Last updated on April 3, 2022
I made a game called DeathCatcher on a team with some lovely folks at the GameJamPlus 2019 48 hour game jam in Dublin. Our team name was MetalAsFolk.
If you have a Quest VR headset, you can get the build here: https://gamejolt.com/games/deathcatcher/430699
Lessons I learned
- How to make a shader!
- What a shader is.
- What a vertex shader does.
- What a fragment shader does.
- Things that could have made our pitch better
- More art assets in the slides, more theming in the slides in general
- Video clips of gameplay
- Video clips of someone playing the VR game, with a screen of what is happening in-game in the video, to show off the and fun of interacting with the game world in real life.
- How I would approach the next GameJam+
- Add a person to the team who’s main role is to build and present the pitch. Prefereably someone who is interested in becoming a business developer or similar. This way the expectations of the team and roles are aligned and everyone can have fun doing what they love most.
Day 1 -The team
Team formation was pretty straight forward, for us at least. People arrived with friends in premade teams and the organisers helped everyone else with team formation. Game Jam+ organisers announced different roles in game development and the people in the room raised their hands if they wanted to jam in that role and were looking for a team. We had a variety of folks of different levels of experience and skillsets. Artists (2D & 3D), sound designers, narrative designers, programmers of various levels of experience and game designers made up the mix.
Being excited to participate I was happy to simply chat with the people in close proximity to me and ask if they wanted to make a team together. We quickly had a full compliment of skills with a team of 3 artist-programmers and a sound designer/composer. We reckoned that between us all we could make something interesting in the 48 hour jam.
- Chris – Gameplay Programming (brought the Quest headset + controllers)
- Kasper – 3D Art
- Darren – Graphics Programming, Pitching
- Ilan – Sound Design, Music
The game idea
Generating ideas. The first one that comes to mind that we are all excited about, also we have to make it, choose something!
Refining the game for “uniqueness”
On the second day we got our translated announcement video presented to us. In the video it was stressed that the game’s will be judged on a few different criteria. Since our game was the product of a little laziness and reliance on was is probably fairly wellknown ancient greeko-roman legends, I put it to the team to change the setting to a less well-trodden one – Gaelic culture.
Being from Ireland we come from a country that has a very rich folklore. Why not use that? We rarely see it on screen or in games, and when we do it’s always a bit of fun (or cringey), so why not do it, and do it properly? The team agreed.
First thing’s first. WHile we knew about general old Gaelic myths and legends, we actually knew feck all about the details. So we decided that the game would continue to be developed at the gamejam in a very similar way as planned, and that we would even keep the same assets as planned, changing only one. That way we would still get the sense of everything we wanted to convey – the mechanics of the game, across in the demo. The pitch would (try to) talk about a game that would be made in future, the pitch would only use the demo as an example for gameplay and abilities of the team. Given the funding to pursue it, we would hire on a Gaelic folklore expert to advise us in the narrative and aesthetics of the game – I even reached out to a few over the course of the game jam so see if they would be interested!
A ranty/journalling type account of the jam from the rest of my notes (sorry, not sorry!)
Considering that I’ve mostly worked on retro style pixel art 2D games, you might expect me to lean on my experience and play it safe. Well, fortune favors the bold. I formed up with a team of capable game developers and we set out to make a VR game. Programming is programming after all.
Our team was made up of fabulous folks who just happened to be in close proximity when team building officially started. We asked each other what we would like to work on in the gamejam and made a team by saying things like “hey we need a audio person, want to join our team?”. We assembled a team of 3 artist/programmers and a sound designer/composer.
Yep, three people who can code and also make art. And a sound designer who has a knack for utilizing portable hardware to it’s full potential. Quite a nerd team, and with 2 people who have a lot of experience working in the games industry.
Making a game in 48 hours is no joke. To organise our workload, we split ourselves into roles and decided on our tasks for the weekend. We also agreed that we would all be reasonable and get sleep each night, as well as take breaks.
Chris became our programmer. Kasper became our 3D modeller. Ilan became our Audio department, cover sound effects and music. I became our technical artist.
Merging art and tech knowledge together has an appeal to me. It’s something that I think I can improve on, as I know I can do either field in isolation. I’ve not really attempted to put them together so litterally before. So, I my job would be making shaders for everything.
In general I want to learn more about how shaders work and how games are rendered from 3D geometry and textures into lovely images at 60fps. This gamejam gave me ample opportunity to learn so I took it. Due to the fact that our VR headset (Quset) was incompatible with Unity’s light-weight render pipeline, we were forced to use the regular render pipeline. This meant that we could not use Shader Graph – the lovely visual scripting for shaders that automates away some painful knowledge – so I would have to write all the code for the shaders from scratch.
As it turns out I had 7 hours of technical difficulties with my laptop and Unity setup, and various other chicanery. I actually borrowed a laptop from my partner for the event, but in the end I installed remote desktop software and logged in to my desktop computer back at my office. This worked out quite nicely.
Youtube and the Unity docs were my friends. 7pm on Saturday saw me actually *begin* to get stuck into work – many hours behind schedule already. Luckily the game was being made by a team, and my teammates had minimal technical issues with their start and had already gotten a good start.
This delay would have been fine, it meant less polish that I wanted for the gamejam demo, except that I was also the pitch guy – the person delivering the pitch for the game. This meant I also had to prepare a pitch document and present the game pitch to a panel of judges (and everyone else) at the end of the jam. More work!
I took the pitch role on mostly because the other team members were not keen. While I would have preferred to focus on my shaders, it was clear to me that I had the least consequences for my work. I thought it best for the team if I absorbed all the time for preparing for the pitch and doing research.
Well I thought I could handle it. Turns out that working essentially two jobs for a week and then doing a gamejam on the other side of the country is an excellent way to make you exhausted.
On the last day it was a slog. I felt terrible and the closer it got to the end, the more stress I felt. I was supposed to do the pitch and I had spend all of my time trying to get the ghost shader finished. It was likely one of two important shaders for the game, the second one being water, which I simply skipped to get the pitch together.
I took onboard as much advice from the pitch practice mentoring session the day before the deadline. That being said, looking back I think it would have been better if the whole team also worked on the pitch for two or three hours – at least then we could all contribute to the presentation in some way. Looking at the other teams it was clear that my slides needed more artwork and flair in line with the aesthetic of the game. The pitches that I thought were strongest showed off a lot of game art, or had a strong theme running through the slides that gave you a sense of the aesthetics of the game and an understanding of their target audience/market.
By the time I stood up in front of everyone, one the last hours of the jam, my pitch felt like a disaster. However, we ended up scoring 3rd place award for our team from the judges, so we must have done something right (my money is on the strength of the game!). One of the tutors who judged the event was interested in learning more about the game after which was a lovely endorsment. Funny thing is, I actually don’t remember anything I said when I was up on stage delivering the talk. All I remember is feeling so exhausted that I didn’t care any more. I guess I gave a brief yet mildly entertaining talk with the odd bit of cringe. I simply wanted to go home to sleep. I’m sure plenty of people felt the same in the audience!
Being tired and worn out of energy from 48 hours of solid effort is a bad moment for self-reflection, especially if the weight of the setbacks and failings is front and centre in your mind.
Half of our team had already left to travel home by the time I was pitching, which was kind of sad. While I didn’t embarrass myself in front of the them, they also didn’t get the chance to share in receiving the award, which could have been a lovely moment for us all to share. We have our team photo though, which will always bring a smile to my face.
Even more takeaways
My biggest takeaways from the GameJam+ 2019 jam are listed at the top. Here’s some more because you might expect a conclusion:
- Be prepared with a known-good laptop or computer to hand, with everything you need installed and configured to begin work in the role you want to work in.
- Clearly defining your roles is a great idea.
- Clearly defining the MVP is an excellent idea that helps facilitate team communication and helps everyone know what they need to be doing in their roles.
- Taking breaks is important, the whole team should take breaks at the same time at least once.
- Sometimes people get stressed and frustrated, especially if their tools are not working for them they way they want (happened both Ilan and myself). Game jams are meant to be fun, so try and figure some way around it. If that doesn’t work do something else instead and reach out to the team for assistance, suggestions or support. We all want to do well!
- The business development / pitching side of things was very new to the majority of people at the game jam team. It seems folks who had a bit of sales or marketing background did well here, especially for the final pitch presentation. These skills take practice to improve, so it would be good to encourage our game dev communities to do more pitching and provide workshops and supports for people who want them.
- In terms of fun, the stress of doing the pitch actually took a lot of fun out of the game jam for me. My hope was to spend most of the time working on the game as the main outcome from the jam. However, my efforts were split between that and working on a pitch presentation, which itself is well outside my comfort zone and not something I would seek to do. I expected the pitch would never go anywhere and I was not nearly as excited about presenting my pitch as I was about building my first VR game. Expectations are important to get right and while I was aware of the business side of this jam, it seemed that the people people who had the most fun where people who mostly ignored it. Now that people know what to expect from a GameJam+ though, future jams would likely be better received as people build their team to include a person whose role is to build and present the pitch.