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How Game Jams improved our fictional universe and game design
by Tiago Rech on 06/09/14 05:32:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

The First Game Jam

It’s not uncommon for games developed in game jams to be expanded for commercial release. Recent examples include Evoland, which was made in Ludum Dare #24 and eventually greenlit on Steam; Gods Will be Watching, developed during Ludum Dare #26, and funded by a successful Indiegogo campaign; and most recently Superhot, created on the 7-Day First Person Shooter game jam and later crowdfunded on Kickstarter.

In December 2012, as a student team, we participated in Ludum Dare #25. The theme for that event was “you are the villain”, and our entry was a game called Fragmentorum, in which the player explores a mansion and pieces together its grisly story. Our main reference to that point had been horror movies, so elements like a thundering storm, a backwards radio message, and a flickering TV set featured prominently.

Fragmentorum was awarded first place in the Mood category, which inspired us to start our own company. Since Otus Game Studio was born from a game jam, it should come as no surprise how important these would become to our studio culture.

For the studio’s first project, we decided to expand upon Fragmentorum. However, rather than expanding the game, we decided to leave it for what it was and follow a different strategy: expand the game’s universe.

Concept art by Ricardo Bess, who greatly helped us establish the game's look

To that end, we chose a twofold strategy. First, we began work on a long-term commercial project in the same universe entitled Fragmentorum Alba. In parallel, we decided to use every possible game jam to create a short, freely distributed game experience set in the same universe. Thus, we could use the rapid, intense sessions of the game jams to both enrich the universe and increase awareness of it

Expanding the Concept

Ludum Dare #27 was our first opportunity to put this strategy to the test. The theme for this game jam was “ten seconds”, which originated a game called Argentum Form, an anagram for “Fragmentorum”. Once more, the player investigated a house, this time in the role of a 1960s man looking for his missing wife. The “ten seconds” theme took form in a TV countdown, common during that decade, and ten items which portray the couple’s life together. This game jam allowed us to add more personality to the game world and try out new things like 3D graphics and a camera rotation system.

We received excellent feedback on Argentum Form. IndieStatik posted a particularly important note about the game:

It is interesting to note that David Lynch was not one of our inspirations at the time. Our main reference for the game had been Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, so the comparison with Lynch’s work was a welcome surprise, and his movies quickly became one of our main references.

Argentum Form was the first of our games to be featured in a Let’s Play video on Youtube, which we all got together to watch. It was an exciting and unique experience! The game was awarded a 3rd place in the Mood category of Ludum Dare #27.

Indie Speed Run, choices and being a finalist

The next game jam we took part in was the 2013 edition of the Indie Speed Run. The Indie Speed Run does not have a general theme, providing instead a specific theme and element for each team. Our theme was “promotion” and our element “Yeti”.

At first, we worried the theme might be a problem. How could we develop a game in the surreal horror field when dealing with an overdone monster like the Yeti, and how would we fit in promotion? After some debate, we eventually brought the two together in the story of a police officer investigating a mysterious disappearance in some snowy mountains.

We named this game Niveus, which is Latin for “white as snow”. We started, from this point on, to name every game after a color. Our main game, Fragmentorum Alba, uses white, “alba”, the sum of all colors. It is the game that ties all others together.

Niveus gave us the chance to experiment with player choices, as well as being our first game with an external environment; the other games all happen inside closed houses. Having an outdoors story allowed us to play with certain details, such as a more distant camera, always in movement, as if the player is being watched by something hiding in the wilderness.

We tried out some new things in the environment. For example, the lighting changes as the game progresses, making later parts of the the game appear more dream-like. We added a radio tower, far in the background, which ties-in to the electronics theme of the Fragmentorum universe. We also introduced the Fragmentorum newspaper in this game. Fragmentorum is a tabloid-like newspaper, with sensationalist, conspiratory headlines. The newspaper appears in all proceeding games, further linking them together.

Niveus was chosen as an Indie Speed Run finalist by The Chinese Room’s Dan Pinchbeck, who praised the game’s polish and weird, ambiguous story. Niveus also received video reviews and an article on IndieStatik.

The snowy, frozen mountains and the warm cabin of Niveus

Puzzles and the Super BR Jam

Near the end of 2013, we were invited to take part in the Super BR Jam, a Brazilian game jam which raises funds for charity. As before, we used the chance to once again expand the Fragmentorum universe.

We created the title Cinerea, “gray as ashes”, with which we explored more cinematic camera angles, a more intricate puzzle, and a stronger emphasis on sound design. In Cinerea, our last game jam entry in the Fragmentorum universe, we told the story of a woman lost in dark, rainy alleys after she suffers an accident. These alleys are located around the hotel featured in Fragmentorum Alba, and the woman will also make an appearance in that game.

Cinerea also features the Fragmentorum newspaper. Four newspapers are needed to solve the game’s puzzle, each one referencing events from the other games. One of them, however, mentions an event that has not happened in any of the games. This was done to create negative space which players could fill up with their own imaginations.

All these game jam entries not only gave us the chance to fill the Fragmentorum universe with details and possibilities for future gameplay, they also provided us with player feedback that greatly helped us improve Fragmentorum Alba’s concept and design. We did not create a huge fanbase, but we did gain a small community of enthusiastic fans. Reading their comments and reviews helped us improve at every step. In effect, we could playtest core elements of Fragmentorum Alba before anyone ever saw it.

 
 
The “Black Wall”, where we write down everything that works and doesn’t work for every game jam entry.
 

More than that, we began to craft an identity that people started to recognize. The fans’ comments and expectations for a full commercial release in the same universe is a powerful motivator for our tiny studio.

We were also approached by successful developers which we would never have met under different circumstances. Their expertise and support is another source of encouragement and valuable feedback.

Agustín Cordes, developer of Serena and Asylum, tweeted a Fragmentorum Alba presentation

Fragmentorum Alba

Our core project, Fragmentorum Alba, is a surreal-horror adventure game set in a grand hotel during the 1960s, in which a professor tormented by electronic devices, such as TVs and radios, seeks to decipher a strange recording that was given to him.

As we near the end of the game’s development, we are sure we would not have achieved the same quality we have now, had it not been for our parallel effort in using the game jams to develop concept games set in the same world.

Everything we’ve learned comes together in Fragmentorum Alba

This article was put together by the whole Otus Team: Bruno Poli, Klos Cunha, Thiago Marten and Tiago Rech. I played the role of scribe.

 

 


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Comments


Simon Love
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Pretty interesting way to flesh out a game-world! Great write-up.

Tiago Rech
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Hi Simon!
We were surprised ourselves by how many story hooks came up with this methodology.
Also, thank you for the kind words, we're glad you enjoyed the article!

Bart Stewart
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I also enjoy seeing developers focusing on creating fun by adding depth to their worlds, rather than thinking mostly in terms of mechanics. I did have a question about this, though:

>> [W]e decided to leave [Fragmentorum] for what it was and follow a different strategy: expand the game’s universe.

Why?

Much of this (well-written) article discussed how this strategy was implemented, and some of the development consequences of that choice. But why make that choice?

What made the team think that using game jams to iterate on world-depth, rather than action-mechanics, was the best choice?

As I said above, I like that choice. I'm just curious about what led to it, because it's not the one most game developers (whether fresh or experienced) would make.

Tiago Rech
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Hello Bart,

Firstly, thank you very much for the kind words!

As a studio, we've always had the culture of participating in game jams. We have participated in more jams, with different genres, than the ones listed on the article, so incorporating them to the game production seemed natural.

About increasing the world depth and testing new mechanics, we actually aimed to work on both aspects simultaneously.

Being a surreal-horror adventure, mood, setting, story and environment are extremely important elements of Fragmentorum Alba, and as such, we devote a large deal of attention to them, as they are the game’s main strengths.

So, the short game jam games served as world-building blocks to further enhance these aspects on the main game.

However, in each game jam, we were also trying to test new mechanics and possibilities, such as the camera rotation in Argentum Form, or the lighting techniques of Niveus. When the Super BR Jam came along, we already had a lot of the game design done, so Cinerea acted as a big, and important, playtest.

I hope to have answered your question, please feel free to ask us about anything else you'd like to know!

Bart Stewart
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You did, indeed. Your approach reminds me of the process of iteration -- with the difference that iteration on most games happens entirely internally, while coming up with and trying new ideas at game jams insures that you're getting fresh ideas from outside your local bubble.

So far it sounds like it's working for you. Good luck!

Tiago Rech
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That exactly what we aim for.

Thank you!


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