Pouya Aflatoun is here to make videogames.
Around him, the room is full of activity. One group of young people crowd around an upturned whiteboard, another are busily assembling two lists on butcher’s paper – one titled ‘To Do’, the other ‘In Progress’. Neither list has any content, yet. A man in a dinosaur suit walks in and out of the chaos, but nobody seems to notice. There’s a general hubbub, a nervous energy to the room that speaks volumes about the task that the participants are about to undertake.
But Aflatoun is already quietly sitting at his computer, playing with the design of a box, or a character, or something. He’s in Australia to make videogames, and has been for the last six months, after moving from his native Iran. “I’m Persian,” he tells me, “and I made games back home for three years. Hopefully I can do the same here.”
This is the Global Game Jam, a semi-competitive event where teams compete all over the world to make a videogame within 48 hours. In Melbourne, it’s being held at La Trobe University’s Bundoora campus, where 108 people descended on Friday morning to try their luck at this punishing creative exercise. Some are professional game designers, others are students. Others are simply interested outsiders, looking to try their luck at art design, or even at videogame music.
Aflatoun is nervous. It’s about 9pm, and the secret theme for the jam was announced four hours ago. Not much has happened since – there’s been a lot of planning, a lot of brainstorming, and then an industrial serving of pizza for dinner. Only now are people gradually starting to build things. I ask Aflatoun what his team’s game is going to be like, and he shoots me an anxious smile: “it may change in ten minutes!”
The game jammers come from many different backgrounds. Some know each other beforehand, others form groups that afternoon. Each method has varying levels of success – Leena Van Deventer, a local writer, tells me that last year, tempers flared and a few jammers walked out after four unsuccessful hours with their newly founded team. “Tables were flipped,” she says. I’m not quite sure how literally she means it.
Certainly, this year, all enthusiasm seems to be of the non-table flipping variety. Chad Toprak, a student doing Honours this year at RMIT’s Exertion Games Lab, came in a group of 15. After the theme reveal, they stood calmly in a circle on the dry grass lawns at Bundoora, throwing a ball around and sharing ideas, more like a chapter of AA than a group of game designers. Later, Chad tells me, they split into smaller groups of 4-5 to start work on the best ideas.
This is the first game jam for Jenn Sandercock, though she dropped in on the Sydney one last year while she was there working at Team Bondi on L.A. Noire. She’s in the freshly named Team Mate with Aflatoun, and obviously knows what to expect (she’s brought homemade brownies), despite only knowing two of her team members before the weekend.
For Sandercock, the secret theme is an issue. “When I saw the theme I was quite unimpressed. It took me quite a while to start coming up with anything, and we struggled at the start. But then we started coming up with a few ideas, and we had two really good ones, and we’ve ended up going with this one.”
Campbell Barton says he’s here for dogfooding. By day, Campbell works on Blender, an open-source 3D graphics software program, and he’s here to try it out in the field. This, he tells me, is sometimes called “eating your own dogfood”. It’s a great opportunity to test out the strengths and weaknesses of his program, he tells me, because working in such a hectic environment reveals things that might not otherwise be noticed. “If you have a job you might have months to finish something.” Here, it’s just 48 hours, plus or minus sleep.
Sleep is a big issue at the Jam. Last year, some of the jammers pushed themselves too far, barely sleeping the entire weekend. Giselle Rosman, the Melbourne representative of the International Game Developers Association and the organiser of the Jam, tells me that sleep – and hygiene – are top priorities this year. Managing over one hundred tired and unwashed game jammers is not something to be envied, but Rosman seems to embrace the position with a weary kind of enthusiasm.
Five person team Technicolour Yawn (“you don’t have to publish the name,” they tell me with some embarrassment) didn’t know each other before today, and look like one of the more diverse groups jamming this weekend. Members Nicolla Elkhouri and Jack Riddell are both students looking to use the game jam to bolster their CVs and to network, while Wendy Langer is “not technically in games design,” but says she has always maintained an interest.
Marion Lynk has been working in design for some time, mostly on slot machines. Her son, Kai, is also jamming this weekend. For Lynk, it’s a good excuse to get out and get instant feedback on your work, “I work full time from home, which can get really isolated. The Game Jam is nice for getting someone to look at your work.” The final member of Technicolour Yawn, Breton Slivka, says he came to Australia “beckoned by a girl,” arriving with “nothing but the clothes on my back and the forged university degree.”
A few hours into the jam, confidence is at varying levels. Toprak, of the fifteen-person circle of zen, seems very confident in his team’s ability to complete the jam as planned. “It’ll just be a matter of finding a good art style to go with our game,” he says.
Sandercock is a little less confident, but thinks “we’re doing pretty well at keeping it basic, we’re not planning on doing complex characters or anything, and we’re keeping it to one level.”
On my way out, I catch a glimpse of Aflatoun, still quietly hard at work, seemingly barely aware of the buzz around him. A few doors down, I take a look at the designated sleeping room, so far full of tightly packaged sleeping bags, pillows, and mats. This room will not be full this evening.
It’s difficult to predict what will unfold over the next two days in these rooms at Bundoora. Says Elkhouri, of Technicolour Yawn: “we’re pretty confident it’ll work, but these things don’t always go as planned.”
Breton agrees. “It’s pretty early in the game, we’ve got an idea, but that’s step one. We’ve still got 41 hours to go.”