Chicago Game Jam 2013: Post-mortem (the Chris Version)

My experience with the IGDA’s Chicago Game Jam at The Nerdery this past weekend was quite a bit different than Steve’s – and probably just about anybody else who was there. You see, it was really only Steve who was intending to actually participate in the jam, as he’s learning to develop games and wanted to see if he could put his skills to the test and actually make a complete game in a weekend. All I had set out to do was support him in the overall coverage of the event for The Chi-Scroller, and of course cheer him on. I already had all-day plans on Saturday, so I was going to attend the Friday night festivities, hear Eugene Jarvis speak, and then let him loose to learn and create until I returned Sunday to check out his game and watch the presentations of all of the other games.

Steve had assumed he was going to get onto a team, so it could be a true learning experience and hopefully make a few contacts and/or friends in the process. However, as we were discussing just how much time I was going to be able to spend at the jam as a mere observer, Steve put forth the idea that maybe he’d just try to see if he could make an entire game solo. Not only would this push himself, but then we could be a two-man team and I would be free to come and go as I please and spend as much time there as I wanted (for the record, I DID in fact purchase a ticket). And then, while he was building his game, he could also teach me a little bit about programming, so it would be a learning experience for both of us in its own way. So then at least I wouldn’t be a complete interloper at this game jam.

Why was I worried about being an interloper? Here’s the truth: I know zero about programming. Or art. Or sound. Or…well, anything related to game development other than to throw out ideas and suggestions (which I’m pretty good at, if I do say so myself). That is why I was originally just going to “report” on the event, not actually participate in it. But with Steve entertaining the notion of going it alone (and being okay with sharing credit with me at the end of the product), I figured maybe I could actually “participate” in the jam, only it would be more of a game LEARNING jam for me. And other than having to cut out for a stretch on Saturday, I could come back Saturday night and spend the whole night there and stay all through the end on Sunday. It was a great plan, and I was pretty excited about it: Spend all night with one of my best friends, watching him make a game (and others make games), and looking forward to the eventual lunacy and tear-soaked laughter that would come from the lack of sleep.

So Eugene Jarvis does his keynote (which was great), the organizers lay out the rules, deadlines, etc, and then tell us to form our teams and get started. At this point, two guys sitting near us turn and ask us if we already have a team, and Steve replies, “It’s just us…you guys want to join up?” And they agree.

As Q-Bert would say: #%@!

We all introduce ourselves, and say what our expertise is. Steve introduces me as a “designer”, the other guys say what they do, and then we’re all sitting in a circle brainstorming our game. I felt like a character out of a sitcom where I’m pretending to be something I’m not, sure to get found out at any moment in some embarrasing and ridiculous fashion. But I figured it was no big deal, I’ll sit around and throw out ideas for the game, no harm in that, and then I just won’t come back tomorrow and let Steve cover for me. All I had to do was get to 9:00pm and I was home free.

So I made it to 9, and as soon as Steve and I are alone as we walk to the elevator, he apologizes for what he got me into, and told me I could bail if I wanted, just show up on Sunday for the presentations. It was tempting. But for some reason, I got this crazy idea: Why not just tough it out? Steve can cover for me when needed – he already did so a few times (“Chris, we do the same types of things, so we’ll just double team these tasks.”) – and beyond that, I’ll just wing it. I’m trying to call myself a journalist, aren’t I? Well I was embedded at that point. I was undercover. And it was my game concept that we ultimately decided to go with, so in a naive way I felt like a designer. So with a combination of journalistic curiosity and a taste of real game development, I was eager to give this crazy experiment a shot.

I was so eager, in fact, that I went ahead and put in a few hours Saturday morning before I had to attend to my other Saturday plans. So I threw my laptop in a bag with a couple of notebooks, and at 8:00am the next morning, I showed up, ready to get to work. Things were pretty easy at first. Other than myself and Steve, only one of the other two guys was there for the first couple of hours, and with him busy drawing in-game objects, it wasn’t too hard to pretend to work. I started out ambitiously, installing Construct 2 – what we were building the game in – and looking through the tutorials and tinkering with the built-in sample games. Steve also loosely explained a few things about Construct and what he was doing. Maybe I could actually do something after all.

No. No I couldn’t. I’m not saying I’m incapable of learning anything about Construct, or game development in general, but it quickly became apparent that under these circumstances, it wasn’t going to happen. I was certainly not going to be able to teach myself, and when Steve wasn’t interacting with the other two guys, he was quietly immersed in his own legitimate work. So I was on my own. This time, I only had to get to 12:30pm, so again, it was a matter of running out the clock while I stared at a screen that looked like relevant work but was really just the information and data for one of Construct’s pre-made games, occasionally tossing out an idea or two or asking a question to stay involved. I wasn’t entirely sure if I was going to come back later. I felt like I wanted to, but I figured I’d play it by ear, keep in touch with Steve and feel him out to see if he thinks I can blend back in. So I apologize, excuse myself, and off I go.

Fast forward to 10:00pm, and after Steve assured me it was fine that I come back, I’m heading back to the Nerdery. The guys need to get out for a bit so we all take a coffee break when I first get back, and treating everyone to pop and coffee probably greased the wheels a little bit. So after relaxing at McDonald’s for a bit, we head back, and they show me their game progress which I am very impressed with. With everyone already in the middle of their own respective tasks, nobody really pays much attention to me, and I open my laptop and get back to…work.

Perhaps I am just trying to justify to myself that I wasn’t completely dead weight in the room, but I’d like to believe that I really did help to make the long night more pleasant. Playing music off of YouTube, telling jokes, and “play testing” the still very early game prototype. At around 3:30am I crashed out on the floor, and at 6:30am I pulled myself back up onto my chair, and shortly after, we were all back to work and ready for crunch time.

For the final stretch, I finally did begin to pull my weight, legitimately play testing the game obsessively for most of the final 3 hours or so, pointing out bugs and glitches, giving feedback, and boosting confidence by offering individual praise. Finally, we’re told it’s time to stop, and just like that, I made it. I got through the entire 30ish hours of the game jam without being “found out”. I wasn’t completely in the clear yet, as I couldn’t stand still for too long while we wandered around testing everyone’s games and chatting for fear that someone would talk to me and ask me questions about the game I wasn’t going to be able to answer.

The other games were very impressive. There were several games that were right up my alley and I hoped would be completely fleshed out and completed one day. And in all honesty, I was proud of our game. I really did have fun playing it, it was a complete game, and selfishly, a lot of my ideas ended up being used so that of course was satisfying for me.

I’ve wanted to make games ever since I was a kid. I didn’t really know what went into it, I just knew I had good ideas, and those good ideas would make good games. That’s all it takes, right? Then I got older and realized that was the very minimum of what it takes, and for reasons I won’t go into here, I never developed any of the real skills needed to be a useful member of a game dev team. But this weekend, my childhood dream came true: I threw out ideas, and they were carried out and executed in a real video game. If nothing else, my crazy weekend was worth it for me just for that. It was also great to just be in the mix during the development of a game, to see an example of the process on a small, fast-forwarded scale, and actually watch as a stick figure and a green rectangle eventually became a real, playable game. Hopefully the other members of our team – Jeff Stevens and Billy Zarek – don’t feel too betrayed by this. Speaking of which, for anyone else who was at the jam and saw our game, Nex Ludus, now you know the game was actually only built by THREE people, with one QA Tester/creative consultant/fun bringer.

Also, there was a framed portrait of Jeff Goldblum in the bathroom. That officially makes it the greatest bathroom in the history of bathrooms.