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[Journalist Saul Alexander reports from inside the Global Game Jam -- diving into the Sydney, Australia jam to join a team, follow them from concept through to execution, and in the process discover how games and meaning can unintentionally influence each other.]
The annual Global Game Jam, a project of the International Game Developers Association, has been held every January since 2009. Hosting thousands of developers at locations worldwide, the GGJ is a volunteer-run operation whose goal is to encourage new ideas in game development through rapid prototyping, collaboration and unbridled creativity.
Journalist Saul Alexander participated in this year's Sydney, Australia jam as part of the GGJ earlier this year. The jam's theme was "Extinction," and across three days, teams at the jam ran with that theme and formulated some surprising concepts.
Here, Alexander recounts his experiences at the caffiene-fueled jam, where he not only follows a game from concept to execution, but also discovers how games and meaning can unintentionally influence each other.
The Sydney headquarters for the Global Game Jam is a locked-off wing of the Powerhouse Museum, a hulking structure which lurks on the edge of the central business district. I find my way in at 6 pm on Friday.
The main room is long, with tables laid out in two rows, end-to-end, like an eating hall. But all you'd be eating is silicon. Forty-odd computers line the tables, and people are already fussing around, claiming machines, implanting the software they'll need to build their games.
I'm carrying two bags -- one contains my laptop, voice recorder, camera, and so on. In the other I've stuffed a sleeping bag and some clothes. My mission? To attach myself to a team and follow the process of making a game, from conception through to result.
There are no teams yet, so I introduce myself and dump my stuff in the media area. It's not long before we're all called into the meeting room for the initial briefing. The formalities are carried out by co-organizer Malcolm Ryan, who teaches game design at the University of New South Wales.
After some general housekeeping and a warning about the potential "ripeness" of unwashed bodies, he announces the worldwide theme of this year's Jam: Extinction. Then he sends everyone off to brainstorm game concepts.
Still without a team to latch onto, I plop myself down beside the embryonic team forming around Dan Graf (founder of the IGDA's Sydney branch, and a friend of mine). They decide that their game will feature three levels, each involving the protection of an endangered species from a vicious predator, moving step-by-step up the food-chain from plants to insects to birds.
It's not many minutes before they're pitching their plan to the crowded meeting room, alongside (among others) pitches for a game about "zombie sheeps" (sic) and another called Pluto's Revenge: "The basic idea is that Pluto's really pissed off that he's not a planet anymore."
Both those pitches make me giggle, and both have well-defined game concepts which seem to be of a suitable scope to be constructed in two days. The sensible thing would be to approach one of those two teams and ask to tag along. But I've never been interested in "sensible" games, so instead I chose these guys:
"The general idea that we have so far is that it's going to be (rather than extinction of species), extinction of culture and language... we want to take it away from Earth and give it a bit more of a space feel (and) have some aliens in it, so we can explore some more interesting concepts."
Cultural studies in space? Yes, please.
I locate the group that will be known as Team Decimation in the twilit courtyard, and they agree to let me join them, warning only that they are a long way yet from settling on a concept, let alone beginning to build it. That's fine with me.
There are five of them, and it doesn't take long for the ringleader to emerge. Greg Louden has taken on the role of lead designer. In Real Life(tm) he works as a programmer in the animation department of a film studio, but he has a passion for games and has worked on several previously. He is adamant that the concepts the group has been discussing not be diluted by such clichéd pettiness as violence, and he shakes his head decisively when someone suggests a "culture bar".
Peter McIntosh is the pragmatist. He's worked with Greg before, at last year's Jam. Whenever Greg's high-concept musings float too far from the realms of practicality, he yanks the rope to pull them back. "We have to make the mechanic simple," is his catchphrase, and a fair one given the shortness of the time available.
Exactly how short is the time? From the opening spiel to the public awards ceremony at the end, everyone was all "48 hours this" and "made in only 48 hours" that. However, given that the brainstorming didn't even begin until at least 6:30pm on Friday, and the final whistle was blown at 1pm on Sunday, that's five or six hours that have gone AWOL along the way.
So let's say 42 hours, and that's before the real planning has begun. In my team's case, it's a long time before. The discussion meanders on as the minutes tick solemnly past, sometimes progressing, often circling back on itself.
At this point, ideas are king. Aram Dulyan, who was born in Armenia and speaks four languages fluently, is the originator of the "extinction of culture and language" idea, and Greg is its willing champion. The initial concept is to have the game represent a number of cultures, which will interact and eventually overwhelm each other, but no one is yet able to translate this into a workable game.
Other ideas that surface in this first discussion are for the player to piece together a mystery based on fragments of an ancient text, or to subvert their expectations by gradually allowing linguistic understanding as they travel through a foreign country.
Someone suggests an Aboriginal art style, but that is rejected because it could be seen as culturally insensitive. They're very aware that a game which focuses on the destruction of culture could be misconstrued by any number of cultural groups -- which is ironic, given what comes later. They decide that sticking with aliens will help protect against that possibility. Plus: Benjamin Rayner (the group's artist) draws good aliens!
We adjourn and disperse in various directions, Greg heading off for a walk that he hopes will clear his head. It's 9 o'clock by the time we reconvene, this time in the meeting room. Peter suggests a fresh brainstorm and more concepts flow in: "you're a spirit trying to escape the underworld"; "you're the last of your kind, running from a society that doesn't understand you".
"I'm not actually sure of the core idea," says Aram, not for the last time.
"It's worth spending a lot of time... to get to an idea that everyone agrees on," says Greg. He sounds almost convinced. By now everyone's struggling a bit, myself included. The discussion still seems to be moving in circles. We take another short break.
I have a word with Jonathan McEwan, Decimation's fifth member. I suggest that some people in the group seem fixated on certain ideas, possibly at the expense of progress.
He nods vigorously. "I'm just happy to do whatever," he says. He tells me of his experience in a similar event, the Brisbane 48-Hour Game Making Challenge. That time, he was part of a group of students who'd worked together all year. "It was very different. You've got to learn how everyone else works."