Original artwork by Patch

June 21st marked the first day of PIGSquad’s 2015 Summer Slow Jam. The first of the three game jams the group is doing this summer, this one being a ‘demo jam’. This would be my second game jam, the first being the 2014 Global Game Jam, where I did concept design and level design for Pandamensional.

The GGJ was a huge learning experience, for me. I’m not a level designer, didn’t know the software we were using whatsoever, and hadn’t worked with a team in person before.

Opening Night - Reimagination

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Original sketch by Rex Waters

Unlike my time at the GGJ, I came into this jam with a team. Many of the jammers had met at another PIGSquad event before the Jam properly started, and a number of teams and ideas had formed early on. I came in with a composer I knew, quickly found a talented artist, Rex Waters, whom I hadn’t met before, and a programmer I had met once or twice.

The original concept formed from a page of the artist’s sketch book of a number of different robots which he had been concepting for another project. The one image that got honed in on struck a silhouette of a ‘colonial robot bounty hunter’, and we ran with the idea. We decided on doing a tiny meteroidvania, where the player took control of a robotic intergalactic exterminator (which I later named Clunk), who travelled the universe to exterminate robotic pests. The player would unlock temporary powers by taking parts off of the robot pests to augment themselves, and permanent powers from bosses.

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I was pretty happy with the mechanics that I had come up with, but we hadn’t gotten the jam prompts yet, so I knew that everything would change once we knew what sort of direction we’d need to be going.

The jam was sponsored by JumpDrive Studios, who you should definitely check out. I have an article in the works about their upcoming game XO.

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When we finally got the jam prompts on the 21st, the original idea got nearly entirely reworked. We decided to use the prompts Seed, Spirits, Explosions!, Wild West, and Man vs Machine. We kept the tiny meteroidvania plan, but shifted from a space-colonial theme, to a space-western theme. Our character Clunk changed from an intergalactic pest exterminator, to an intergalactic weed exterminator. Our original plan of having the story of the game be about the struggle between robots and humans, shifted to be about alien spirits which inhabited plants, and how the humans were using them to power their robots and other machines. The upgrading mechanic was chucked, replaced with the Clunk character being repaired by plants, controlled by the ‘boss’ spirit, which game them new abilities.

Nothing can be sacred in creative collaborative projects. This is something I learned long ago. Out went a bunch of my ideas, in came a bunch of others’ ideas. We all adjusted and augmented them, and landed on a place we thought seemed really great.

During this first fully-informed brainstorming session, the programmer was plugging away in Game Maker: Studio getting the basic movement controls set up. Left, right, jump. Meanwhile, the artist was concepting out reiterations of the player character, morphing with each new version. Myself and the composer helped him with ideas. During the initial group formation, questions were thrown at me that someone in a directorial role would have the answers for. This became more solidified during the first night of the Jam, adding a third hat on top of writer & designer hats. Two more hats would be stacked on top of those, the first being producer, the other I’ll get to later.

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It was great to see work getting done on that first night. It really instilled in me that we’d have something good by the end of the jam.

Of Piracy & Lost Interest

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Copyright The Pirate Bay. I think? Do pirates hold copyrights? Can pirates hold copyrights?

That night, I set myself to work. Tightening on my producer hat, I put together a work task list for everyone, trying to prioritize what was most important to getting the best thing out that we could in our limited amount of time. After that was settled, I began reworking our GDD with the changes that flooded in earlier that night, as well as setting up a BitBucket account so that we could easily swap all our work contributions between each other.

I pushed all this info out to the team, and we were planning on meeting the next day during a co-working session scheduled by PIGSquad specifically for the jam.

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Leading up to our meeting, the programmer made a small misstep and added another artist to the team that no one had ever met, and was out of state, without any communication to the team. This was later resolved, once everyone was on the same page. Before we met up again, the programmer got in touch with me about how myself and the rest of the team would all need to use pirated software so that he wouldn’t have to upgrade his system. This was a huge no-no. Whatever your stance on piracy is, and I won’t get into mine here, with this being a public event that directly reflects on the potential careers of everyone involved, as well as having ties to an organization which could be harmed by being seen as tacitly supporting piracy. It wasn’t worth the risk to all the team members, nor to PIGSquad, and additionally it wasn’t even necessary.

The programmer’s issue was that they were running XP on their laptop, and the latest version of Game Maker required 7 or higher. There were three options available at this point. 1.) The programmer installs a newer version of Windows on a partition, so they could run the proper software. 2.) The programmer could do all their work from their desktop, since it was able to run the latest version of Game Maker. Or 3.) The programmer could use my laptop to do their coding while we were co-working, since I could do my work on any old laptop. The programmer was extremely resistant to all of the solutions I presented, but I had to stay firm on this point. Eventually the programmer agreed to install a newer version of Windows on a partition on their laptop.

Good. Problem solved. We’d all get to work soon enough at the co-working session a few hours later. At least that was the plan.

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A sketch by Rex Waters of the main character’s new arm, for later in the game.

When we finally met up at the co-working event, the programmer once again attempted to get the team to use pirated software, before finally agreeing to install a newer version of windows, again. Something which could have been done in the time between then and when we had talked earlier in the day. This tossed a bit of a wrench in what was actually going to be accomplished, that day.

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Rex Waters, the lead artist of the group, was on a roll that day. Having already pushed out some enemy designs before the jam proper had started, Rex was concepting the alien spirits which would be an integral part of the game and its narrative. We found it was tough to create designs which didn’t invoke a phallic shape, which was both entertaining and frustrating as all hell.

Our composer showed up late, and suddenly began having cold feet about doing sound effects, because he hadn’t done them before. But that’s a big part of game jams, trying out and learning new things about game development. I was the only one on the team that had even been in a game jam before, so the group was full of new experiences. He was reassured that it’d be fine, and then he hung around to help brainstorm concept stuff. Sadly his work involved a large weighted keyboard, so he couldn’t work on-site with us. It made me long for the glorious skills that I saw friend & composer Jon Bash execute during my time at the 2014 GGJ, with his fantastic on-site composition for our project.

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Some of Rex Water’s sketches for the ‘boss spirit’

As I mentioned earlier, I had an additional hat stacked atop my head. This is where that happened. I’m no level designer, and I’ve never claimed to be. Level design is a very tough thing to do, and involves a very specific way of thinking. I don’t think that way. But no one would step up to fill the role, and it needed to be done. So as uncomfortable as I was with it, not being a level designer, nor being very familiar with Game Maker, I took it on. Diving into it right there at the co-working session, I was trying to wrap my head around Game Maker, as well as trying to get a feel for the movements in the game, so I could know how to go about making something fun. This didn’t please the composer, for some reason. Who got upset and demanded that instead of trying to learn how to make the game, I needed to just make the game. This point of his was reiterated to me a number of times, including while he gave me a lift from the meeting.

So that’s what I did. Over the course of the next day, I created nearly the entire landscape of the game, sans any consideration for the mechanics and fun of the game. Our next co-working meeting was on the 24th. Our composer couldn’t show up because of traffic court, and our programmer decided to go to a different event. Rex showed up though, and actually felt bad because he thought he hadn’t been doing enough work, since he hadn’t started on the animations (something he wasn’t skilled in). Meanwhile the programmer still didn’t have anything to show beyond that first night, and the composer and long-distant artist hadn’t produced anything whatsoever.

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Ain’t development beautiful?

This didn’t sit well with Rex or myself, and we spoke during our co-working meeting about how it felt like the others had lost interest, and we weren’t going to end up with anything more than an animated character with basic movement functions.

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Three Days Left & We All Fall Down

Danse Macabre by Michael Wolgemut (1493)

A bit past noon the next day, I sent the group an email. I spoke about the current state of the project, how I didn’t feel confident in us reaching our goal, and touched on how we could implement content from each team member, if it got done in time, but if that it didn’t we’d simply end up with an animated character jumping around a room, since the level design wasn’t very good.

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That was when things went from gloomy to downright fucked up. Shortly after my e-mail, the composer shot out an e-mail which placed blame upon me for the state of the project, claiming I took an “authoritative approach to collaboration” (though nearly all of my original concept had been tossed for the groups’ reworking), that ‘no one voted me to be the director/producer’ (yet no one else ever stepped up to take any responsibility for said roles), and that I had to take on level design because ‘no one signed onto the project to do level design’ (wat?).

Overall it a was a pretty hostile e-mail, which seemed completely out of left field, especially coming from a team member who had literally contributed zero content that they signed onto the project to create. I responded to the email, clearing up the assumptions that composer had made, and assured him multiple times that my previous e-mail was in no way pointing blame, simply laying out the state of the project, and what was to come of it.

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Rex Water’s concepts for some of the enemy robots.

The strangeness wasn’t over yet, though. Shortly after that, I received an e-mail from the programmer chimed in, stating that he was breaking off from the team, taking the other artist since we never wanted them anyways (which was never the case), stealing Rex’s and my IP, and claimed that he had been too sick to work. He had said he had a cold, on the 24th, but was clearly up and about, he never mentioned to anyone on the team that it was impacting his ability to do things. Obviously the team would have understood that he needed to bow out for medical reasons, but even now he wasn’t claiming that he couldn’t work because of his cold.

Both of these e-mails caught Rex and I totally off guard. I informed the programmer that I wouldn’t be releasing my rights to the content I created (including the name of the main character, which I had literally created that day in the title of the e-mail I sent out), and that it would be best to get Rex’s permission to use his IP. Apparently Rex and the programmer exchanged a few e-mails, which I was told were simply more of the same craziness from the programmer, and Rex not releasing his rights for the programmer to use.

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This whole ordeal left a real sour taste in our mouths, Rex and I, and we weren’t really sure what to do at that point. We had had such a great concept, thought we had a dedicated team that was going to see it through, and then suddenly we were out on our asses. We didn’t have enough time to find new teammates, and couldn’t fill the roles ourselves. We both resigned to failure, for a bit. Before that evening was up, I proposed that we salvage the project as a Twine game, which I would write, and Rex could do art for. I wasn’t willing to let the project fail entirely because of three people who weren’t actually interested in making video games.

Rebirth

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The project lives! (How many of you tried to click those links?)

I hadn’t made anything with Twine, before. I had looked at it, and tried to understand it but continually stumbled over its odd ‘English friendly’ coding language. But a friend from the PIGSquad knew it well, and gave me some tips & tricks, 90s style. So from the afternoon of the 26th, to around 2pm on the 28th, I toiled away at attempting to convert our idea into a Twine game, absolutely exhausting myself.

The night of the 27th, the programmer popped back up with another e-mail to the group, with a subject line using the player characters name which I had come up with on the 25th, stating in a very lionizing way that he had made his own project with our IPs, and tried absolving himself of any blame, saying “I’d like to offer the chance to look past what was said and get a clean start, but I think this project has gone as far as it will by my watch.”, contradicting himself in a single sentence. It was extremely passive aggressive.

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I told the programmer that he had already made it clear in two previous e-mails that he wasn’t interested in being a part of the team, and that the project had moved on without them. That’s when he lost his shit. He became outright abusive at this point, honestly the only way I could describe his following e-mails would be like a child throwing a tantrum. Making it clear that he didn’t need anyone. It got to the point that I had to file a complaint with the head of PIGSquad.

Rex Water’s concept work for the boss of the game.

But again, I couldn’t let it stop actually getting a game out. I’ve wanted to make video games since I played my first game at 4 years old. I jumped into the game jam to make a game, not to be abused by people with seemingly unstable mental states. The actions of the programmer, however, seriously put off Rex, who felt entirely disheartened about the project at that point.

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So come the night of the 29th, I had a demo of my Twine salvage project. No visual art, no sound, no coding by scary abusive programmers. While I hadn’t produced the game I had gone into the jam wanting to produce, I came out with something. Something that a number of people approached me to let me know how much they enjoyed it. I didn’t really feel proud of it at the time, as I was so exhausted that I couldn’t think straight, but I have to say at this point I do. Working with less than three days time, with software I didn’t know, against some people who were at odds with me for their own strange reasons, I made something good. I made my second video game, and I’d say that’s a pretty damn good accomplishment.

Fallout

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All rights reserved by ZeniMax Media

As I mentioned, I had to file a complaint with PIGSquad officials about the programmer’s abusive behavior. In my complaint I also brought up the theft of my and Rex’s IP. While the head of PIGSquad made sure that there wouldn’t be any confrontation at the closing events of the game jam, no action was taken to protect anyone’s IP, which felt pretty bad. The final night of the jam was pretty great for the most part, but Rex and I spoke about how bad it made the both of us feel that we had been ripped off, having our works shown as someone else’s. The whole situation definitely felt a bit ‘swept under the rug’.

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Rights reserved by Bleeding Edge Tech

That being said, the jam was pretty awesome. It was really great to see other teams work on their projects during the co-working sessions, and all the interesting stuff that they produced. Even though I didn’t get to play it, the highlight for me was Bleeding Edge Tech’s project, an Oculus Rift game which had six levels by the time the jam was over, and looked absolutely fantastic (sadly they couldn’t get their Rift working during the final night, so I’m still waiting to try it).

This was also a huge learning experience. Obviously in a technical sense, as I learned a bit about Game Maker, and a good bit about Twine. But also on vetting people for reliability before depending on them, knowing my own limits in regards to how much responsibility I can healthfully take on for a project (I was sick after the jam, because of how exhausted I was), and how to be flexible and resourceful enough to salvage seemingly dead projects. Really, that’s a big part of the purpose of game jams. Learning things you wouldn’t otherwise get the opportunity to.

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So for anyone curious about game development, for those who’ve always dreamed of making games, as stressful as it can be I still highly suggest taking part in a game jam. Even if your project falls apart, and you don’t manage to salvage something playable out of it, you’ll still learn a ton to take on with you for next time.

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The latest version of my jam project, Clunk the Intergalactic Cultivator, can be played for free here. Hopefully Rex & I will get the chance to flesh it out more.