On Game Jam Virginity

This past Saturday was a sunny affair. A light breeze and a few fluffy clouds gave the entire day that carefree dreamlike quality that summer days are known for. I was fortunate enough to appreciate the Eden-monton 1 on my walk from the train to the coolest brick warehouse I’ve been to.

The Mercer building itself is a modernized hundred-or-so-year old red-brown brick warehouse, complete with floorboards, soft track lighting, exposed brick interiors, and a reassuring aroma of old, solid hardwood. Tall and narrow shipping openings that line the first floor’s north face have been repurposed as windows to the Mercer Tavern. Startup Edmonton’s floors above are dotted with wide latticed windows that welcome in light. Years of hard work have permeated the brick, and now the stalwart old edifice shelters shiny new businesses. It reminds me of an ancient sea shell 2 housing generations of industrious life.

It was there, on that cheerful June morning, that business partner Jason Duncan, former colleague “Young” Matt Church, 3 and I met to participate in a Retro Game Jam. While this was my first time with a jam that doesn’t spread on toast, I was aware of the general format: build as much as you can on a topic within a day or two. This particular jam focused on retro games to limit the scope to something reasonable to complete in a day.

A couple minutes after I filled out our duo to a trio, the organizer called everyone together to kickstart the event with a rough description of what was going on, a standard sponsor presentation & thanks, and then splitting us up into teams. Anyone with an idea could pitch, stand off in a corner, and be joined by those remaining. Most people there already seemed to have a group, though a couple singletons joined other groups. With or without previous connections, everyone there was friendly and welcoming.

We all broke off to get down to business. Young Matt and Jason had previously decided on using Asteroids as our inspiration. Since none of us is exceptionally artistic (in visual arts, anyway) we settled on a low-fidelity, doodle-inspired aesthetic. I got started on art assets while the other two paired on getting the logic into place. First a simple game world, then movement, then turning, then screen-wrapping. 4 It was cool to watch their progress while I got to churn out intentionally bad hand-drawn art and taking trips to record all our audio on my phone in a breakout room. I looked a bit crazy, running off to hide in a breakout rook alone under my jacket, 5 but one must be willing to look the fool for art.

I doubt that too many people there even noticed. The room was abuzz with activity from the various groups. We were lucky to also have sponsor-provided snacks (candy, chips, coke) early on, and sponsor-provided pizza lunch later. That saved us some time in having to go forage a few blocks away for quick, portable food caffeinated sugar.

Screenshot with space rocks

Pew Pew!

After lunch, Young Matt and Jason got the collision detection, shooting, and smokey particle effects in. In the last hour, Jason and I got asteroids spawning at random locations on the screen, with random velocity and spin, and made the game respawn more space rocks as the player pew-pewed them into fluffy oblivion. In the hurried rush of the final ten minutes, Matt added a simple scoring mechanism, I nabbed a font online, and we had our final critical path feature. We completed our build just as time ran out.

Whooshy swirlies that precede space rocks

We covered the random location spawning with a Oscar-worthy wormhole effect.

Overall, the day was a complete blast. Being able to complete a small, working game was a great feeling. A large portion of our success is owed to Young Matt. He came prepared with the Unity installers and previous knowledge of the engine. As always, he pushed ahead at an impressive speed, which is always an asset. 6 The energized environment provided helpful momentum to get past blocks, and kept morale high.

The low-key, just-for-fun atmosphere also prevented stress from mounting until the very last hour or so. I fully recommend attending an event like this if you’re interested in getting into the games industry, want to try a new technology, or just want to get a little side project started. Events like this are a great, low-risk opportunity to test-drive beyond hello-world exercises. If you are new to whatever tech you’re using, get familiar with it beforehand so that you don’t spend all your time learning the gas pedal from the brake.

Our tools:

  1. Unity Game Engine 4.5
  2. MonoDevelop (the unity code editor)
  3. Paint.net
  4. HD Audio Recorder Pro by Motivity Labs 7
  5. Audacity

You can sign up for these things through Meetup, or Eventbrite. I recommend poking into the Startup Edmonton meetup groupbecause they have many different groups’ events listed there. If you’re shy, just bring a similarly-interested friend and you’ll definitely have an easier time. I’d love to see more women at these kinds of events in the future. 8

I’m quite pleased with how this project turned out. We got a full game out of the day, and I’m really happy with the result. The aesthetic was an excellent choice, simultaneously hiding any flaws while providing a chuckle. The gameplay itself was fairly easy to create in the allotted time, especially given a couple diversions down compiling-for-Linux 9 road.

Notes:

  1. Edmonton is not always so cold as to require you to port a manteau.
  2. I’m told that if you hold it up to you ear, you can hear the internet.
  3. While we all worked at ScriptEase, Matt was so nicknamed for his youthful vigor, an homage to Young Neil of Scott Pilgrim vs the World. Also, he’s literally younger than Jason and I, so, there’s that.
  4. Wrapping was more difficult than expected. Kudos to the original Asteroid designers for doing it on limited resources
  5. A quick and dirty echo-dampening trick I picked up from game modding research. Ideally it would be a heavy-blanket, but I didn’t exactly have much on hand.
  6. Thanks, Matt!
  7. I am very happy with this one. It did exactly what I needed with a simple interface
  8. There was a Ladies Learning Code session held at the same time, and it sort of felt like a Jr. High dance. Hopefully we can get LLC strong enough to start getting more balance.
  9. Still unsuccessful, but it was worth a couple tries