2017 Phoenix Global Game Jam: A Story by Liz

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Hello, dearly beloved!  My name is Liz, and last weekend Mike and I teamed up and participated in our local Phoenix chapter of the Global Game Jam. It was Mike’s first time at the Global Game Jam, and my first time attending a Game Jam of any kind.

What is a Global Game Jam? It’s a very organized, exciting whirlwind of an event for Game Developers to create a game from scratch in under 48 hours. This is an exhilarating roller coaster where participants can put their bodies through the entire spectrum of emotions associated with the Game Development Process in just two days’ worth of time.

While this does induce stress that ostensibly claims a couple of years off of your life, this event is one of the most effective incubators for rapid personal growth and development that I have ever experienced. It’s a sink-or-swim way to get your technical skills, self-management, and even networking up to snuff.  

The depth of the task can be scary for those who lean toward beginner’s side of the spectrum, or are not fully confident in their skills, but for those of you who feel that way, I highly recommend you still attend. The Phoenix Jam had about 115 or so attendees, thus there were bound to be a range of varying experience levels. For those who are beginners, I would recommend joining a larger team where you will not be solely responsible for any one specific facet of the game (be it art, programming, design, etc.). This will allow you to learn from those who may be more experienced than you, and will alleviate some of the pressure involved. With that being said, I entered as the sole artist of a two-person team where there was much pressure to be had. I went the jam wanting to put myself through the wringer, and put myself through the wringer I did.

My personal average turnaround time per 3D asset (model and texture) is typically 4-5 hours. There was no way in hell that kind of turnaround time was going to work for our game. Every glance out among the sea of jammers was an unspoken admonition that there were people out there working twice as hard as I was. Which is the exact reason why I opted to do all my work at the jam site (as opposed to taking it home). Competition lights quite the fire under your arse.

I must take a moment and tell my story about animating our cute cat characters. These little buggers are incredibly adorable, if not a little mischievous, and were a joy to model and texture (reminder: I am not a character modeler, so let’s just take a moment to be proud of me for these).  

To give life to the characters, we decided that these should be animated to operate the boombox, cheer, wave, move, etc. Reminder again: I am not a Character Modeler or Animator. But in a 48-hour game jam and the only artist on a two-person team, I all-of-a-sudden was. I spent an hour and a half watching YouTube tutorials on how to rig and skin a character.  Then spent another 3 hours creating the joints, IK handles, and painting skin weights. By this point, the amount of time I have spent on these cats has me pretty stressed out. Animation time. How in the hell do you animate a character with joints?! Presumably by grabbing the joints, moving them around, and keyframing it, right? WRONG. Fast forward to FIVE HOURS LATER and I have tried every solution I can think of on God’s green earth, have zero animations to show for the time wasted on these now dead-to-me cats, and have probably accumulated several stress-induced ulcers. But hark, my struggles finally came to an end when Wes (our resident Tiny Phoenix character modeler and animator extraordinaire) lifelines me, determines the problems in my scene and my process, and walks me through fixing it on the spot.  Wes, you the realest. (It turns out I wasn’t selecting the entire joint hierarchy, nor was selecting my IK handles when keyframing. Don’t judge me guys.)  Anyways, I finally finish animating these cats, and my animations look dumb af, but it’s midnight on Saturday and I am long past caring anymore because deadlines. Guys and gals, know this: I spent 12 hours total on ALL the various props and art for the game, and 11 hours JUST to animate a cat hitting a boombox. Lesson: Don’t be me. Kidding, the lesson was that I learned that I could model props faster than I had ever thought previously, AND I learned how to rig and animate! This would not have been learned over a weekend in the comforts of my own home!

The jam teaches you how to manage yourself (time-wise and emotion-wise) real quick. In this short amount of time, you must not only manage the completion of an entire game into a small time frame, but you must manage yourself as an instrument to accomplish each milestone and task along the journey. This means learning how to stay on top of your to-do list and calming your tits so you can be both calm and massively productive during this emotional roller coaster.

And as time rolls on and tits are calmed, there finally comes a point in the game’s progress (this happened for me on Sunday around 11:00am) where an artist just can’t add any more assets and the game’s completion is left in the hands of the programmer (mad props to Mike for killing himself making our game so great). This was a magical time for me to hang around the jam and network with great devs (Use this time to play people’s games if they’re finished too, get to know them, and hand out your business card if you have one).

When it came time to turn in our final submission, we did so. Phoenix Jam handles submission time by having each team set up their game on a computer, and giving everyone a few hours to walk around and play all the jam games that were created. This was another fantastic avenue for meeting new people and getting your name out there.  What stuck out to me the most was how truly safe of an environment this was. Every person who came to play our game was another dev who had just been through the same ordeal we had been through. Love, hype, compassion, and camaraderie abounded. This is the true beauty of the jam: no one is out there judging your game against AAA titles. Everyone is a dev just like you and appreciates how complex water physics are, or how much time it took to make the art. Or create those goddamn animations. “Oh, your controller glitches sometimes? Ours does too!” Inspiration was felt by all, and the humanity was overwhelming.

All in all, I made new friends, surpassed my previous limits of speed modeling, learned how to rig and animate, bonded with my Tiny Phoenix teammates, played creative new games, and lost just a few years off my life in stress. This was truly one of the most exhilarating, broadening, and motivating weekends of my life. I left feeling capable and excited to create future games. Count me in for GGJ 2018!


Cheers to Game CoLabUniversity of Advancing Technology, and all Game Jam Sponsors.

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