Editor’s note: Slingshot contributor Kent Engel is on his way to Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Calif. He’s part of a group of video game designers taking a train to the event that left from Chicago this afternoon, on which they’ll develop their own game. Kent will provide periodic updates throughout the trip, so be sure to check back.
7 P.M. SATURDAY UPDATE
It is 8:00 p.m. (Friday), and my team just left for dinner on the train. I am sticking to my guns from my last post and not going with them, opting for the cheaper and equally as tasty microwaved food to nourish me. I look outside of the observation car, which usually has a beautiful view, and see nothing but black in front of me as it is already dark. Although I do not have a scenic view right now, it is very easy to focus when surrounded by darkness because there is no glare on my screen. While the team is at dinner, I am tasked with implementing the final character, and putting some final touches on the gameplay.
An hour later, my team is back from dinner just in time for me to show them what I have accomplished since they have been gone. Virtually any bug we had before has been fixed, and we have completed everything we set out to at the beginning of this journey, aside from the menu system. The main artist on my team, JP, is so far ahead of his tasks that he has opted to create more levels than the one we agreed would be realistic at the start. After throwing around some ideas, we decide to make a “derpy” version of Super Mario because the tone of our game is comical and absolutely nonsensical. The beauty of events like game jams — and of being an independent developer in general — is the fact that I have total creative control over the project. Whatever me or my team want to add into the game, we can. We do not have to submit assets to a higher power who may think that they suck or do not fit the target audience; we shape that all ourselves as we create the game.
Enough of my tangent on creative freedom though, it is already 10:00 and we have collectively decided to get some good sleep so we can wake up early and finish strong with (hopefully) a table in the observation deck.
I wake up at 6 a.m. Saturday, the day that the jam is set to end when we reach Emeryville station near San Francisco. I did not realize that my teammate in the seat next to me left in the middle of the night to sleep at a table in the observation deck to ensure we have a large work space to complete our game in (huge bro move).
I underestimate the willpower of independent developers once again, as I did not expect many people to be in the observation deck this early. I am just as wrong this time as I was last time, as the observation deck is completely full of developers hammering out their games before submission time.
By noon, we have the game at near completion: gameplay complete with multiplayer, character select complete with 6 characters (2 more than anticipated), level select with four levels (three more than anticipated), sound effects, a menu system, and of course a credits screen where we can stamp our names on this beautiful creation. I have just received word that we only have two hours left before we have to pack up our computers and get ready to arrive at Emeryville.
It is a strange feeling being upset that the train is ahead of schedule after being on it for 48+ hours, but my team as well as every other team on the train is focused on adding as much to their games as possible. The feedback between developers is great as we all get a chance to share some laughs and play each other’s games that we have all been stuck together working on for the last two days.
We have finally arrived at the station in Emeryville, and there is an audible sigh of relief as every developer seems content with the baby (you might choose to refer to it is a game) they have been nurturing for the past 50 hours. We are all in the process of gathering for a group photo and taking turns giving a brief summary of our game before everyone leaves the station and re-convenes at GDC in two days. The experience has been awesome, the people have been awesome, and the game turned out even better than I thought it could be.
8 P.M. FRIDAY UPDATE
On my journey to GDC so far, I have been through 5+ states and had the opportunity to create a video game with the most beautiful inspiration from nature outside the window in front of me. It is 1:30 p.m. (Mountain Time), and I am finally eating some lunch. I won’t make the same mistake from yesterday of not eating all day and trying to develop my game running on pure sugar and caffeine (I lost focus more than I thought I would). Development of the game is coming along very well, but as the nature of game development is very iterative; many unforeseeable changes are rearing their head as we approach the finish line.
By 4 p.m., the game can finally be considered fully playable, complete with a main menu, a character select screen, and, of course, gameplay. Throughout the process, I’ve had to tweak the mechanics to keep them interesting and make the game feel rewarding to the player, which has caused a bit of a derailment (excuse the pun, as I AM on a train).
First of all, the initial idea was to have two players racing side by side to the other end of the screen while throwing things at each other to slow the opposing player down. It became pretty apparent that it wouldn’t work very well that way, so changes had to be made where players are now facing each other. Another derailment has occurred with a mechanic that involves filling up your opponent’s inventory to slow them down, as well as your own inventory filling up when objects are thrown at you.
We wanted to visually show that by making the character’s pockets grow in size, but since all of the characters are different with pockets in different places, it made the changing of those sprites (2D art) difficult. These are just a couple examples of the adversity that game developers face as the production of the game evolves. This is a frustrating part of the process, but one that must occur to come away with a game worth playing.
It is now 5:30 p.m. and — go figure, another pun — I am in the mountains! I find myself interrupting my work semi-frequently to take pictures, and to make sure I am aware before I get crushed by a rockslide. I opted out of dinner reservations tonight, because I realized that I can get better tasting microwaved food for free instead of paying $25 for another absurdly mediocre steak. More than anything, I want to finish my game to an extent that makes people that play it at GDC say “Holy $#%, you made that in 52 hours?!”
We are very close to that stretch goal, as we simply need to clean up the menu system, add audio, and tweak the user interface. Stay tuned tomorrow to see my final post, which will contain tons of content from the other 40+ games being made, as well as more perspective on the journey and the theme that all of the games were based on.
11 A.M. FRIDAY UPDATE
My last post ended just after I started my 52-hour train journey across America while making a game with 189 other game developers. Once again, I unfortunately cannot talk about the theme outside of Train Jam until the jam ends tomorrow afternoon. So I will have to leave that part out when describing gameplay.
My team starts strong in the early hours of the jam. We implement enough art and code to have a “working” game by the five-hour mark. It is 7 p.m. and we are preparing for dinner on the other side of the train. I literally feel as if I will pass out (pro tip: don’t drink Red Bull without food in your system). The working title of our game is “Encumbered”, a two player button-mashing game where each player must reach the opposite side of the screen. Players interact by throwing objects at each other and each additional object the player is carrying negatively impacts their movement speed. You play as one of four scraggly-looking animals walking down an alley heaving objects at each other.
Combine this with an N64 controller and the question arises: what more could you ask for?
We finish dinner around 8:30 p.m., and most of us resume our. As of right now, we have the background for our scene implemented along with one of four characters and some placeholder art for the objects that will be thrown by each player. I return to work feeling rejuvenated from the wildly expensive, definitely not medium-cooked steak. I finish the core mechanics of the game before work for the day ends at midnight. By this time, we have three of our four characters completed, and all that is left is our menu screen, character select screen, and implementation of all of the objects that the players will be throwing at each other. At this stage of the game, we all feel confident in our progress and retreat back to our chairs for some much-needed sleep.
It’s Friday morning, and I wake up to the sunrise peeking through the window and catching my eyes. It is only 7 a.m. local time, so I fully expect to go back to our spacious work area from the previous day to resume development. I totally miscalculate the drive of my fellow developers, as the observations cars with the most preferable work areas are already full of people working on their games. I still snag a seat within the observation car, but without the advantage of being at a booth with a table and a lot of work space. At least I still have a beautiful view of the mountains as I continue work on my game.
6 P.M. THURSDAY UPDATE
To give some perspective: most games that people are familiar with, such as Uncharted, League of Legends, Counterstrike, Call of Duty, etc., are made by teams with sizes anywhere from 20 to more than 100 people, over the course of a couple years. My team of four has been tasked to take a prompt and make a game from start to finish in the time it takes to ride by train from Chicago to San Francisco (52 hours). Once we get there, we present our games to the professional game development community at the Game Developers Conference.
At 7:30 a.m., my team and I wake up in Chicago and get ready for the day. We start off by chugging coffee and stocking up on food as if we are going into hibernation because we know we have a long day ahead of us. At 10 a.m., we have to be at Union Station to find out the prompt for the game we will be working on for the next two-plus days of our lives.
Once we arrive at the train station, we check into the event and mingle with other developers. I am surprised by the sheer scale of this event, as this is only the third year since the maiden voyage. The first two years consisted of 60 and 130 developers, respectively, but this year it has grown to 190 developers. The amount of people at this event makes it more difficult than expected to network and pick up additional team members, but we are able to pick up another developer before it is time to leave.
At around 1:30 p.m., we are finally able to file onto the train, and claim our living spaces. Surprisingly, the seats are pretty roomy for being on a train, and the view is awesome. There are a couple of different environments on the train; there are the normal seats (which we will mostly be living and sleeping in), and there are the observations cars, which have large work spaces and plenty of windows.
Everyone seems eager to get to work on their creations, as teams book it to the observation cars with the most open work space. I am currently surrounded by about 50 people in 12 different teams, all with the same prompt but vastly different ideas.
Due to policies beyond my security clearance level, I cannot disclose the details of the prompt quite yet. Just know that our game will be awesome and involve N64 controllers. Who doesn’t like the nostalgia of possibly one of the worst controller designs ever? Screenshots of the game I am working on will follow as the game is developed.
All photos by Kent Engel.