Monday, February 2, 2009

Global Game Jam 2009

This weekend I participated in the Boston chapter of the Global Game Jam. Overall I think it was a great experience and provided me with an opportunity to do something I've been meaning to do...make games for the hell of it! Plus, networking is always good.

My original intent was to blog about the Jam every day, make it a three part series. But, a lack of computer and limited sleep time didn't help that. Then I thought I'd write everything at the end and backdate the entries, but looking back at it now, nothing terribly excited happened during each day. So, you're getting a post-game wrap up.

Friday, January 30th

I arrived at the Singapore-GAMBIT Game Lab at MIT in Cambridge, MA about 4:40pm or so. Later than I had planned, but still plenty early (perhaps it was a good thing that I hit a tiny bit of traffic on my commute in). Some light chatting with the others, and then we got down to business. A brief overview of what to expect for the weekend...schedule, important information, all that fun stuff. We had several constraints/themes to work with. Our total gameplay had to be no more than 5 minutes. We could choose one of three words: illusionary, persistant or pointed. We had a quote, "As long as we have each other, we will never run out of problems." And finally, we were challenged with making a game around 120 beats per minute. How that got implemented, was up to us. The idea was that at the end, we could play all of the games at once and everything be synched up.

Let me say that the GAMBIT lab is a very nice facility. Although first walking in, it seems easy to get lost, but it's really kind of a square-A shape (or, a figure 8 if you count the hallyway with the elevators). The most striking thing is that the rooms all have some section of translucent wall, a kind of plexiglass surface, and everyone uses them as whiteboards. It's neat, as you can sort-of make out the images from the other side of the wall, but they're usually set up in the corner, so there are tables or something else in the way which doesn't make them that effective of whiteboards, in my opinion. It's more of the cool factor, than anything. Also, they call their kitchenette the "Respawn Point".

So, we had 20 minutes or so to brainstorm game ideas, and afterwards we pitched them to the group. [Now, personally, this is where I would've liked a lot more time. Maybe because I'm just not that good, er, experienced, in coming up with original ideas that fast, but my favorite part of game design is taking an idea and rolling it around in the brain, fleshing it out a bit, analyzing it against basic game design principles.] We then took these ideas, written on index cards, and pinned them up on the wall. Everyone then pinned their name and "job" (art and code, mostly...though we had a few sound and music guys there that ended up working a bit on all the projects) up next to the project they wanted to work on. In this way, the ideas got sifted down and people shifted around until we had about 6 total projects. And with that, we were on our way.

Dinner was Thai take out. My first time trying Thai food, actually.

Most of the rest of the evening was brainstorming with our group, figuring out the details of gameplay and all that fun stuff, which I really like. Our project ended up being a combination of two project pitches, as there weren't enough people in either group, so we joined up, and our ideas ended up working together. One idea was a Pac-Man sort of game, where the player controls two entities at once, but one entity moves at right angles to the other. And the directions each entity can move changes when it hits certain obstacles. The idea was to collect pulsating "pellets" (this is where the 120 bpm comes in), and you could only actually gather the pellet on its "upswing". The other idea played more on the "together, we never run out of problems" quote, and it wasn't much besides the title and a sketch, "Porcupine and Balloon are Friends". So, we kept that title, and the entities became the titular characters. We then filled in the gameplay with plenty of ideas, about altering speed, the size of the characters, various obstacles, special powers, and tying the gameplay together with some music.

The last decision was about development environment. One idea was to use a kind of IDE that Popcap Games has released (I'll have to investigate that further - Popcap rules!), but it would have taken too long to set up. Somehow we ended up deciding to use Yoyo Games' Game Maker. And the weirdest part was, I was more of an expert on the program than anyone else in the group!

A word of caution. Sure, Game Maker might catch a lot of flack. But, it does do good in that you can create a game prototype fairly quickly. However, MULTIPLE PEOPLE WORKING ON THE SAME GAME FILE IS A PAIN IN THE BUTT. It's just not multi-developer friendly, and in the end, I think that's why were weren't able to get as much done in the end as we would have liked. The "solution" we came up of trying to merge game files together is just much more of a hassle than it really ought to be.

Saturday, January 31

Really, not a lot happened on Saturday besides spending just about all day developing. We spent a good chunk of the day just hammering out more effective movement code. The original idea was easy to implement: when the player pressed a button, move one thing in that direction, and move the other in a perpendicular direction. But, when one collided, the other moved forward a step (usually because it could), which was something we didn't wanted. So there's all sorts of crazy checks, including ghost objects which handle the collision detection (and if they can both move freely, then the character sprites moved).

Lunch was Chinese food, and dinner was Middle Eastern. Again, Middle Eastern was a new one for me. Weird, I know...I'm just not that big into exotic food.

Sunday, Februrary 1

We really went down to the wire, trying to get as many of our features implemented as we could before our 3pm deadline. We had something fairly workable, but once again, thanks to our Game Maker problem, our final integration resulted in a lot of bug that would have taken too long to really sort out. I mean, it works, but it's very finicky and very liable to break on you. Unfortunately, that also mean that our sounds and music were a casualty, since they got put off for so long in the project. Heck, we almost didn't have a game start or win conditions. Still never got around to lose conditions, come to think of it.

We eventually got our stuff uploaded to the main database, and we gathered together in one of the rooms for brief presentations, and a chance to play each other's games. Plus, an informal vote for best game. I would recommend you look them up yourself on the Global Game Jam page and play them...look for "The Beat" and "Move mouse for your destiny". The Beat is a two-player cooperative puzzle game, with a sort of "The Blob" 50's B-movie style theme, but it really takes the 120 bpm idea to heart. Everything is in time to the music, including trap doors which you must cross, and the actions you take must fall on the beat of a measure. The "Move Mouse" game is extremely simple, it's almost abstract, but very poignant and aesthetically satisfying. You run through life, starting as a young kid working your way up through adulthood, and you move between tending a farm, building a house, and entertaining guests. It starts off slowly, the idea being that it seems like time passes slowly when you're a kid, but it ramps up quickly and you're spazzing out trying to take care of everything. It's more complicated than it sounds; really, you have to deliberately not do anything to really "lose" the game.

Again, these two were voted the best among our group, but the other games are worth a look as well.

While "Porcupine and Balloon are Friends" at this point doesn't seem to be that successful, I think it holds a lot of potential. There's still plenty of things to accomplish and a lot of challenge can be designed into it. Maybe it'll get converted to the Popcap thing and it'll work out better...I'll let you know if it does.

Keep an eye on the website for the game. Or, go to the Global Game Jam site now and download it yourself.

And thanks to everyone who worked with me on the project, and everyone else who participated in the really was a great experience!

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