Weekend Warriors: Diary from the pressure cooker

The Global Game Jam pits developers against their  worst enemy: time. Reporter and aspiring composer Matthijs Dierckx joined the ranks of those brave enough to develop a game in just 48 hours.


Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am.

9:15 PM The clowns are members of another team at this year’s Global Game Jam, here in Breda, the Netherlands. Like most participants, they’re students, and a particular loud breed of students. With their feet firmly on the desks and the speakers at ‘11’, it’s hard to imagine this group working at any other studio than the one they might start for themselves – talented as they may be.

The jokers, well, they’re our programmers. They’re no students anymore, but real professionals, programming games for a living. But we’re 30 hours in and we’ve yet to see a single line of working code.

Basically, our team is lagging far behind all the others. Looking at the fully fledged 3D prototypes around us (some of them already include textures, all of them have at least some form of decent gameplay), I wonder how this happened.

We should be front runners, considering the composition of our team. Two professional game designers (including the studio director for a household name in casual games), two professional programmers and a very experienced artist, who has worked on a couple of AAA-titles. Oh, and there’s me, the journalist annex wannabe-composer and sound designer. But that’s hardly a bottleneck in any development team.

We started so well. The minute after the announcement of this year’s theme (an iconic picture of a snake biting its own tail), we came up with a neat concept: multiplayer for a single player (I’ll explain that in a moment). Basically, we skipped the brainstorm and went straight into pre-production. While other teams were still trying to make sense of the ‘theme’, we were discussing art style and even coming up with a rough sketch of some levels.

Rebirth, as we baptised our project, is a 2D platformer (another reason we shouldn’t be lagging behind), but with a twist. There’s always a twist, isn’t there? The player can only get to the end of a level by cooperating with… himself. Simple example: the level is blocked by a rock. The player pushes the rock, but it won’t move. He then, well, kills himself and is respawned at the beginning of the level. However, his ghost from his previous attempt joins him, repeating the exact same actions. So, now two ‘yous’ push the rock and this time it wíll move.

Great concept, isn’t it? Apparently that’s exactly what a great many designers before us thought when they came up with similar concepts, years ago. The standard reply to us explaining the concept has become: I see, it’s like this game. Or that game. Or like one of the fifty others. By now we’ve amassed a great collection of YouTube-videos depicting this very concept. Not a bit depressing.

Adding insult to injury, my music isn’t going anywhere. I’m supposed to write this zen-like piece, putting the player in relax-mode. But that’s close to impossible in this space we share with numerous other teams. The ambient soundscape around me is a combination of Metal, Dubstep, Triphop and whatever the genres are called that try to achieve the exact opposite of making you feel relaxed, and it’s all penetrating my not-so-noise-cancelling headphones.

Our artist just left. He lives nearby, decided to catch some sleep at home. He’ll return in the morning. We hope.

Oh, and we’ve run out of beer. That, you can blame on me.


What a difference a night makes.

10:45 AM And the difference is the code. Apparently our programmers aren’t a bunch of jokers, they just don’t grasp the concept behind the Global Game Jam – or any game jam whatsoever. No really, they don’t have the faintest idea of what pressure cooker development involves. Rapid prototyping? Nuh-uh! Our two-man coding army just delivered an entire 2D platform engine, including physics, running at 60 FPS. No cap on the amount of recordable player attempts or number of ghosts. Oh, and they built a level editor. A LEVEL EDITOR! For a project that’s supposed to be finished in under 48 hours and that will contain no more than three levels, at most.

Behold, the pitfalls of experience. Pace isn’t the issue here – I mean, churning out a (physics) engine and a level editor in a day and a half, that’s certainly reaching game jam-speed. The issue is the moment when you let others in on your work. These guys are so used to delivering top-notch, close to releasable code, they couldn’t put themselves to sharing some sort of pre-alpha engine in which the game designers could at least try and see if our concept worked (well, YouTube did that for us anyway – but that’s hardly the point).

We’ve got less than four hours to assemble a seemingly random collection of jigsaw pieces into some sort of coherent whole, worthy of calling a game.

 2:30 PM Wow… unknowingly, we have been working on quite a gem. I just played the first level and it’s really fun! It looks absolutely un-game-jammy beautiful and it even sounds great (no really, ask anyone). On top of that: it really feels fresh. Although the basic mechanic bares similarities to other games, the execution results in a completely different experience. Somehow, we knew what the end-product should play, look or sound like, so we all managed to develop the right piece of the right puzzle, completely independent of one another. Parallel-individual-cooperative-development. Or something. A thing of beauty.

 2:58 PM What’s with the three judges already lurking around our cubicles? These guys are reminiscent of a school of piranhas. I feel like bait.

I know the Global Game Jam isn’t a competition at its core. It’s all about the fun, overcoming problems (and boy, did we do just that) and such, but after seeing our little game in action, I can’t stop myself from feeling very, very competitive right now. Especially since here at the International Game Architecture and Design Course at Breda, a purveyor of Dutch flagship studio Guerrilla Games, there’s eternal honor to win. And an Xbox 360 – but I’ve already got one of those…

3:00 PM Wait, what? It’s already three o’clock? Damn!

3:03 PM The piranhas attacked at 3:00 PM sharp. We somehow managed to show them a set of finished levels. But we didn’t get the chance to prepare a decent presentation. Like the teams who are last in line to be judged…

5:30 PM Crap. The piranhas didn’t like the taste of our game, they kicked us out in the first round! Not the worst mistake in entertainment since twelve publishers turned down Harry Potter, but to be very honest, none of us understands why. On the upside: we’re not alone at that. Our play session attracted a lot of other participants and a majority of them seemed impressed or at least (more importantly) genuinely entertained. So, here’s a question: if we manage to develop a game within 48 hours that’s capable of entertaining gamers for at least five minutes, what will happen if we pour a couple of more weekends into it? We do have a level editor, after all…

But first… sleep. Please Lord let me sleep. Let’s see how our little game holds up in the harsh light of another day. But that’s tomorrow. Right now I’m so tired. Just let me…

Present day: and now?

Well, it’s two weeks later and our initial excitement about the game… is still very much alive! So, we’re currently putting together a proper demo that we’ll show at this year’s GDC in San Francisco. Let’s see if publishers are smarter than a couple of Game Jam judges. To be continued. I hope.

Matthijs Dierckx
Matthijs Dierckx
Dierckx is Composer and Marketing Lead on roguelite cult hit Unexplored and two undisclosed projects. He is co-creator of Android puzzle hit Sumico, the numbers game. Dierckx is the former Publisher and Founder of Control Magazine, Control Conference and Control500.com and writes about games on an irregular basis.

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