Video game 'jams' produce new titles in 48 hours

By Matt Danzico
BBC News, New York

media captionVideo game developers flock to a Brooklyn-based game jam to develop new releases in just 48 hours

Large video game titles often take thousands of hours, scores of programmers, and vast sums of money to create. But there are groups of independent coders, programmers and designers coming together around the globe to create video games from scratch in just 48 hours.

Game jams are intensive video game programming sessions where electro-heads gather to build independent games over the course of just a weekend.

It's Friday night in New York City and roughly 25 programmers, designers, hackers and musicians have hauled their laptops, tablet computers and other mobile electronics to a damp, low-lit warehouse in Brooklyn.

Inside the graffiti-covered building, a crowd of check-shirted 20-somethings mix and mingle, chatting about programming languages and debating whether side-scrolling games are making a comeback.

For the next 48 hours, these technophiles will slave away, churning out miles of source code and scores of character designs, in an attempt to make independent video games from the ground up.

The event is being hosted by Babycastles, an organisation that doubles as a video game collective and an arcade for independently made games, and tonight marks the group's first jam.

The objectives for many of the programmers, who comprised both students and full-time professionals, are simply to network, share ideas and experiment with their craft.

"Game jams are a means of experimenting with what's possible in the industry," says Babycastles' game jam organiser Ben Johnson.

"Programmers come together for a 48-hour period, we give them a secret theme, and they have that period to make games about the theme."

"It all has to be spontaneous," he says, adding that local game jams help bring together developers from all points in New York, a city largely outside of the eye of the corporate video game world.

Mr Johnson takes the floor at the Babycastles headquarters, where antique arcade machines can be seen with their innards ripped out and spread on the floor, and announces tonight's theme - love.

"You want us to build games about love?" someone in the crowd asks.

"Get to it," Mr Johnson says.

'Global phenomenon'

image captionVideo game developers from 44 countries participated in the Global Game Jam in 2011

International Game Developers Association (IGDA) director Gordon Bellamy says Babycastles' weekend event is one small piece of a "truly global phenomenon".

The IGDA organises a 48-hour jam each year called the Global Game Jam, which saw some 6,500 programmers and designers participating at 169 sites in 44 different countries last January, including sites from Taiwan to Lithuania to Brazil.

In the span of a weekend, nearly 1,500 games were created, which were all based around the theme of extinction.

"The point of game jams is to cultivate collaboration - that's what the jams are about. Game making is a collaborative process," says Mr Bellamy.

Game jams also serve as a platform through which developers are persuaded to "push the envelope in video game development", says Frank Lantz, interim director of New York University's Game Center.

"There's a whole space of possibility that the mainstream doesn't explore because commercial game development has its own incentives and constraints," says Mr Lantz.

The Game Center, which works as an interdepartmental group that offers classes in game design and development, was the third largest site in the 2011 Global Game Jam, with 40 games submitted to the jam from within the university.

Mr Lantz says the individuals who engage in game jams typically perceive video games as a creative form, "something like literature, poetry, theatre and film".

image captionMany of the video games created at the Global Game Jam can be found online for use by the public

"A lot of what comes out of game jams is in response to the mainstream," he adds.

The video games that are created during the jams ultimately are played by others at the events, with some games later being placed online for public use.

The goal of game jam attendees is to engage in the creative process, and not to worry about shopping the product around afterwards, Mr Lantz says.

But Mr Lantz says he does hope some will continue their work on the games they start at the jams.

Jams fall in stark contrast to the Electronic Entertainment Expo, also known as E3, a yearly video game conference in Los Angeles, which pulls names like Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, Ubisoft, Activision and Rockstar Games all under one roof for three days.

The conference in Los Angeles finished up on 9 June and saw titles, like BioShock Infinite and Modern Warfare 3, as well as consoles, like the Nintendo Wii U and PlayStation Vita, unveiled by the gaming behemoths.

"You cage all the dinosaurs together in this big stadium at E3 and you ask them to out-roar each other," Mr Lantz says.

Estimates on the number of individuals who attended E3 this year have been projected at over 50,000.

Mr Lantz says he appreciates corporate advances in the industry but feels events like the Global Game Jam add a level of improvisation that is healthy for the industry.

Nordic roots

image captionGame jams in their current form have been around for about a decade

The Global Game Jam, which was conceived in 2009 by IGDA's Education SIG director Susan Gold, was modelled on a Nordic jam of the same type, founded by Gorm Lai, a freelancer who builds iPhone apps and games.

Prior to establishing the jam in Copenhagen in 2006, Mr Lai says there were events for developers in the region where "coders would just sit in solitude and code on his or her game".

"I thought it would be fun if I had other people to jam with, so I said 'Oh, let's do this,'" Mr Lai adds.

Now Mr Lai says jams about networking, making connections and enjoying the social atmosphere of the jam.

Other jams, like the Indie Game Jam in California, have sought to push similar themes for close to a decade.

Back at the Babycastles space in Brooklyn, 48 hours has passed.

"Hey everybody, time's up!" Mr Johnson yells.

Shuffling under piles of laptops, wires and tablets, the participants of the game jam appear weary but satisfied.

About 10 video games, from side-scrollers to puzzle games, have been made with, original music having even been crafted for a handful of the love-themed titles.

The developers shuffle clockwise from laptop to laptop for about 20 minutes, testing out each other's games, which have names like Spanish Fly and Nostalgia.

"I met all of these people here just this weekend," says one of the jam's participants, pointing to other coders standing around a table.

"We've already been talking about another game we'd like to work on... but first, I think we all would like to get some sleep."

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