Pixels and Jams at the 2017 Global Game Jam

Over the past weekend, aspiring game devs from all over the world built games together from start to finish in a 48-hour period. And I was one of them.

Edmonton was one of the many cities to host a space for jammers to meet up, form teams, and create cool stuff. We dreamed up ideas way too big for our britches, painstakingly crafted art and narrative and gameplay and music and everything that goes into a playable game, and went slightly crazy trying to make it all work. I met some old friends and some new friends, and overall I’m proud of what we accomplished.

Let me start from the beginning. I heard about the Global Game Jam from my friend and associate Vanessa a couple weeks ago. One of my 2017 goals is to create a game–a game I specifically have in mind and plan to develop on my own, but nonetheless, having more experience in that field always helps. So I signed up, hoping to make some connections, maybe give away some of my shiny new business cards, and ideally be able to write a killer game narrative.

Now I mean business.

I joined up with my friend and business partner, Shawn, prior to the start of the jam so that we could pick up our business cards from the printers (gotta network in this crazy world). Once we found the right building, we made our way into a room already slightly crowded with young game enthusiasts. I spoke to a guy who was standing by himself, asking him if he’d been to game jams before, what his specialty was, what kind of games he liked. Soon enough, I had my first team member: Ryan, a sound expert with years of game jam experience. Except it wasn’t the first time I’d met Ryan, as I found out later. I dated his sister some eight years ago. Small world.

Once we learned the theme (prompt, if you will) of this year’s jam, we started teaming up into groups of 2-5. I ran into an old BioWare teammate of mine, Domini Gee, so I employed her help as well. She’s also a writer, though she knew a few game dev tricks, having made some visual novels almost entirely on her own. After that, people came to us. Since we only needed two more, we had to encourage some of our new friends to form their own teams, as we picked out a programmer (Aaron), and a designer (Jordan). With that, we were ready to get brainstorming.

Ready to jam.

Waves was the theme. They could be sound waves, waves in the ocean, people waving their hands–anything with waves. We decided on waves of enemies, reversing the usual tower defense style and opting for a game that required the player to send waves of enemies at a hero character. We conceived it as a love story–the dark lord was inviting the hero to dinner, but the overlord’s guards didn’t know about (or approve of) the affair, so they tried to kill the hero before they could reach the overlord. The player (overlord) must send monsters at the hero to level them up enough to take on the guards, without overwhelming the hero with monsters. We called the game “Don’t Kill the Hero” to drive home the point. It was a game of balance–between experience and health.

Unfortunately for the two writers in the group, it wasn’t the most story-focused game idea. Domini and I crafted a very charming opening and ending scene, but between that it was all gameplay.

I found myself playing the part of the artist. Since my game art experience was limited to pixel art, that’s what I did. I made a knight, three monsters, the guards, and the overlord, and animated the lot of them. Oh, and the title screen. All in two days, with only very limited pixel art experience, and just about zero animation experience. I gotta say, I’m kind of proud I could put it all together.

The Jade Knight strikes!

Ryan made a killer soundtrack inspired by Castlevania, Domini found some background art assets and organized the project on the Game Jam site, Jordan put together the opening and ending scenes, and Aaron programmed the gameplay in Unity.

We had a solid team and we were doing great. Until about an hour before the deadline.

As soon as we tried to hook up the opening and ending scenes, everything blew up. Enemies turned invincible, the text changed from white to black (so you couldn’t read it), and one of our background environments turned into one of my bat monsters. Yeah, the whole room turned into a flapping bat, animated and everything.

Uh. “It’s a feature.”

Grr. Argh.

The thing was, these bugs weren’t consistent. They happened randomly when re-loading Unity, so we spent so much time just trying to figure things out that we had to settle for a stable build. A build that didn’t have our opening and closing scenes, not to mention a lot of other features we wanted. Our scenes looked great, but we just couldn’t get them to work in the actual game. With more time, we could have, but that’s game dev for you.

So we submitted what worked. We used one of the four or five songs Ryan created. Entire models and animations had to go. Our adorable love story was gone. All we had was the ability to send enemies at a knight–the background didn’t even scroll like it was supposed to.

But we loved our concept. We had a blast. We met cool people. And we want to go back to it soon to give it a proper treatment.

After the “swish reveal” ending. Our Fabio-esque lovers unmasked!

Basically, I want to make indie games for a living. That’s the moral of the story.

– H.

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