#canada150game – “The Great Canadian Game Jam” Post-Mortem

Happy Canada Day!

The last six months have been busy, but fun. It’s the first time I took a major role in co-organizing a local game jam, aiming to bring the country together in celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday. It finished on July 1, and while I’m proud of it, it’s also clear that some major things went wrong, and lessons were learned.

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The final submissions can be viewed on the itch.io page (https://itch.io/jam/canada150game). There were six submissions total, some of which are fantastic and worth a try, some of which are also broken (yeah, my submissions were poor…). I was kind of hoping for more than six though, and for more than just developers in my town of Windsor, Ontario.

Here are some of the things I think I would have reconsidered:

  • If you don’t build it, they won’t come.

My intentions for a game jam got stronger in late 2016. I am lucky that might local community has a public tech-oriented group that already had an involved game-developer’s monthly meeting, which I already took part in. I took advantage of this a couple of times to discuss the ideas of a game jam.

Only a few people showed up to talk about the idea. The responses I got were “hm-mm… sounds cool… maybe that part should be different… we should definitely think about that.” Then everyone went home.

After getting no where and again taking advantage of a lull in the group’s meeting schedule, I announced the first meeting to reveal what the official game jam rules would be. About a dozen people came this time, a good crowd for the group. I set hard rules about how the game jam would proceed. I saw concerned faces in the audience, and as planned explained that we could revise the rules one last time before the game jam would officially begin the following week. This seemed to help a bit to force everyone to get involved and decide what would occur, and the first game jam meet the following month also had a decent turnout.

I regret not acting sooner and bigger, hesitating for months of self-doubt that no one would show up at all. That very well may have happened, but if I didn’t commit to the event existing, then much less would have come out of it, and interest would have been non-existent to get involved.

  • 150 days is too long for a game jam.

Most game jams and hackathons are spent over the course of a day, or 2-3 days max. I always thought this was a bad idea. Yes, it is possible for experienced game developers to make the skeleton of a game in a few hours, but the art assets could take much longer, and never mind those who want to join with no experience going in. With this in mind, I thought counting 150 days was a good idea. It fit with the theme, and it gave plenty of time to spread the word and get people excited.

Except the opposite happened. The first 2 meetings regarding the game jam had promising turn-outs, with activity in online forums and great game concepts being planned. But in following monthly meetings, only 2-4 people would come regularly. This turned out to be largely because of work, family, long-time illness or just lost interest. I think the amount of game submissions would have been larger had the timeline been shorter (maybe 150 hours, or even 150 minutes).

  • Contacts are crucial.

Like some game developers, I am very much anti-social, and it has been my undoing too many times. Again, I was lucky to have some contacts with the local tech-community group… most of whom ultimately couldn’t provide any tips or help in advertising or reaching other outlets, but at least they allowed me to list the event in their monthly newsletter (shout out to S.M. for single-handedly making the Facebook calendar pages). I also used affordable Google Adwords and spammed with Twitter, with minimal success.

But my grand hope was for all of Canada to get involved. And many from across Canada did signup for a monthly newsletter, but ultimately did not proceed to join the active discussion. What I really needed here was direct contact with other game developer groups, which do seem to exist in every city. REAL contacts… trying to send friendly emails made it clear that most were not looking to collaborate with outside groups. Even schools, which seemed the best source, did not respond both locally and abroad, despite my interrupting classes to talk directly to students about the event.

This all relates to another point below, but my point here is that having friends to trust in helping you spread the word and rally groups, not just locally but abroad, is crucial, not only for game jams, but advertising and community outreach in general. I may never get this right, which I am certain makes me ill-suited to leading such a charge. I am forever thankful to the few who took the lead (shoutout to S.W.) in moving the event forward where I stumbled.

  • Game jams are inherently broken.

This comment is a little strong, but I am referring to the output at the end of every game jam. Usually there’s a website that lists the catalog of submissions for people to try for free. They (usually) follow some shared theme in content or story.

… this shared theme concept works well for creative writing, filmmaking and art. For most mediums, there is one defined method to take in the content, be it by looking, watching, listening or other. It makes sense that the connecting tissue be through story, to make the viewer think about those connections in the back of their mind. But video games are different. For decades, there have been few standards: button layouts and input methods, processing power and operating systems all seem different between almost any game you play.

In the early discussions with the organizers of #canada150game, we knew there was an opportunity to improve the process to combine games a little better. We first considered to have a main hub, itself perhaps a stylized game or web browser, that made it easier or more sensible to switch between games (perhaps with a shared reward system) rather than simply listing game choices like a Amazon catalog. More interesting was the idea of a shared-control scheme. Consider Mario Maker, one of the most successful games on the WiiU console. It is fun to make new levels because everyone is familiar with the game and its systems, and enjoy challenging themselves creatively while confined to those rules. Additionally, levels can easily be combined to make world stages, because the control scheme was always identical => move forward/back, jump, action button if you had a certain power. That’s it. Simple and clean. Start one level, then start the next. In an hour, you can seamlessly play the work of hundreds of separate developer groups.

All of these ideas backfired when we first suggested the concepts in the first meeting. Almost everyone agreed they did not want to be confined further by a strict control-scheme, and no one could agree on using a consistent language or game engine. So ultimately, the output from the game jam is no different from any other… we were too scared to make anyone feel unwelcome, so we did what we thought would attract the most participants.

It’s a shame, because I think to have a successful game anthology, making it as easy as possible for a player to go from one game to another is crucial. I hate to think WarioWare is the closest the game industry has ever gotten to this type of thinking. Perhaps as the industry and its hobbyists mature, this type of anthology might become better designed for the field, the way it has in other mediums.

  • Canadian game developers are too passive.

On July 1, I walked around downtown, bought some groceries, and watched television. There was no parade, no fireworks, no music, nothing. Events of celebration and outgoing occur every other week in my town, but on what should have been the biggest day in the country’s history of the past century, it was just another day. The only exception was in Ottawa, Ontario, and even there in the country’s capital, it felt like most people wanted to just go home.

Early in the game jam, local developers were hard-stuck in their preferences of development, not willing to try new tools or ideas, even with six months to learn. I had discussions with developers who hoped to work on other projects they were making anyway, only willing to submit it if they could use a simple color or asset-change to make it “Canadian.” I’ve had discussions with game developers over the past few years in Canada who seem worn out, tired of the rat race where the opportunities have long disappeared, working themselves to death because they see no other option, an example of true passion but without the glint in the eye or grin under the cheek.

This seems cynical, because it is. Canada is home to some of the world’s best game developers and programmers, but too often they move to the USA or beyond because of Canada’s virtually non-existent tech-scene, too often they don’t come out when they need to show off their work, too often they quietly and politely work in silence on their masterpieces, not aware or caring what their neighbour is preparing at that same moment.

It’s appropriately Canadian. I hope we all learn to get past that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a few months of quiet and politely silent development to make up for.

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