Productivity is something many of us aspire to in today’s world – but what exactly does it mean to be productive? In my book, a “productive weekend” amounts to little more than getting the shopping done and making a dent in the dirty dishes. For games designer John McKellan, one weekend in 2013, it meant prototyping an iPad game that would go on to be spotlighted by Apple on the App Store, distributed by Starbucks across North America and reach more than 130,00 players worldwide. John and his team couldn’t have imagined the success awaiting their 48-hour project as they toiled away in the wee hours of the morning last January, but it’s likely they’d have returned to this year’s Scottish Game Jam in any case; for participants of the jam, taking part is its own reward.
Now in its sixth year, the Scottish Game Jam is a test of character, ingenuity and endurance that demands a real passion to create. The event is part of the Global Game Jam, an internationally co-ordinated effort in which participants gather to develop fully functioning games in the space of a single weekend. Adhering to this deadline is no mean feat: even the most humble of video games can require thousands of lines of code, a wealth of art assets and at least some audio effects – if not an entire original soundtrack. Once you take into account the fact that many locations host competitions to determine their best entrant, it all begins to sound a bit nerve-racking.
John would appear to agree: “the last few hours are pretty stressful. I’ve seen grown men cry,” he jokingly admitted in his opening speech at Glasgow Caledonian University this year. However, he was quick to reinforce that game jams are primarily about having fun and experimenting with new ideas. “it’s a great time to try something I don’t get to do normally which is quick iteration, quick development. So it’s a bit more rewarding after the fact.” Richard Lemarchand, a designer whose credits include the Uncharted series, echoed this sentiment in a pre-recorded keynote message, urging participants to pursue “something entirely new, in a style we’ve never seen before, or with a core mechanic that is completely unique.”
It’s this fundamental thirst to discover new possibilities of expression that is the heart and soul of the Global Game Jam. The ballooning development cost of high-profile video games has discouraged the major studios from making any radical changes to their design philosophies, meaning that grass root movements such as jams have become an increasingly important source of innovation in the medium. More than competition, game jams are about fostering an environment in which enthusiastic pioneers can freely explore the boundaries of what is still a young and burgeoning art form. Furthermore, jams help to cultivate their local development communities. Dundee and Edinburgh are very much industry hotspots thanks to Abertay’s government funded games programme and Rockstar North respectively. Glasgow, on the other hand, has less of a reputation for video game culture, despite its prominent art scene. Even so, attendance at the Scottish Game Jam has grown from a modest 23 in 2009 to over 170 this year, suggesting that an appetite for interactive media certainly does exist in the city.
This growth might well be attributed to the greater accessibility of game development in general in the last few years. While the majority of attendees at the jam were already involved in creating games academically – either via Caledonian University itself or at the University of the West of Scotland – there were plenty of others who proved that it’s perfectly possible to make games without formal experience. Daniel Callander and Scott Goodwin, whose Prism Saga was awarded second prize by the judges, had never completed a game project before attending and yet found that software like Unity made the process relatively straightforward. Granted, the pair posses a high technical proficiency – Daniel is studying computer science at Glasgow University while Scott has a degree in 3D art – but most of what they achieved during the weekend, they admitted, was learnt on the fly. Another first timer, Alex Wozniak, a philosophy graduate and community manager for a Glasgow-based game studio, certainly wasn’t impeded by a lack of technical knowledge. Even without any programming experience, Alex managed to produce one of the more conceptually ambitious projects of the weekend, Man is the Measure of All Things. Written using open source software called Twine, the game explores the relationship between actions and their psychological implications by representing the protagonist’s conscience as an autonomous character with whom the player can interact. Alex is confident that the project will be the first of many now that he knows what he’s capable of: “I want to try to do more things with [Twine] instead of just interactive stories, to look at what other people have done, try and incorporate their inventory systems, maps, health bars, and give it some more interactivity”.
For those like Alex who already have jobs in the industry, the Scottish Game Jam is a chance to pursue passion projects outside of work and to apply their design sensibilities in new ways. For students however, it can serve as a significant steppingstone towards a future career. Employment in the games industry is scarce so a robust portfolio is essential for those looking to be taken seriously. “The field is very competitive,” explained Alastair Hebson, a Caledonian graduate now employed by Guerilla Games in Amsterdamn. “It’s not so much about looking for the jobs as it is making yourself as employable as you possibly can be.” Clearly this sentiment was a strong motivation for a number of participants, many of whom worked through the night with little interruption. Alysha, an artist and animator, had come to the jam specifically to accumulate material ahead of “Game in Scotland”, an industry recruitment fair held in Dundee in March. “I’ve had about 3 hours sleep,” she said on Saturday evening – smiling nonetheless.
By Sunday, signs of fatigue were more evident. Desks were lined with the discarded coffee cups and energy drink cans of the bleary eyed participants, some of whom were still in pyjamas from the night before. Nevertheless, it was with a celebration that the jam drew to a close, with prizes awarded the teams that particularly impressed the judges. Even the less successful games, they stressed, contained elements which could be used to great effect if further refined or incorporated into future projects. After all, some of medium’s most important works have evolved from Jam projects, a notable example being thatgamecompany’s critically lauded Journey. Whether any of this year’s projects have such a prosperous future in store remains to be seen, but before that you’ll be able to play all of the games made during the weekend at a public showcase on the 10th of February, held as part of the Glasgow Film Festival. If I get through the rest of these dishes, maybe I’ll see you there.
Words – Andrew Gordon