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Technology Inspires Creativity: Indie Game Jam Inverts Dogma 2001!
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Technology Inspires Creativity: Indie Game Jam Inverts Dogma 2001!

May 31, 2002 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2

Now, these are not finished games by any means, and like so many games designed by programmers, many of them an edgy, somewhat juvenile, sense of humor. Nevertheless, they're all imaginative and very different. When they were demonstrated at the Experimental Gameplay Workshop session at the 2002 Game Developers' Conference, the response was prolonged cheering. I asked Chris Hecker to give me some more information on the Indie Game Jam.

Why sprites, particularly? As opposed to some other challenge?

Well, it was sort of accidental. It was definitely "technology driven" in the sense that we thought up an interesting and different technology, realized the concept led to a bunch of wacky game designs, and then got the idea for the Jam from that.

What did you hope to accomplish, if anything?

I think the game industry is not experimental enough. We're too risk averse. Games cost a lot of money, and publishers want to have a reasonable chance of making that money back, so that leads to conservative and incremental designs. I don't think that's healthy for the medium in the long term, even though it's brought us lots of revenue in the short term. If you look at other art forms, there are built-in mechanisms for experimentation and exploiting experimentation, whether it's garage bands getting their sound ripped off or getting a record deal, or an experimental film-festival hit getting distributed by a big studio. Games, as an art form, have hardly scratched the surface of their potential, but we've already calcified and gotten conservative.

The Indie Game Jam was an effort to encourage experimentation. Get a bunch of smart designer-programmers in a room with a focused and mostly-finished technology and see what happens. It's like a jazz jam session with professional musicians riffing off a single tune, or a writing workshop where there's a theme for the weekend.

The second thing we hope to accomplish is to inspire other developers to do their own Jams with their friends. We've already heard that Eric Zimmerman is going to run something similar internally at his company to encourage innovation. We're going to put all the games and their source code on the web for free under the GPL, as well, so hopefully more people will play with the concepts.

Do you feel as if you met or exceeded your expectations?

We completely blew our expectations away! More than words can describe! We were hoping to get one or two games that we could demo at the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, or maybe just some good stories. We ended up with 12 complete games, all of which were different and experimental in various ways. 14 developers produced 12 games in four days. That's insane!

The only problem is we're screwed for next year...we have no idea how we'll even match this year, let alone exceed it!

How did you choose the participants?

First, the participants had to be great programmers. There's just no way to get anything done in four days with a big pile of code you've never seen before unless you can program really well.

But they also had to be designers. We choose people who are what I call "Looking Glass-school designer-programmers." Looking Glass Technologies bred a certain kind of "algorithmically-aware designer" and "design-aware programmer," and I think that is the future of our art form. You can tell by playing Looking Glass' games that the LG aesthetic was one of embracing interactivity and exploiting it in new ways. I just wrote a Soapbox column for Game Developer magazine on the topic, but in short: game design is about interactivity, and interactivity is about algorithms.

So, to do innovative and experimental game design, you have to be able to design algorithms, and if you only have four days, you also have to be able to code them up yourself, and quick!

We actually invited a single non-programming designer (Austin Grossman, still an LG-school designer) as an experiment to see what would happen. Unfortunately there were some schedule problems and he couldn't spend as much time at the barn to really gather data for the experiment. We'll definitely try again with non-programming designers next year.

I also invited a journalist friend, Justin Hall. He ended up doing art for the various games.

Do you have any plans to do another?


Do you think next time you'll bring some artists along?

We could have used as many artists as would fit in the barn. We had a ton of prepared content ready, ripped out of Doom-era WAD files [most of the games feature sprites "borrowed" from Doom and Doom mods on the Internet], but people also wanted custom content once their game design solidified.

Did they cooperate, or was it just a bunch of programmers engaged in technological chest-thumping?

That was the most amazing thing: there was absolutely no competition and there was complete cooperation. We tried from the beginning to avoid competition, so that was somewhat expected, but the level of cooperation was incredible. People shared code routinely, helped with each others designs, fixed bugs for each other, brainstormed together, etc. The sonar feature in Duelling Machine was actually Marc LeBlanc's idea, developed while he was helping Thatcher playtest it -- a good example of cross-pollination.

How did you fund the Indie Game Jam?

The time was all donated. The biggest problem with the entire event was that it sucked up an immense amount of time for the core people when developing the engine. It was enough time that we'll have to figure out a way of limiting it next time.

Intel loaned us the machines (16 1.8 Ghz Pentium 4 PC's with GeForce 4 Ti4600 video cards and 256MB of RAM). I contacted Kim Pallister at Intel and he was into the concept from the beginning.

I think it's great that Intel supports experimental game development, and it's a disgrace that the major publishers in this industry can't be bothered. It cost very little and accomplished an amazing amount in so short a space of time. You can find out more about the games at

The Indie Game Jam represents exactly the kind of creative spirit that Dogma 2001 was intended to foster, just inverted. Dogma 2001 suggested that we try designing games without reference to the technology that would implement them. The Indie Game Jam was about exploiting a given technology in as many new ways as possible. It represents exactly the sort of thinking that the our medium needs more of, thinking that begins "What if…" rather than "How much money…"

Now that I know it's possible to create a real forest, I'm dying to revive my firefighting game…

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2

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