What videogames can be made in four days with an unfamiliar game engine? Now in its third year, the Indie Game Jam works to energize innovation in videogames by giving two-dozen game designers a basic technical infrastructure and a short time frame to create a game. When an entire game development project is compressed into a weekend, experimentation is king and production values won't stand in the way of a good time.
In 2002, the first Indie Game Jam challenged fourteen game designer-programmers to design a game using just 100,000 sprites. Gleeful chaos ensued. The second Indie Game Jam used Zack Simpson's Shadow Garden engine: video projectors for display and webcams for input. These games explored human shadow as an interface; seventeen enthused jammers could be seen waving their arms and even grabbing and wrestling each other to make winning shadows.
At this year's Indie Game Jam, two-dozen programmers set out to find fun in the chaotic excitement of physics-based gameplay. With only a weekend to compose playable games using a bare-bones 2D physics engine, the participants found camaraderie, frustration, and a few nuggets of insight.
Previous Game Jams were held in "the barn," a rustic, waterfront, indie game development enclave in Oakland, California. This year the modest and stylish Washington Inn in downtown Oakland partitioned off a conference room: two dozen designer-programmers spent the weekend coding and playing games sandwiched between a meeting of government officials from Mexico and the hotel's formal dining room. The close confines and narrow ventilation demanded some open doors, giving the well-heeled diners next door a chance to peer over their wine glasses and gourmet Mediterranean plates directly into the workspaces of energetic game geeks.
A "skycam" view of the room from up on top of a table.
By its third year, the Indie Game Jam had developed a familiar rhythm--veteran participants met a few new faces amidst banks of computers and bundles of bright blue Ethernet cables. Through Girl Scout cookies, Doritos, and empty soda bottles, the largely male group mostly knew how to pace themselves; how to get their creativity flowing by playing with the tools and collaborating with their neighbors.
"Physics must be good for something besides ragdolls and exploding crates."
This year, the organizers intended to push more experimentation than normal. Independent game programmer Chris Hecker wrote in the initial invitation email: "We think it's a great time to do a Jam about physics in gameplay, since a lot of developers in the industry are trying to figure out how to integrate physics into their commercial games as more than just special effects, and we can explore that space and report the results."
This year's engine was a 2D physics simulator from Atman Binstock. Binstock developed the engine for a game during last year's Jam, where two players use their shadows to push jiggling objects through a 2D maze. Binstock's engine provided a shared framework to experiment with physical properties: a system for easily modifying objects, forces and constraints, and the chance to watch them interact.
During the first hours of the Game Jam, you could see people tossing geometric shapes around their screen, playing around to understand the parameters of the play space. Shortly they began constructing within that space--or working to enlarge it.
The 2D physics engine presented an immediate challenge. AI researcher Robin Hunicke arrived early to help set up, and she arrived ready to design: "I came up with some ideas before I had actually seen how the engine behaved, and then I got here, and my ideas weren't really compatible with the physics of the engine." Hunicke recounted her jam experience mid-way through: "So physics is a big word, it means a lot of things. You think, 'Oh, physics! The world has physics,' but the engine has physics that are not necessarily the same as the world. I wanted to do a game where you built shoes and then tested those shoes on different types of physical surfaces, but sadly the engine doesn't support the kinds of friction and the kinds of things that would make that easy to build." Playing around, Hunicke discovered that the "shoemerang" shoe movements she had rigged up onscreen made for a decent art program; she turned them instead into a spyro-graph drawing tool.
Co-organizer Sean Barrett adapted Hunicke's footwear fascination into a seemingly simple platformer. Barrett's BootLooter centered around a tiny character roaming a post-apocalyptic shopping mall, searching for the last surviving pairs of designer pumps. The physics was involved as the tiny character had the ability to kick out the support beams and cause the level to fall to pieces--either promoting her objective, or at least creating some fun chaos. On the second night of the four-day Jam, Barrett reflected on chaos in 2D games: "The problem is that physics tends to make things chaotic. … Is that really antithetical to game design? Is the chaos introduced by physics bad? How can we leverage the chaos, or how can we make it non-chaotic?" Barrett adjusted his glasses and continued, "Maybe it's a new technique or tool that we can use for new things. How can we put physics into our games other than to just make them more realistic, what can we do that makes the gameplay more interesting?"
For interesting gameplay, there's always excessive violence. But Game Jam co-organizer Casey Muratori would take exception to that: describing his Stunt Hamster game, he protests "it's a game where you light hamsters on fire. But it's not gratuitous!" For Muratori, hamsters are a stand-in for flammable liquids, and much like Barrett's game, the gameplay lies in deforming the level. "The physics engine treats the hamsters kinda like a fluid. So you basically fire all these hamsters out of a cannon, and you pack them into different areas and then when you light them on fire, the gas that gets let out of that displaces the fluid very violently. So you can change the structure of the level because this organic fluid explosion allows you to push blocks over and do these cool things." Casey nods enthusiastically. His game emerged from play, and much public discourse of the abuse of rodents.
"You've got to have failures."
"It was a struggle to make a game that was a game, and not a physics simulation" reports veteran game industry programmer Ken Demarest. Like Hunicke, he arrived at the Jam with a fleshed-out game idea: "The design was this thing where you'd run around on a sort of platformer level. Which I figured would be good, because you'd have gravity in a platformer. And you would get guns that would let you melt the ceiling, heat it up, or melt the floor into a lava pool that would stop people from walking over it. Or take an ice gun and freeze the ceiling that was in the middle of melting down, right in place, or make a floor really brittle so when you dropped something heavy on it, it would bust." He smiles ruefully, "Absolutely 100% not doable in this physics system." Demarest went through two game ideas before cooking up a game about clearing snowflakes from over eyeballs in a confined space. It wasn't his initial vision for 2D physics, but he was an unabashed participant: "It was quite demoralizing for a while. But that's the nature of game experimentation. You've got to have failures. Or you're just not going to be able to truly innovate."
Ryan Ellis, artist, leaning back.
Like most of the game designer/programmers present, Demarest believes that gameplay innovation grows increasingly difficult as game budgets swell. Co-organizer Chris Hecker spoke lucidly to this topic the night before: "The Indie Game Jam we did to encourage innovation in the industry. The game industry at large has so much money at risk in every title now, because you have to hit it out of the park in order to make money. And to do that, you have to have these huge production values." Hecker sees this threatening the evolution of the medium: "For an art form like games that's so young, it's a little dangerous to be so risk-adverse so early, before we really know what we're doing, games-wise. Unless we think that the games, the genres, the gameplay mechanisms we have right now are all that we're going to have and we're just going to be polishing them for a long time." For Hecker and the other co-organizers, the Jam is a chance to skip commercial concerns and rapid-prototype new gameplay.
As it turns out, physics is one ripe area for innovation in game design. Doug Church sat in his white-stockinged feet in the corner of the Washington Inn conference room, offering commentary and the beginnings of a balance board game. He used the two thumb sticks to directly control each of the feet of a stick-figure, using a board to stay over a center rolling pin: "I wanted to do something where you had to use both joysticks at once and kinda try to do a sort of zenned out balancey kinda small moves kinda thing." Church paused his programming to meditate on the state of physics in gaming: "Most shipping games use physics for cosmetic output. It's often very cool--Max Payne 2 did some great physics stuff, with Havoc. Still you could essentially take it all out and you have the same game." Church sees an interesting future for physics in gameplay: "No one's really made it an integral part of player control, or of emergent elements of the game, where the player can interact, and I think that's a super-interesting place to be."
This year's Game Jam was a good chance to experiment with physics
in gameplay, but 2D and 3D physics are a bit different. Still, he
sees some value in these experiments, as Game Jam participants were
forced to ask themselves--"I do think some of the things you
think about here--like 'hey, physics causes these sorts of things,
how do I put the player in a state where those sorts of things would
lead to interesting results, how do I get more places where the
physics pushes back' and makes me kinda go 'oo I could do this thing'
and less places where it's like 'hey, those particles sure exploded
pretty, good thing I'm running physics,' where the player really
could care less, it could just be a pretty animation."