Hidden away in the workshop room of Zurich’s Museum of Digital Art, this weekend my friends and I made a game. Well…by “game” I mean…actually I have no idea what I mean. Let’s say we made a surreal yet competitive interactive experience. What I took part in was a game jam: 45 hours to conceptualise, design and code a game from scratch.

epic game jam

A sneak peak of the team at the end of the jam

While I have been involved in the video game industry for a few years across various support roles, this was my first time really  making something I could call my own. For anyone interested in taking part in one, I thought it was worth sharing my experience in order to take away some of the mystery. This is by no means a survival guide, there are plenty of those already. Simply a few takeaways from a novice designer learning the ropes.

But what is it?

Game jams take form in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the enormous Global Game Jam to niche and genre specific ones taking place solely online. What I took part in was the Epic Game Jam, one of the largest jams Switzerland with over 75 people taking part. The main event with the bulk of jammers takes place in Neuchetel at the local film festival. We, however, were based in Zurich where 14 developers had registered to take part.

epic game jam

Little known fact: this is actually how all game developers come up with ideas

Kicking off at 8pm, we huddled in the workshop room watching a livestream from the main event. On stage were the organisers, huddled around a “three-boobed” abstract Piñata. From the outset it is clear that this jam is about having fun and not taking everything too seriously. A wheel of fortune is spun and a lucky developer is invited to the stage. Handed a blindfold and his weapons of destruction, a spatula and a spoon, he goes to work. Soon the piñata cracks open and the main theme is revealed…

“SURPRISE!!!”

We had our target and we set to work brainstorming. Our team was taking the event quite casually, so only three of the five members were able to be on-site for the reveal. A group chat had been set up and the others were soon notified of the theme we were to focus on. Our line-up consisted of three IT students, a marketer with a passion for music, and myself, an engineer in original intention but anything else by final decision. On this occasion my role was to be “art and graphics”, though please consider that to be expressed while encased in very over emphasized air quotes.

After a quick battle of mind-maps vs list-based thinkers, we had a few feasible ideas. Opening presents is hopefully often a surprise, so maybe there was something we could make with Santa delivering gifts. Alternatively game shows are often built on their twists and turns, so perhaps we could do something in between Monty’s Halls and some clever wordplay to subvert the expectation of the player. What we settled on was making the mechanics of the game itself a constant surprise through a series of mini-games.

Taking stock of our ability level and experience, it seemed like a simultaneously sensible but ambitious idea. Each of the three coders could focus on building their own mini-game. It was more work overall, but this allowed each of them to work fairly independently. We had a rough outline, a fridge generously stocked with alcohol, and a pretty banging collaborative playlist: it was time to get to work.

Let the Games (Design) Begin!

One of the aspects that distinguishes Epic Game Jam from the crowd is the onslaught of sub-themes that it unleashes. Throughout the 45 hours new themes are constantly released, right the way up to the deadline. Via an app you can vote for whether a given theme goes to the blue team or the yellow team. As a technicality you actually only choose your team when you submit your game, but it’s good sportsmanship to choose upfront. We had no particular preference, so chose yellow just because the other team in the room chose blue. Nothing like a bit of friendly rivalry.

game jam

Sometimes its easier to keep track of things in analogue, despite being surrounded by computers

A few hours into the first night we have a selection of themes already. “Rouge Panda” was to become a game about applying applying rouge to a panda. “Mustache Balloon” turned into a present delivery system where players catch them falling from the sky. We took “Framerate Affects Gameplay” in name only and set to work on a pong clone where the speed of the game can be adjusted. It was certainly an eclectic mix but we were having fun and that mattered most to us.

Night at the Museum

On our first night we stayed active until about 3 am, coming up with ideas, setting the groundwork for Unity, GitHub and file-sharing for assets. I’m no stranger to all-nighters but as this was my first game jam there was no way we were pushing ourselves to the brink for a learning exercise. Those of us that lived close by went home to sleep and those who lived a little further afield slept on inflatable mattresses at the museum. It was certainly an interesting experience to be surrounded by all sorts of kinetic sculptures in the midnight hour.

The second day started pretty chilled around 11:00, after a few members of the team taking a dip in the lake. We had been told to make sure we weren’t sleeping in the exhibition space by the time the museum opened…apparently that has been a problem in the past. After a few hours plugging away at Photoshop, I had to drop out to go do some “real work”. Unfortunately it happens, but just because you can’t commit to the full 45 hours of a jam is no reason to be put off.

game jam

After I made these, the Photoshop Police came and took my license away

Throughout the rest of Saturday we made slow but steady work on our sections, occasionally complaining or complementing the playlist additions of our compatriots. By the end of the day we by no means had working prototypes, but they were on their way and vaguely resembled our vision. At this point we had tried to fit as many subthemes into the design of the games as possible. It was clear I should never be allowed near Photoshop again.

The Final Stretch

This, unsurprisingly, is the part where the stress started mounting somewhat. Right in the middle of trying to figure out what order we put the mini-games in, we were stopped and asked to explain what we were doing to a group of children doing a workshop at the museum. We were of course more than happy to oblige, but more stress is more stress.

“Does everything work? Is the title screen finished? What do we end on? What are we even called?” There were plenty of questions flying round the room with the occasional answer popping up from over a monitor. In the final moments we settled on the name “Themocalypse” as we had tried to fit in as many of the Yellow team’s subthemes as possible, even if it was just via written text or the “player characters”. The title screen was actually updated in the build about three times to include new themes that were still being announced.

game jam

Choose your fighter

With a few minutes left on the clock our game was built, double checked that it ran and uploaded. It was over, we had actually made a game. We each cracked open a celebratory drink and toasted to our success, playing an inaugural round of our madness-induced multiplayer game.

The Aftermath

We helped clear up, parted ways, and went home to get some much needed rest. We were happy with what we created even if it was very bizarre. The next day the organisers streamed themselves playing through all of the titles submitted. Seeing them enjoy the game despite all its flaws (of which there were many, like the GUI not scaling properly and we also just stated the controls wrong) was incredibly gratifying and made all that effort instantly seem worth it. If you’d like to play it, you can find it here amongst the other games submitted.

game jam

“Who won!? Who’s next? You decide! Epic Game Jams of History”

For anyone thinking of taking part in a game jam but hesitant to do so, I would honestly suggest just going for it. If you don’t have the skills to make a game by yourself (I most certainly didn’t and still don’t) then grab some friends and figure it out as you go along. Setting yourself an achievable and realistic goal that you can reach while still having plenty of sleep is absolutely a method I would apply again. I would have loved to be at the main venue with a few more people around to network with and learn from, but a group of friends to keep the morale up is far more important.

Go forth, have fun, and make the world a more playful place.