[An offhand tweet from a Double Fine programmer snowballed into one of the largest global game jams ever. Jam co-organizer and Game Developer EIC Brandon Sheffield looks at how it all went down.]
Well, it happened. What began as an offhand tweet from Double Fine gameplay programmer Anna Kipnis has snowballed into one of the largest global game jams, and I can safely say it was a resounding success.
Not three weeks ago, Kipnis wondered publicly on Twitter why there hadn't been a game jam based on the tweets of Peter Molyneux (Fable, Populous, Black & White) parody account @petermolydeux. This came after Molyneux himself responded to one of Molydeux's tweets, causing a bit of an internet meta-explosion. The singularity was upon us!
But Kipnis took it a step further - if Molyneux can take this seriously, why shouldn't the rest of the world? Responding to Kipnis' original tweet were Patrick Klepek, Chris Remoand I. We four became the defacto organizers of this movement, which we imagined would happen in the Bay area, with a few close game developer friends.
I made a Google document to sign up potential developers, and we tweeted it out. Within an hour, we had over 70 responses, and realized at least 20 of those were from the U.K., and several were in the U.S., but outside the Bay area.
We realized quickly that a single spreadsheet couldn't contain this jam - it was bigger than us. We moved to an "organizers thread" on Facebook, and the rest is history. Over 900 developers signed up to take part in jams in almost 35 cities across the world, from the original U.S. site in California's Bay Area, to the U.K., to Israel, to Mexico, to Finland, to Australia, and beyond. More developers jammed on their own in solidarity from their homes.
How the heck did this happen? Why was it so successful? What can we do better next time (as it seems certain there will be a next time)? To get at a chunk of it, I'll write an abridged postmortem of the event, followed by my thoughts about the jam I ran in Oakland; the first #Molyjam to get a location, and the last to present its demos.
What went right
1: Organized like a jam
Everything came together organically, just like in a game jam itself. A few people started out with no concrete idea of what the end result would be, and people stepped up when they needed to. Jake Rodkin of Telltale came up with great t-shirt designs, as well as the "What Would Molydeux" jam name. Zane Pickett stepped up and created our web site, and organized our game submission form. Justin Ignacio of Justin.tv came in to help with our livestreams. The list goes on. When something was needed, someone stepped up to help.
We also had a number of generous sponsors. Unity, Game Maker, Gamesalad, and Construct 2 offered temp licenses of their engines during the jam (coordinated by Kipnis, among others). Individual cities got sponsors for food, locations, and more. The event had to happen, no matter what - and people made it so.
One of the smarter things we did was set a date early on. Not only did April 1 fit with our Molydeux theme, it happened to fall on a Sunday, meaning we could have the entire weekend to make these games. From the start, we had a date to work toward, and it was a hard deadline. This helped us get everything ready, and I have to say, it went off surprisingly well considering the accelerated timeline.
Everyone's overwhelming goodwill was very much in keeping with the theme of the jam, and there was positivity throughout. Every organizer sacrificed their time and energy for the greater cause, and I think I can speak on behalf of everyone when I say it felt amazing to be involved in such a crackling ball of positive energy!
"Peter Molydeux" signed on to the project immediately, which lent the jam legitimacy. The jam was based on his tweets, so participants had an instant idea of what the theme was, and the ability to think about what they might like to do. Molydeux curated some of his best tweets for those who didn't want to sift through everything, and we also got a Google doc of every one of his original tweets.
We had a solid vision from start to finish, and this really helped get things set up. There was no confusion about goals, no back and forth about theme, and no dissent - the reason new cities joined up was because they had already bought in!
Who could have predicted that this would come full circle? Molyneux showed up to a jam based on a Twitter account making fun of his grandiose ideas. Why would he do such a thing? Because he correctly recognized that while this was based on a joke account, the participants actually do care about emotion in games. They care about making silly projects that might make us think differently about games.
In essence, this game jam encapsulates everything Molyneux himself has actually tried to accomplish over the years. Perusing the livestreams, every event seemed in keeping with the spirit of whimsy and emotional game making.
My goodness, we got a lot of press about this thing. People were astounded that it was happening at all, and our success in making it happen was a self-perpetuating hype machine. Almost every day the core team of organizers would get a new email from a new city somewhere in the world that wanted to join in.
We fielded dozens of press requests. Friends outside of the industry heard about it. The massive popularity of the jam showed what power individuals and indies have in this industry now. It truly feels as though we have the power to make the games we want. So many amazing games came out of this jam, that people would absolutely willingly pay for.
Molyjam was in the global spotlight, especially since almost every part of the world had a jam going, inspiring local press to get involved. This means our message of emotion (and silliness!) in games, was actually spreading throughout the world. We weren't toiling in isolation, patting each other on the back and only seeing our own games.
Over 250 games have been uploaded so far, with more to come. Our results are bare, here for all to play and see. It really feels like this jam could have a lasting impact. Teams and friendships were formed, and those who couldn't join could hear about the process, or play the results. That's success.
What went wrong
1: Organized like a jam
Not one of the original four organizers had ever organized a jam. None of us had even been to one (though Anna had participated in Double Fine's internal jams). So the fact that we were suddenly at the helm of an international event was a bit of a surprise. We did the best we could, but there was confusion at times. We fielded questions as best we could, but sometimes there simply were no answers.
That's when others stepped up to help, which was amazing - but we'll have a lot more experience doing this when we head into the next jam, and a lot more of the systems and processes should be in place.
Also, we all had our own jobs to do, on top of organizing this event. Anna Kipnis in particular put in long hours, and at one point became ill. As the event exploded, I was driving to Phoenix, and could only communicate via smartphone. Since we couldn't anticipate the event's popularity, we couldn't plan for it, and had to scramble to put things together. San Francisco didn't have a venue until three days before the event, for instance. Next time around we'll have it planned for scale from the start. We learned a lot through this process.
2: Fragmented information
We started out asking folks on Twitter. We graduated to a Google doc, but that grew unwieldy. We moved the event to Facebook, which worked for the most part, but not everyone has a Facebook account, so we also had an Eventbright signup.
In San Francisco, since they needed names in advance for security, Eventbright became the only signup that mattered. Also due to the crazy size of the event, San Francisco and East Bay had to split up. Oakland was originally the home of the whole jam, as we had gotten The MADE to agree to host us, but they can only reasonably hold 50 people.
Once signups ballooned to 225, San Francisco had to get its own event - but since this happened late in the game, it was hard to let everyone know about the shift, and many folks from the East Bay went to San Francisco, and many folks from San Francisco had to come to the East Bay due to the Eventbright scenario.
Again, in the future we'll be able to streamline this process, and get our venues set up far in advance. Under three weeks it was a pretty tough sell to begin with, but we also needed projectors, good internet, public transportation access, and late-night access. That we got venues at all is amazing.
3: Upload system
This one we're still working on. We haven't quite solved the problem of how to get so many games out to the public. As I mentioned before, hundreds of games are already available, but some were simply too large for our uploader, and the thing broke very early on in the process.
On top of that, it was getting flooded with requests, since people wanted to play the games. Popularity is a great problem to have, but it killed our web volunteers. As we figure out how to package up all the larger games, we'll be tweeting out how folks can find them, but it's unfortunate that not all games could be uploaded at the same time, to ride the wave of popularity. Again, this is something to fix for next time.
A word from San Francisco
San Francisco had the largest Molyjam jam in the world, with around 150 developers participating. So many games came out of the jam that the closing presentation lasted three hours. "We had a guy that came by and made a game during the presentation, that's how long the presentation was," Anna Kipnis told me.
The major success in San Francisco was the livestream. There were lots of antics, as Kipnis says, but the teams also did walkthroughs in the space, updating the stream about various developers' progress, and keeping the audience engaged, which is somewhat unusual for a jam. That caught on to other locations, which started doing similar things. "The internet was very supportive of the game developers as they were working," said Kipnis. "That I did not expect at all."
The team panned the camera a lot, and folks started to notice a guy with an orange hat. His name was Bill Kiley, and he was a musician - once the San Francisco jam showed some of his music, he became a mini-celebrity, with folks sharing his soundcloud in the chat. The team also interviewed some of the more famous folks in the crowd, and really created a sense of community.
The sunny side of the Bay
I was the organizer of the Oakland/East Bay jam, and I felt like we had a somewhat unique event. We had around 40 people across the whole weekend, though some folks filtered in and out. We managed to produce around 10 games, and everyone finished something, including one participant who made a fantastic game entirely on the last day, after showing up at 3 p.m.
What was really striking about the Oakland jam though, was the diversity. We had straight folks and gay folks. We had Black people, White people, Asian people, and Hispanic people. We had a very healthy distribution of men and women, including transgendered folks. The ages ranged from under 20 to over 40.
It may sound odd to point all this out so specifically, but I'll remind you that this was all happening within a group of 40. The diversity of the crowd was astounding to me, and if the Oakland jam were a microcosm of the industry, discussions of gender, race, and orientation in games discussions would be far fewer and further between.
What was it about this event that brought so many people together? Oakland is a very diverse place, which could explain some of it. But more than that, we all cared about making games, and we all cared about the content of these games. The ideas in these tweets were silly, but laden with good ideas and the potential for real emotional involvement.
And that appeals to people across all walks of life. To look at our jam, the problems of diversity in game development would appear to be solved. I can only hope to one day walk into any given game development studio and have it look like Oakland.
Thanks to every organizer and participant across the globe. This has been an amazing experience for all of us. We love you all, and I know we'll see you again.
Individual city organizers are welcome to add their local impressions in the comments below!