It is just past 1:00 PM in the Microsoft Technology Center near Times Square in Manhattan. Playcrafting (partnered with Microsoft) is in the end stages of the Global Game Jam 2018, an event where developers from all over the world try their hand at making a game fit to a certain theme from scratch. Two floors of the building—usually bustling with devs showing off their latest stuff and hundreds of attendees—are eerily quiet. The atmosphere is somewhat quieter than I'm used to.
The theme of the Global Game Jam 2018 was "Transmission." It's a broad concept to be sure, and that's entirely intentional. The Global Game Jam 2018 keynote video revealed the theme towards the end. You were shown just how many ways the word could be interpreted; images of gears, voices, radio waves, and more filled the screen, and it surely got the creative juices flowing. I sought out some developers to see what they were working on and how things were going.
My first stop was John O'Meara of Zero Eden Games, a company that's in the midst of working on Galactose: Pastries in Space. He was working on a project involving magic of a sort. He looked quite exhausted, taking a moment to remember who I was from our previous encounters. My first encounter with a developer revealed a story of sleep deprivation and determination. Mr. O'Meara had worked until the Microsoft building closed at 9:00 PM the night before. He then went to his own offices and worked some more until 3:00 AM before finally going home and catching a few hours of sleep. To his frustration, the game was just not coming together as he had hoped.
His experience was frighteningly common among the developers at the Playcrafting site. Failure happens with such a limited time frame—it's simply a matter of how well you roll with the punches and what you make of it from there. Nearly every developer I spoke with talked about the ambitions for their individual game and how they had to gradually temper them or dial them back as time marched on. In passing one developer, I had heard him say that they would just cut the score screen out of the game entirely as time wound down.
Individual developers were surely on the site, but I mainly found people working in teams ranging from two to eight people. Daniel King and his team had the idea to make a "hot potato" phone game utilizing a Chromecast device called Scandown. Players would take turns on a single phone while the television was continually updated with community information from the game. As a platform, the Chromecast is notably lacking in games despite the potential for the device. Unfortunately for Mr. King, the reason for that may have become evident in the last few hours of the jam; despite all of his experience in working with Unity and Android, he could just not get the device to display the community screen on the television at all. He spoke of how he had to register the device on a Google developer website to even be able to work on it, a strangely restrictive decision from a company that is usually more open with its options for developers. Ultimately, one of the main gimmicks of their game—using a Chromecast to show a community screen on a television—had to be cut at the last minute. The game was in the process of being re-tooled to work on a single phone screen and passed between friends.
A few rooms down, I saw a large screen on the wall with a level editor. The door was open, so I poked my head in and said hello to the people there. I asked what they had been working on, and the developers looked around the room before Ms. Pilar Aranda began talking to me. They were working on Flopping Away, a title somewhat similar in concept to I Am Bread. Players would don a VR headset and take on the role of a floppy disk trying to get lifesaving information to a computer in the room. One of the devs was wearing VR goggles, apparently looking around the latest version of the build while the rest of the team continued working. The developers seemed somewhat chipper compared to many and things seemed to be going smoothly. Their game was one of the titles that had managed to go the distance and end up submitted in time.
JW Berry's team (pictured in the header image) had an interesting project in the works. A grid was on a developer screen with a bunch of tokens split into either pluses or minuses. Players would take turns in a tic-tac-toe sort of game, moving whichever tokens they liked (including their opponents) in an attempt to occupy the center space or line up a row of the same token. It sounds simple at first, but the game utilized a timer and an action queue—you'd have three seconds to decide on making a move and you could queue up to five actions at once. This would lead to a serious time pressure where you'd have to try to outmaneuver your opponent while taking care not to set them up for the win.
I saw a few more devs, chatting for a few moments about what they were working on. The "Transmission" theme of the Global Game Jam 2018 had been interpreted so many different ways. One developer was working on a game involving matching facial expressions. Hundreds of developers in multiple teams were strewn all about the building, working hard on their individual titles.
After my initial foray into the various side rooms where games were being made, I sought out Playcrafting CEO Dan Butchko to get the lowdown on how the event had been going. Over a thousand people had passed through the gates of the Microsoft building in Times Square. Organizing an event for this many people is a lot of work and there are lots of considerations to make. Judges occupied a lower floor, discussing scoring criteria and planning out the schedule for when the submission time had ended. Most devs would bring their game down to the judges, but certain games had special considerations to be made. VR titles (of which there were quite a few) would usually check off a box on the submission form stating that they couldn't as easily pack things up, and instead the judges went to them. Each game got only three minutes of time with the judges.
I didn't want to take up too much of his time (or anyone's time, really—everyone was hurriedly working on their own projects). Less than two hours remained before the devs had to stop work. Dan told me that there was a VR demo on the 6th floor, and it was here that I met Dr. Nicola Ranieri from Switzerland. This gentleman was in a much better mood than some of his contemporaries in the room as he wasn't working on a project for the jam. Rather, he was showing off his the VR Free technology from Sensory X. VR Free is an add-on device for existing VR headsets. Gamers attach a fisheye lens with a 200-degree field of view onto the front of their headset (in the case of the demo, an Oculus Rift). You'd then don fingerless gloves with IR trackers on the wrists.
I tried out VR Free myself, and I have to admit that this was my first foray into VR save for a brief go with a Gear VR after another Playcrafting event. Though my experiences may have been somewhat colored by the novelty of VR, I was much more interested in the capabilities of the VR Free gloves. The fingers of the gloves were able to track the motion of your digits. If you pointed with your index finger, you would see your virtual hands point on the screen. I tried out several different gestures, and it worked quite well for a prototype, although the technology was still in the works; an attempt at throwing up the metal horns didn't quite place my middle and ring fingers into my palm in the virtual world. Even so, Dr. Ranieri told me that they're constantly working on improvements and have had a lot of interest from the business & manufacturing world at utilizing their technology.
While I'm sure someone somewhere could operate an industrial machine or do some virtual architecture with Sensory X's VR Free gloves, the audience in the building was focused on game development and that's what was most interesting to me. I asked Dr. Ranieri if he was familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, and he looked a bit embarrassed to admit that he was quite the avid dungeon master himself. The idea of, say, a spell-casting game where you had to do complex motions with your fingers was one of the first thoughts that popped into my head for something that you couldn't ever do with standard VR controls, and I'm sure plenty of the creative developers at the Global Game Jam 2018 site had similar designs in mind. VR Free will be coming to Indiegogo in a few months, and if you're a VR enthusiast, you'd be nuts not to at least check it out.
I had a bit of time before the developers finished working, so I went out to grab a quick lunch with my mom in the city. (One of my personal highlights was seeing her try VR for the first time, an experience she absolutely loved.) We grabbed a quick bite and then headed back into the building to see the finished projects of some of the Global Game Jam 2018 developers on display.
One of the first titles I tried was Puppy Rescue, a game with quite possibly the saddest space puppy I have ever seen in my life. Your goal was to get out a distress signal to save this adorable doggo. An initial transmission fired out to a satellite, and then you would aim successive satellites to try to pass the transmission along while not missing any shots and avoiding various stellar bodies. The game had planned to be a complete experience, but the time pressure led to it being a sort of endless runner in the end.
Battle Speech was next. I had been enticed by a pair of boats on the screen and wondered how the Transmission theme was used here. I was plopped down in front of a laptop, only to be told that I had to say "positive things" to my virtual navy boat. In contrast, developer Wilson Wong took on the role of my opponent and had to say negative things. We each had ten seconds to get the job done, and I cheekily stated sarcastic nonsense in a chipper tone to see if I could fool the game into giving me a good score. (Battle Speech utilized Watson speech recognition to determine the scores, so my efforts to befuddle the game had been foiled.) The developer, meanwhile, had insulted me (albeit mildly) and then panicked a bit at what he had done, much to my amusement. We went back and forth for a few rounds before the score read off a long decimal—a bug in the works had brought a stop to the game.
The final title I had looked at in earnest was Long Distance. I noticed immediate conceptual similarities to Puppy Rescue—you'd fire off a transmission from antenna to antenna. Beyond that, the games were quite different. In Long Distance, you were sending missives through a variety of different carriers. Radio relays let you bounce a transmission off of walls up to four times. Mailmen would throw a letter in a grenade-like arc. Carrier pigeons would drop a package with a parachute. The mechanics of this game were quite interesting and somewhat more fleshed-out than its competitors, offering multiple different levels and different methods of moving the message along. At the end of a level, you'd see a text window pop up showing the missive that you had delivered.
The sheer creativity of hundreds of developers was astounding. The time pressure resulted in features being cut and some games not managing to be completed in time. Titles ranged from simple to somewhat stranger fare, such as We Found This on the 6th Floor of Microsoft, Please Advise. The idea of "Transmission" was interpreted in countless different ways, ranging from sending a message to driving a car and so much more.
Playcrafting & Microsoft hosted one of many worldwide Global Game Jam 2018 sites. For developers, the experience was an endurance event of near-constant crunch time. For attendees, free workshops and courses were available throughout the weekend. If you go to this event next year, the late afternoon of the last day has barely-awake game developers showcasing their creations right then and there. It's a free event, so there's not much to stop you from going! If you can't make it in person, that's not that big of an obstacle to checking out some of these titles: 77 games in total were published online to the game jam's website. Some of them are quite fun, so check out that page and play something if it interests you!
What do you think of the Global Game Jam 2018 hosted by Microsoft & Playcrafting? What's the coolest game you've seen come out of a game jam? Let us know in the comments below!