The Bristol ExPlay Game Jam begins with a whimper as the lauded video link-up with the sibling London event at the Science Museum proves fruitless: “Technology has failed us!” laments ExPlay director Korash Sanjideh with a healthy dose of irony. However the mood suffers no setbacks and following the announcement of this year’s theme – deception – attendees quickly settle into groups and diligently formulate concepts.
Held at the Pervasive Media Studio and described as a “24 hour games development frenzy”, Bristol ExPlay Game Jam saw 13 teams assisted by bio-medical scientists working around the clock to devise, produce and develop a brand new, playable game, with the winners showcasing their work to the public at the ExPlay Games Festival in November 2012.
The balance of attendees is as expected: a healthy selection of programmers and developers, and the first night is a chaotic maelstrom of brainstorming as teams speed through introductions, decide on roles and attempt to encapsulate the theme around ideas filtered through each other and the results are no less erratic.
Concepts included an Asteroids-inspired narrative of a virus attacking the human body, a game where two players control the same avatar and Wave/Particle FATALITY, a 2D-3D platformer-text adventure built around main character Dr. Shin OBE because, according to the team, “ninjas are, by their very nature, deceptive.”
However a number of positions remain a rarity throughout multiple Game Jams, including musicians, with Nick Dymond commenting on his perspective of operating at Game Jam.
“There’s always a shortage of musicians at these events so we’re in pretty high demand. I think [our contribution is] pretty big. It helps establish setting, tone; it brings polish to the game. I’ve yet to see a game win Game Jam without music in it.”
There are also other concerns with skillsets, including the team behind Toadal Recall managing to acquire three different programmers with no common language.
“We decided, in the end, that the game’s going to be made in Flash, which is pretty straightforward and means it could also be played on pretty much anything.”
However the event means much more than the product for Sanjideh: “The games produced is only part of the story. The camaraderie, the formation of the team… from ExPlay’s point of view, what we’re trying to make is obviously help stimulate the games industry, help new start-ups, new IP.
“If new companies do form out of Game Jam – and we had one last year – then it allows us to do more business support and help them profile themselves and hopefully they become a full-blown company and start hiring people. We see Game Jam as an ecosystem that can help stimulate the industry. That’s our mantra, our goal.
“I see the Game Jam as fertile soil, and then occasionally you see seeds grow and then we can do further work with them. We have a training programme running called Boot Camp, specifically designed to help talent grow. The South West is quite distributed and it’s a way of finding out who’s out there.”
With the diversity apparent, Tomas Rawlings, Wellcome Trust games consultant, spoke on what the charitable foundation was looking for in each submission.
“Basically, it’s about balancing science and gameplay. In this particular event and this branch of Wellcome, we’re not looking for education games. It’s not a ‘worthy’ game, you don’t want to feel like you have to play it because it’s part of the school curriculum. It should be competing with other games […] you play it because it’s fun.
“We want to show science as part of culture. It’s not a separate thing, where you struggle to put it in. It should be intrinsic and I think games where the science and gameplay work well together have something special,” citing Deus Ex: Human Revolution as an example of science being cohesive and effectively integrated within the game mechanics.
Speaking from ExPlay’s perspective, Sanjideh shared a number of Rawlings’ inclinations: ”By the natural subject matter, a lot of people would think ‘let’s do an educational game’. Not to say I’d like to see less education but certainly I’d like to see more play.
“If they can use the theme to create that play whilst still doing something scientific, that’s fantastic. So a hybrid mix of that. But if they’re fun to play and the graphics are really cool, I’m interested in that.”
The second day is decidedly more subdued, as teams arrive in sporadic fashion to hunker down and finish the work, and many choosing to avoid the chaos and working from home. Those present show clear signs of suffering candlelight hours and fatigue.
Sandijeh remarked: “What often we see with these Game Jams is that the raw ideas will usually filter down into something more concrete, usually by the morning when people have slept on it, or when people wake up and freak out that they haven’t done enough development. At the end of the Jam is when we see the ideas spring up.”
Presciently, the room becomes more active approaching the deadline, and most teams look very comfortable with progress, with a number already showing signs of advance status including Trust Us!, a mayoral election game with visual lineage to Hungry, Hungry Hippos and the team behind Hide & Sneak, a game which tasks the player to use valuable loot to distract a blind guard, although its team faced eleventh-hour pressures approaching the development deadline, with a very sardonic summery.
“Well, it depends how fun it needs to be. It’s just a game, it’s not like it’s entertainment or anything… I thought we were gonna go further with the ideas that we have [but] it looks nice. It plays okay. It sounds great!”
The 24-hour spree was concluded with a demonstration of each game in its current state, with the majority impressively polished and playable.
Following the demonstration, Rawlings commented on his satisfaction of the output on display: “Genuinely, everyone seems to have a different take on what deception is, where the deception is coming from. One of the reasons we picked this theme is that it exists on multiple layers.
“You can play the deception at whatever level you feel comfortable with, so you can go right down to a cellular level, to the architecture that enables deception, up to a psychological level as a concept.”
Despite the well-earned close, Sandijeh is already planning the next Game Jam: “Ideally, for the Global Game Jam, we are looking into a full 48-hour overnight. The talk at the moment is that we’ll do that in a barn in a remote location. We participated in it last year in two locations, Plymouth and Bristol but unfortunately again we weren’t able to run overnight so the next Jam we’re definitely looking to do a 24, 48-hour overnight.”
The games are currently being judged, with the winner playable at ExPlay festival in Bath on Thursday 1 November and Friday 2 November. Check out one of the entries, Alien Laser Bunnies on www.forceofhab.it.