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On The Ground at the Perth Global Game Jam: Day One

Last weekend, (in the form of myself) dropped into the Perth Global Game Jam to watch thirty-five crazy game developers try to build a game over forty-eight hours. Here’s how the first day went down.

It’s 5:30 PM, on the afternoon of Friday 27 January. I’m sitting in a re-purposed lecture hall at Edith Cowan University’s Mt. Lawley campus in Perth, watching as thirty five different men and women set themselves up for the 4th annual Global GameJam.

Each participant has to supply their own hardware for the event. Some have lugged their beastly multi-monitor rigs down for the jam, wheeling them in four at a time on long cargo trolleys. Others tap away on laptops best suited for web games, while others still tap away on laptops big enough to beat a whale to death with (and generate enough heat to cook it afterwards, too).

Every game developer is unique in their own, delightful way. Some sport outrageous hair, others the close-cut crop of a man whose obsession with an impressive KDR trumps his care for the changing winds of fashion. The embittered jam veterans talk shop and swap stories, while the fresh-faced university students nervously set up their workstations for the two days ahead. Some of them are programmers who have never made a game before. Others dropped out of university a while ago, and have just come along to help out their friends.

One thing they all have in common is a deadline. Forty-eight hours from now, they have to get up in front of the room and show us the game they’ve made. From scratch.

I set up in a corner of the room as the final stage of preparations begin. It’s not long before a man called Brock, who describes himself as a “music whore”, asks if he can set up nearby. He’s packing two keyboards, a guitar and a computer. I ask him if he’s come with a team. “Not really,” he answers, in between tinkling some plastic ivories and checking audio levels on a pair of headphones that cost more than my car. “I’m sort of planning to whore myself out to whoever wants music done.”

Brock is right on the money. While many programmers and graphics artists quickly learn that they can’t survive in the world of game development without each other, having a person who knows what they’re doing in the confusing world of audio is a godsend. Other teams I speak to are confident they can do their sound in house, such as programmer Steve, who is wearing a Superman-themed t-shirt, necklace and watch, and working on a Superman-themed mousepad. He assures me that he is also wearing Superman-themed underwear. I mutter some excuse about needing to mingle and flee to another group.

Chris comes through, breaking up the proceedings as he tries to navigate the room while holding a bunch of rolled-up posters. Chris is one of the people organising the event. A dyed-in-the-wool Linux devotee, he grimaces as he puts up the Microsoft-brand posters on the walls that were part of the sponsorship arrangement for the venue (and the hundreds of dollars worth of chips, snacks, fruit and drinks that will power the jammers through to Sunday).

I set up in a corner of the room as two nearby jammers both discover that they’re DVORAK-users, and high five. We’re running a little bit behind schedule, but to their credit, all of the jammers have steadfastedly refused to peek at this year’s theme on the internet.

The lights cut out and the presentation kicks off. Gaming luminaries such as John Romero and Will Wright appear via the magic of YouTube, to impart their wisdom about working on games under pressure. Everyone’s getting a bit anxious. They want to see the theme. And suddenly, here it is:

“It reminds me of life,” says Wez out of nowhere, startling me in the darkness. “A game where you have to end the level where you started. Nothing ever changes.” Bizarrely, Wez isn’t here to make a video game – he’s come along because he likes to make board games. The fluoros thrum into life, and everyone scurries back to their tables. In many ways, this is the hardest part of all: coming up with an idea that you and your team can finish by Sunday.

I wander the hall for a while, listening to the ideas flow. “Has anyone played Ratchet and Clank?” asks a man called Jetha to his team, hands gesticulating in the manner of one conveying an idea. “There’s this time mechanic where you can record yourself, and then play yourself back…” Nearly everyone is stumped. Ouroboros: death and rebirth. The infinite circle of life. Balance. An endless loop. Snakes. Snakes that roll like hoops. Hoop snakes.

The call for pizza orders puts a temporary stop to discussions. A local pizza joint is sponsoring the jam, and organiser Ben walks between groups, his laptop in one hand and a burgeoning sheaf of their pizza menus in the other. More than a few groups immediately notice that a pizza and the ouroboros symbol both share a circular shape. An inspired discussion of game mechanics resumes.

“I’ve got it!” says Wez, as he bustles past, back to his table. But then, he’s working on his own and he doesn’t have to sell the idea to anyone else. Still, he’s the first in the room to stop looking panicked and start looking thoughtful.

John, however, is still looking panicked. “It’s sort of a platformer where, when you die, you shoot out of your body”, he says by way of explanation. “You like… spray out of your body? Repeatedly?” I ask. “No, not like that” he says, before bidding me a hasty goodbye to join Jetha and the rest of his team in discussing the concept over dinner.

I hear excited voices against one wall of the room and move to investigate what is, I discover, a tower defence typing game. Their idea is that you type the orouboros-related words as they come down the screen, to generate units you can place. It’s multiplayer, of course – no sense aiming small. Adrian, his shaggy hair shaking with enthusiasm as he talks, points to his drawing of an anthropomorphic letter ‘A’ with an angry face and holding a spear. “That spear will be a gun in the final product”, he assures me. I believe him.

Matt, one of the programmers behind the unofficial League of Legends replay tool> beloved by LoL players the world around, is tapping away at a keyboard. He’s hooked up with a bunch of fellow former Interzone Studios developers for this year’s jam. “Any ideas?” I ask him as a pass, munching on a mouthful of chicken chips. “Nope” he says, staring at me unblinkingly until I get the sensation he’s trying to force an idea to burst out of my chest, Aliens-style, through sheer force of will.

I remained for a while longer, leaving only when the intense quiet of concentration began to settle over the room. I would see them again at noon the next day – but I wouldn’t be prepared for how far things had come.

To be continued…

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