Front Line Perspective on the Boston Games Jam

Earlier this month, The Education Arcade played host to the first Boston Game Jam. Dan Roy, a CMS master’s student, who has been working on the Labrynth project through the Education Arcade and is currently doing his thesis on the models of learning and reward underlying multiplayer game design, offered to share with us some of his perspectives of the event. What follows is his account of what happened when you put a bunch of creative game designers — both professionals and students — in a room for a weekend with the goal of testing the limits of their medium. (Personally, I am waiting to see Game Jam turned into a reality series not unlike Project Runway!)

Boston Game Jam

by: Dan Roy

It’s 9 a.m. on Saturday and about 15 professional video game developers from the Boston area are taking their seats in The Education Arcade lab at MIT. They’ve come alone or in teams of two for the first annual Boston Game Jam, armed with ideas for games involving the Jam’s theme of “shifting.” They are programmers, designers, artists, and musicians, and they’ve committed the next 36 hours of their lives to making experimental games. Though developing games is work and they do it every day, there’s something special in the air this Saturday. It’s an opportunity to leave behind the pressures of the game industry, with its years-long development cycles, escalating budgets, increasing team sizes and specialization, sequelitis, and publisher-developer tensions.

Once upon a time, a single crackerjack programmer or a team of three could bestow their unique vision of gaming on the world with only a few months of work. Development cycles were short. Genres were undefined. Risk was low and creativity was high. The trend in the ensuing decades has moved away from all of this. We’ve reached the point as an industry where failure on a project costing tens of millions of dollars means lots of lost jobs and maybe a shuttered business or two. In that environment, publishers rely on proven intellectual property and remaking established genres to meet their quarterly targets. When publishers hold the money and the IP, contracted developers have little choice but to live hand to mouth. One missed milestone or delayed contract could be the end for such a developer with no savings.

In addition to the rising budgets and reduced financial risk-taking, individual employees find themselves working on more and more specialized tasks. This assembly line model stifles a lot of creativity. The benefits of feeling like you are part of something bigger than yourself are offset by lack of control over the direction of the project.

And so, these game developers gather at MIT to seize back their creative control. They’ve come with plans for games they would like to make entirely by themselves. The programmers are no longer just graphics coders or physics coders or tools coders or artificial intelligence coders. They now hold the grand vision of the game, as well is the responsibility for wearing hats normally left to others.

By noon, everyone had settled in with his project and was making steady progress. Max McGuire in particular seemed ahead of the game, as he already had something playful-looking up on his screen. At a game jam, one can always step away from his computer, wander around the room, and become inspired by the ideas and energy of all the other auteurs. A casual observer would notice that screens full of code intermittently give way to intriguing visual representations of progress.

Later in the day, Jam organizer Darius Kazemi warned us that if we didn’t have something playable by this evening, we were in bad shape. A couple of teams took this opportunity to step back from their original visions and refocus on something more practical. However, a surprising number of projects were right on track. It seemed we had scoped our projects well to not fall into the common trap of taking on too much.

After dinner, some participants started to call it quits for the day and head home. As the coordinator of the Jam facilities at MIT, I resolved to stay in the lab until everyone was finished. I was quite tired when I walked home at 5 a.m. As most people who have ever been excited about a project can tell you, there are good and bad kinds of sleepy. The energy that I took from the group and from my own creative process had not yet dissipated, and even as I lay in bed exhausted I found my mind eagerly bounding between the possible features I could implement the following day.

That following day began three hours later. In my exhaustion, I must have set my alarm incorrectly, because I was awakened by the ringing of my cell phone. When I arrived at the lab to punch in the door’s security code there was already a line of antsy developers. I felt guilty for standing in the way of their work, even early on a Sunday morning.

As the clock drew closer to the 6 p.m. deadline, the entire room tightened its focus. As time ticked features a way, developers became even more earnest to preserve what they could of their initial visions. You could hear the whir of productivity, punctuated by semi-sarcastic exclamations from Al Reed like, “I just realized I don’t know how to program.” Kent Quirk and his son/teammate Lincoln also had their moments, like when they both leaned in close to the

screen and simultaneously grunted. “Huh?” and “Hmm.”

Darius stopped us all precisely at six, and we gathered around the projector to present the creative gold we had mined all weekend with our pickax keyboards (handy tools, those). Max McGuire had managed to conjure up a respectable competitor to Will Wright’s forthcoming game Spore, in which you take creatures from their basest existence through the height of civilization and into outer space. The core mechanic is shifting terrain up and down. Impressive, and as fun to watch as to play.

Eric Rosenbaum and Jonah Elgart created a game around shifting rhythms, redirecting streams of beats to create a symphony or cacophony of precautions and notes. It seems like a great game if I could just figure out how to play it.

Philip Tan, who has been flying back and forth between MIT and Singapore for half a year as he sets up an international game lab called GAMBIT, made a game about jetlag. In it, players must manage passengers’ moods so that they’re in peak state when they hit the ground (hopefully softly). The whole room had listened earlier in the day as Philip recorded the voiceovers for the flight attendants. It was definitely the fifth take of “Coffee, tea, or soda?” where the humor of the flight attendant’s annoyance finally came through.

Kent and Lincoln Quirk made the only 3D game of the Jam, in which players shift an avatar between conveyor belts to reach the center of a maze. The tricky part was that if you stayed on the conveyor belt long enough, you would flip over with it… to the dark side.

Al Reed and Alex Rice somehow overcame Al’s inability to program, creating a Mario Brothers type game called Squish in which players hop from platform to platform shoving boxes around in an attempt to crush each other. The only explicitly multiplayer game of the Jam, it clearly showed off the potential of humor in social interactions. The hilarity of watching Al’s stick figure accidentally squish itself cannot be denied.

Darius, who had originally planned to not make a game and only assist others, had found himself twiddling his thumbs and cranked out a Game Boy Advance game of shifting mazes.

Darren Torpey and David Ludwig created a game about shifting seasons. They made the executive decision that four seasons was far too many, and unilaterally cut it down to two. Personally, I’ll miss fall and spring tremendously and can’t condone their actions.

Geoffrey Long and I (Dan Roy) created a game about shifting perceptions around the diamond industry. Conflict diamonds, or blood diamonds, have been used to fuel terrible violence for years, and I wanted to educate some consumers who might be unaware what their purchase might be funding.

Jim Ingraham and Duncan Watt contributed art and sounds respectively to all of the projects, and they did so valiantly in the face of our common and impending deadline. Duncan in particular knows how to triage.

Most of these game concepts would never have been made if not for an environment like the Boston Game Jam. At least, they never would have been made within the industry model that only makes space for AAA titles. However, there are promising signs that at least some segments of the industry are shifting back to smaller teams, smaller budgets, shorter development cycles, and wackier concepts. Digital distribution helps here tremendously, as do content delivery models like episodic. Chris Anderson’s Long Tail is just regaining prominence in the game industry, and the “hits” of the future may be niche subscription titles. Henry did a number of posts on the rising independent games movement not too long ago that readers may find interesting.

The mood in the Education Arcade lab after giving our presentations was inspired exhaustion. Everyone agreed that they’d like to do the Jam again, with some calling for it every six months instead of annually. Most participants didn’t seem to mind that they had just worked halfway through the Patriots-Colts game, even with New England’s team represented. We had just had our own game of realizing our visions, in which we proved ourselves as much as played in the sand. I think I speak for everyone at the Jam when I say we are fortunate to do what we do.