end, neither made a game at all. They had lost too much time retrieving their computers, so instead they worked on artwork and models for their own projects. The Jam was never about making a video game but about hanging out with friends, meeting new people, and creating for 48 straight hours.

Even now, I have no idea how someone stays in creative mode for so long. I had to take a ton of breaks, and I even made an effort to get sleep. That effort proved completely futile because these Game Jams are the equivalent of living like savages, but at least I tried. There’s not much one can do with a simple sleeping bag and a rock-hard floor though. Well, that and all the talking, ambient light, and energy going on around you.

Sleep really is not an option here.

Our team had a slight advantage in that we knew what kind of game we wanted to make. My brother and myself have shopped the specifics a few times, of a pair of cowboys defending a speeding train from monsters, and we wanted to prototype it. It sounds fun in theory, but is it in practice?

We were determined to find out, illness be damned.

I came to this specific Game Jam to work on sound. Normally I’m a writer and storyteller, but the kinds of games made at these Jams usually aren’t big enough for a narrative. I do know my way around FL Studio though, and sound design can make or break a game. My first night, then, was spent working on what would be one of two original songs for our game.

The night went by as a strange blur. My normal sessions with FL Studio usually end at around two hours, but here I worked seven straight. I got to a point where I really didn’t know what was going on, only that I had to stay in key. I’m sadly not always good at that. Only when the song was finished and properly mixed did I go to bed.

Day two opened up with worse cold symptoms and a heaping pile of sleep depravation. I went to the nearest gas station and got some Dayquil, because like our companions in the Fishbowl, going home was not an option.

Day two was also devoted to sound effects. With one song out of the way, it was time to give our guns some bangs, our train some chugachuga, and our monsters some angry snarls and howls. I don’t like making sound effects. They’re boring and kind of awful, but that day I churned out nine or ten of them. I’m happy with almost all of them.

Unlike day one which was nonstop work, day two consisted of lots of random conversations with anyone and everyone who would listen. I learned more about Gundam than I ever thought I would, was told to check out some strange anime, and found out that one of our Fishbowl companions had more video game music on his computer than I have non video game music on mine.

It was awesome.

I got to know our Fishbowl companions pretty well over the last 48 hours. Both are more passionate about video games than myself, and both are extremely talented. Sadly, one has some questionable views on Halo 4, but not everyone is perfect. We talked a lot, and before bed, stopped working and loaded up a video game my brother made for school a few years ago. It’s a top-down, multiplayer shooter with some really unique weapons, and we killed each other for about an hour.

We then decided not to sleep just yet and spent the next two hours watching Dragonball Z Abridged.

Bed—finally—came next, though had I stayed up, I would have been treated to a crash course in Magic the Gathering. I kind of regret not staying up for it, to be honest. Maybe next time.

I feel like I should back up a hair and talk about supper. Herzing ordered in 30 pizzas for us 40 or so people to eat, and watching everyone line up and devour all of them is something that will haunt me forever. I suppose since we were living like savages it gave us permission to eat like them too, but god damn.

Thanks to some Nyquil, day three greeted me with actual sleep and energy. Our team was sitting quite well at this point, with a fully playable thing and most of the artwork we needed done. It was time for one more song and some last-ditch programming to get in a few more enemies/mechanics.

I got the song done with no time to spare, and it’s mixing is awful because of it. It’s still a nice lil tune though, and I’ll be fixing it up at a later date.

We sadly didn’t get the last enemy in. There’s only so much that can be done in 48 hours.

And now I circle back to where I started, because with the games all done, the Fish Bowl turned into a place of Show-And-Tell. Everyone set up in it, and I remember looking around and thinking, “How are these people still functional?” None of them looked like they should be standing: unshowered, hair a mess, massive bags under their eyes, and enough junk food and soda to have their digestive systems plugged up for the next week, but there was more energy in this crowd now than when we all started.

Passion is a strange drug, one that can cause untold depression when it isn’t being used properly yet one that can also cause better highs than anything else. Passion is the thing that gets a team of three together, all with zero experience, and having them finish with a playable product. Was their game good? No. But I have more respect for it than any other project at the Jam. What that team did is downright insane.

At five, we were kicked out. My team and my Fishbowl companions headed to the nearest mall for food, enjoyed a few last-minute nerdy conversations, and then departed for home. They all plan on showing up again next year, and I think I’ll join them. I might lack some of the passion, and I might not be as broken as everyone in that room, but I think I’m unhinged enough to fit in.

Plus, there was a very disturbing lack of sound designers. Someone has to do it.

As to our game, it’s hard to know if it was a real success given the attachment. I like it, and I think it’s fun to play, but that’s to be expected. However, during Show-And-Tell, a younger kid showed up, someone’s brother perhaps, and he did not want to stop playing it. We had to kick him off to give other people a chance.

I think that means we did a good job.

For those curious, here’s a quick video of our game, which can be downloaded here

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