Hi Everyone! This is about my very first game jam, CoMo Game Jam 1. The first official Game Jam of Columbia Missouri (January 27-29, 2017). To spoil the ending, I won this game jam and went on to publish the game I made. At this stage in my life, I’ve never finished a game. I’ve had attempts but never saw anything through to the end. I had just downloaded the Unity Game Engine and I was ready to give it another shot.
If you’re unfamiliar with what a Game Jam is, it’s similar to a technology start up weekend. You enter a contest in which you have limited time to create a game from scratch. They are judged on some criteria and prizes are given out. Whatever, neither of those details are important. There were a few benefits that were very important.
- Dedicated time to work. I joined a contest, I have a deadline. I planned ahead and arranged for a babysitter and told my wife and work that this time was reserved for me. I have about 50 consecutive hours, where I don’t have to worry about anything but producing a product.
- Dedicated space to work. Many game jams are online and do not have this benefit. But I’ve spent a fair portion of time working full time remotely or on homework for college. As well meaning as family, employers, partners and roommates can be, it’s a common misconception that nobody in their pajamas can be hard at work. Which opens the door for any number of distractions because you appear ripe for distracting.
- Networking. Many people can appear at a game jams. Developers, Artists, Musicians, Publishers, Investors, Marketers and various unlabeled nerds. I assembled my own small dream team in advance, but I made note of all the talented people I saw. We’re all there to make games. I have a list of people I would approach first if I ever needed help in a certain field. Many of whom I met at Como Game Jams. In addition, I was able to show off my development skills in front of an audience that wants to make games. If one of them were to start a game development studio, perhaps they’d approach me.
- Practice. In all things you want to get good at, you have to practice. If you want to be amazing, you have to practice every day. Maybe you’ll never be the best, but you don’t have to be. You just need to be better than you were yesterday. Be brave and do your best.
- Fun. I work in a very professional environment. Standards and best practices as far as the eye can see. Automated tests and staging environments to make sure every line of code that sees the light of day is of the highest quality. There is a runner’s high for coding, where you produce as much working code as you can as fast as you can then move on to the next project. It’s freeing to be your own boss, where you are free from explanation or justification and you can trust yourself and your gut feelings to produce something really great.
Given those opportunities this Game Jam seemed like the best chance I had to prove to myself that I could be a game developer. Since I’ve failed to make games in the past I knew what doesn’t work. What doesn’t work is making the game you’ve been dreaming about. It’s ill defined and overly ambitious. My professor used to say “The most important feature of any project is that it ships”. So I started thinking about what the simplest game I want to make is. There were three games that I played that came to mind. Cribbage, Gimme Friction Baby and some game involving placing island tiles to get a monkey to a coconut.
I settled on Gimme Friction Baby in the end. I used to play that game on Jay Is Games https://jayisgames.com/games/gimme-friction-baby/
It is a simple game. It was competitive, it was challenging, it was addictive and it was fun. More importantly, not only was I sure I could make it. I was pretty confident I could do it better. Less bugs, better sound, better graphics and if I got it all done in time I could add features to it to really make it a better game.
To be honest, I decided on what I was going to do before I ever set foot in the game jam. Looking through my old project backlog, apparently I was planning this project a few hours before the Game Jam kickoff. During the kickoff they announced the theme “The Human Body”, and I just had to think of something round on the human body and slap it on top.
Like an actor becoming a director, over the years of being a software developer I believe I’ve gotten fairly good at project management. For my personal projects I use Trello with a scrum extension http://scrumfortrello.com/ . I write “stories” for my “epic” which is agile business talk for I create a list of tasks for my project. In the office my typical format for a story is:
As a ____
I want _____
So that _____
This tells me what I’m doing, for who and why. That might not seem like very much, but when working a monolithic project it’s easy to lose perspective. Here is a real life example of a story I’m working on at work today:
As a developer,
I want a simple loan create command independent of other commands that currently exist today, that is compatible with SDK loan creating,
So that I can in the future migrate services over to use this as a stepping stone to NG creates.
This tells me a few things, “As a” tells me that other departments don’t need any special access privileges or even care about what this feature is. From their perspective nothing changes. “I want” tells me the desired solution to the problem, it doesn’t have to be the solution it’s just what the requester is telling you they want. “So that” is the most important of the three by far, it’s the actual problem they are trying to solve. If a coworker comes up to you and says “I need a hammer”, you’d probably give them a hammer. But if they said “I want a hammer to assemble Ikea furniture” you can use your instincts and past experience to say “you probably need an alan wrench or at most a screwdriver”. For my game jam project I simplified it a little bit. Here is a real world example from the game jam “Aiming the Turret Cannon”:
I want the turret to rotate on a hinge joint between ~10 and ~170 degrees So that it is always pointing up to some degree.
So that we prevent the player from firing behind the game over line
I don’t need to know who wants it; everybody, nobody, just me. Doesn’t matter, there is one type of user for my game and that’s the player (which, as it turns out, more often than not is: nobody or just me). The second thing I do, is point the stories I’ve written.
My personal pointing rubric is as follows:
0 = already done (this needs to be green, oh wait I looked again it was already green)
1 = trivial (you flip a switch somewhere)
2 = basic (you know what needs to be done and how)
3 = little tricky (you don’t know how yet, but you’re pretty sure it’s easy)
5 = tricky (you don’t know how you’re going to do it, but you’re confident you can figure it out and it won’t take too long)
8+ = hard (you typically don’t know how, or how you’re going to learn how. Small to large amount of research involved)
More points than 8, and you’ve usually got a problem. I’ve seen maybe one or two stories that I could not break down smaller than 8, and in the case of unity where I didn’t know the platform well 8 didn’t bother me much. Grading stories on difficulty may seem pointless and it can feel that way when you’re working too. But think of it as a progress bar. If you add up the points you’ve finished and compare them to the time you spent working on them, you’ll have a really good idea of when you’ll finish your project. In the case of my Project, I was able to see by the halfway mark of the competition I was already more than 70% complete. I could sleep, eat, spend more time on research or features that I was going to cut. Extra time was mostly spent improving the art or searching for free assets I could use to make the game cooler.
Here is the game my team and I made for the game jam:
I did all the development and unity work. My artist was Elizabeth Williams she did the background and eyes. My best friend Bryan Harris was also there. His job was to keep us company, help me talk through problems and find free assets on the unity asset store we could use.
The team and I still hang out, but for now it’s just me following up on the project and planning the next ones. It looks much better on mobile these days, it’s also more polite. You’ll notice it doesn’t call you a chump anymore.
You can download and play the game for FREE here: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.SugarheartCorporation.EyeBowl