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Life Inside A Game Jam


March 22, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next
 

I get a brief chance to speak to Helen Nicholson, the public programs director at the Powerhouse, who is responsible for making the Jam happen. Her enthusiasm is a nice counter to the underwhelmed audience.

"You just wait 'til [the presentation at] 3 o'clock tomorrow... it blows me away. I was almost speechless last year... to see what they'd done."

I head back downstairs, where Team Decimation has made some progress. There are more dots, and the enemies are behaving slightly more sensibly, but there's still a long way to go.

It's hard for me to be closely involved now that everyone's constantly glued to their screens. The iterative process of implementing and debugging game features is only sporadically interesting to watch, so I go for a wander.

Dan's game (which now has the title Press 3 to Breed) is looking impressive -- the team has built Venus flytrap-style plants and an undulating 3D landscape.

Heading outside feels like a complete change of climate after the gloom and inexplicably icy air-con. One of the Jammers has stuck up a hand-drawn sign by the outside seats: "Achievement Unlocked: Vitamin D Exposure".

The rest of the afternoon drifts by. The first asset goes in -- the player-controlled spiky ball, which someone suggests represents "the spirit of the culture", but which looks like nothing so much as an underwater mine. It's curious that such an abstract idea has taken on such a militaristic aspect as soon as it becomes concrete. Thinking back, I'm not even sure when it was decided that the player had to control a concrete "character". I just accepted it, because "that's how games are".

The guys have also finally locked down that pesky core mechanic. Four colors of "enemies", each of which needs to be turned away from the city by the press of the corresponding controller button, Guitar Hero-style. Greg still wants more depth and complexity in there -- he's worried it's too much a simple variation of a "missile defense" game, that the layers of meaning are gradually being eroded. I tend to agree, but there doesn't seem to be any choice on such a short development cycle.

All the teams are asked to get up and talk about where they're up to. Everyone seems fatigued, most of them mumbling into the microphone. I decide it's time for me to disappear and enjoy some of my weekend.

Day 3

On the way in on Sunday morning, I run into Helen Nicholson again. She's just visited the Jammers, and she informs me that her maternal instincts have kicked in.

"I just want to give them big hugs and say, 'Oh, you poor things -- it will be over soon!'"

I prepare for apocalyptic scenes, but everyone seems to be coping reasonably well. One team had lost their programmer, who had gotten his mum to come pick him up, taking all their code with him. But any complaining was very mild-mannered.

"I felt like, yesterday, everyone was more enthusiastic about where we were," says Greg.

The game now looks like a game. All the major assets are in -- the big green oval has become an isometric city, and the enemies are little green alien beasts, all rendered in an attractive archaic-yet-painterly style. It even has a name: Duat, which is the Ancient Egyptian word for the underworld, Osiris's home.

Ben is feeling dizzy and blames the Red Bull they've all been slurping to get them through the night. I finally get around to asking him about his background. He did a games course at a technical college in South Australia, and he now works in film, for the same studio as Greg. Greg was the one who invited him along for the Jam, and says he's had a blast, despite the exhaustion.

Back at the programming coalface, the approaching finish line seems to have galvanized everyone. Peter is fine-tuning the spawning, while a Jonathan picks through the code, fixing bugs and suggesting improvements. I ask him if his day job is in games.

"Actually, I work for BT Financial Group." He reckons working in games is too immature -- "If I want to do it, I'll do it when I'm older!"

I check in with Aram, whose ongoing battle with the pathfinding has lasted all night and all morning. He eventually resorted to writing the routine externally in C++. With two hours to go, there's not a lot of time to add the rest of the intended features.

Soon it's the final hour, and all that's left for Team Decimation is to add the title and team splash screens. Having finished his part, Ben wanders out.

"They were right about the smell," he says.

Showing off the near-complete game to other Jammers, and describing how it's played, something uncomfortable starts to nag at a few of our minds.

For the past decade, "protecting" the borders from the tiny trickle of refugees who arrive in Australia by boat has been a hot political issue, the major parties playing on the self-entitlement and primal fears of the populace to score political points. At the last election, one party leader went on and on about "turning back the boats". This situation obviously has an analogue in the US and in countries around the world.

I marvel that it's only at this very late stage that any of us have seen that the game could be open to this interpretation. And even as it glides into view, we push it aside -- Team Decimation has a game to finish.

The last thing they do is add the credits. "We have 20 minutes to choose a good font! Typography is super-important," says Greg.

At seven minutes to 1 pm, the game is transferred to a USB stick and ceremoniously carried into the judging room to be installed on the demonstration computer. Everyone breathes out. The hard part is over. The judges (industry veterans and a past Jam winner) drift in and are escorted around to each game in turn. Food is served. In between eating, everyone has a chance to poke around at the other teams' games. There's some good stuff there, but no one clear winner.


Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

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