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Developer Notes: Tamsen Reed's First 'Game Jam'!

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Abram Donovan and Tamsen Reed, next to their arcade game, Waste of Space.

Junior Writer/Designer Tamsen Reed is here to tell you what it's like to be a young indie game developer participating in her first Game Jam.

Here's Tamsen:

"You know, it’s not nearly as big a deal as you two are making it out to be.” There was an air of excitement as we descended into the basement of the St. Louis Science Center. I looked across at my friend and teammate, Kei, whose apprehensive energy radiated through the elevator.

You see, it was our first Game Jam. For the uninitiated, a Game Jam is an event where game developers come together to create a themed game in a very limited timeframe. We would spend from Friday night until Sunday night making a game with our teams. Many Game Jams take place in a location where participants can elect to spend the full 48 hours on-location to work. In this case, we could only be in the St. Louis Science Center until 10 pm every night.

For our third teammate and friend, Abram, this was not his first day at the proverbial rodeo. He’d done Game Jams in the past. He was being subjected to car rides of “What If” questions and endless anxious thoughts, which brings us back to his previous comment: "You know, it’s not nearly as big a deal as you two are making it out to be.”

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The 3-person team of Webster University game design students demo their finished prototype.


I’ll admit, he was absolutely right. I don’t know whether to credit our team dynamics or our self-knowledge about our abilities. It went so incredibly smoothly, I was unsure if we’d even participated in the event I’d heard so much about.

When we arrived on Friday night, we decided two things:

  1. We would actually sleep every night.
  2. We were happy to be in a group with just each other.

We plopped our stuff down at a corner table as we watched others walk around from table to table marketing themselves. It was likely what we should’ve been doing, but we were content just to spend time with each other.

The theme was announced, and everyone scattered. We were to make an arcade game based off of the exhibits that were on display at the St. Louis Science Center. There were some rules about decency because the main audience would be children.

Immediately, we jumped on their website to view a complete list of exhibits. We found an OMNIMAX movie that they show called “Australia’s Great Wild North.” Kei and I rattled on back and forth about an E.T.-esque game where you play as a dingo trying to eat/collect babies while dodging their mothers.

Abram saw an obvious collision between the rules on decency and baby-eating. So, we went back to the drawing board. Based on an OMNIMAX film on the International Space Station and the Makerspace exhibit, Waste of Space was born. Our game has been described as “Katamari in space,” which I think is accurate for a game where you attempt to construct a space station while trying to stay in orbit.

Abram was our programmer, Kei was our main artist, and I took on all the writing tasks as well as the managerial work. By the end of the night on Friday, we had a playable build of the game. So, we celebrated with breakfast for dinner at the Courtesy Diner. After eating an unconscionable amount of diner shrimp, we stocked up on food at a local grocery store. Our Schnuck’s snack selection was what you'd expect an 8-year-old might purchase if given free reign and $100. After deliriously laughing and dancing our way through the grocery store, we finally retired to bed.

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Fuel for the Jam.

 Saturday morning brought about some worries. Our game was crashing the whole arcade machine. I was concerned, but Abram took a quick look and just added some brackets (or commas? I won’t pretend I understand it). It was completely fixed.

Abram imported Kei’s art assets to replace all of his placeholders. I wrote some rules for the game. Kei and I created a background for the game. We were done. It was Saturday night. We were finished!

What do you do when you finish your game early? Increase your scope, obviously! So, we fled to my apartment to unwind with some Netflix comedy specials. While watching, Abram typed a few things into Unity and voila! We had a two-player mode.

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Get a load of this loading screen!

 We woke up a bit late on Sunday but made our way back to the Science Center for the final day. I wrote some instructions for the new mode, Kei made it look pretty, and Abram imported it into the game. We playtested a bit before resigning ourselves to doing homework for other classes that we’d neglected all weekend.

We unveiled our game to a receptive audience of game developers. Though we'd found time for sleep every night, we were still exhausted. I drank so many energy drinks that I couldn’t form coherent sentences. Despite our mental and physical exhaustion, we still managed to stay up for another 7 hours after the Game Jam.

One of the selling points of participating in Arcade Jam 2018 was that our games would all be on display at GameXPloration, a new exhibit at the Science Center. Unfortunately, we were unable to play our game when we visited. The arcade machine software was apparently broken, so they selected one game that would always be looping as a temporary fix.

We definitely thought the exhibit as a whole was amazing, despite the chaos that’s wrought when parents let their children loose on an unassuming new display. GameXPloration features multiple PixelPress set-ups, an oversized NES controller, racecar simulators, and an arcade machine full of games from local game developers. It’s also full of areas to play traditional games and brainstorm game ideas. The brainstorming areas really emphasize the importance of stories in games.

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This Game Jam montage brought to you by too many energy drinks to count, unless you're Abram, and there's code for that.

 Overall, the Game Jam was an adventure that reminded me of the importance of being a generalist and reinforced all the things I’ve learned during my time at Webster University. I think it’s an unmatched experience for developers (or hobbyists hoping to break into the development sphere) to explore their own skills and get some game titles under their belt.

If you’re interested in games and you live in the  St. Louis area, I can’t recommend highly enough the St. Louis Game Developer Co-op. They organize a multitude of events like Game Jams, educational presentations, and “drinkups” where you can drink and socialize with other local devs. 

 As long as I’m linking pages…

Here's some info on the GameXPloration exhibit at the St. Louis Science Center.

If you want to play our game, Waste of Space, it's also available online(I will warn you that it is incredibly hard on PC for whatever reason. Like VERY difficult.) Maybe we need to playtest it outside of a group of game devs...

 


Photos from PixelPop 2018 and the Big SLU Flashback Event

As mentioned previously, I gave a presentation this weekend at PixelPop Festival. (If you missed it and wish you hadn't, never fear. I'll be reprising the talk for the St. Louis Game Developers Co-Op in a couple of weeks. There's also coverage on the blog in the form of a two-part series: 1) Why Does Story Matter in Games? and 2) What Makes a Game Story Work? because apparently I'm obsessed with questions-as-headlines.)

Organizers Carol Mertz and Mary McKenzie Kelly and their super-cool army of volunteers did a fantastic job of creating and running a high-quality, highly-inclusive game con. More than one person I met commented on the open, friendly, encouraging atmosphere and the extremely helpful takeaways.

Here are some pics!

The expo hall was overwhelmingly dominated by console games, but I stumbled upon this awesome mobile game by developer Bravendary, and since I was tasked with judging games for the Select Award, I gave it my vote. Super Bobbert and the Infinity Tree is a "risk/reward collection game." You play by dragging your finger on the screen or tilting your device to move a pair of telescoping hands up a tree, rescuing kites, balls, and yes, cats--and avoiding collision with tree branches. I gave them some feedback about making the game more accessible to casual players, but I think it's super cute and has great potential. I'm excited to see two developers of color bringing something new to the table.

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Developer Philip Hayes demo-ing Super Bobbert.

One of the most interesting talks I attended was the fireside chat between Leah "Gllty" Hayes, a Street Fighter e-sports champion and Jason Li, a longtime fan and competitor in fighting games. Hayes first learned to play in the arcades of her youth here in St. Louis and is from nearby St. Charles. I knew nothing about fighting game culture and found her insights into the differences between U.S. and Japanese subcultures fascinating. For example, in Japan, gamers might be somewhat hostile to those outside the homogenous Japanese culture, but they are very supportive of women learning to game.

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Here's a demo of a game in development called Stepsisters. It's based on the darker, Grimm's fairy tale version of Cinderella, so the object is to, um, get your toes cut off in order to fit your foot into the glass slipper, marry the prince, and win the game. I feel kind of conflicted about it, but I was schooled on feminist references to classic fairytales in the style of Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. What do you think?

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Created by students from Bradley University. Pictured here: Warren Guiles, who's in St. Louis this summer interning with Graphite Labs, and Jake Velicer. 
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Creepy, or cool? You tell me.

In the category of "That talk you wish you hadn't been late for" is Kevin Snow's presentation on accessibility in games, but I made up for it with a one-on-one afterward, and I managed to snap a pic of this super-helpful collection of resource links.

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Next is a couple of guys down from Chicago, reps from a student-run studio at DePaul University. I was drawn to their table because they had a bunch of books on display, and book/game crossovers are something I would like to see much more of at game cons. They used fish for controllers, so even though I'm not into fighting games, I had to play this one.

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Josh Delson of JDE, for Junior Development Experience.
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The game is called Sashimi Slammers.

One of the cool things about attending a game con in your own town is running into former students--which happened a lot! It was great to see so many game design majors from Webster University representing. Here's Sarah Brill, showing off a game she helped create through her summer internship with local developer Graphite Labs.

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Sarah created art for Compost Conundrum, an educational game about the value of garden composting.

Another Webster face in the crowd was my friend and former colleague Rob Santos, there showing off a unique game interface. You communicate with a spirit through a Quija Board to uncover a mystery in the game Good Luck. The planchette lights up over letters on the board, allowing the spirit to relate the tale.

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The creativity on display here is why students rave about Rob as a teacher.

I think I might have been the oldest presenter at this youthful con, but it's OK. I just told everyone the reason my hair is this color is because I'm a Targaryen.

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I chose "she" as my pronoun sticker only because "She Who Must Be Obeyed" wasn't an option.

Now in the headline I promised you something about a Big Flashback Event, and here it is. Some of you know last summer I moved back to the Midwest after nearly 20 years away. This con was at my alma mater.

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My dorm from 1989-90. Back then it wasn't emblazoned with the school's name.
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I staffed this cashier booth when the garage first opened. It's now undergoing renovation, and maybe I am, too.

To conclude this pic-laden recap, I've presented at and/or attended big cons like GDC, Casual Connect, AWP, and PNWA. But this is one of my favorites for the inclusivity, friendliness, and hometown vibe.

 


What Makes a Game Story Work?

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Clementine, from The Walking Dead. Image source: screen cap.

Last week, we talked about why story matters in games, looking at how we experience games as well as what data and market performance has told us. Now I'd like to dive into how to make story work in games. In my own narrative design, it comes down to these three elements:

  1. Conflict
  2. Mystery
  3. Connection

You'd think conflict would be a given, the default first step for any game designer working on a narrative project. But at least in my experience, you'd be wrong. I can't tell you how many games I've been asked to triage, and the first thing I see is that while there might be a lot of WORDS in the game, there's actually no story. Because there's no conflict. And without conflict, you have no drama, no story "stuff."

To quote my buddy Evan Skolnick:

The fuel of fiction is conflict.

    - Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques

Let's take an example from a highly successful game that managed to suck me in despite its lack of story. (Because that happens. All the time. Just because I said last week that story can make games better, and that's been proved by data, doesn't mean stories without games are failures. Or that every game needs a story. These are not absolutes, people.) Anyway, the game is Farmville 2: Country Escape. I love, love, love this game. But there's no story in the game because there is no drama. What it does have are a lot of cute characters with little vignettes about them that you may or may not read because they are pleasant little scenarios, but no more. There's no conflict and therefore no drama, nothing for any of the characters to struggle against or triumph over. To return to the quote from Jonathan Gottschall, there's no "suction of story" for your mind to "yield helplessly to." Maybe that's OK, but it seems to me if you are going to go to the trouble of putting a lot of words in a game, you can use them to craft a conflict and get some more suction.

The first way to create conflict is to use the nature of the gameplay itself, but creating a STORY REASON for the gameplay. For example, in Matchington Mansion, players get to restore and redecorate a mansion. So it makes sense for the first bit of drama to be related to that, as in, uh-oh, this mansion I just inherited is falling apart!

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Image source: screen cap.

One of the most obvious ways to create conflict is to add an antagonist, as we did with the introduction of the character Rex Houston. He's the only surviving relative of the woman who left you her mansion, and he wants to take it from you--so he can raze it and build a casino on the site.

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Image source: Screen cap.

Now let's talk about mystery. Adding story can mean giving players something to investigate, but it's important to let them find the answer through gameplay, since this thing is a game first and a story second, most often. Then reward them with story reveals.

"Mystery" can apply to any genre, so it doesn't have to be a straight-up detective tale to give you that sense of something to discover or solve. In fact, I'm working on a game called Survivors: The Quest, and providing players with new mysteries to solve is getting me through hundreds of hours of new content in a game that I've been working on for more than a year.

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Image source: screen cap.

In Matchington, we gave players something to investigate in the environment itself, as part of the builder interactions.

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Image source: screen cap of in-development build.

Lastly is connection. While strict puzzlers like Tetris certainly have their appeal, players love game worlds filled with other people their player character can interact with. That's something that the aforementioned Farmville 2 has going for it, despite the lack of conflict. One of the best parts of that game is meeting a diverse crop of farmhands who help you find resources you can use in the game, like quartz from the mine, that you can turn into farm products, like a glass bottle for your wine.

Here we have your neighbor Edna Downing, a source of quirky amusement as she drops passive-aggressive comments like the one below or quotes from her downer poetry. But she also has a game reason for being there: She introduces players to the feature that allows them to visit other mansions.

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Image source: screen cap of in-development build.

It's good when creating story in your games to think about C-M-C: Conflict, Mystery, and Connection. Watch these moments from The Walking Dead and see if you can spot conflict, mystery, and connection in them.

I'll be speaking on this topic this weekend at PixelPop! Hope to see you there.