I've just come back from a venue in Cardiff that was run by my old University, called the Global Game Jam. Put simply, a bunch of people attend a venue for 48 hours to make a game. Venues need 24 hour access as required by the Global Game Jam, so you pretty much have 2 days to do whatever you want; sleep not required (though encouraged!).
This was my 3rd Game Jam. I attended the first ever Game Jam back in 2009 I think? It was towards the end of my first year in University anyway, and we were one of the very few venues in the UK to be had, in comparison to today at least. Back then I was a student doing the Computer Game Design course at my University, with no idea on how to create a basic game, let alone a finished one. The great thing about Game Jams though is that no matter what skill level you're on as a designer/developer, the main goal is to work with other people and experiment around a theme. The theme is given to everyone at the start of their Jam, and it's kept a secret until every country has officially started in their local timezone.
You don't have to produce a Video Game, it can also be a Board Game, so the barrier of entry really is non-existent if you go in with the right attitude. What matters is that you mingle, work together, and keep an open-mind when it comes to development and your approach to an idea. You've only got 48 hours to get a game finished, so you can't afford to fall in love with your ideas too much! By the end of it though, the hope is that you either carry on the project with the people you've met, or at least making those acquaintances will mean you've walked away having gained some new contacts to work with in the future.
So when I arrived at my venue, there was quite a large group present. About 30-40 people give or take. We all spent the first hour after being given the theme brainstorming, and seeing what kind of projects we could come up with. Once brainstorming was done, we all started to form groups, and find people we liked the idea of working with. I spent an extra 30 minutes or so taking a turn around the room, discussing everyone's projects/ideas and seeing if there was one I fancied hopping into with my skillset. I didn't find a project that I thought I could have a substantial impact in helping develop, mostly because everyone decided they were using Unreal Engine 4 (and I still don't know any C++ yet, and I haven't used Blueprints before!), so I decided to work solo.
David! How antisocial of you! A group event and you decided to work alone in a corner, scandalous! Well first of all it wasn't a corner, I was sat on a table with another group. Second of all, I was still helping a handful of groups with programming approaches and general design thoughts/opinions. Other than a lecturer among the attendees, I think I was the only graduate or anyone of any experience. Not to say I could do a better job than everyone in the room, but most of them were students in their early years of their respective courses. So I decided my best use was to focus on making a small and basic game myself, and just roam around the venue and offer help and advice to the various other groups.
That's what I ended up doing, I still got quite heavily involved in other groups, even providing practical code for some of them that I had written from scratch myself. I felt that was the best move for me to make holistically, especially looking back in retrospect. It meant I was able to finish my game quickly without too much Mission Creep (when you start adding too many features/ideas before you finish your basic ones), and it meant that I was able to have a bigger impact overall at the venue. I also needed to leave early, so I had to make finishing my own small project my #1 priority, and fit everyone else around that main objective. If I got into another group, I'd essentially be leaving it before it was finished. Whilst no one would have minded, it would have bothered me.
Anyway, I came up with this game called Vaporwave Baby. The theme was Waves, so for me it was a twin-stick wave shooter, based in a swimming pool, and you played as a baby surrounded by art and music that was very vaporwave-like in style. Mix in the low-fi PS1 retro 3D artstyle that I'm obsessed with recreating constantly, and I had a simple game project I could achieve alone easily within 48 hours.
I managed to get the basics functioning. We had a twin stick shooter playable on a controller, basic scoring system, a lifebar that took 3 hits before the level would restart, and a single basic enemy type that would always swim towards you (or zombie a.i as some devs like to call it). The framework for the game is in place, and a basic UI functional. All that's needed is to spawn enemies in different places, add in different levels, and then start bringing in more enemy types, weapon powerups, and all the other frills a game like this has. It's possible I would have been able to do a lot more to the game before uploading it if I hadn't gotten involved with other teams. I don't like to think of my weekend in those terms though, I could make a game like Vaporwave Baby at any point that I wanted to, but it was my only chance to be in a room with other developers and interact and work alongside them.
You can see the page for the game by hovering over the Projects tab at the top of my website here, and I'll likely add it to an IndieDB page at some point if I take it further. I like twin stick shooters, and it's a really basic game that you could easily get internet multiplayer peer-to-peer working in, so maybe I'll finish it off and have a nice little retro-themed and abstract game all about a stylish-looking baby; custom water-ring costumes and glasses customisation options too!
I proved a lot to myself over that short period of time though. Despite distracting myself by wandering around various groups during that short period, I was still able to achieve quite a lot of work all by myself without much stress or effort on my part. I live streamed the event on Twitch, so I went back to watch some of the videos to see how hard I was working. It's nice to see that I was actually keeping my head down for 75% of the time, with the other 25% being a mix of food/drink breaks, or helping other groups. Again, it's just nice validating to myself that I can achieve what I set out to do when I focus and put in some real effort into a project. I learned exactly what I was capable of, my limitations, and within what sort of time-frame.
That's what I find is great about events like these, you not only learn the actual discipline being practiced, but you also walk away with a greater understanding of yourself professionally. I remember my first ever Game Jam (as I said, the first EVER one), and how useless I was. My Pixel Art was terrible, I didn't know how to program, and I couldn't produce my own audio. I was basically an ideas/paper design guy, and I could rustle together some crude-looking artwork to fit the needs of a weekend game development session. It's nice to see how far I've come in my personal studies within my free-time, and how much my programming in C# and Unity has come along since last year when it was basically non-existent outside of a tutorial to follow. I still have to refer to documentation occasionally, but I'm very comfortable in applying different techniques and solutions to a problem, and I'm getting better at thinking of new ways to address a problem myself as a problem solver as well.
All in all, it was a productive weekend. It was reassuring to see how far I've come, and have a new bar of measurement to set for myself to overcome in the future. There were a few other private things I had floating around in my head that I wanted addressed in some shape or form, and I'm happy to say I got some answers for those as well. With some big changes for me coming soon, I think I needed some reassurance in a more professional setting like this to know I was doing the right thing, and I can still do these kinds of things and attend these sort of events in the future despite those changes.
Long post, basically just saying check out my game and that I had fun! The students were great, and it's great to see how the effect of tools like Unity and Unreal becoming much more easier to use have had a positive impact on how much work and learning students can get done in a shorter amount of time. When I started my course, Unity was in version 3 I think, and UDK had only just come into the equation as an engine. Both had their challenges to use for a designer/artist-based mind, but anything beyond a basic Kismet setup in UDK was too technical for us as artists/designers. Unity was far less forgiving too, and had a lot more stages of setup for programming features and functions. The tools have gotten more powerful, but also much easier to use, and this weekend was a good example of how that means the students I met were on a much higher level than my lot were in 2008/2009, and other students at other universities.
It's a positive thing to think about, and it's why we've seen an explosion of small indie games on the scene in recent years. Some hardcore developers criticise engines like Unity and Unreal as not being 'real' enough to be proper development environments. Some people feel that a lack of programming knowledge and creating your own engine or using a more specific one is a sign of not making a game 'properly'. The days of insisting that people wanting to work in the games industry needing a BSC in Computer Science are gone. I'm a firm believer of results, and the results show that visual scripting, democratised development environments, and simpler tools, are not restricting or bringing about a de-evolution of the quality of games being produced. They are helping make those games be more accessible to create, and arguably of a higher quality. The results speak for themselves, and we've had more interesting, unique, and impactful games in the last couple of years than we ever have had before.
End of speech.