Unconventional Advice for Your Game Dev Journey
In this series, I will pass on odd lessons from over a decade in development that I’m fairly certain you won’t hear anywhere else.
Side Note: We do a game dev podcast that might be perfect for your jam weekend.
Part 1: Don’t Get Weird with the Food
My first team jam was Ludum Dare 19 in December of 2010. I’d already been studying game development about ten years, and had finished my first “game” around 2002 at 17 years old. I made plans to have a friend from college come over and stay at my townhouse in Southern Illinois for the weekend, and we’d create a genius RPG that would surely launch us to global superstardom.
I guess that joke doesn’t work as well these days, now that a certain member of the Ludum community just bought the most expensive house on Jay-Z’s street.
Both of our girlfriends at the time planned to hang out at least some of the time, so my partner decided we needed to class things up when it came to sustenance. I did want to be a gracious host, but when I asked if there was some special kind of Mountain Dew or Doritos his lady friend preferred, he declared he’d be taking over the food preparation completely. I didn’t get it, but my girlfriend ate worse than I do. Wherever she is now, her sinks probably only dispense orange Gatorade. Anyway.
When Friday evening arrived, my buddy showed up with a carload full of groceries. He said he’d mostly be preparing one big fancy meal on the first night, and there would be enough to last us all weekend.
“Great!” I thought. “He must be making spaghetti!”
What he set about preparing was some kind of slow-cooked, red wine roast beef. I ended up letting him use my desk to code some XNA Framework magic, while I spread out my laptop, tablet, keyboard, and peripherals on the kitchen table next to the oven. The smell was pleasant, but very noticeable immediately. No problem! A nice little reminder that our hard work on Friday night would be rewarded with an amazing dinner. In like five hours.
As the hours started to pass, I noticed the smell getting stronger.
“It’s cooking,” I thought. “That’s what cooking food does.” But I’d be lying if I said the smell wasn’t becoming a distraction. It still wasn’t unpleasant, but it wafted my direction and my thoughts increasingly drifted back toward it.
When dinner time finally arrived, hours and hours later, we had a fancy group dinner, just as promised. It was a break uncommon for a weekend code-athon and everyone seemed to enjoy their smelly wine meat. After food and brief relaxation, we packed up the leftovers in the fridge and headed back to our battle stations. This was when I first realized we might be in trouble.
With everyone else either coding, leaving, or thinking about their next orange Gatorade, I sat alone in the kitchen, wondering how the smell had not dissipated at all. We were no longer cooking. We had either consumed or sealed every part of the meat in the refrigerator. Was it the dishes in the sink? I closed them up in a dishwasher that I seem to recall didn’t even work, and decided to get some rest to clear my head.
When I woke up and came downstairs, my partner was awake and coding. If the smell had changed at all, it had gotten worse. Had he abandoned all goddamn respect for himself and heated up more of this shit for breakfast? He said he had not. Didn’t he smell it, too? If he did, he pretended otherwise. I cooked scrambled eggs; the smell cared none at all.
By early afternoon on Saturday, I started to worry the smell had picked up a psychological component. I asked my girlfriend, but she was busy scouring the garbage for partial Gatorades and couldn’t be bothered. Somehow, I was cranking out graphics and audio like a mad man. My partner and I teamed up on the writing, and something I love about the game is what an opportunity it was to cram just unlimited weird humor into this humble little Windows 95-looking package. It was my first group game project and the good memories attached to it should not still be saturated with booze beef odor in my brain. But that’s my reality.
Saturday evening we grinded away at our tasks, discussed issues, content, and design, and ate more juice jerky. What did it matter now? We were all irrevocably tainted.
Sunday morning, we landed on a playable game loop. We had most of a day left to test, discuss, and enhance as desired. But I seem to recall we didn’t. It was not long after that time that my partner left, perhaps tacitly admitting “We have given a game, but we have ruined your home. You will have to destroy this place.” He took the leftovers from the fridge, but they don’t make bleach wipes for what was left over in my soul.
The clothing I wore was never the same. I’ve washed garments from that weekend and had people confirm that it smells like wet mystery meat. The game was well-received (though ratings that old on the site aren’t really legible anymore) and we were truly proud of what we’d done. Still, I can’t help wonder what we could have accomplished if I hadn’t spend so much time weighing the pros and cons of standing up and yelling “DON’T ANY OF YOU ASSHOLES SMELL THAT?”
Unlike my ex, who thinks bottled water is fine, now that Gatorade also makes a powder, I do value smart, responsible nutrition. This cautionary tale is not a Pizza Hut and Taco Bell endorsement. My most successful code weekends were probably the couple that happened to coincide with meticulous eating plans I’ve adhered to in the past, particularly low-carb strategies that were heavy on food prep. By all means, keep a little cheat candy or soda on hand, but grab a 2-liter. Walk to the fridge and take a gulp, not a can. Grab a tiny, individually-wrapped Reece’s cup. You’ll get bored and walk away. I think it’s when you are able to sort of focus past eating entirely that the magic really happens in your other endeavors.
Just please, don’t soak meat in wine and cook it for five hours in the middle of your jam space.
Todd Mitchell is an indie software developer with games journalism experience who still smells like roast beef and regret. Follow him @mechatodzilla