Innovation at Scots Game Jam – From platformers combining Orwellian motifs with anaglyph glasses to a card game satirising censorship and state propaganda, Martyn McLaughlin reports on some of the innovative new titles to emerge from the Glasgow chapter of this year’s Scottish Game Jam.
THERE is something about watching a game being made that reveals the qualities that set the medium apart from other modes of artistic endeavour. The good ones are a delicate union of durable coding and creative flair, where no single component can succeed unless they coalesce and complement one another. On occasion, an already strange and quixotic formula will welcome another ingredient. The result can be so intangible as to defy definition, yet when it happens, you know instantly that a good game has become great.
The Scottish Game Jam is the ideal place to gain a fuller appreciation of the beguiling alchemy that passes as games development. In the space of less than 48 hours, the creative process is not so much deconstructed as anatomised, as designers, artists and programmers gather en masse at locations around the country to showcase their craft and ultimately, overcome the burdens of sleep deprivation and technical gremlins to produce a playable game.
The weekend-long event is part of the Global Game Jam, an initiative that has captured the imagination of developers around the world since it began in 2009. In its inaugural year, the jam took place at 53 locations, with a respectable harvest of 370 games at the end of the two days. This year, the numbers reveal just how popular the collaborative gathering has become, with more than 4,200 games emerging from around 480 locations in over 70 countries. In Scotland, the growth is equally impressive, with hubs established at Abertay University and Napier University in Edinburgh. The largest, however, is at Glasgow Caledonian University, where over 170 people gathered last weekend; five years ago, the figure was just 23.
The proceedings are held in the Saltire Centre, a sprawling five-level riddle of design where wooden walkways and multicoloured flooring zones curl around the central feature of a huge copper clad drum staircase. An imposing yet inspirational space that looks like the headquarters of a Californian tech company helmed by Ernst Stavro Blofeld, it is ordinarily home to the university’s library and support services. Come game jam time, the vast majority of the 10,500 square metre facility is transformed by a phalanx of developers and the wares of their trade.
Soon, the sprawling open-plan ground space becomes a labyrinthine riot of technology. On the floor, a tangle of cables and wires snarl and snake around powerpoints, while tabletops groan under the weight of desktop towers, laptops, tablets, gamepads, virtual reality headsets and keyboards. Occasionally, a pair of trainers can be spotted below a heap of jackets as an exhausted jammer steals an hour’s rest. With only 48 hours to play with, however, many choose to ward off fatigue with an E-number buffet of energy drinks, pizza and Haribo, wearing the expression of someone forced to sit through a box set of The Only Way Is Essex, then repeat the whole sorry experience with the cast commentary switched on.
Time, certainly, is one of the main barriers to success at a game jam, as is the courage to jettison an idea when it is simply not working. On Friday evening, when the developers were bright eyed and Sunday’s deadline seemed like an aeon away, a member of last year’s winning team offered some sage advice. Jon McKellan, creative lead at Futuro Games, recalled how in 2013, he and his two colleagues had explored and discarded no less than three game ideas by 6am on the Saturday morning, some 12 precious hours into the event. Having conceded that their concepts were “terrible,” they did not panic, but resolved to start again afresh. “If you’re not getting anywhere in a couple of hours you might be on the wrong path,” McKellan explained.
In hindsight, Futuro’s decision was inspired. McKellan, who is also lead UI on Creative Assembly’s intriguing new IP, Alien: Isolation, was the only member of his team with game development experience, but after discussing what kind of experience they wanted to create, Futuro hit upon the concept of a multiplayer infinity runner and built it using the GameSalad engine. The resultant game, Lub Vs Dub, went on to amass 120,000 players after heavy promotional activity from Starbucks and Apple.
Wandering between the teams, chatting to developers and playing their games, it was clear that while some members of the class of 2014 had paid heed to McKellan’s words, others were simply out of luck. The makers of one local multiplayer title struck upon an inventive idea and created all their graphics and sound from scratch, yet their hard work was undermined after they were unable to localise cameras due to changes implemented by Unity only a few days previous. Soon afterwards, the team was further hindered after their main computer gave up the ghost. In a game jam, fortune is vital to ensuring the gap between concept and execution is as narrow as possible.
Equally, lateral thinking is a virtue in such a pressurised situation. As in previous years, the 2014 jam offered developers an irreverent and vague theme around which to sculpt their game (“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are,” was the leitmotif of the weekend). While some to developers elected to all but ignore the theme, such as Michael Kargas and Victor Portela, creators of Space Rigs, a polished 3D shooter, others relished the opportunity to create a unique context for the statement.
I See, for instance, pits the player as a bat, forced to use echolcoation to navigate their way around a maze shrouded in darkness. Created by Glasgow Caledonian University students Cheri Lynn Skivington, Andrew James Dick, Gary Thomson, Nathan Mcdermott and Zeeshan Abid, the game is best played using headphones, as the pulsing sonar guides the nocturnal creature around the structure, alerting it of pathways but also hazards and enemies.
One the most compelling interpretations of the theme came in Doctrine, deemed by judges in Glasgow to be most innovative of all the submissions. It melds Orwellian philosophies to homespun props, as two players try to put up their own propaganda posters or deface those of their opponents. The hook sees each participant wear a helmet with a red or blue visor, meaning they are colour blind to political slogans daubed in a certain colour.
Colour, too, is crucial to progress in QuadBox, another of the games that proved most popular over the weekend. Developed for mobile and tablet platforms, it has an immediacy that makes it instantly playable, yet challenging. Utilising a tilt mechanic, players are asked to roll balls into one of four corners, depending on the colour shown at the top of the screen. The game – created by the five-strong team of Jonathan Dillon, Leanne Gavigan, Andrew Lindsay, Heather MacGill and Alisdair Muircroft – becomes increasingly complicated as the number of balls increase and the colour of the background changes, disguising some of spheres.
Sometimes, though, the games that worked best did not boast progressive or innovative features; they simply won players over with charm alone. This was true of Selfie. Far and away the most frivolous game showcased in the Saltire Centre, it did not fail to raise a smile from anyone who played it. The title, the brainchild of Darren Maxwell, Tony Brown and Stew Hogarth, is influenced by the mobile phone selfshot mechanic popularised by games such as Dead Rising and Grand Theft Auto V, but with a uniquely nonsensical twist. Bonus points are awarded for the most bizarre image, with high scores assured for those who capture Elvis, badgers, and Stonehenge in the one frame.
Two games, however, captivated the panel of judges. The first, Prism Saga, a cunning platformer by novice developers Daniel Callander and Scott Goodwin, finished runner up in both the best game and best art categories. Boasting elegant yet unfussy graphics, it enjoyed the most individual game mechanic of all the entries, with progress made by switching between modes of vision using a gamepad’s shoulder buttons. The left button makes hidden yellow blocks appear, yet any blue blocks will vanish; the right button reverses the effect. However, the energy required to switch between these modes is finite and players must recharge regularly. A deceptively simple premise, the game frustrates but teaches, rewarding the player as opposed to punishing them.
The title voted best game, meanwhile, had the one of the most distinct concepts and won critical acclaim from all who played it. Building on the legacy of subversive political board games like Twilight Struggle and Campaign Manager, Good News by Andrew Reid deserves to be the next addition to that small yet influential cannon. The game is an iconoclastic satire of state propaganda, censorship and the relentlessness of the modern news cycle. Wielding an array of cards and tokens, players become “information enhancers,” tasked with averting political crises by amending potentially ruinous headlines with any number of pre-approved corrections assigned by the fictional politburo.
The game, the judges decided, was one they would have happily purchased on the day. The same was true of several other games. Every team at the jam deserves praise for producing work that were playable, but the fact that so many of them would comfortably warrant a place on the App or Play Stores is an acute reminder of the skill involved in creating a game and the depth of talent in the Scottish development community.