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Things I Learned by Running a Game Jam

This post is a recap of my experiences running this year’s Itch.io Jam for Kids, including a few things you may want to keep in mind if you’re ever in charge of a jam yourself.

On or around June 18th, my four-year-old asked me to make him a video game about trains. This was actually a continuation of a discussion we’d had earlier when I declared I was deleting Budge Studios’ Go Go Thomas from my phone, as I find their microtransaction model for the game to be red-hot garbage. I said I’d be thrilled to make him his own game rather than have an app for children advertise about $20 USD worth of in-app purchases twice for each activity. This was not an idle threat; I’ve done it before. So as promised, I brought the Surface Pro to the kitchen table, fired up Blender, and set about modeling a toy train to see if I could do anything interesting with it in Unity. When I had a reasonable starter model in place, I tweeted it out, because that’s what one does.

My devfam was enthusiastic and supportive as always, but one reply caught my attention more than the rest.

I half assumed @TrashGameArtist was kidding, but for fun I replied with some things he’s interested in and didn’t think much else of it. But the conversation about theoretical kid game designs developed until the suggestion to start an official Itch.io event was made. I thought this was a fantastic idea. Kids need useful play experiences more than anyone, as it directly stimulates brain development, yet they put up with some of the worst, most exploitative designs imaginable. If my admin time could help produce even a few positive playable experiences—not to mention place a sensible time limit on this activity for myself—bring it on. I logged into Itch, cobbled together the most basic of guidelines, and the Itch.io Jam for Kids was born.

What followed was two weeks of incredible learning, great community discussion, and sure enough, a prototype for To the Station! A toy train simulator developed to spec for a preschooler. I didn’t plan on taking away any worthwhile lessons from hosting the jam itself, but I couldn’t help it. Here are some notes in case you ever try this yourself.

 Itch.io’s jam tools are amazing

I first got to know Itch as a journalist covering indie games. I was super impressed by the features implemented simply to make my job easier, and in turn, put more eyes on the platform’s game developers. When I came back to try out jam hosting, I was just as pleased. The proof is always on display in the always-loaded jam calendar. I’ve been an enthusiastic Ludum Dare participant for a good decade, but it’s getting difficult to imagine not using ltch for any jam at this point.

Two weeks is the jam duration God intended

I’ve probably participated in my last 48-hour jam. I knew my own time for this jam was going to be under assault by everyday life. I also chose to start the jam with no lead-up time, so I decided to blow out the traditional weekend format and give everyone two weeks.

What a win this turned out to be! I think the best strategy is to pursue a design no grander than you’d dream up for a 48-hour jam, but to find a groove completing and perfecting it around the rest of your everyday life instead of replacing your life with frenzied crunch development. After all, this is how release-worthy games are completed.

Anything longer than a couple of weeks, I suspect time management issues and scope creep would rear their ugly heads. Less than two weeks, I don’t imagine putting myself through the stress again. It’s the two-week life for me.

Admin tasks will eat up your dev time

This is a no-brainer going in but remembering it for two weeks is harder. Not many folks will likely want to run small-to-medium jams without working on an entry themselves (rules permitting) so a host simply has to find the right balance for their time. Two different days I had to hang up intricate development tasks to deal with situations I felt might put participants or others at risk in one case or make us all look kind of ridiculous in the other (more on this later).

I also felt pressure to set an example in the attached forum, participating in discussions where I could, running a progress thread about my game, and of course responding to any questions that came up during the event. By the end of submission day, I’d given up several features on a fairly modest list to fulfill the host role successfully.

Dev tasks will eat up your admin time

Of course the reverse of the previous point is true, but it’s worth discussing what that looked like.

On only the second or third day of the jam, a participant posted a dual entry he was working on for an earlier jam focused on education that overlapped with ours, explaining that it contained not only a prototype, but also a lecture he’d put together about designing for kids. In my mind, the timeline was an issue that would prevent his project from being an official entry, but he joined hoping to participate and posted hoping to help. I wanted to at least check out the project and presentation and provide some encouragement. Unfortunately for my Surface Pro, his was a fairly large project and was downloading too slowly over Wifi. I determined I’d check it out first thing when I next sat down in my office and provide feedback.

The only trouble is I never made it back to my desktop PC. I actually still haven’t. I had to continue work on my game and provide official support for the event. That’s simply all there was time for. I should have stayed laser-focused, even at the risk of appearing rude or uninterested in anything else.

People will try to get away with things

In order of sheer audacity:

A participant posted pretty early on that they hoped to make a basic racing game in Unity but realized the scope was going to be out of control (which is very correct), so they found a Candy Crush-like tutorial series they wanted to follow to wow us all with a puzzle game. It sounded great to me. I wished them luck and said we were all looking forward to seeing it.

I got a notification a day or two later saying they’d submitted an entry.

I suspect not everyone knows this, but a jam host can see the exact date a game was submitted to Itch, and this one was something over a year old. Perhaps I’d still try it and offer feedback before officially disqualifying the entry. That’s when I noticed the following paragraph on the entry’s Itch page:

NOTE: If your virus detection software is acting up when you load up this game, please ignore it because it’s just the software being suspicious because the app is not recognized by it. So if it says anything please just ignore it.

Right. I followed up in the forum, asking why his submission was showing up as being more than a year old, also having a YouTube trailer a year old. I didn’t dive into the antivirus topic. He claimed the second game attempt overwhelmed him and he simply wanted to have something to submit. He hoped I’d understand. You couldn’t craft any better test for a jam host, because it was either a perfectly sincere story that must have been hard to admit for a vulnerable participant, or he was trying to destroy all our machines from the inside out. I’m no King Solomon, so I used the easy pre-existing project excuse and disqualified the entry which removed it from the submissions page. It was probably legit; I wish the developer the best.

As the jam was drawing to a close, I was eager to try out other submissions. I saw a notification pop up on one of the final days saying an interactive fiction novel had been submitted. Interesting choice for a game for kids, I’d better have a look. When I got to the submissions page, I couldn’t help but laugh.

The game was $7.99 to play.

For good measure, this game turned out to be long pre-existing as well, but I couldn’t help but laugh at the boldness required to join a game jam and try to sell the entry to the other participants. It’s hard out here for us indie devs. I get it.

It will all be worth it

In the end, we had a couple of awesome entries to keep mine company. A user called Sipsop created the Surprise Eggs Machine which was a cute little proof-of-concept which could easily be tied into a real brand. Minemaster552 who said he’s only 13 years of age submitted Lego City Builder, an unauthorized FLASH Lego game that was off to a great start at the end of the event.

My four-year-old got his train game and even provided the name. To the Station! in prototype form convinced me a toy train simulator could be viable and fun. I’m in the middle of my book project—alright, not the middle yet—but I’m excited at the possibilities of the prototype and have concrete ideas in mind about how to carry it forward.

I think the Jam for Kids will come back around this time next year. The biggest change will be even longer, even clearer rules upfront. Everyone seemed to have a great time, I know we all learned a lot, and we just might have started some projects that could go the distance. Hosting was a deeply rewarding experience and I’d suggest it to anyone. The better our events, the stronger the community.

Comment with your best theme idea for a jam!

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Business Game Development Game Industry Games Podcast Web

Rob Hewson of Huey Games

Thanks to some gracious networking help from Patreon supporter Mark Feller and Indie Gamer Chick, this time we’re hearing from LEGO games veteran and current Huey Games CEO/Creative Director Rob Hewson! As has become a beautiful show tradition, we open up by discussing what everyday game development is like in the guest’s part of the world. Rob’s team has won a grant from the UK Games Fund which is helping his team carry on the family business–his father and co-founder is UK game industry legend Andrew Hewson, whose game products in the 80s and early 90s are the inspiration for some of the very games they’re publishing today.

Rob has great insight into all aspects of funding and publicizing indie games, and specializes in wide cross-platform releases; this is must-hear for those of you in development on your next indie release. Also check out Andrew’s book, Hints & Tips for Videogame Pioneers, which captures his journey through retro gaming history!

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The #GameDev Breakdown Podcast

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This Is How Fast Bad Journalism Creates Problems in the Game Industry

If you recently heard something like “Borderlands 3 Will Feature 25 Times as Many Guns as Borderlands 2,” you’re a victim of bad game journalism, and you deserve to know what’s actually going on.

Those of you who follow the site, the GameDev Breakdown podcast, or our community over at Patreon know that we recently had the pleasure of an in-depth discussion with Joshua Davidson, a Gearbox senior sound designer working on Borderlands 3. I first reached out to Joshua after reading his excellent writing about his experiences training for and eventually working in the game industry, and the resulting podcast interview became one of the show’s most popular episodes in just over a week. I was thrilled that listeners connected with Joshua’s story and that fans of his work enjoyed pulling back the creative curtain for a rare glimpse into the development of a series they love, and I was just as pleasantly surprised when his story started to reach other outlets. Unfortunately, not everyone covered the story with the same professionalism, nor attention to detail, and I feel a certain responsibility to help set a few things straight.

To illustrate what went wrong here, I’m going to simply provide a chain of events, adding commentary where I think it’s warranted.

The timeline

  • April 21 – I released a one-hour podcast with Joshua Davidson of Gearbox software. The topics included his early life and education, the beginning of his professional career (including his time at Volition), and finally, his time at Gearbox Software and his work on the Borderlands series. Near the end of the interview, he dropped the following teaser regarding the game’s audio engineering:

“We haven’t really talked about this yet, but I’m gonna kind of give a little hint…on Borderlands 2, we shipped with 300 gun assets. Like, over 300 individual .WAV files of gunshots to cover all the manufacturers, all the different gun manufacturers and their variations, basically. So, whenever you picked up a bandit shotgun, or you picked up a Hyperion submachine gun in the game, in all the previous Borderlands games they all sounded like, y’know, the same gun essentially, no matter what rarity they were and things like that. So the Hyperion SMG would always sound like the Hyperion SMG, Jakobs shotgun sounds like a Jakobs shotgun…but that was like 300 something assets. Right now…we’re like sitting at 7,500 individual gun sounds for this new one, and what changed is, well yeah, we have more memory, but what changed is the design of the audio for this. And I have to give big props to Brian Fieser and our code team, our audio code team for developing a system where we could basically play audio Legos with all the gun parts. So whenever you get a certain gun part, every time you get a new gun, it takes y’know, 6 or 7 different parts and then slaps them together, and each one of those parts has a gun sound on it. So it just clamps together to form one new sound. It’s a totally modular experience.”

We felt great about this podcast and received awesome feedback.

  • April 25 – SupMatto on YouTube releases a video titled “Borderlands 3 – Master Vault Hunter Mode & The MASSIVE WEAPON System & Sounds (25 Times Larger!)” The video prominently features the clip of Joshua’s explanation above. Matto does seem to grasp the quote’s meaning and links back to me, Joshua, and even Code Write Play’s Patreon community in the video description. He’s been established in the Borderlands community as a leaker, and the video neared 100,000 views on the day it was released. It’s good that positivity about Joshua’s work was getting out there, but I’m sure he was also a little concerned about this association in the eyes of his employer (I’ve since been assured that everything is fine).
  • April 25 (later that day) – Undoubtedly desiring to participate in the telling of his own story (rightly so), Joshua takes to Twitter to summarize the technical information he explained on the podcast, very graciously interacting with folks interested in his work and excited about the upcoming game.
  • April 27 – PC Gamer picks up the story, publishing a 200-word article about–not the podcast–just the tweet. Is that inexcusable journalism? I’m not into the “one tweet equals one article” model myself and definitely never tried to get away with it as a freelance journalist, but no, this is not the biggest issue, and I’m still glad Joshua’s tale is being told again for the first time in several years. Still, several outlets managed to provide readers and listeners with the full context of our podcast interview, and not doing so stands out to me like covering a tweet about a presidential debate instead of covering the debate. I attempted to diplomatically approach both the author and PC Gamer and received only the following response that day:

Whether he looked into it, I can’t say for sure, but the article remains unchanged with no further responses. This is the point at which my former editors would have expected me to explain and/or address the situation immediately, and they definitely had me include the occasional link to an outlet much smaller than mine. This is professional gatekeeping at its absolute finest, but a more significant issue remains: without the full context, this is very easy to misinterpret, which happened immediately.

Nope.
  • Also April 27 – Around the same time I was speaking up to PC Gamer about benefiting freely from my work, VGR.com went ahead and wrote an article about an article about a tweet, and as any game of telephone goes, came up with something that may or may not end up true, but certainly wasn’t supported by the original message. By this time Joshua had expressed frustration to me that his name was associated with outright fabricated information. Although I was not credited or associated with the incorrect information any more than I was the correct news, I did reach out to the responsible senior writer of the post at VGR to explain the context of the statements, PC Gamer’s decision not to include it, and my interest in not seeing my guest attributed falsely, now that my work had been buried by countless sites in search engines with no source links. To the author’s credit, he reached out with a sincere apology and committed to fixing the error later in the day, creating a correct posting, and linking to the original source of the news. As of the time of writing several days later, he hasn’t.

So here we sit: Gearbox’s story is being told far and wide, incorrectly in a few places, and crediting our work in even fewer. My desire to highlight these issues is partially selfish, however selfish it is to desire to be recognized for your work, if anyone other than the guest is going to be recognized, but first and foremost I want to look out for the people I write about and record with. If I could say with any certainty that an article or a recording was going to put a guest in a negative light with their employer to any degree, I simply wouldn’t do it. A few downloads or a little more site traffic does not gain me enough to adversely impact someone’s life.

In a recent podcast I spoke briefly about someone’s lament that “game journalism is dead,” which I denied, but agreed that it was at a significant disadvantage because of the ethics and standards in place with some industry employers. People on the journalism side of the fence attribute any criticism to several fringe movements online that do exist, but do not nullify many real issues at play in games coverage that negatively impact people’s real lives. I’ve been there to see it. Simply put: if the gaming community–I’m including players, developers, journalists, bloggers, and every kind of enthusiast–can’t start to take seriously how their actions impact the people around them, these subgroups are going to remain fragmented and distrusting of one another forever.

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Business Code Design Game Development Game Industry Games Podcast Web

Welcome Back, Here’s the News

Glad to be back with another podcast and all kinds of news! In this show, I’ll go over some development topics from Twitter, we’ll talk a little bit about the recent hiatus, and we’ll go over some of what’s happening over at our shiny new Patreon page.

Patrons helped pick the topics for this show, but it wasn’t hard to come up with a list. Google Stadia has announced their forthcoming game streaming service, and damn near simultaneously, Apple announced the Apple Arcade service that will probably launch about the same time later this year. You’ll see what I mean about people pre-emptively damning Stadia to Hell and burning love offerings to Apple over arcade. The whole thing is quite a spectacle.

Finally, if you want to take a look at the Sega dev kit I mentioned before I take time to further write it up, you can do that at the SGDK’s GitHub page.

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The World of Pico-8

At last! We’ve certainly discussed Pico-8 enough on the podcast to warrant this top-to-bottom look at Pico-8 in general, which includes a walkthrough of my latest Pico-8 project, Letterworks, from design to submission. If you’re an audio show listener, you may want to set aside a few minutes to check this one out on our YouTube page, as this episode’s video shows the Pico-8 system, the code, the sprites, and even the forum where projects are shared and discussed. I tried my best to ensure the audio track alone made sense as well, so don’t YouTube it behind the wheel or anything. 

You can get your hands on your own very affordable Pico-8 license at Lexaloffle.com. Search Pico-8 on Twitter to see even more wild and fantastic demos created by the community at large. 

As always, you can help get the word out about the podcast by telling a friend, leaving a review, or by subscribing any of the places below. We’ll be back with more soon!

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To Those About to Jam: Part 1

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!” 

Francis comes from a long line of McTreasureMans. Finally, destiny called.

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. 

It would be worth digging into the files to show off all the dialogue we wrote

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. 

Looking back, I think the wine eventually saturated even his armor…

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

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Business Game Development Game Industry Games Podcast Streams Web Writing

Takeaways from the ArenaNet Firings

John rejoins triumphantly to discuss the industry’s latest shake-up. ArenaNet has opted to terminate the employment of two Guild Wars 2 writers following a heated exchange with a partnered streamer/YouTuber earlier in the month. He participates in this discussion while drinking water from a mason jar, as if his own real life is some kind of horror survival game. 

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Business Design Game Development Game Industry Games Podcast Productivity Web

#GameDev Breakdown Video Show – Think Like an Entrepreneur

In this week’s video show, we discuss how to incorporate business wisdom from outside the industry into your game development process, from evaluating ideas to developing your concept and creating a business strategy.

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Business Game Development Game Industry Games Podcast Productivity Web

Think Like an Entrepreneur, Part 1

We discuss how to incorporate business wisdom from outside the industry into your game development process, from evaluating ideas to developing your concept and creating a business strategy.

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#GameDev Breakdown Video Show – Promoting Your Game

In this episode, we share strategies and vital steps you need to take to promote your projects without looking and sounding like a jackwagon. Topics include what to have on your website, creating a press kit, writing a press release, how to approach paid advertisements, and social media practices for Facebook, Twitter, and even Instagram.