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Blog: My Experience with Global Game Jam 2018: Transmissions

This year's Global Game Jam (GGJ) was my first and the theme was Transmissions and boy was it enlightening.

For those of you unfamiliar with Global Game Jam, it's a yearly international event that asks people from all walks of life to join together to make a game in 48 hours. If you're interested in what goes into making games, then jams like GGJ provide an opportunity to lend your skills to the development of the game, whatever your skills may be: artist, audio, writing, coding, designing, and so on.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) provided a location so people in the area could meet like-minded individuals and have a collaborative working space for these 48 hours.  I went as a volunteer for Tech Valley Game Space and also participated in the event by teaming up with mostly RPI students, and in many ways it was an enlightening experience to be reminded why undergraduate students are hesitant to work in groups.

As I mentioned earlier, the theme for this year's GGJ was transmissions. The theme is meant to be an inspiration for the game development, but could be loosely interpreted. For instance, some people worked on car games that had interesting elements that dealt with the transmissions of a car while others developed games with bees, letters, earthquakes, WiFi signals, and more. Think of the theme  as a guide, not a rule.

Our team's initial game idea went something like this: there's 4 people in an office and they are trying to communicate to each other through a secret language.

Then we had the brainstorming session that developed the idea, which lasted a good 3-4 hours on Friday. During that time, we had to think about how this idea would look in a game and many ideas were thrown around, ranging from controlling the players via chat commands to using Twitch chat to control a player on the screen to intercepting chat messages and messing them up. You may notice one thing that seemed to persist was the idea of a chatroom.

The team seemed to want to focus on a chatroom as the core component of the game. Why? Games are a multimodal composition and ours was going to just emulate a chat? Writing? At this point I should mention we had two artists in our team of 5, so what would they be doing? When I pressed the group to change the chatroom because, frankly, I think it's a boring aspect to be part of the core gameplay of a game, there was resistance because it was what linked the game to the theme, transmissions. This interaction was insightful for me because I was able to experience from within student project where a theme stifled creativity.

From the original idea of 4 people in an office, the next iteration of the project design expanded the office idea to a more abstract and complex model. This new model consisted of a 4 player online multiplayer game that had two teams with real-time interactions and a chatroom. Let's call the two teams Team A and Team B. So, Team A would have 2 members and these two members would have to communicate with each other without Team B knowing, and vice versa. In addition to this encrypted aspect of communication, the goal also included incorporating a way for Team B to interfere with Team A's communication, and vice versa. So, not only was there an online component, there was also a cooperative component and a competitive component and an encryption component, and all these interactions were going to take place in a chatroom. So, basically a chatroom. The idea was to make a chatroom.

From my teaching and life experience, the way the team moved through the idea generation process seemed natural. The young often develop wild and grand ideas based on the immense amount of space in their imaginations, so they took the 4 player office idea and ran with it. I don't mean to say this is a good or bad thing because it's neither of those, it's just a thing that happens. I believe it should be embraced, but I wish I had found a way to channel these creative imaginings into the initial theme of transmissions, so the team didn't center on a chatroom as a game mechanic but instead ran with the idea and developed crazy and outlandish ideas for transmissions.

Did I mention we were given 48 hours to complete the game? With this time limit in mind, I took on the role of the naysayer because from my experience, I knew we wouldn't be able to finish a game with those parameters. In some ways, I disliked doing this because I don't like telling people they can't do something. Would it have been better just to let the original idea go and have the game go unfinished?

From the discussion, we narrowed down the game to a much simpler concept: the players needed to work together to create a magical potion. However,

  • Player 1 only had a recipe book. 
  • Player 2 only had ingredients and a cauldron. 

Consequently, Player 1 had to describe the ingredients from the recipe book, so Player 1 could put the correct recipe in the cauldron. The only form of communication was, still, through the chatroom. But this challenged people to describe foreign objects using words alone (since neither player could see the other player's screen), so that seemed interesting. We also ran out of time and it was obvious the chatroom component wasn't going away, so this seemed like a compromise at the time.

To sum it up, we had a cooperative mechanic, two people helping each other to succeed. The chatroom still existed and the online component still existed. And the ability for some other "team" or "player" to interfere with the communication between Player 1 and Player 2 still existed. I did my best to steer the team away  from these components but was eventually outvoted.We were out of time to develop the idea, but at least we had something concrete with the recipe book, cauldron, and ingredients.

On Saturday, the artists worked on the art which included wizardry magical things, code was developed in Unity for the basic scene look and computer functionality, other sound and assets were discovered through various websites. It seemed like we were making progress.

Then emergency struck.

Around Saturday at 5 or 6pm, the main supporter for the online portion realized it was too much to do. That means we had to re-think the game without online multiplayer, which also meant removing the chatroom, too. This also meant the majority of the day coding the network functionality was now lost.

However, what came from this was the removal of the chatroom. Are you getting how much I disliked that idea? Since we had a magical theme, our team developed the idea of "speaking" through a crystal ball. Originally it was speaking through the crystal ball using words, but then (thankfully) we realized that it was more interesting to draw on the crystal ball and have people interpret the drawings. This decision here, a day into the project, was to become the final design.

Player 1 had some ingredients to memorize.
Player 1 drew the ingredients onto a crystal ball.
Player 2 had to figure out which ingredients were drawn by looking at the crystal ball.
Player 2 had to put the those ingredients into the cauldron to create a successful potion.

Basically, a digital take on pictionary.

Even here, there was some last minute additions like including various difficulty levels and adding an additional complexity to the recipe. Not only was Player 1 to communicate the correct ingredients, but also they had to do the correct order. This, I think, was an unnecessary addition because the game was already hard enough, but like the saying goes, some things can't be taught.

At the end of the night, people playtested our final version. Many of the comments were positive and people chose the 'beginner' level and still barely anyone won. This mainly seemed to be due to the  last minute addition of ordering the recipe ingredients correctly because people would put in the correct ingredient but still get it wrong and not know why. Also, the ordering thing seems rather ambiguous since the ingredients are flying in the air, which one is the first ingredient? Do we start from the top and read downwards? Or start from the bottom and read upwards? How would the player know?

The ordering change was another one of those wild and grand ideas that weren't properly thought through. Yes, I agree that adding the order would make it more difficult and perhaps interesting (but I don't think the order adds anything interesting personally), but how would that order be communicated to the player? It's adding a "cool" mechanic without further considering the implications, and in this case, not considering the implications can lead to a frustrating and unfair playing experience for the player, which leads to bad games.

Overall though, the GGJ experience was challenging and informative in many ways. I certainly would do it again. I wonder what we could have made if we removed my initial concerns about the chatroom, online multiplayer, and multiple teams interfering with each other (all of which we eventually removed after hours of work) but maybe we wouldn't have gotten to our final project without those experiences. I often tell my students to embrace and learn from dead ends or "failures", so I think I'll take my own advice.

You can try out the game  here. It works through the browser (though maximize the game window so you can see the timer) and downloadable Windows and Mac versions also on that site.

Here's a short video of a playthrough (that includes an annoying sound bug at the end that has been fixed):

Hopefully, we will continue to work on this game. I think there's potential, so if there is anything you would like to see more of, feel free to drop me a line.



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