Geek Sleepover

T.O. Jam’s game developing marathon

By Derek Winkler

On an early May evening, 36 intrepid computer jockeys have gathered to partake in a mighty struggle. The arena: a pair of nondescript classrooms high in the labyrinth of the International Academy of Design & Technology in downtown Toronto. The goal: to create functioning video games from scratch. The time line: two nights and two days. This is T.O. Jam, the first Toronto indie game development jam.

No winner will be declared. They have come for the pure geeky challenge of it. To short-circuit the urge to sit and vegetate.

“We wanted to add some stress,” says co-organizer Andrew Traviss. “If you’re developing something yourself, you have no deadline. You can always put off the work until next week and the next week. You give someone three days to do something and they have to do it now.”

Six people put this event together, most of them computer professionals and game making hobbyists. They all hung out on the same game developers’ website. They lamented the fact that everybody in the Toronto chapter had great ideas but no running code. A marathon programming session could fix that, they figured, so they moved to their own website and got on with it. T.O. Jam is being run on volunteer time and facilities. The whole event is a hack, like the games that will be produced here.

It was about four months from first post to opening night, and now here they are. Aged from late high school to early career, it looks like a geek crowd: T-shirts and jeans. Scruffy beards. Glasses. What makes them True Geeks, however, is the attitude. Having spread out across their borrowed classroom computers, the assembly cheerfully turns its collective attention to guessing the system password. It’s the urge to tinker, to make the machines dance to their tune, that has brought them here.

Co-organizer Jim McGinley offers a few words of welcome: “If you’re thinking there’s no pressure, no competition, well, there isn’t between us. But the world’s going to be able to see your game after this, so if we’ve got no good games it’s not going to look too good. We’re creating games in three days.”

Thus, the struggle is officially underway. Typing ensues. Mice are maneuvered with delicate precision. This goes on for hours and hours. It’s a quiet and non-demonstrative group. They sit and gaze into screens or talk softly with their teammates. When you set out to create a virtual world, you tend to ignore the one you’ve got. For the next three days, these 36 programmers will ignore it together.

“This is a rare experience to work face-to-face with real people sharing real space in a city where talent in game development is sparse at best,” says participant Zi-Xiao Liang. “It gives me, a student, a taste of what it means to be a professional. It forces you to plan, to work on games face-to-face with people and on a tight deadline.”

***

Let us rejoin the fray halfway through Day Two. The beards are looking scruffier, but the eyes remain keen and the fingers deft. Everyone has settled in for the long grind. Some hardy souls have spent the night at their stations. All are ingesting mass quantities of the Holy Trinity of programmer foodstuffs: coffee, candy and cola.

Liang is working on a game called Super Hamster Air Combat. On his screen, a rodent deals explosive death across a pastoral background. It’s representative of the type of game most of the coders here are working on: simple, fast, colourful and violent.

Jonathan Mak does contract game programming for a small company in the U.S. His game, Bubble Thing, is a geometric scramble during which the player must inflate bubbles to make them pop, hopefully causing a long chain reaction of pops across other bubbles.

“I wanted to see what it felt like to just make games with other people,” he says, “To be able to simply turn my head and see someone else’s work, get inspired, and then funnel that inspiration back into my own work. I wanted to experience that immediacy first hand. Mainstream games are all made in focus groups and board room meetings.”

Christopher Murphy is a self-described garage game hacker. He and his team, CrazyFly, have thrown sanity to the wind and embarked on a 3D game with full-blown physics. Called Sucka Pool, in the game you fling a turd around a swimming pool in an attempt to disgust as many swimmers as possible. No one ever said indie was pretty.

“The biggest draw was to see how I worked in an environment with other developers and how they reacted to me, to see if I would be better at starting a studio or joining an existing company in the role of programmer,” says Murphy. “It’s a really charged environment with people helping one another.”

***

By the end of Day Three many of the Jammers are noticeably punch-drunk. There is, however, satisfaction in the air. The various teams and solo coders have brought about a dozen games to completion. Now they are gathered in the dim light of a projection screen to sample the fruits of their labours.

Brendan Lynch, a Flash programmer at a Toronto-based web design shop, is the first to face the crowd. His game, High Noon, is the Jam’s only multiplayer game and its only online game. Two duellists invoke the web-based game. There is a countdown, then a pair of mouse clicks. One stick figure is fast. The other is dead. Game over. The artwork is crude, but the crowd appreciates the cleverness of the online hack.

“I am pleased with how my game turned out considering the short time I had to work on it,” says Lynch. “I put in 33 hours coding over the weekend and ended up with a fully functional, albeit not too pretty, mutliplayer game. I’m certainly pleased with that result.”

The other demos also receive warm responses. There’s Heavy Weather, in which the player dodges an endless rain of anvils, bowling balls and pianos. There’s OMFG Missiles, featuring the world’s most heavily-armed kitty defending the streets of Toronto from continuous air strikes. There are two musical games that require special controllers swiped from the nearest Playstation 2. Everyone is thoroughly impressed with how much everyone else was able to cram into three days of coding. As the gear is packed and the bleary Jammers begin to slip off into the night, there is already talk of a second T.O. Jam in the fall.

Many of the participants at T.O. Jam would like to see Toronto develop a thriving commercial video game industry like those in Vancouver and Montreal, but most of them see indie games as something apart and special.

“Because indie games are made from the heart I don’t think they’ll ever compete with big studios,” says Mak. “I mean, that’s just not the point of going indie. It’s about ignoring the competitive nature of business to focus on creating something from your own personality. That’s what makes indie games more special than the diluted crap that gets built in factories. These have a sincerity that mainstream products lack.”

“Indie games are for the developers that create them,” says Murphy. “They are games you can buy for the price of your time, but they are exactly the game you want. The idea of letting others play them for free or for a price is icing on the cake.”

All of the games produced at T.O. Jam can be downloaded from the event’s website at www.tojam.ca.

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