Dates have been announced for the fourth incarnation of the Toronto Indie Game Jam, or TOJam – so-named because “T.O.” is a common abbreviation for Toronto, and because three days without sleeping or showering tends to cultivate quite a foot funk. The Jam runs May 1-3 here in Toronto.
The Jam is an event where 100 developers crowd into a dodgy warehouse on the edge of town – the kind of place that makes Jokers out of Jack Napiers – to spend one whole weekend creating a game. Participants can work individually or in teams. Folks who stick solely to programming can get help from art or music “floaters”, odd-jobbers who roam the room looking for places to help. It’s not rare for an art floater’s work to appear in half a dozen finished games, which then get featured on the website, so it’s a great place for coders and non-coders alike.
At the end of the weekend, everyone sets up their (hopefully playable) games with paper instructions on how to play, and the participants bounce around the room trying out the various creations. After three days of exhaustion, frustration, and occasional exhileration, it’s amazing what this game-crawl does to energize the crowd. It’s just plain fun, in its purest, most unfettered form.
Just plain fun. You know – like Carrot Top.
The Five-Second Countdown to Fun
The game crawl is also an excellent microcosm of the greater games market. The games that are played and enjoyed and talked about the most are those that you can just pick up and understand immediately, and start having fun with in the first few seconds. The games that don’t do so well are the ones with lines and lines of instructions and exposition scrawled on the accompanying sheet, or those with confusing controls. It’s absolutely identical to the experience games have when they appear on online portals (BigFish, PopCap, LemonParty, etc) or digital distribution services (XBLA, WiiWare, DSiWare, Koko B. Ware) in any try-before-you-buy scenario: the game has to be fun right out of the gate. There needs to be a five-second countdown to fun. If there’s no fun, there’s a room full (portal full, service full) of other games to try instead.
As with advertising, you have precious seconds to capture your player’s attention.
All i Really Need to Know i Learned in TOJam2
This will be my third Toronto Game Jam. i flew solo on the first two, and will likely be a lone gun this time out. The first year, i created Two By Two, a flip n’ match memory game mapped to a cube, with a Noah’s Ark theme:
The artwork was pretty rough, because the game needed a LOT of it – forty-eight different animals, plus artwork for the buttons and transition screens. i spent a good chunk of the time – all day Saturday, i think – drawing those animals. The game had three difficulty modes and an animated outro, with a bit of animation on the title screen.
i was happy with Two By Two. It wasn’t the best game on the planet by a long shot, but i thought it was very capable, and no mean feat for a one-man band. Here are the important life and game design lessons i learned in my first year at TOJam:
- Nobody cares how long it took you to make your game. i’m a bit self-conscious about having the TOJam games on my site, to the point where i preface them with a screen that says “created in one weekend at TOJam.” Originally, this was a bit of a boast. But now, it’s a defense: these games can’t compete with the hundreds of thousands of Flash games online, where the creators spent more time, added more polish, and started with better concepts. Outside of the TOJam site, nobody cares that a game only took 40 hours and one person to create. People just want to play good games. This became crystal clear when i used Two By Two in the Pimp My Game series, where i put it out into the wild and tried to make a few bucks on it, with lacklustre results.
- Placement is key. You’ll hear a lot of iPhone and mobile developers losing sleep over “premium placement”. What that means is that the carrier has taken your game and stuck it in some digital end-aisle where the customer is more likely to see it – maybe on a “Featured” or Our Picks” page. My first time at TOJam, i chose to physically back myself into a corner with my computer monitor facing the wall, so that i could enter my Cone of Silence and create in peace. This choice had two adverse effects: i didn’t meet as many people as i could have (TOJam is a truly excellent place to network), and when the game crawl started, few people noticed my game. If the game crawl is a microcosm for the greater games market, this punctuates the importance of good placement. People won’t play your game if they can’t find it.
FUN FACT: The TOJam organizers recommend that jammers use a handful of unifying elements in their games. These include a picture of a goat on a pole (?), and the chime that sounds when the Toronto Transit Commission subway doors close. Two By Two includes the goat as one of the animals, and plays the chime (and blinking red light) when the ark doors close.
The door chime is a reverse Bb major triad, and sounds like the first three notes of the Sesame Street theme. Knowing is half the battle.
TOJam 3: Jam Harder
The next year i went to TOJam, i wanted to make a sea monster game. Up until the last second, i didn’t really know how it would work. My hypothesis just went like this:
- i like sea monsters.
- Sea monsters are awesum.
- Gamez are awesum.
- Gamez about sea monsters are awesum.
- The A-Team is awesum.
Due to licensing concerns, i couldn’t quite fit the A-Team in, but i did make a game about sea monsters:
FUN FACT: The shape of the horned goat-on-a-pole can be seen in the title screen as one of the map’s islands.
To paraphrase Chris Rock: as a shepherd, your sole duty in life is keepin’ your goat off the pole.
Here Be Dragons was a much more seat-of-your-pants experience for me – much more jammy. i had no idea whether it would actually work. i just knew i wanted a serpentine movement on the monster’s head, and i wanted him to eat sailors off of their boats. That was it. And then, flying by the seat of my pants (and getting a lot more sleep than i did the previous year), i created the game. Was it a success? No. Did i learn something? Of course:
- Create the kind of game you’d want to play. i like puzzle games, graphic adventure games, and slow, ponderous games where i can be cautious and play it safe. Here Be Dragons is a reasonably fast-paced shooter game. i don’t like shooter games. i don’t know why i should expect other people to like shooter games. And i imagine that developers who do like shooter games could create a way better shooter.
- The game has to stop existing inside your head at some point. This is a struggle i’m currently having with our fun crime-themed puzzle game Kahoots. While i ready it for beta testing, family and friends sit down to play it, and they say “What’s this thing?” “What’s that thing supposed to do?” “What did that thing just do while i asked you that question?” And i think to myself, with mounting frustration, “isn’t it OBVIOUS??”
No. It’s not obvious. By the end of it, i’ll have probably spent as much or more time on the instructions and player hand-holding aspects of Kahoots™ than i did on the actual gameplay. i sat down at a bunch of different games at TOJam 3 and had no idea what to do. The game was still in its creator’s head. It’s a successful developer indeed who can get the whole experience out of his head and into pixels for his player to enjoy fully and completely.
- It’s not about the game – it’s about the networking. Ostensibly, TOJam is about creating a game, especially for hobbyists who who have all the roadblocks of a full-time job, family, friends, and a crippling crystal meth habit to keep them from their craft. And that’s great – that’s an important part of it. But for skeevy wheeler/dealers like me, who actually support their crystal meth habits by creating games for a living, the networking is an absolutely crucial component. i even considered being an art floater this year for the networking opportunities alone, if i didn’t think i’d poison a handful of games with my idiot man-child scrawl. The perfect Jam for me would be to meet and reconnect with a lot of people, while creating an excellent and fun game that makes them respect me in the morning.
- Don’t ignore the theme. The Jam organizers reveal a theme just before the event begins. The TOJam 3 theme was “cheese”, so off everyone went creating cheese-themed games. i wanted to do a sea monster game, and i couldn’t work cheese into it, so i ignored the cheese directive. i should be more like the bending willow than the stubborn oak at these things. If i had created a cheese game, i could have had a lot more fun. The more jams i attend, the more control i give up, and that’s for the better. This year, i think i’m just going to show up with my lap top and see what happens. It’s the game design equivalent of jumping out of an airplane without a parachute, and with two very large women tied to your ankles.
- Your failures are your successes. Don’t get me wrong when i say i’m less than pleased with my first two Jam games. The experience of TOJam was very very valuable, and the lessons i learned (and am still learning) are now crucial to me as i struggle to eke out a viable game studio to support my young family and my terrible penchant for expensive silk underthings. Two By Two and Here Be Dragons may not be comercially viable games – they may not even be prototypes for commercially viable games in the future – but the lessons i learned and the fun i had with the people i love and the golden retriever and family life lesson warm love hug always forever memory love Hallmark togetherness et cetera.
The point is this: if you are a video games professional, a hobbyist, or hobfessional, and you can spare a weekend out of your life, you need to go to the Jam. Space is limited at 100 developers. It’s free, it’s important, and it could be the very best thing you do in your whole entire life. Were you about to cure cancer? Put the petri dish down, Poindexter, and get to the Jam.