Best of British: Alistair Aitcheson on the pros and practicalities of running a game jam
Devs that jam together, stay together
Alistair Aitcheson is a one-man studio working in Wiltshire, UK. He is the developer of the Greedy Bankers series of iOS games and a founding member of indie collective Best of British.
On 16 – 18 November 2012, a crack team of independent UK developers got together for 48 hours. Their mission: to make a jolly fun Christmas present for everyone.
We called it the Best of British: Winter Games collection, and it was an assortment of quickfire and surprising microgames. Each is played in rapid succession, much like Nintendo's WarioWare series.
The team comprised talent from the UK's widespread pool of mobile developers. We'd already pulled the same stunt, with the Best of British: Summer Sports bundle earlier in the year.
Unity generously provided licenses to develop and release our jam game on iOS, and Mind Candy offered its offices as the venue. I put together a unified framework for the games, and about 20 of us worked through the long November nights to bring the bundle to life.
Unlike many game jams I've participated in in the past, this wasn't just a creative exercise. Ours was about working together to make something incredible. That made it really special, and uniquely beneficial to all our studios.
Origins of the jam
The Best of British team originally came together with a view to compiling a free bundle of our older iOS games. By recycling our old IP and promoting it to our existing fanbases, we'd be able to share each others' audiences.
Unfortunately, this original plan proved technically unfeasible. But we had an alternative.
We could create a whole new product in 48 hours as a game jam. We'd still be able to cross-promote through it, and we'd also be able to make an event out of it, drawing attention from the games press.
With the original jam game, Summer Sports, launching in September 2012, everyone was keen to do another before the end of the year.
There were all kinds of benefits that came from small developers teaming up for one goal.
Some teams were more experienced with Unity than others, so were able to fix errors and show less experienced teams the ropes. Some had better artists, who were on-hand to provide artwork for other studios, and share tips and tricks.
With it set up so small teams were working on tiny games, we were in our element as indies – small and agile, and ready to surprise. But because we were all working towards a unified product, there was no excuse to work in a bubble. Everyone had to share!
Indeed, the social element alone was a benefit. Alongside coding we managed to fit in a few games of Ticket to Ride, Magic: The Gathering, pints down the pub and even an episode of Power Rangers.
Working together builds trust, and the jam was a perfect context to share our own experiences of developing and self-publishing games on mobile. Best of British members have shared everything from freelance opportunities to tax advice as a result of working together.
Designing awesome microgames
Creating games in a short space of time forces dev teams to think creatively about how much the want to achieve in the period. We also gave the limitation that each game should last exactly seven seconds.
Teams had to think about how easily the gameplay could be communicated, so that it could be digested and acted upon within the time limit. Interactions had to be interesting for the player, but not too complicated to communicate.
The variety of minigames that people came up with was delightfully imaginative! They ranged from throwing logs on a 3D fireplace, digging a guy out from under an avalanche, to finding an Eskimo disguised as a walrus.
Making the magic happen
Collecting 20 minigames from 10 teams into one product requires a lot of people – and time – management. We were surprised by this first time around, so made sure to tackle it with our Winter Games jam.
At the end of the original jam, many of the minigames had issues – some technical, some in usability – that were only picked out as the 48 hours drew to a close.
It meant we needed to fix these up after the event itself. This was very difficult as communication had to happen over a distance. Teams often had deadlines in their day work, so they didn't have time to dedicate to finishing Summer Sports.
Second time around, we set an early deadline - every game had to be submitted to the central build by 12pm on the final day. This gave us 6 hours for testing, so every game's key issues could be flagged up and fixed.
We also assigned a go-to guy, who was solely responsible for chasing up updates and fixes after the event. Stephen Morris from Greenfly Studios bravely took on the task! This left the framework's designer (myself!) free to fix and manage technical issues affecting the whole team.
Be on the lookout for tasty jam!
We're putting together the final fixes on the minigames now, so get the fireplace warm and toasty for when Santa brings you your new iOS device!
Our previous release, Best of British: Summer Sports is available for free in the App Store.
Meanwhile, developers wishing to join the Best of British for future jams and projects, feel free to email our chief, Dave Mitchell from Onimobi, at mitch [at] bestofbritishgames [dot] com – the more the merrier!
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