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.
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."
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
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."