After a tumultuous delay, the TOJam registration form is currently live! What was the hold-up? Remember that scene from Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf battles the ferocious Balrog and they wrestle each other off a cliff? Well, imagine that Gandalf is TOJam organizer Jim McGinley, the Balrog is the new database system for TOJam, and i’m a really sexy elf.
Go on: imagine it.
Seriously, if you want to attend TOJam and you haven’t signed up yet, i don’t know why you’re over here reading this crummy blog. Space is limited. Go sign up now. Like, right now. i’ll wait.
Party of One
This’ll be the first TOJam that i haven’t done all by my lonesome. After creating Two By Two, Here Be Dragons, Bloat., and Heads single-handedly, i’ve finally roped someone into spending an entire weekend with me in a room full of sweaty nerds building video games. And better than that, she’s a girl. How did i do it?
i’m her legal guardian.
Behold my progeny!
This year, i’m teaming up with my five-year-old daughter Cassandra to create a game called Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure, which is a magical adventure game featuring ponycorns. (At this point, i usually have to stop and explain to people what a “ponycorn” is, which dismays me … a ponycorn, clearly, is a single-horned pony – a pony/unicorn. A ponycorn. You see? Was that so difficult?)
Get some fekkin’ imagination, you freaks.
Cassie, who is a great little artist, will be drawing the game’s pictures in crayon, and i’ll be scanning them in and trying to shoehorn them into a sensible game experience. Because the handicap is so high on this one, i won’t be building the whole thing from scratch. i didn’t approach my first TOJam this way … i was determined to build Two By Two from “scratch”, starting with nothing and using Flash to build the game from the ground up.
Having proven that i can do it, over the years i’ve grown less and less dogmatic about TOJam. For last year’s game, Heads, i used UGAGS (the Untold Graphic Adventure Game System), as a sort of proof that the time and money we spent building the engine wasn’t a total waste. (It wasn’t! Heads was our very first release on the Blackberry Playbook, and we’ve gone on to use UGAGS in other projects). When i got thinking about it, even using Flash is a bit of a cheat. i didn’t write that software, and it does a lot of heavy graphics lifting for me. i also didn’t build the computer, or smelt the metals used in its creation. There’s only so much “scratch” that you can start from.
So this year, Cassie and i will be using the Citrus Engine to make our ponycorn-themed puzzle platformer game. i’m not even starting from scratch with the Citrus Engine – i’ll be re-skinning an existing game that i completed for a client. i’ll even be using some artwork that Cassie already drew months ago, because it’s adorable. (“What’s that, honey? An alien? A slug? A jelly bean?” “No – it’s you and me and Mommy.”) As is required for any weekend game jam, we’re keeping our ambitions reined way in; if we come out the other side of this thing with a title screen and one functional level, i’ll be happy.
i’ve also got Cassie slated to do some voice acting for the game, which will toally rock. Unless someone’s planning to one-up her, Cass will be the youngest developer ever to attend and work on a game at TOJam.
Long-time readers of this blog know i’m an avid fan of TOJam, the Toronto independent game jam, which takes place every year either on Mother’s Day or during student exams, or at some other inconvenient time. It’s very difficult to schedule an event free and clear of other competing calendar dates, but the organizers think they’ve pulled it off this year: the sixth iteration of the jam, “TOJam Sixy Times”, runs the entire weekend from May 13th to 15th 2011.
Congratulations to Borat, who apparently won the competition to name this year’s jam.
TOJam is not a competition. It’s rather more like camp … hot, sweaty nerd camp fueled by energy drinks and candy bars. Every year, the organizers suggest that each game feature a Toronto-specific sound effect, and a picture of a goat on a pole (rendered any way the game’s artist chooses). Here’s the goat in all its glory:
God help us if the photographer ever comes knocking to collect royalty payments for five previous years of jam games.
Here’s the goat’s appearance in some of the TOJam games i’ve developed over the years:
Each TOJam also features a suggested theme. Past themes have included “Cheese”, “Scale“, and “Missing“. This year’s theme is “What Just Happened?” As i do every year, i’d like to riff on the TOJam theme and explore its possibilities.
The very first thing that comes to mind when i hear “What Just Happened?” is Fred Willard in A Mighty Wind:
Wha’ Happened?? Ha ha ha ha. This is one of those movie lines i repeat all the time, and no one knows what i’m talking about. What are its ramifications for game design? None! But Fred Willard rocks my world.
Like “Cheese”, the “What Just Happened?” theme gives a lot of room for WTFism. You can pack your game with ton of nonsensical crap that leaves the player saying “What Just Happened?” This is kind of a cop-out. Or maybe it’s because i’m old. i used to watch terrible movies and teevee shows just to laugh at them, but when you get old enough that you really start to feel your time on Earth is tragically limited, you tend to gravitate more towards entertaining yourself with stuff that’s actually worth your time.
Hot Throttle is about naked men who think they’re cars, and … uh, yeah.
The Scene of the Crime
A much more literal interpretation of the theme might involve a game where the player is shown the aftermath of an event, and has to work backwards to figure out what caused the event. This would likely be a plot-driven graphic adventure-style game, maybe in the vein of Déjà Vu, where you wake up in a bathroom stall with amnesia.
i don’t remember if i HAVE any money!
Unfortunately these days, starting a point n’ click game with amnesia is a hackneyed trope used in nearly every free Escape the Room Flash game i’ve played. At the risk of calling every game contrivance a cop-out, i’ll happily call this one out too: amnesia is a tired device that should be given a 10-year breather in video games, or until somebody can do something interesting with it.
In the case of the Escape the Room games, the situation’s even more dire, because the games all begin with “You are trapped in a room and you don’t know who you are”, and end with “You got out of the room!” There’s no character or plot development whatsoever … just a key inexplicably hidden behind a scrap of wallpaper, and a VCR code in the breakaway leg of the couch.
While we’re at it, let’s give Escape the Room games a 10-year breather too. Or 100 years.
The trouble with a graphic adventure game where you’re trying to figure out What Just Happened is that it’s probably not going to be very replayable, and it has a big spoil factor on it. Take something like The Sixth Sense by M. Night Shamalamadingdong: if you haven’t seen it, and someone spoils the ending for you by revealing that Bruce Willis has a penis, you may not enjoy the movie when you finally get around to watching it. You may not even bother watching it at all.
Spoiler: Bruce Willlis’s penis is Luke Skywalker’s father.
Same deal with our hypothetical graphic adventure game: once someone tells you that What Just Happened is that the Evil Dr. Douchebag created a murder machine that killed everyone over five feet tall, and that THAT was the mysterious detail linking all of the survivors, the game might be less fun to play.
Here’s a less plot-heavy, more replayable game that’s simpler to program in a weekend: there’s a child’s memory game that we play at birthday parties, where you lay out a number of objects on the table. Everyone stares at the table for one minute. Then you tell all the kids to close their eyes, and you take an item away. The kids have to guess what’s missing.
What Just Happened? Mommy stole the fork.
The past-tense of the What Just Happened theme may lend itself to a game involving time-bending or time-travel, a la Braid, or Back to the Future Part II on the NES.
What Just Happened? You wasted fifty bucks.
Picture Super Mario Bros., and you show the player the level AFTER he’s gone through it: certain blocks are smashed, certain goombas are squished … and the player has to run through the level smashing all the same blocks and squishing all the same goombas in an effort to re-create the endgame state he’s just seen.
It would be way more interesting if you did this with more of a puzzle platformer, where there are switches and doors and traps and contrivances, which would make the re-creation far more interesting (ie “How did i get the pile of blocks to fall on top of that platform? What order do i have to do things in to get that to happen like that?”)
You could bend the “rules” a bit and play around with the words in the theme. “What Just Happened?” could be the title about a Marmaduke-like dog named What.
Your game could be about a crusading judge on an alien planet, and you have to determine the ways in which he’s meted out justice by learning the aliens’ legal system. “What Thing that is Just Just Happened?” Meh. It’s a stretch.
And as long as i’m stretching:
What Just Hairpin?
Slut Just Happened
What – Joust Happened?
Hutt Just Happened
What? Just Hop-On
Whatever you decide to pull together for your TOJam game, just keep in mind the rules i’ve learned from four previous jams:
Keep it simple enough to finish.
Finishing is everything.
If you want to get any love from players, either on the final night of the Jam or at the public TOJam Arcade, your game MUST be fast to learn, and easy to pick up and play. If you have to sit next to the player and explain how to control the game or what’s going on or what that squiggly shape is supposed to represent, you’ve failed. So:
Very strongly consider reserving a number of hours in the jam to build some sort of in-game tutorial to help the player understand your game, so that you don’t have to hand-hold.
i can’t tell you how many times i’ve sat down to play a TOJam game and have thought “What Just Happened?”, as in “how did a team of six people just spend an entire weekend building a game where i can’t figure out what the heck is going on?” This year, let’s keep the mystery of what just happened thematic, and create a great crop of games where the goals and controls are clear as crystal.
TOJam, you may know, is the Toronto Indie Game Jam, where sweaty nerds spend a weekend building games. The fifth anniversary of the event was my fourth time attending. If i could go back in time, i’d definitely attend the first one. i’d also give Hitler a purple nurple.
A month or so after TOJam, the organizers put together a public exhibition of the games called the TOJam Arcade. The game creators can use that time to fix whatever didn’t work by the end of the original weekend (which is usually everything.)
This year’s arcade was held last Saturday night at the Imperial Pub near Yonge and Dundas Square. We succeeded in putting out the older barflies, who were pissed at not being able to watch their horse races, and the inebriated college crowd, who came precariously close to sloshing house draft on the data projectors.
At the end of the evening, they held a raffle with prizes comped by Big Blue Bubble, and some guy named Andy. They called my ticket number, and i was stunned to find i’d won the big prize of the evening – an Xbox 360 Elite bundle with Halo ODST, Forza 3, and a copy of Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia. It’s been over a decade since i’ve won something in a raffle, so it was a nice surprise. Thanks, Big Blue Bubble!
Soon after, they announced the People’s Choice Awards. Our game Heads was voted “Best Use of Theme”. The TOJam 5 theme was “missing”, and Heads is about a guy who wakes up to find that he’s literally lost his head. It was a really nice and unexpected win, but i think some other teams came up with far more subtle and clever uses of the theme. (Don’t get me wrong, though – i’m not complaining!)
Heads, coming soon to the web and Android.
After struggling to balance the Xbox home on my bike through rain-slicked streets, i went to lock up in the bike room and found a ten dollar bill on the floor. True. That actually happened. It all made me feel bad for kicking that kitten in the face earlier in the day.
Other Non-Me Winners
The top three Peoples Choice games included Nom Nom Nom Nom (a Hungry Hungry Hippos clone with three cats and a goat), MonoClimb, the black-and-white co-operative platformer by prize-donating Andy and friends (i mentioned it in my last TOJam article), and Last Hadron Collider, a two-player simultaneous obstacle race with randomly-generated levels and great-looking character sprites. You’ll be able to play all these games and more at the TOJam site once everything is uploaded.
Once the games are up, i’ll write another post listing my own People’s Choice picks with some undiscovered gems. In the meantime, i’ll try not to let our productivity on Spellirium take too much of a hit, now that we can finally put those extra Rock Band instruments to use at the office.
TOJam, this city’s premiere game industry event, has come and gone. As you may well know, the jam is a weekend-long expo where game developers young and old (but mostly young), male and female (but mostly male), from all walks of life (but mostly white) descend on an ever-changing venue with one purpose and one purpose only: to consume ungodly quantities of Cool Ranch Doritos (but mostly to make games).
This year’s event, the fifth annual, was held at the new George Brown campus on the second floor of the Autodesk building, where i taught Flash in the school’s new game development program before opening my bigfatmouth. The facility is brand-spanking new as of January, with four classrooms filled with obscenely powerful computers running Maya, Max, Flash, Photoshop, and all the other goodies you could hope for. Jammers had the choice of using the school’s computers or bringing their own. i was tucked into one of the two classrooms where the monstrous monitors had been removed, and we set up our own equipment.
The turn-out this year was huge. The 180 slots were handily packed up, with another 20 or so on the waiting list. The sponsors, including Tall Tree Games and Big Blue Bubble, kept jammers stoked with junk food – candy bars, energy drinks, chips, Chinese food, and pizza. Two jammers brought in their own baked goods, including chocolate chip oatmeal cookies and 200-odd cheese tarts. My body was screaming for a sprig of broccoli by the end of it -i nearly ate the foliage outside the building to keep from passing out. But cheese is a definite crowd-pleaser.
Exodus from ScaryTown
There were some misgivings, including by the organizers themselves, that the Jam had lost its soul by moving out of Innovation Toronto, a terrifying warehouse in the rapey-est part of town where the last two Jams were held. i disagree – i think the only thing we lost by not being in that building was the constant threat of tetanus. This year, the toilets worked, the stairwells were devoid of dead rodents, and no one had to climb on the roof to secure a tarp over the skylight to keep the rain out. The only real drawback was the classroom layout of the campus, which meant that we couldn’t all be together in the same room. But as the Jam gets bigger, i think that’s just going to be a necessity … unless and until the organizers attain the legendary goal of booking the Toronto Convention Center for the event.
Innovation Toronto (photo by NotSoftGames, who i believe were gunned down in a mafia street war moments after taking this picture)
Every year, the organizers choose a theme to guide the teams’ creative output. This year, the theme was “Missing”. Apparently, what i was missing was the focus and wherewithal to produce a decent game. i found the theme really challenging this year, and i’m so focused on our current project that i worry my heart wasn’t completely in it.
But some teams’ hearts WERE in it, in a big way. Here are a few of the games that i enjoyed playing during the Sunday night wrap-up:
Throw That Fight!
This was my fave game at the event. It was very clever. It had a 1930’s theme and style. You play a pugilist who has to throw his boxing match for some reason involving an orphan … the story copy was a bit screwed up at the beginning so i missed the rationale, but what followed was my favourite line from the game from your trainer: “Remember your signature punches: up, left, and right.” (HAHAHAHAHA!)
So it was a rhythm game with the exact same mechanic as Elite Beat Agents, except that you weren’t allowed to play it properly, because you’d accidentally win the match and punch the other guy out. And you couldn’t play like ass either, because the game would say you made it look too unconvincing. You had to screw up the rhythm game just enough to throw the fight, and to not let on that you were playing badly on purpose. FUN.
Innovation Toronto (photo by NotSoftGames, who i believe were gunned down in a mafia street war moments after taking this picture)
It wasn’t an incredibly compelling game that i could play for hours, but it was a perfect snack-sized experience for the Jam. i got the concept from the title alone, and figuring out how to play properly was a joy. Good work!
Rider Saves the World
Crazy French-Canadians. This game was from a visiting Montrealer (was his name Rennault?) who created a pretty uninspiring obstacle avoidance game that was delightful in spite of itself, thanks to its ridiculous writing and theme.
You play Rider Motorcycleson, a 70’s-style biker with an afro and a red headband, charging through space astride an angry-looking missile, on his way to save his love. In the second level, you have to take down an alien mothership. The cut-scene introducing that level includes the line by the aliens “We are going to destroy you etc.” i laughed HARD. The cut-scene for the third level is a one-liner where your girlfriend simply says “i’m pregnant.” Again, it had me in stitches. But maybe i was overtired?
Imagine Easy Rider in space, with witty writing.
The game had some nice touches. When you died, each Continue screen borrowed the mechanic from the level that preceded it. The graphics were very silly. The gameplay was varied. The creator was insane. Lots of pluses there.
i guess i’ve learned that i really favour games with funny writing. Hmm!
i didn’t catch the name of this one, but it was fun. It’s 2-player game with one black character and one white character. You have to co-operate with the other player to reach the top of the vertically-scrolling screen by jumping on platforms. Platforms are either black, white, or beige. The black and white platforms are transparent and you fall right through them, unless the black or white character is standing on the platform. So the black guy could jump up and stand on a transparent black platform to make it solid, so that the white guy could jump up and join him. It was a constant back-and-forth between the players, who essentially had to open doors for each other throughout the level to reach the top. Very nice! And in a few instances, you and your partner had to communicate to time a jump together so that you’d both wind up on the same platform at the same time. It was just pure, wholesome, playable fun. Well done!
My hat’s off to so many people this year – from the organizer who put on this incredible event with NO CHARGE to the participants (??!), to the teams who turned out some great (and many horrendous) games, and to nine of my former students who showed up to give it a shot. (It was great to see them taking the initiative that i accused them of lacking!) Thanks to everyone i met this year, and i hope we can continue to foster a relationship through the monthly Toronto Hand Eye Society meetings until the next jam.
The TOJam Arcade, the public exhibition of the games that were created at the event, is coming up next month. Be there!
The TOJam 5 games will be up on the site eventually. In the meantime, here are the titles i created in past jams:
The Torontoist, a publication which i admit i don’t think i’ve consciously allowed myself to realize exists (being that they devote themselves to Torontoism, which i am fundamentally against), has published an article by Steve Kupferman, who was a fly on the wall at TOJam 4 this past weekend:
The piece is expertly written and does a great job of capturing the mood of the warehouse space, the anxiety during the final hours of development, and the tortured genius of Jimmy McGinley. i’m referenced briefly as the guy with the gecko idea, but Jim steals the show with his concept of characters crawling up a disgusting old man’s back.
Welcome to level two. Can you find the warp pipe?
At one point, the author notes
Most of TOJam’s participants were either involved in selling their own games (though not, we should note, their TOJam games)
He clearly didn’t get a chance to interview all ninety jammers (his count was eighty-nine, but number ninety late-entry was a musician floater who happened to live nearby). i’ve actually been trying to sell my first TOJam game, Two By Two, for the past year with horrendous results. Read all about it in a series we call Pimp My Game.
The one place where the article lost me was its thesis that indie gaming was without a home in Toronto. What home could indie gaming possibly have? Should everyone who attends the jam quit their jobs and pack into an incubator somewhere, to make piles of interesting but commercially poisonous games? To me, pulling an all-nighter in a ramshackle warehouse in Corktown next to an array of tube TVs with their live wires exposed, and deciding between the bathroom down the hall or the one where the door doesn’t close all the way, is the very definition of indie. You want to pull ridiculous hours next to properly flushing toilets AND get paid doing it? Go work for UbiSoft.