GGJ13_RoundBadgeI should probably start off my saying this isn’t one of my usual articles where I rattle through a thematic list of weird and wonderful games from the dark corners of the App Store. Don’t get me wrong, you will find a thematic list of the weird and wonderful, but none that you can buy. At least, not yet.

You see, I’ve just completed my first Global Game Jam. For those of you who’ve never heard of it, it’s an annual event where game developers all over the world hunker down into their favourite programming burrow and attempt to make a brand new working game in a weekend. 48 hours, start to finish.

The thing is, I never planned on doing the whole weekend. I intended to show up on the first night, noodle around, chit chat, meet people, talk about game engines, and just see what Belfast’s game enthusiasts had to offer. Then leg it before the hard work starts.

But I got sucked in. Why? Because I love ideas.

I love the creation of ideas. I love the tweaking and prodding of an idea until it becomes more than it was at the outset. I love arguing over the validity, feasibility, and potential of two conflicting facets of the same idea. And then, I love the challenge and satisfaction of the idea coming to fruition by a ridiculously short deadline, fuelled by a room full of talented enthusiasts who just like making something cool for the hell of it.

Every year the Game Jam organisers provide a theme, and this year’s was simply the sound of a heartbeat. Teams were free to interpret that any way they liked. As well, there was a list of Diversifiers (kind of like Achievements) which included challenges like: Two Heads Are Better Than One (requires multiple devices to play); True Colours (game only uses the classic 16-colour palette); More Than Just The 10 of Us (uses more than 10 keys on the keyboard); or Atari Age (your entire game is under 4Kb).

At the Belfast game jam site (@FarsetLabs) there were 30 of us. By the end of the weekend, about 11 games were created. Here are a few to show how the heartbeat was interpreted:

  • A rowing game requiring four players clustered around one keyboard, coordinating their oar strokes. If they stroked too fast, the rower’s pulse would go too high and he’d be out of commission for a bit.
  • A digital board game based on the circulatory system. One player was a disease and the other was the cure.
  • A 2D shooter where cholesterol was blocking the valves to the heart. When the cholesterol collided, it would form a clot, and it’s the player’s job to sort it out.
  • A mobile game that used the phone’s camera to record the player’s actual heart rate, then give challenges to raise or lower it.
  • A physical board game entitled Heart Of A Gamer, made from construction paper, glue, elastics and other things. The game took you through stages of gaming history – paper versions of Duck Hunt, Mario Kart, Pac-Man – and ended with (you guessed it) saving the princess. From the side it looked like Star Trek 3D Chess, and from the top, it was the shape of a heart.

Were they polished? By all means, no. Well, some more than others, but nothing near publishable (hell, some weren’t even playable, my own included)… but that wasn’t the point. The point was to make something. Something cool, something wacky, something silly, just something. Everybody made something, and everybody felt great about it.

This 48 hour burst of creativity is why I love the indie gaming scene. The experience of the Global Game Jam was like a tiny microcosm of the gaming industry fringes. It’s a room full of passionate, enthusiastic, talented individuals who work collaboratively to solve problems on a shoestring budget and impossible deadlines. So often I’d overhear encouraging phrases like, “You know what you guys should do…?” or “Have you guys considered…?” crossing from team to team, as well as occasional shouts out of “Does anyone here know anything about…?” which were happily fulfilled.

This is what the indie gaming scene is all about. None of these games needed to be approved by a board of directors, or subjected to a focus group, or run by a team of monetisation experts to increase end-user retention rates. For indies, it’s all about having a great idea, making it, and making it fun. If you get rich in the process, then that’s a bonus.

farset-labs-ggj2013-boardThe testament to this was the Farset Labs “awards” ceremony. By 5pm on the last day, about half of the teams had already uploaded their efforts and trickled off home. Andrew (aka @Bolster), gracious and hilarious host of the Belfast event, suddenly piped up with “Oh yeah! I’ve got £70 of Github vouchers to give away!” The prize was an afterthought. We’d all forgotten about it.

Strangely enough, I wouldn’t say the event was as ‘social’ as I thought it would be, though in hindsight perhaps I shouldn’t have expected too much. A room full of coders, sitting in uncomfortable chairs, hunched over laptops and tablets, attempting to bang out a game in a weekend… there ain’t much time for chit chat. Instead of names and tweets, we bonded over pizza, algorithms, and the Tron Legacy soundtrack.

I suppose this is the flip side of the definition of Indie Gamers: they’re not so much a ‘group’ as a cluster of individuals.

Since the mobile resurgence of casual gaming has taken the video game market by storm, I’ve been touting the message that ‘the next big thing’ is never going to come from a boardroom or a best-practice business model. It’s going to come from a room like this one, because the creators are the audience, and they have the ability, or at least the means, to make what they love. And chances are that if they love it, so will the rest of the gaming world. For a cluster of individuals, they’re more alike than one might think.

When questioning an idea, a business asks, “Yes, but is it profitable?” whereas an indie asks, “Yes, but is it fun?” While it’s true that something can be both, for indies the fun comes first, and I believe that no matter how many ‘profitable’ boxes your game ticks, it’s nowhere without the fun. So if you’re focusing on the fun first, you’re doing it right.

I wanted to end this by telling you my idea – Murmur In The Park. I dropped the original concept onto the table, and the idea was prodded into something super cool in a couple of hours by myself, Jude, a secondary school teacher who went off later to do the clot game, Guy, the fellow who ended up constructing Heart of a Gamer, and Dave, the Android gadget man who’d never coded a complete application before but he rose to the challenge beautifully.

MurmurScreenMurmur In The Park’s tagline was “A social mobile multiplayer geo-location-based ARGish sensory deathmatch.” The idea was to use a smartphone with GPS and web access to create an outdoor game of serial tag – each player is looking for someone, while at the same time another player is looking for him.

The catch: you won’t get any hints from the phone’s screen. You track the other players by the sound of a heartbeat. Two heartbeats, actually. Your THRILL heartbeat is represented by the phone’s vibration; the closer you get to your victim, the faster the phone vibrates. The second heartbeat is in your ears, and that’s your FEAR heartbeat. As your attacker approaches you, the throbbing heartbeat in your ear gets faster. Better run!

When you get close to your victim, that’s when you pull out your phone (weapon), because an ATTACK button has appeared on screen. Press it, your victim is out of the game, and you’re reassigned a new victim (your victim’s victim). Last man standing wins.

In 48 hours I was able to code a ‘game server’ – a database with php access which allowed a game to be created by one device, joined by other devices, assigned victims to all players, accepted and returned GPS coordinates, recognised kills and reassigned victims, and deleted itself when the game was over.

Dave Stothers (partnership struck up when he came into Farset three hours late, and I said “do you know anything about GPS on mobiles?” to which he replied, “uh, not really, but I’ll bet I can figure it out!”), worked tirelessly on the front end. He was able to get the game creation and joining working on the device, the sending and receiving of GPS coordinates, the appearance of the attack button and the vibration heartbeat (didn’t get as far as the audio heartbeat, but I suppose given the choice, better to detect who you’re after than just four people running away from each other in the park).

So, we didn’t finish (in the wrap-up I believe I referred to it as “we stretched the budget”), but we uploaded it anyway. But the thing is, I WANT to finish. I think this game could be really, really awesome. I love how it uses pocket technology, but it’s physical and doesn’t involve staring at a screen. It gets people to get out of a chair and interact socially with their analog friends for a change.

Plus, there’s such great potential to spread this out: imagine a week-long city-wide game where your attacker/victim is a complete stranger. Imagine being in a conference room, when you see the delivery guy walk off the elevator, look at you through the glass with an evil gleam, and kill you with his phone. How awesome and off-putting would that be?

If you like this idea, let me know (leave a comment, or tweet me on @kevinbeimers, love to hear your thoughts). If it’s a go, I’ll call up Dave. Given progress to date, I can’t imagine it taking more than another 48 hours to polish it off, can you?