My Heart Beats for the Global Game Jam

The Global Game Jam will always have a special place in my heart. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the Global Game Jam is a truly epic event: over the course of 48 hours, people gather at locations around the world to meet new friends, have a blast, and of course, make cool games! Today, I want to tell you about my history with the event, and then tell you about how the jam went for me this year. (Spoiler: It was awesome!)

Growing Up Together

Two weekends ago was the fifth annual Global Game Jam. The first, in 2009, happened to coincide with my first year of grad school at UC Santa Cruz. That year my friend Foaad Khosmood made sure it happened at the university, which was awesome for Santa Cruz’s up and coming game design program. (Foaad was already a part of the technical team that organizes the jam globally.)

A Moose's Love may not be the funnest game ever made, but it was a blast to make!

A Moose’s Love may not be the funnest game ever made, but it was a blast to make!

On a whim, I decided to participate in the event. I’m happy to say that it was love at first sight! That year, Mike Treanor, Bill Manegold, and I created A Moose’s Love, an experimental parable of a game about a gay moose that cannot grow his tree of happiness because society rejects his true nature. While A Moose’s Love isn’t the greatest game I’ve ever made, it was a ton of fun to make, and it was a great way to explore how the rules of a game can make a statement, a topic I’m still passionate about today.

The next year, Foaad convinced me to help him organize the Santa Cruz jam location. He was ridiculously busy building software for the jam globally, so needed more assistance to make sure the local event still went off smoothly. I saw the jam from a completely different vantage point that year: it was the first time I’d organized an event like that. Sadly, a combination of being sick and a looming paper deadline meant I couldn’t actually make a game, but the energy of the event was well worth all the work to help organize it!

By 2011, the reigns of the UC Santa Cruz global game jam site had officially been passed to me. I never knew how much work it was to organize an event like that, but I trudged through it, and was happy to do so. Again, I wasn’t able to make a game, but I did have a blast hanging out with everyone. In fact, a combination of having so much fun and wanting to recruit friends to help organize the event the next year inspired me to found the Game Developer Club at UCSC, which turned into an awesome group in its own right!

Again in 2012, I organized the local event. This year was a little different, though, because long before the Global Game Jam came around, I knew my time in grad school was quickly coming to an end. While I knew I would be leaving before getting my PhD, I really wanted to stick around to make sure the jam went smoothly… over the years, I had put so much time and love into the event, I wanted it to be my legacy.

Ourobits was both a bast to make and play! Maybe one of these days I'll finish and release it...

Ourobits was both a bast to make and play! Maybe one of these days I’ll finish and release it…

Thankfully, the event went splendidly! By that year, I was tired of sitting on the side lines while everyone else had all the fun, so I decided to actually make a game! After lots of discussion with my buddies Bryan Blackford and Kevin Otoshi, we decided to make what would soon become Ourobits, a game that might look familiar if you’ve explored the games section of this site. I had so much fun with the game that I continued to work on it for weeks after the game jam, though I eventually moved on to other things, and Ourobits remains incomplete.

Yet Another New Beginning

…which brings us to this year! I’m no longer able to organize the Santa Cruz jam… I’m way up on Oakland for most of the year now. However, this year I had another first: I became a sponsor! After spending years begging other organizations for money to support the event, it was an honor to share some of Nothing Sacred Games’ success with the young game developers of UC Santa Cruz.

I also decided to join the fun yet again this year and take a weekend trip to participate. In yet another first, this year I created a board game with my team, Spenser Apple, Thomas Johnston, and Brent Arata.

This year, the theme was the sound of a human heart beat. My team spent the first night of the jam brainstorming lots of ideas. Our first thought was to create a game in which players take their turns along with a heart beat. We experimented with playing (what else?) Hearts, following along with the heart beat, but quickly discovered that playing a non-digital game to time was stressful and ultimately not very fun.

We had several other ideas, and spent a lot of time discussing them and trying to figure out which direction we wanted to go for the rest of the jam.

One possibility was a game in which some players took the role of white blood cells while others took the role of viruses in a battle for the blood stream. Another option was a game about Frankenstein like mad scientists programming their monsters and watching them run around the laboratory until their hearts ran out. The last consideration was a game in which players as gods assign life events to a number of characters, trying to sway their emotional states for lolz.

At the end of the first night, we were at a stalemate, having discussed the options for a long time with no end in sight. So we decided to spend a few minutes on each idea, clearly writing down our thoughts to see which one looked the most promising. This proved to be very effective: it forced us to clarify our thinking, and revealed that the first two ideas had much less going for them than the third idea. There were lots of fun directions to explore with the emotion concept, so we decided to go with that.

And that’s when the fun started.

Non-stop Playtesting

For inexperienced game designers, it can seem strange to just start playtesting before you have thought through every possibility. However, playtesting is almost always what you want to be doing (and not just because it’s fun!). Just like writing our ideas on the white board helped clarify them for us, creating a physical artifact forced us to make commitments. More importantly, seeing the prototype in action showed us what’s actually fun and what isn’t, rather than what’s theoretically interesting.

After getting over some hiccups about which emotions our characters should have, we spent some time making a first prototype and then headed home for the evening.

The next day we started playtesting in earnest, and iterated over the game many, many times. We experimented with lots of ideas, including complex events, different ways of playing and drawing cards, and various levels of simulation for the characters (should they be able to have babies? Should killing one shrink the total number of characters available?). The game was fun, but it felt slow at times, and sometimes there wasn’t much you could do. We also felt like players had too little interaction; the game lacked the level of sneakiness we wanted.

Brainstorming some alternative ways to speed the game up and make it more interesting, we decided to try a radical change: instead of taking turns playing events from our hands, we revealed a number of events as options, and at the same time, each player secretly chose one of the events to occur to one of the characters. We also experimented with adding currency to the game to let players sell information and buy special powers. Both changes made the game a lot more fun!

We continued to playtest all through Saturday and felt good about where our game was. But Sunday came quickly, and we were still making changes with the deadline fast approaching. With only a few hours left, we realized we had a lot of cards in our game, and none of them were yet on the computer in a distributable form… they were all in chicken scratch on index cards halves, and many of them weren’t even written out correctly!

Nothing Sacred Cards to the Rescue

They may not be beautiful, but they were quick to make and are easy to change, which is what you want while iteratively designing a game. Thanks, Nothing Sacred Cards!

They may not be beautiful, but they are quick to make and easy to change, which is what you want while iteratively designing a game.

It still took us a good four hours or so, but we were able to create dozens of decent looking cards in a jiffy with Nothing Sacred Cards, the card generation software I wrote to iteratively design Corporate America (it was originally written for an older game I made called Ideological Empires, but that’s another story). I plan to open source Nothing Sacred Cards (it’s a new name… what do you think?), and this was a big test for the frankly messy code. Thankfully, with only a little finagling, the software worked, and we ended up with cards like you see here.

Greek tragedies: a fun theme that lots of people know about and few games tackle, with lots of excellent free-ish art!

Greek tragedies: a fun theme that lots of people know about and few games tackle, with lots of excellent free-ish art!

One of the last things we decided on was a theme for the game. We’d known it was about gods pulling the heart-strings of mortals for their own amusement since the first night, but making it about Greek tragedies partially came from theming considerations, partially because we didn’t have a lot of time, and partially because there’s a bunch of good art in the public domain. Booya! But seriously, the theme is fun, fits quite well, and is relatively well known (at least to nerds like myself). And if Heartbeats of the Fickle Gods eventually becomes a real game, I promise I’ll get some new art in there.

Oh yeah, and if you want to try the game out, feel free to download it, and let me know what you think! Remember, even though we had a whole 48 hours to work on it, that’s not a lot of time. Despite the abundance of playtesting we did, the game is still very far from polished. If you do decide to play it, feel free to be as brutal with your feedback as you want!

And that’s about that. I was really happy with my team this year, and of course happy that the Global Game Jam continues to pull my heart-strings in new and exciting ways every year. If you haven’t given it a try yet, you should mark your calendars for the last weekend of January 2014! In the worst case, you’ll have wasted 48 hours, but in the best case, you’ll have some cool new friends and an awesome game under your belt!

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  1. Spencer Apple

     /  February 6, 2013

    That weekend was a lot of fun, and I am glad that I ended up working on a table top game. Playtesting that rapidly was a new experience for me, and probably gave me a better experience then iterating with hour long development cycles.

  2. Sounds like a fun time. Playtesting is a new concept to me, so thank you for sharing that.

    Nothing Sacred Cards is an ok name…but…it doesn’t convey that it’s about MAKING card. Nothing Sacred Card Maker maybe. And then what KIND of cards? It could be mistaken for a tool that generates holiday/birthday cards. So Nothing Sacred Playing Card Maker. Slap some prepositions starting with vowels between the words and maybe you’ve got a good acronym.

    Tried to download the game but it gave a “not found” error for

  3. I got the game to download by right-clicking and copying the URL and pasting. I think the problem is your a href tag doesn’t have an http colon slash slash on it. So for some reason the browser couldn’t process clicking the link correctly. I tried Chrome and IE.

  4. Michael,

    Thanks for the feedback on the name and the heads up about the download link. I added the http:// to the front like you suggested, and I think it should work now. I believe I’ve made that same mistake before… no excuse if it happens again 😐

    I highly recommend looking into playtesting, especially as you start to explore games yourself. It really is the foundation of game design. Keep your eyes open for Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design and Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop, two excellent resources on the basics of game design and playtesting.


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