There is something about watching a game being made that reveals the qualities that set the medium apart from other modes of artistic endeavour. The good ones are a delicate union of durable coding and creative flair, where no single component can succeed unless they coalesce and complement one another. On occasion, an already strange and quixotic formula will welcome another ingredient. The result can be so intangible as to defy definition, yet when it happens, you know instantly that a good game has become great.
The Scottish Game Jam is the ideal place to gain a fuller appreciation of the beguiling alchemy that passes as games development. In the space of less than 48 hours, the creative process is not so much deconstructed as anatomised, as designers, artists and programmers gather en masse at locations around the country to showcase their craft and ultimately, overcome the burdens of sleep deprivation and technical gremlins to produce a playable game.
The weekend-long event is part of the Global Game Jam, an initiative that has captured the imagination of developers around the world since it began in 2009. In its inaugural year, the jam took place at 53 locations, with a respectable harvest of 370 games at the end of the two days. This year, the numbers reveal just how popular the collaborative gathering has become, with more than 4,200 games emerging from around 480 locations in over 70 countries. In Scotland, the growth is equally impressive, with hubs established at Abertay University and Napier University in Edinburgh. The largest, however, is at Glasgow Caledonian University, where over 170 people gathered last weekend; five years ago, the figure was just 23.
The proceedings are held in the Saltire Centre, a sprawling five-level riddle of design where wooden walkways and multicoloured flooring zones curl around the central feature of a huge copper clad drum staircase. An imposing yet inspirational space that looks like the headquarters of a Californian tech company helmed by Ernst Stavro Blofeld, it is ordinarily home to the university’s library and support services. Come game jam time, the vast majority of the 10,500 square metre facility is transformed by a phalanx of developers and the wares of their trade.
Soon, the sprawling open-plan ground space becomes a labyrinthine riot of technology. On the floor, a tangle of cables and wires snarl and snake around powerpoints, while tabletops groan under the weight of desktop towers, laptops, tablets, gamepads, virtual reality headsets and keyboards. Occasionally, a pair of trainers can be spotted below a heap of jackets as an exhausted jammer steals an hour’s rest. With only 48 hours to play with, however, many choose to ward off fatigue with an E-number buffet of energy drinks, pizza and Haribo, wearing the expression of someone forced to sit through a box set of The Only Way Is Essex, then repeat the whole sorry experience with the cast commentary switched on.
Time, certainly, is one of the main barriers to success at a game jam, as is the courage to jettison an idea when it is simply not working. On Friday evening, when the developers were bright eyed and Sunday’s deadline seemed like an aeon away, a member of last year’s winning team offered some sage advice. Jon McKellan, creative lead at Futuro Games, recalled how in 2013, he and his two colleagues had explored and discarded no less than three game ideas by 6am on the Saturday morning, some 12 precious hours into the event. Having conceded that their concepts were “terrible,” they did not panic, but resolved to start again afresh. “If you’re not getting anywhere in a couple of hours you might be on the wrong path,” McKellan explained.
In hindsight, Futuro’s decision was inspired. McKellan, who is also lead UI on Creative Assembly’s intriguing new IP, Alien: Isolation, was the only member of his team with game development experience, but after discussing what kind of experience they wanted to create, Futuro hit upon the concept of a multiplayer infinity runner and built it using the GameSalad engine. The resultant game, Lub Vs Dub, went on to amass 120,000 players after heavy promotional activity from Starbucks and Apple.
Wandering between the teams, chatting to developers and playing their games, it was clear that while some members of the class of 2014 had paid heed to McKellan’s words, others were simply out of luck. The makers of one local multiplayer title struck upon an inventive idea and created all their graphics and sound from scratch, yet their hard work was undermined after they were unable to localise cameras due to changes implemented by Unity only a few days previous. Soon afterwards, the team was further hindered after their main computer gave up the ghost. In a game jam, fortune is vital to ensuring the gap between concept and execution is as narrow as possible.
Equally, lateral thinking is a virtue in such a pressurised situation. As in previous years, the 2014 jam offered developers an irreverent and vague theme around which to sculpt their game (“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are,” was the leitmotif of the weekend). While some to developers elected to all but ignore the theme, such as Michael Kargas and Victor Portela, creators of Space Rigs, a polished 3D shooter, others relished the opportunity to create a unique context for the statement.
I See, for instance, pits the player as a bat, forced to use echolcoation to navigate their way around a maze shrouded in darkness. Created by Glasgow Caledonian University students Cheri Lynn Skivington, Andrew James Dick, Gary Thomson, Nathan Mcdermott and Zeeshan Abid, the game is best played using headphones, as the pulsing sonar guides the nocturnal creature around the structure, alerting it of pathways but also hazards and enemies.
One the most compelling interpretations of the theme came in Doctrine, deemed by judges in Glasgow to be most innovative of all the submissions. It melds Orwellian philosophies to homespun props, as two players try to put up their own propaganda posters or deface those of their opponents. The hook sees each participant wear a helmet with a red or blue visor, meaning they are colour blind to political slogans daubed in a certain colour.
Colour, too, is crucial to progress in QuadBox, another of the games that proved most popular over the weekend. Developed for mobile and tablet platforms, it has an immediacy that makes it instantly playable, yet challenging. Utilising a tilt mechanic, players are asked to roll balls into one of four corners, depending on the colour shown at the top of the screen. The game - created by the five-strong team of Jonathan Dillon, Leanne Gavigan, Andrew Lindsay, Heather MacGill and Alisdair Muircroft - becomes increasingly complicated as the number of balls increase and the colour of the background changes, disguising some of spheres.
Sometimes, though, the games that worked best did not boast progressive or innovative features; they simply won players over with charm alone. This was true of Selfie. Far and away the most frivolous game showcased in the Saltire Centre, it did not fail to raise a smile from anyone who played it. The title, the brainchild of Darren Maxwell, Tony Brown and Stew Hogarth, is influenced by the mobile phone selfshot mechanic popularised by games such as Dead Rising and Grand Theft Auto V, but with a uniquely nonsensical twist. Bonus points are awarded for the most bizarre image, with high scores assured for those who capture Elvis, badgers, and Stonehenge in the one frame.
Two games, however, captivated the panel of judges. The first, Prism Saga, a cunning platformer by novice developers Daniel Callander and Scott Goodwin, finished runner up in both the best game and best art categories. Boasting elegant yet unfussy graphics, it enjoyed the most individual game mechanic of all the entries, with progress made by switching between modes of vision using a gamepad’s shoulder buttons. The left button makes hidden yellow blocks appear, yet any blue blocks will vanish; the right button reverses the effect. However, the energy required to switch between these modes is finite and players must recharge regularly. A deceptively simple premise, the game frustrates but teaches, rewarding the player as opposed to punishing them.
The title voted best game, meanwhile, had the one of the most distinct concepts and won critical acclaim from all who played it. Building on the legacy of subversive political board games like Twilight Struggle and Campaign Manager, Good News by Andrew Reid deserves to be the next addition to that small yet influential cannon. The game is an iconoclastic satire of state propaganda, censorship and the relentlessness of the modern news cycle. Wielding an array of cards and tokens, players become “information enhancers,” tasked with averting political crises by amending potentially ruinous headlines with any number of pre-approved corrections assigned by the fictional politburo.
The game, the judges decided, was one they would have happily purchased on the day. The same was true of several other games. Every team at the jam deserves praise for producing work that were playable, but the fact that so many of them would comfortably warrant a place on the App or Play Stores is an acute reminder of the skill involved in creating a game and the depth of talent in the Scottish development community.
ANDREW REID, CREATOR OF GOOD NEWS, WINNER OF BEST GAME AT THE GLASGOW SECTION OF THE SCOTTISH GAME JAM
Andrew Reid, 27, has been designing card games and video games as a hobby since he was the age of 12. Having mainly created games for himself or a small group of friends, he was taken aback after winning the best game award at the Glasgow section of the Scottish Game Jam. Below, Scotsman Games finds out how his winning entry, Good News, came about.
SCOTSMAN GAMES: Conceptually, Good News was one of the strongest and most distinctive games at the jam. How did you come by the idea and to what extent was it influenced by the theme?
ANDREW REID: The theme was challenging to say the least, so I started by taking the advice of some Game Jam veterans and doing some mind-maps. The quote is about perception so I thought about all the different reasons and ways that an event could be seen differently, and why it would be seen differently. This led me onto propaganda and then ‘History is written by the victor’, which became not only the motto of the game, but the guiding theme of the whole process. When I typed out ‘GOOD NEWS!’ in a huge, slightly-terrifying psuedo-Russian font, I knew I was onto something. That kind of woefully-inept fascist bureaucracy is such a common trope that new players would instantly get the tone of the game, which is important when you’re trying to get them into the right mindset for playing.
SG: When you were designing the game, what kind of emotional experience and response did you envisage players having?
AR: Amusement combined with moments of disbelieving frustration? It’s a comedy game, so anything that makes the player laugh - even their own failures - is a success in my book. I wanted it to be a game where you could enjoy winning, but also enjoy losing as well. There’s a point in the late game where you start to run out of resources and have to rely more on luck to see you through. I wanted to strike the right balance of provoking frustration at this, but also laughter at the fact that the metaphorical ship is falling to pieces around you.
SG: Do you have any plans to release Good News as a card / board game at present and is it something you would like to see translated digitally?
AR: The response to Good News has been overwhelming, to say the least. I have had judges tell me after three minutes of playtesting that they would buy a copy if was made available, and that I should crowdfund it immediately. For an amateur game designer like myself who would love a foot in the door, the prospect is exciting and daunting at the same time. Right now, I’m polishing up the design and writing of the game while assessing my options. It would be wonderful to see Good News on the shelves of a game shop some day, so it is definitely something I want to pursue in some form.
As for a digital version, I don’t see why not! There have been so many popular board games that have been translated to a digital medium- Ticket to Ride comes to mind- and anything that spreads it to a wider audience is always worthwhile. One of the judges actually pitched a single-player digital version to me at the event, which I admit was not something I had thought about before she said it.
SG: What are some of the games that have influenced you down the years and do you detect any of their DNA in Good News?
AR: The first example is Dungeons & Dragons. It may be dorky, but it ultimately taught me about the fun and comradeship that can be had from sitting around a table with good friends and playing a physical tabletop game. Munchkin is a game that showed me that a competitive card game need not be about the act of buying more cards, and can be comedic as well. The two Portal games and both games in the Borderlands series are also fantastic comedies on top of having solid gameplay.
The biggest influence for Good News was probably Cards Against Humanity, which is also a black comedy card game that focuses more on provoking laughs than points. There’s a competitive element in that game, but everything is secondary to having fun with the people you play with; that is really the feeling I was trying to create in Good News.
In terms of other games, I do take a lot of influence from Japanese roleplaying games like the Final Fantasy, Tales Series or Shin Megami Tensei series of games. Japanese games have a very spiritual aesthetic and storytelling design that I appreciate. It’s been fascinating to watch how British/American games have slowly incorporated the best aspects from Japanese design philosophy over the years, and vice-versa.
DANIEL CALLANDER AND SCOTT GOODWIN, CREATORS OF PRISM SAGA, RUNNER UP IN THE BEST GAME AND BEST ART CATEGORIES AT THE GLASGOW SECTION OF THE SCOTTISH GAME JAM
Daniel Callander, 21, is originally from Greenock, and is in the final year of a computer science degree at the University of Glasgow. Scott Goodwin, 23, is from Kingston Upon Thames, and graduated from the University of Hertfordshire in 2012 with an honours degree in 3D games art. Not only was this their first game jam, but Prism Saga - runner up in the best game and best art categories - was their first “legit” title.They described it as a “great experience,” noting how developers would help one another out and offer advice. Below, Scotsman Games finds out how Prism Saga came about.
SCOTSMAN GAMES: With its different vision modes, I felt Prism Saga had the strongest and most unique game mechanic out of all the entries. How did you come about the idea of switching between the yellow and blue vision?
DANIEL CALLANDER: As the theme this year was “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are” we figured it sort of revolved around the idea of perception. We started thinking of ways in which the player could affect their view of the world and what sort of gameplay would come out of those ideas.
The first idea we came up with was actually pretty much exactly what we went with. It was to have the switching mechanic, between different colours of vision (so like looking through red/blue 3D glasses style, and being only able to see that sort of colour). The energy mechanic came as a way to add some sort of tension, since you need to use the vision modes sparingly to make it through the level.
SCOTSMAN GAMES: How long did it take you to build a basic working prototype of the game and how did the 48 hour time limit affect your creativity?
DC: We had a really basic version of the game by the time we left for home about 3am on Saturday morning. You could move your little cube about and you could press the buttons to switch between the two view modes. At this point everything was just untextured boxes but the core mechanics were in. There was very little level design done at this stage so it was just a few little boxes you could jump around on but it already seemed pretty fun.
I was actually really surprised we managed to get the core mechanic done so quickly. Unity really helped here and I’m glad we used it. In terms of creativity, by the end I honestly thought I was going to die and it made creating the puzzles for later on in the level really difficult. It was almost physically painful to work them out myself on top of the lack of sleep.
SCOTT GOODWIN: Having the time limit for making the game so short meant that I really had to focus down the art style on something that was quick to iterate on, but still visually complex and interesting enough to be pleasing to look at. Limiting the art style to simple textures and abstract floating shapes made it very easy to design and construct, which I actually felt helped to make the game look better in the end - we had more time to polish and improve on what we had.
SCOTSMAN GAMES: Are you hoping to release Prism Saga commercially in its current state or do you plan to work on it further after the jam?
DC: Definitely not in its current state! There are a whole bunch of bugs where you can get stuck and you need to restart the game to do anything. There’s no win condition either so nothing actually happens when you get to the end of the level, other than us saying well done and giving you a pat on the back at the time. We’re going to spend a good while polishing and adding new levels with the hopes of realising it further on down the line.