Global Game Jam 2014: Stockholm

I’d never attended a full, 48-hour game jam until this weekend. Nor indeed had I tried doing one in a foreign country! It took its toll, but I’m very glad to say I have completed my first Global Game Jam – and I’m rather proud of the game we made, too!

Our Global Game Jam 2014 entry, "Mimic", being playtested at Stockholm's Tekniska Museet.
Our Global Game Jam 2014 entry, “Mimic”, being playtested at Stockholm’s Tekniska Museet.

My Global Game Jam journey started with a social meetup the week before, in which the organisers (Jon Back and Inger Ekman) created an opportunity for us to meet each other outside of the frantic game jam environment. This was certainly a nice touch, and I was reassured early on that – typically of Sweden – my ability to only speak English would not be a problem.

When Friday came around, I arrived at Stockholm’s Tekniska Museet a little bit early, to take stock of a venue I’d visited only once before (which is an opportunity for me to point out that the museum is currently hosting Game On 2.0 – an arcade and console collection which does not disappoint). I knew in advance that the jam was fully subscribed with 50 attendees, and so I was picturing the venues I’ve jammed in before with some dread, but my fears were unfounded.

Though we soon put the smaller tables to other uses, we made good use of the hall's workbenches - and enjoyed the chandeliers above.
Though we soon put the smaller tables to other uses, we made good use of the hall’s workbenches – and enjoyed the chandeliers above.

#GGJSthlm was hosted inside a decent-sized hall on the museum premises, which is commonly hired out to wedding receptions and conferences. We had access to rows of tables which were already decked out with multi-socket adapters and local ethernet switches, with the ends of the hall given over to a projector-backed stage and a coffee bar. These were very comfortable surroundings indeed, considering – though my back was far better off for a friend’s loan of a camping mat and sleeping bag, rather than facing a night on the thinly-carpeted floor!

The jam event began with a series of talks, most of which were in Swedish (though I did my best to follow the slides with Google Goggles – a survival trick which I’m keen to blog about someday). The speakers included Annika Waern and Petri Lankoski of Uppsala University, and Annica Strand and Jennifer Nordwall from Rovio. When 5 o’clock came round, the floor was given over to the Global Game Jam keynote video, with Richard Lemarchand, Kaho Abe and Jenova Chen all lending fascinating insight into the game design and jamming experience.

Suitably psyched up, we then returned to the game jam hall in order to learn the nature of the task ahead of us. Jon took some delight in keeping us in suspense, but eventually the theme was revealed:

"We don't see things as they are; we seem them as we are."
“We don’t see things as they are; we seem them as we are.”

It’s here that Jon’s ideation process took place. I’ve never encountered anything like it before, and while I’m not entirely convinced by his fairly aggressive method, it’s hard to ignore the fact every group had a workable idea within 30 minutes of hearing the theme. It ran as follows:

  • 5 minutes to ponder upon the announcement
  • 5 minutes to form groups of two to three, and write basic ideas (specifically not game ideas) in response to the theme
  • Posting these ideas on a wall, using Post-it Notes
  • A scramble of sorts, to take two Post-its at random, return to very small groups and attempt an idea from any of the notes in that group’s possession
  • Return to the wall with the core of a game idea, and attempt to pitch/defend it to all the other attendees.

It was during this last step that groups began to form. As each of us were invited to wear badges declaring our skills, we could easily snap up artists and programmers, with folk like me hoping to round groups off with other skills. Jon was also very keen that groups should be formed of complete strangers, which was no problem for me but must have provoked a welcome challenge for the numerous attendees from Stockholm and Södertörn universities.

Team "Mimic", shortly into production. We were five in total: two programmers facing two artists, with me sat on the adjoining table.
Team “Mimic”, shortly into production. We were five in total: two programmers facing two artists, with me sat on the adjoining table.

So it was that I met artist Tove Brandberg and programmer/designer Daniel Nyberg, later to be joined by programmer Oscar Romin and artist Sofia Peinert. We took up Daniel and Tove’s idea, of a game based on the Woman in the Red Dress scene in The Matrix – a combination of “deception” and “you become your enemy”.

The 'Woman in the Red Dress' scene from "The Matrix" (Warner Bros., 1999)
The ‘Woman in the Red Dress’ scene from “The Matrix” (Warner Bros., 1999)

We developed what would later become Mimic over the course of a further, short design meeting – one that I (as designer) was very happy with, since I’ve often felt overwhelmed in previous jams. This despite an unusual time pressure, as we began work on this game behind closed doors at around 18:00 on Friday, but the museum was due to open again at 11:00 the next morning, with a public viewing and a demand upon us to provide some form of playable demo. Suffice it to say, I only slept for 3 hours on Friday night.

Day Two: Playtesting and Iteration

By the time our first playtest came around, we had an environment in which we could spawn a handful of identical characters, all of whom could be controlled independently of each other using Xbox 360 joypads. We suffered some collision detection problems, which by bizarre coincidence only affected whichever character I controlled – a bug which programmer Oscar put down to “British people”. These errors were borne out by placing the build in front of members of the public, but children and adults alike seemed interested in what we had done, and as many came back to see our progress later in the day, we felt sure that this first playtest was as informative for them as it was us.

Programmer Oscar demonstrates the game along with some of the first children to visit our game jam site.
Programmer Oscar demonstrates the game along with some of the first children to visit our game jam site.

Our second playtest was much more fruitful, as I attempted to demonstrate in Vine:

 

From here we had a solid night in which to introduce more of our core gameplay and polish the art assets. It became clear, however, that this was a more programmer-oriented workload. Those of us on the art team (Tove and Sofia on characters and animation, with me building the environment on top of Tove’s initial base) began to run out of work, meaning that our project overall represents some 80 hours of coding between two people, and around 90 hours of 2D art between three. Fortunately this left Tove free to seek out audio files, while Sofia worked on illustrations to compliment the game’s presentation.

Day Three: Finishing Touches

As day three loomed, Tove and I had both returned to our respective homes in order to catch up on sleep. This goal was only partly achieved, but it was still valuable in giving us the energy to support a final push, via one last playtest. Given that we had only 4 controllers, we had to borrow one from another team in order to get a build out there, but this had real value to us as we now had a game which communicated more clearly the conditions for winning and losing.

Two players test the third demo build of our game, on a tense Sunday afternoon at Tekniska Museet.
Two players test the third demo build of our game, on a tense Sunday afternoon at Tekniska Museet.

With our final playtesting session wrapped up, we now had 2 and a half hours in which to deploy a UI, fix some graphics bugs (players were beginning to glow red, defeating the purpose of subterfuge), introduce sounds to the game and attempt a presentation.

As it turned out, #GGJSthlm also broke with game jam convention in that we did not present to the rest of the group, so sadly my personal challenge to work on my pitch technique could not be met. Still, this gave me more time to work on our project page and throw a trailer together. Tove and Sofia provided UI and presentation assets, while Oscar and Daniel did all they could to round the game off.

Sadly, as we approached the deadline we had to sacrifice the UI, and thus the means of communicating core gameplay to the players. Our points counters were just not playing ball, and while we could verbally tell the players when they could earn power-ups, we couldn’t tell them this through an on-screen marker. Still, I feel we managed to produce a very reasonable prototype, with all the core gameplay elements in place. More than that, Oscar managed to add support for 4 players on a keyboard, giving Mimic a maximum of 8 players. As the 15:00 deadline struck on Sunday afternoon, we were ready to upload, with one of the game jam’s diversifiers (local multiplayer functions) safely in the bag.

With game builds either uploaded or in the process of being stored on the Global Game Jam servers, the teams all had an opportunity to cross the hazard tape and enjoy each other's demos - and tasty almond cake.
With game builds either uploaded or in the process of being stored on the Global Game Jam servers, the teams all had an opportunity to cross the hazard tape and enjoy each other’s demos – and tasty almond cake.

The rest of the jam was, as ever, a blur. The museum was an alcohol-free zone, but there was cake and plenty of leftover fizzy drink to celebrate with, as well as the chance to relax with members of the museum-going public, and enjoy each other’s games. I opted to finish off our presence on YouTube and the Global Game Jam website, given that sadly I was unable to communicate with most of the visiting gamers, but I had the pleasure of seeing everyone else’s efforts for myself.

So it was that myself, Tove Brantberg, Sofia Peinert, Daniel Nyberg and Oscar Romin created Mimic – an isometric, 2D game in which each player is granted mind control over a random member of a city crowd. Their task is to first ascertain which character they are, and then attempt to spot their opponents based on any erratic movements, or deviation from the crowd. Once a target is acquired, the player must sneak their way through the crowd undetected, and ‘tag’ that other player – a move which reveals the player’s own position with glowing eyes and a retro sci-fi “zap”. If the player’s successful, they earn the ability to flee that host body and settle into a new one; if not, they must do all they can to hide before getting tagged themselves.

It’s not the sort of game I could see working on home consoles, but it is my hope that with some polish, extra game modes and more variety in the art assets, this could go down well at games festivals and events like Wild Rumpus. I’ve already floated the idea to my team-mates; you can be sure to hear of any such happenings at this blog. At the very least, I’ve already thought up a physical variant for crowds which could prove to be rather amusing.

From left: myself, Oscar Romin, Sofia Peinert, Tove Brantberg and Daniel Nyberg
From left: myself, Oscar Romin, Sofia Peinert, Tove Brantberg and Daniel Nyberg

My thanks to my team-mates, who not only contributed an excellent working environment but taught me a lot about both Swedish and Finnish culture (I hope I didn’t lower their expectations of the British too much!). Thanks also to Global Game Jam’s local organisers, Jon Back and Inger Ekman, who provided us with a brilliant venue and ensured that no game jammer went without resources or food. Finally, tack så mycket to the kind people I met at Tekniska Museet, who are awesome for hosting us anyway, but who I felt were especially accommodating given my lack of Swedish. That museum really is run by some brilliant people – do pay a visit if you haven’t already.

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