Game Jams

I’ve participated in a number of game jams over the last ~7 (or so) years. For the most part, these only get posted somewhere online when either it’s part of the process of “completing the jam”, or if I’m working with a team, and someone else takes the helm. I’ve decided I should be keeping track of these somewhere, and that place is, for the moment, organized chronologically below.

  • I first attended 360iDev in 2011, and participated in the overnight (13 hr) game jam there. As near as I can tell/remember, I made a real-time, abstract-board-game-inspired, iPad game I called ColorWheel. (The code was native iOS.) I wrote-up the experience in the second-half of this blog post.
  • I did my first Global Game Jam (GGJ) in 2012, creating a board game (with actual artwork by August Brown!) that weekend called Eat Thyself. The theme of the jam was an image of an ouroboros.
  • I went back to 360iDev again in fall of 2012, and collaborated with another developer, Levi Brown, to make an iPhone puzzle game called Cloud Growth.
  • In 2013, my Global Game Jam entry (which somehow didn’t make it to the GGJ website) was a card game with app component, I called Heart Burn. I write a bunch about it here. August Brown again supplied some artwork, although I’m not sure how much of it saw the light of day.
  • In January 2014, I participated in the Global Game Jam with a bunch of other IGDA Twin Cities regulars, and (I believe) this was the first time I’d worked in Unity. There were so many of us (9!) that we actually made 4 games, (almost 5), and bundled them up as Saga of Candy Friends. (A name influenced by King.com trying to trademark/copyright “saga” in a game’s title around that time.) They were all local multiplayer games. As the person least familiar with Unity, I played pickup, and ended up working on a bunch of the games. I was most proud of (and probably spent the most time on) the one called bird drop. Afterwards, I wrote a postmortem on this blog.
  • For the 2015 Global Game Jam, I created a block-matching game for the L3D cube called Match-L3D. The L3D is an 8x8x8 cube of LEDs, and really has to be seen to appreciate. I really liked this game, but because it requires the custom hardware (and an xbox360 gamepad, as well as a computer to drive it), I doubt there are more than a handful of people who have played it.
  • Not quite a game jam, but my 2016 new year’s resolution was to come up with a new game idea every day. I did this pretty faithfully through about mid-july, and didn’t truly give up on the idea until sometime in September. I wrote up weekly recaps through July 15th (28 of them!), and fully intended to categorize every idea and do a summary post for the whole year at the end of it. I’ve got a spreadsheet that categorizes the first 130 ideas (through week 13), and someday maybe I’ll finish that project.
  • My 2016 Global Game Jam game was called Life is Hard. It was very shortly after my decision to take development with Unity more seriously, and I teamed up with August Brown, Mike Manor, and Jason Pfitzer to create a set of 3 or 4 (I can’t remember how many of the ideas we got to) mini-games around menial daily tasks. I was the only programmer, but learned a lot about Unity’s animation system from Jason, who did most of the art.
  • I also took part in the Midwest Game Jam in 2016, creating a VR game (targeting HTC Vive) with two other developers in 24 hours, that we called IndustriElf. You play as an elf assembling toys in Santa’s workshop.
  • In 2017, I didn’t have time to fully participate in the Global Game Jam, but I brought my 6-year old daughter to the Friday night brainstorm, and we made a little bubble-popper game called Bubble Jumper with only a few additional hours on Saturday. The game was entirely the realization of her ideas, and her wireframes (which we didn’t fully implement) were especially great.
  • I participated in #NanoGenMo and #ProcJam in November 2017, by working on a piece of generative interactive fiction using a python script to generate Inform7 source code.
  • My 2018 GGJ game was another collaboration with August Brown, a very cute looking tetromino-placement puzzle game called Tetro Buddies. (The name was courtesy of my 9 year old niece Weather.)
  • Most recently, (two or three weekends ago, as of this post), I worked on a game in Pico-8 for the 2018 Midwest Game Jam called Emergent Sea (playable if you click through, but read the instructions posted below the cartridge first). The team was four programmers including myself, Scott Lembcke (who also did the art!), Ben Gartner (who also made the music!), and Chris Phan (who contributed a ton, especially considering this was his first game and game jam!). It was my first time really writing anything in Lua, and I rather liked it. The theme for the jam was: emergence (but the game’s name pun credit goes to Scott).

Also, here is my Global Game Jam profile. Other random jam-related profiles: I have one at one game a month (though I haven’t really used it in years), and grid.itch.io, which only has one game-jam game on it. (Though someday I hope/plan to post more there.)

I think I found them all, but who knows. In the future I’d like to make a “page” out of this list, and link it somewhere more prominently. (Maybe with images from each of the games!) I’ll add a link/note here if I do that, for posterity.

ProcJam and #NaNoGenMo postmortem

I’ve always wanted to make some interactive fiction, and last month I decided to spend some time working on a procedurally generated Inform7 game. You can read more about it on the Github “Issue” thread where I announced my intent to participate, but I’m reposting my final “wrap-up” entry here:

Post-mortem / wrap-up post:

Failures
Mainly, I didn’t make a 50k word “story”. Although you could maybe argue that the inform “story” isn’t the “whole story”, that’s what my script generates, and I was planning on using that for the word-count metric. My plan for getting to 50k had basically been to increase the number of rooms the script generates until I hit that number, but that isn’t possible because some of the items I’m using for randomization don’t contain that many items. (And I didn’t realize or notice this until just now as I was prepping this post!) Turns out I can only push the script to ~25 rooms, before it tries to randomize from several sources with only that many items. The word count at 25 rooms is only about 4700-4800.

Also worth noting that version with 25 items doesn’t always work. I went ahead and pushed an example of this output as `output/v0.5-source-broken.txt`. Pasting that script into inform gives errors that I’m probably not going to take the time to fix. (Essentially, some of the source for my randomized room text is probably problematic, and should be excluded.)

Additionally, I’m pretty sure the game as-is at the moment of this writing isn’t that fun to play. There isn’t enough randomization of the puzzles. Essentially, each room has the same fetch quest. (If you’d never played it before, and went into it without my spoiling it for you –which I’m not going to do here– it’s possible it would take you a bit to figure out, but once you did, you’d know how to solve every other room, and it would grow tedious pretty quick. I think the version with 4 rooms (in a 2×2 grid) is probably the best way to play. There is some novelty in the randomized room names and descriptions which can sometimes be pretty surprising. It might be fun up to 12 or 16, but again, it would get old pretty fast in its current incarnation.

Another failure, I could argue, was my goal of learning Inform7, but I’ll write more about that in a bit.

Because I wasn’t really happy enough with the output of this script to post it anywhere, I also didn’t submit it to ProcJam. That was/is also definitely a fail.

Successes
I wrote some Python! Python is ridiculously easy to write. It feels a bit like I say this about every new language I learn these days, but learning the syntax (there is almost none!) and the various APIs was a very minor part of this project, and generally quite fun and easy. Debugging errors was quite easy, as error messages were very easy to search for, and often even that step wasn’t needed.

I learned quite a bit about writing Inform7! Unfortunately, that’s about the best I can say about it. Inform got harder and harder to work with, and was generally the opposite of my experience with python. My take-away from Inform is that you want to write one sentence at a time, compiling after every one. Every new thing you try and do will require searching through the documentation for an example you can copy/paste. There were dozens of times when I would modify even just one word from an example and then scratch my head about why that changed caused it to stop working. And debugging was always a nightmare. The error messages sometimes contain (sometimes hilariously) a bit of randomization themselves. This seems interesting/funny the first few times you see the same error and the text is different, but the 3rd or 4th time, when you are at wit’s end, it’s no longer funny. Here’s an example of an inform error (but not one with randomized text, I don’t think):

You wrote ‘now the Greyish Blue Book Of Matches is nowhere’ , but although ‘the Greyish Blue Book Of Matches is nowhere’ is a condition which it is legal to test with ‘if’, ‘when’, and so forth, it is not something I can arrange to happen on request. Whether it is true or not depends on current circumstances: so to make it true, you will need to adjust those circumstances.

In general, my take-away is that Inform7 syntax is a great big can of worms. It would probably take me a month of working full-time to really understand the entire system and how it all works together, and feeling competent in it would probably take much longer. (This was obviously not that month!)

Wishlist / TODO list
If I wanted to spend more time on this project, these are the things I was planning on doing:
* Randomized puzzles. Right now there is really only one type of puzzle. I would love to have 4 or 5 types (at least!), and generate different room descriptions based on the type.
* Additional inform elements: Right now, there are rooms, objects (some edible), containers, and that’s about it. I really wanted to get to the point where there was also a randomized person in each room. The amount of things you can do with Inform is staggering really. I’ve only just scratched the surface, for sure.
* Finally, making this available to the rest of the world. This boils down to how I wanted to do this initially, and how I think it’s feasible. Both would have been published as a webpage. A) I wanted to make a version that was different every time you play it. But the only way I could imagine that happening would be to install the command-line version of inform on a server, and at request time, generate the source, compile it, and redirect the request to that output. I’ve no idea if that’s practical, but it’s not something I wanted to attempt. B) The more practical alternative would be to generate a bunch of outputs all at once. So that would be writing another script to run my `game.py` script X number of times, saving the output off to a tmp directory, then using the command-line version of Inform7 (i7) to compile each output and save off a web-playable version into a subdirectory somewhere. Tentatively I was planning on doing this 365 times and then writing some kind of index.php to swap them out based on day of the year.

TL;DR
I really enjoyed working on this project, and learned a lot about Inform7 and python, but wouldn’t really consider this a “successful” project, mostly because I just didn’t spend the required time on it. There is always more you can do, of course, but in this case, I didn’t take the project far enough where I think it’s ready for public consumption. (It is all public, however, and anyone can play with the stuff I created. If you do, I’d love to hear about it!)

Global Game Jam 2014 Postmortem

Screen Shot 2014-01-26 at 3.44.41 PMThis year’s Global Game Jam is over, and from my perspective it was a raving success. I took part with the other IGDA Twin Cities folks, as part of a relatively large team focused on making a local multiplayer game using Xbox controllers. (Click the image to read more about the project I worked on.)

The weekend began on Friday night with everyone “pitching” at least one idea for a game in front of the group. As there were about 40 people there, this took quite a while. Then people started splintering off into groups. I went into this year’s Global Game Jam with several “agendas”. (Incidentally, I probably wouldn’t recommend this for beginners, but this was my third year taking part, and at least my sixth game jam, so I felt it was okay for me to have some goals.) Here is a list of those goals, in order of importance to me, and whether or not I felt they were achieved:

  • Use Unity – Before this year’s jam, I had really only dabbled in Unity development. I’d watched a few tutorials, installed it a number of times, played around in a couple of sample projects. I went into this year’s jam with the intent of glomming on to someone else’s project who “knows” unity, so I could learn from them and hopefully make some contributions. Status: Wildly successful! I now feel like I know my way around Unity, and can at the very least make sense of projects when opening them. (This was not true before, as I had no idea where to look for things.) I could now easily make a Unity game on my own, and have some plans to do so in the not-so-distant future. All the developers on my team were experienced Unity developers, and I learned quite a bit over each of their shoulders.
  • Make a game using controllers for input – This was a secondary goal, for sure, but it turned out to be not-so-hard to find a group who had this same agenda. I have big plans for this year and multiplayer games, so I needed to have a better sense of what is easy or difficult about using controllers. Status: Definite success! I not only got a sense of how to “manually” implement controller input in Unity (watching on Friday night over Ryan Schaefer‘s shoulder), but then spent an hour or so mucking around with Patrick Hogan’s InControl project, and pretty easily got that working also. (We ended up not using it, because I had some problems initially, but I think they were local to my machine/setup.)
  • Make a “Candy Jam” game – If you haven’t heard of the Candy Jam, essentially, this is a game jam protest of King.com’s attempt to trademark the words “Candy” and “Saga”. There is a lot more information if you follow the Candy Jam link, but if anything, I think the case is not stated strongly enough. The problem is not just with King.com, the problem is with the system of trademarking as it applies to games in general. Similar to the way patents are given for too general concepts in the tech industry, trademarks on single-words are also far too general, and allowing them hurts the industry in my opinion. Anyway, I wanted to join this protest and contribute a game to the jam. Status: My teammates easily agreed, and this was a success also. (Note that we have not yet submitted the game “officially” to the Candy Jam, but that will happen soon!)
  • Design an “action” game rather than turn-based game – Designing a game definitely took a back-seat to my first two objectives for the weekend. I pitched a game idea I had on Friday, but it was pretty simple, and I’m not terribly surprised nobody seemed super excited about it. Then during the after-pitch process, I had a lot of design ideas for another “asymmetrical” multiplayer game. (4-players each with their own objectives for scoring.) I actually still think that idea has a lot of potential, but it was fairly complex. We ended up sorta waffling on what idea we were going to make, deciding we should all just get started, and work on independent “scenes” in unity. None of the games I helped make were my design, so I can’t really say this was successful. Status: Definitely thought about it, but ultimately did not achieve this.

As I mentioned, Friday night was pretty “unfocused”, but I still felt like it was worth it, because I got to learn a lot about controller input in Unity, and thus, also a lot about Unity in general. I was also instrumental in setting up version control for the project on Friday night, but I’m not sure that was a “success” really. I’ll say more about that in a bit. When I left around 4 AM on Saturday morning, there were somewhere between three and five independent “ideas” getting floated around our group, but only one (Bird Drop) had anything appearing on the screen. When I showed up again on Saturday, Bird Drop was playable, and quite fun! I spent a few hours implementing the score display, as well as the system that triggered the game over screen and restarted the game after about 10 seconds or so. Eventually, I also worked on the over-arching menu system, as well as implementing sound effects.

In addition to my personal goals, here are some bullet points about “What went right” from our team’s perspective (although this is all still “in my opinion”, I’m not speaking for the team here or anything):

  • We made a game! – Not only a game, we made (more or less) 3.5 games. There was even art for a 5th one that never got much past an empty scene in Unity. Probably more impressive, we made a menu and stuff. It really helped that Bird Drop was playable (and super fun) on Saturday, and that game got a lot of polish.
  • Bird Drop is awesome! – I think everyone, even those who never worked on it directly, can take some amount of credit for how great it was. Although of course Ryan and Bill (programmer and artist respectfully) are the ones who deserve the most accolades, as the game was truly “theirs” from the start.
  • teamwork! – I truly think we worked well as a team on this, with everyone contributing whatever they could (and often whatever was asked of them) to the overall team effort. This was a lot of people, certainly the largest group I’ve ever “jammed” with, and it was surprisingly painless. Certainly nobody tried to take over the project or had overactive egos or anything like that. A lot of credit should go to Zach, (who also organized the Jam, and runs the local IGDA chapter). He was probably the “glue” that kept the group together.

This would not be a true postmortem without some bullet points about what went wrong over the weekend:

  • Git woes – I was one of maybe two or three of us who had used Git previously, and vocally advocated for using it over SVN for version control. I set up a repository on my bitbucket account, and initially it was marked “private”, which meant that I could only invite some small number of people to it. This limitation showed up in a couple of different ways, and eventually we resolved some of the problems with it by just marking the repo as public (which I should have done from the getgo). In retrospect, one of the other git advocates had only used Github before, and I didn’t want to use that because it’s not free, but of course it is free for public repositories, so we should probably have just used that, which would have allowed him to continue using the github app (and let some of the other devs use it too). Two of our most experienced Unity devs had never used Git before, and we wasted quite a lot of time getting tortoisegit working for them. I would NOT recommend tortoisegit in general, as I still don’t know how to view “git status” using it. Totally non-intuitive to those of us who basically only use the command-line git.
  • Too much polishing on Bird Drop – This is definitely my own opinion, but I felt like we maybe spent too much time adding “juice” to Bird Drop when we could have been helping out finish up the other game modes instead. Bird Drop even ended up a bit more buggy at the end of the jam than it was on Saturday as a result. The final build we uploaded has several bugs that were introduced toward the end of the project.
  • Not enough attention to the other game modes – None of the other game modes were really playable until Sunday, and subsequently were single-developer affairs until that point. As one of two “swing” developers I should personally have made more of an effort to help those other projects get finished faster, so we could have done more iteration on them.
  • No focus on Friday – We basically didn’t even start coding until midnight on Friday.
  • Too much time spent on infrastructure – While we were unfocused on Friday, I think we spent a lot of time talking about what code each of the game modes would share, and where that code would live. One of our developers spent a lot of time on that code, and it ended up only used by one of the games. That particular developer was WIPED by the end of the project, and it’s really only because he is an absolute rockstar that he even finished that game mode.

Overall, it was a great weekend, and I had a blast. Thanks to everyone on my team, and to everyone who participated at our location!

Global Game Jam 2013 – Introducing “Heart Burn”

Here is my submission for this year’s global game jam: Heart Burn. Much like last year’s Global Game Jam, I wasn’t in attendance for all that much of the weekend after Friday night. But while I was there on Friday night, I made up a quick 25 card deck using colored post-it notes and a calligraphy pen. There were five colors and five “symbols”. You can see them in this image.

original_sm

Already August, (who I collaborated with for the first time on last year’s game jam game Eat Thyself), has come up with some better looking artwork, and he and I are planning on working together to polish up the app’s look and feel, and possibly publish it to the app store.

The concept and rules are quite simple: An iPhone app (code created during the game jam is up on bitbucket) will tell the players both whose turn it is to play, and what cards they can play. The game uses the “No cheating (please)” diversifier, which means that you’re basically on your honor not to cheat and play when it isn’t your turn or not to play the wrong cards. And it needs that diversifier, because, at least as it plays right now, the game is far too fast-paced to pay attention to anyone else’s cards!

About halfway through the weekend, I decided I should make the game playable without the custom cards, so I spent most of my time on Sunday making it work with a standard Euchre deck. If we release the app, it’ll have a setting to play it either way.

Here’s a clip on youtube of the game being played at the gamejam.

360iDev 2012 & Game Jams in general

A couple of weeks ago, I went to 360iDev, an iPhone/iOS conference that has been going on for a few years now, devoted entirely to iPhone (and now iPad) development. I actually went last year too, and that year had been to WWDC only a few months before. It was my first time at either conference, and I got a lot out of both of them. But the fact that 360iDev can even hold a candle to the flame that is Apple’s flagship developer conference (WWDC) speaks volumes about how great it is. This year, I elected to go to GDC instead of WWDC, but I still wanted to go to a big tech-focused conference, so I went to 360iDev.

Both years at 360iDev, I took part in the 360iDev Game Jam. (I also wrote a blog post about the game I made last year, which I then called ColorWheel.) This year, I teamed up with a guy named Levi that I’d never met or worked with before, we managed to make a pretty cool (albiet very simple) little puzzle game in the allotted 12 hours. I’ve tentatively started calling it Cloud Growth. I just finished a write-up of Cloud Growth (UPDATE: I’ve recovered the text from the game jam site, which no longer exists, and posted it below this post.), including some more details about the game’s development over on the Game Jam website. The theme of the game jam this year was “growth”, and our game heavily features clouds, so the naming was not particularly creative. The mechanics aren’t particularly creative either, but I can’t remember playing a game with them before, so I do want to polish this little prototype up, and release it at some point.

Anyway, Game jams are awesome. If you are interested in making games I would highly recommend the experience. But don’t take my word for it! At 360iDev, I attended a talk by Phil Hassey, an indie game developer who made a name for himself with a fantastic RTS called Galcon. Phil’s talk was mostly a postmortem for Galcon and his latest game Dynamite Jack, but he must have plugged Ludum Dare about twenty times. (He helps run the thing.) Ludum Dare actually happens bi-monthly. I was going to participate in August, but spent Friday evening working on a project to make games easier for me to write instead. (I will probably talk more about that project here on this blog eventually.)

It feels these days like there’s a game jam every weekend. Last weekend, for example, there was a game jam devoted to making games in the universe of Adventure Time, the TV show. (If I hadn’t been exhausted from a full week of 360iDev, and my lack of sleep that Tuesday night, I’d have been seriously tempted to take part, because Adventure Time is awesome.) A few months back there was a game jam where the participants were supposed to create games inspired by a twitter parody (@petermolydeux) of the relatively famous game creator/producer, Peter Molyneux. I think Peter Molyneux even attended the event!

Previously, I’ve also participated in the Global Game Jam. I can’t wait to do more of them.


Cloud Growth is a simple action puzzle game collaboration between Martin Grider (@livingtech), and Levi Brown, (@levigroker, blog).

We did about ten or twenty minutes of brainstorming, and eventually decided on this concept where we are placing simple clouds on a grid of open sky. There is a cloud “queue” in the upper right hand corner of the screen, so you know what the next one to be placed will be. Clouds have different colors, and if two clouds of the same color are placed next to one another, they will grow into a square of one size larger than the largest sized cloud of the two. You get points for placing clouds, and more points for growing clouds.

Martin wrote all of the game logic and most of the view controller code. Part of Martin’s enthusiasm for this particular concept was that he wanted to continue work on a generic GameModel object he’d been writing that abstracts away the “game grid”, as well as touch interactions on that grid. This was a resounding success, and much code was added to that library.

Levi did all the artwork and animations. These screenshots do not adequately capture the awesomeness of those animations. When a cloud is placed, for example, there is a really great bouncing effect, that is just fun to see. A good portion of Levi’s time in the wee hours of the morning was spent ensuring that the lightening bolts (currently shown when clouds reach the 3rd largest size), begin at the cloud of their origin, and end at the lightening tower at the bottom of the screen.

Future ideas:
* Part of the original concept was that the clouds would get removed from the gameboard after a certain threshold, but as the clouds cannot currently grow more than three times, that made the game far too easy. When code is written for larger growth, this idea will be revisited.
* Some kind of lightening counter would be fun, maybe with progressively harder levels as the counter is filled.

Game Design, and the Search for Emergent Complexity

Elegance in Game Design
Wikipedia says elegance is “the attribute of being unusually effective and simple”. I think the word “effective” here is very important. Essentially, if a strategic game is our goal, the more strategy we can create with the fewer (and thus more “effective”) rules, the more elegant the game design. Obviously, fewer rules equals a simpler design. Thus a simple game with complex strategy is elegant.

When I say a video game is elegant, (or board game, or a piece of art, or music), I actually mean it is deceptively complex. It may seem simple, either through simple rules, or simplicity of design, but through the interactions of those, it turns out to have some hidden complexity. For example, the rules for chess are fairly simple, a child can learn them, but the strategy that emerges from these rules is incredibly complex and there have been literally hundreds of books written about it.

When I play board games or video games, I have always appreciated this simplicity that leads to complexity. So far, even without necessarily thinking about these concepts explicitly, I have also attempted to incorporate elegance into my own game designs.

Emergent Complexity vs Rules Complexity
There is a whole camp of board games that doesn’t even attempt simplicity. If you’ve played a lot of board games, you probably know what I mean, rule books that are 20 pages long are not all that uncommon. I would generally have called them ‘ameritrash’ before today, (although the term is stupid for many reasons, not the least of which is that not all games with that monkier come from america) but then I read the board game geek page on ameritrash, and realized that I’ve been thinking of that term slightly differently from its commonly accepted use. The wiki page emphasizes the importance of theme in these games, and luck. It’s probably the luck I have a problem with, though that is not in opposition to simplicity and emergent complexity.

Anyway, let it suffice to say that there are a whole crap ton of games out there with what I’ll call now ‘rules complexity’, by which I mean that the game is complex, but that complexity comes more from complicated rules than elegance of design.

360iDev Game Jam
This last week I had the pleasure of attending the 360iDev Game Jam, where I designed and spent approximately eleven hours creating an iPad game I call ColorWheel. I had a simple design, one that I do hope will turn out to allow for some complex strategy when it’s all said and done. In case you haven’t visited the site yet, here is the description I wrote for the game:

Essentially, this is a two-player game, so you play on one side or the other. On your side are six fairly large buttons, one for each color. The colors that are situated across from one another are opposites (in the standard color wheel, google for “color wheel” if you don’t know what I mean), and they cancel each other out when they contact. You press a button, to select a color, and then touch in any of the six rows to “send” a piece down that row. The gameboard is only 6×6, so it’ll fill up pretty fast. Right now I’m thinking two game modes, both limited to 100 moves, or “sends” of pieces across the board. Mode 1 will be “real time”, where you are basically sending blocks as fast as you can to out-race/color match your opponent. Mode 2 will be “turn based”, where you make a move, then your opponent makes a move. When the 100 moves are over, whichever side has the least pieces on it is the victor’s.

I actually think the jury is still out on whether this game will have emergent complexity. There are a lot of choices at any given time (well, 36, I guess–maybe that’s not so many), but the problem as I see it is that for every move you make, your opponent has exactly one move that will counter it. The game, especially in a turn-by-turn mode, could easily stalemate. I haven’t really thought of a good “fix” for that problem… then again, it was made in a night.