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Moderation & Game Developing

My very first Game Jam

On September 2018, I attended my very first Game Jam. I learned how to work on a game with a team and how to get into a game setting. Furthermore, I learned about necessary content, to create a pleasant experience. And most of all: I learned that you can achieve just a little bit in 48 hours and how such an event is structured.

Nordmedia, a company providing and supporting funding in the media industry, organized the Game Jam together with the SAE Institute in Hanover. The “Hanover Game Jan” took place at the halls of the SAE, providing food, drinks, workstations, a top location in Hanover’s downtown and of course a topic.

The structure was as the following:

  • Friday – 17:00: Provision of the topic
  • Friday – Until 17:30: Brainstorming and preparation of the pitch
  • Friday – 17:30: Pitching game ideas
  • Friday – 18:00: Forming groups and work
  • Sunday – 15:00: Hand in the projects
  • Sunday – 16:00: Presentation of the projects

This year’s theme was “The Stuff They Never Taught!”. While some of us (me including) instantly got the idea of creating a tax return simulator (this seriously has potential in terms of serious games: Gamification for boring or exhausting tasks like making the tax declaration), finding a proper idea was seriously difficult. I came to an idea, that I pitched later on. But coming to this point was more luck than any methodical process. I eventually came up with the idea of “LifeCycle”.

My idea: LifeCycle

Initial draft of LifeCycle

LifeCycle should put the player into the perspective of a nameless cyclist, that is passing through the stations of someone’s life. These stations include a school (nod to Jhonen Vasquez’ Invader Zim with “Skool”), the death of the player’s grandmother, his/her freshman year. Later on finding a job, building a family and ultimately dying. In short terms: Stations of the life cycle of the average human. Each station should be accompanied by collecting experience about situations, that no one is ever telling you about (like how to handle with a school bully or how to cope with the death of a beloved family member).

My initial design was more of a sidescrolling story thingy, than anything that puts the player into actually playing something. Of course other ideas came up. And luckily, I could get another pitcher to join my project, together with his friend. The other pitcher, Till, came to the conclusion, that we should put our ideas together. Till’s game was more or less based on a top down view, space-shooter-like game. As he had a gameplay idea and I had a story idea, that fits the jam’s theme, we had the chance to propose our ideas to the third man. Eugen is the third man, and he a is a graphics artist. The one thing I urged to get via my pitch.

Creating LifeCycle

As the story and gameplay were clear, we figured out the minimal goals we wanted to achieve within the given time. Our feature catalog at the end was the following:

Features

  • Having at least one playable level from start to end
  • Having a “playable” world: The player has to take his bicycle from level to level.
  • The playable level(s) should take you 2 to 5 minutes to get through
    • The level(s) should contain enemies, that are on your way and kill on collision
    • A boss should wait at the end of the level, that is shooting back at you
    • While cycling through the level, the player needs to collect objects
  • Sounds should be added for player actions and the environment
  • A score should indicate your success
  • You only have one hit point
  • Achieved points enable you to upgrade your bike in a shop

We managed to achieve all those goals except for the bike-upgrading system. An implementation worked partially, but designing a shop system was just too expensive considering the time. So instead of implementing this, we worked on a possible second level. We could not finalize it, but all necessary assets were created and also pushed into the level. This however had no end and was just imbalanced.

The Art of LifeCycle

Assets for LifeCycle

Assets for LifeCycle

Graphics

Eugen, our graphics designer, managed to create 68 sprite assets during the time. We almost instantly agreed on a pixel art style that should be colorful. As we followed the life cycle of a person, the first two stations, based on education, finding friends, coping with bad marks and just getting from A to B, were clear.

Till and me also depicted what kind of environmental sprites we would need. Of course, the player, enemies and friends needed to be crafted. As for the environment, we needed a hallway of the school and the fraternity home (the location of the second level). The overworld (the level selection scene) has buildings as dominant eye-catchers and level stops. The big advantage of the art here, was all of us being on the same level of expectations what the game needs. So we could agree and work on the assets extremely fast.

An especially fruitful experience for me, was the first contact with Unity’s animator, that allowed us to have different sprites put into a sequence to form animations. Game Over  screens, High Fives and Party Hards were animated by me. As for the level design, work resided on my end. Till did a great job in scripting, which I also did.

Sound

At one point – late in the second night – I decided to isolate myself as one crucial part of the game was missing: Sound. Until the last night, we haven’t cared about it. Fortunately, though, Humble Bundle served a Unity bundle at the time the jam took place. Even more fortunately: This bundle got you two big sound libraries delivered at your hard drive. So I went through 50 GBs of sounds and made a selection of retro-like 8 to 16 bit sounds and other electronic music. A selection of music and SFX was put into a folder to present them to the others. We could also easily agree on this.

The development in at the SAE, showing the team members and SAE's "Green Room"

The development at the SAE

Challenges and misses

In retrospective, the game was also quite clumsy in design: We did not use any fade-ins or fade-outs of the scenes, be it visual or auditive. This came to my mind as a friend recently asked me about the game jam and what our project was like. This fade-stuff leads me to develop a small asset, that allows us just that (I will write the next blog post about that).

There were other technical issues, like the sizes of ingame text’s depending on the player’s resolution of the game. And for a publish on Kongegrate the frame’s size was set incorrectly.

The Shop

As said, the bike upgrade-shop did not make into the game. We had the idea of letting the player upgrade his bike with several items. For example:

  • Chewing gum (to attract friends and other collectibles)
  • A bell (to get enemies out of the player’s path)

We were struggling with other items, as they somehow needed to fit into the setting of a bike and be entertaining on the other side. Another problem,  which lead to skipping the feature, was balancing. We were already struggling with a challenging and yet entertaining balancing of the current levels with the enemy-types. Having add-ons for your bike not just increased development time (you have to implement a full-fledged attribute system) but also leads to a far more complex balance-system. This ultimately forced us to put things aside.

Level 2

The second level, that puts you into the situation to attend a party at a fraternity house was the funniest, but we had a lack of time. The second level was just created by me two hours before the final build, that was handed over to the jury. In the fraternity house, lecturers were throwing bad marks at you. While avoiding bad marks and getting rid of the professors, you had to collect stuff for the party: Booze, snacks and “herbals” – as we called them. However, the final of the level was not realized, as it was too many animation tasks at once. The player reaches the party and everyone is partying hard!

LifeCycle's first level showing the player on his tricycle down the hallway of the school

LifeCycle’s first level

what I learned

Besides technical things, like features in Unity, I learned alot about the process of game development. And the even more important, I learned about the importance of such an event for networking!

As for the development process, I have to admit things did not run as good as it could be. We were sometimes quite “lazy” and had too much Offtopic things to talk about. Brainstorming and “project management” at all wasn’t as structured as I am used to work at Sennheiser. Luckily, we as a team had a common mindset in terms of creativity and could compensate the lack of structure. Perhaps I am a bit too serious with myself here, considering the occasion itself.

As for networking, I got in touch with plenty of people I never got in touch with before. There were a lot of SAE students there (even with students from other locations, like Cologne) but also other hobby game developers like me. The talks we had during the lunches and dinners were outstanding. They offered many insights to their work and projects they are dealing with. There were even some professionals of the industry, who also took part in the game jam. Seeing the results they achieved during the time was impressive.

And the winner is…

In the end, all projects were handed in to a jury. As to my surprise, there was a competition just announced the day the game jam started. Nordmedia offered 50,-€ Steam vouchers to each member of the winner’s team. The game, that emphasizes the most on the jam’s topic and its overall entertainment shall win the prize, including a trophy.

There were puzzling games, even made with Unreal Engine in 3D. One team even decided to create their own 3D assets, which cost them a lot of time – and as per their comments: Too much time. Other games did not have that much emphasize on the theme at. But these teams showed some impressive projects, though. One of the students from Cologne showed his planetary catching game made in Unreal. It was just a proof of concept, that allowed players to jump from a planet to another one. Aligning the player’s perspective and the animations there, was crazy!

But in the end, there has been just one winner. Without being too narcissistic, I’m leaving you the image below.

The team is shown from left to right: Till, Kai and Eugen

Eugen went home with the trophy. He won an exciting, fair and very long match of rock, paper, scissors.

And if you like to play LifeCycle: Just visit Kongegrate.

Kudos to Till and Eugen! They did a fantastic job!

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