Sunday, April 25, 2010

TOJam 5: My First TOJam (or why I bailed after Day 2 of 3)

Well, folks, my first year of George Brown College's Game Development program is officially ended. The program head, a certain Jean-Paul "JP" Amore, was not satisfied with just a school year of Game Dev, though. He demanded more, and thus got George Brown to host TOJam 5 at the school. Eager young student lad I am, I signed up for the event and awaited its arrival (which would also be on the final day of classes, oddly enough).

Before I continue, though, let me explain TOJam for those not necessarily in the know. TOJam (TO being the acronym for Toronto, Ontario, and Jam being delicious) is a 3 day video game making event for game developers (whether professional, hobbyist, or student) that happen to be in the city. People can either be in teams or be lone wolves, but the goal is the same: in 3 days, make a game. It's not a competition, but a challenge (although there are awards for certain categories). And when I say 3 days of making games, I mean 3 days; you are allowed to sleep at the event or even work the whole time through if you are so inclined. The first TOJam was held in May of 2006, so this year was/is the 5th anniversary (hence TOJam 5).

So, to get back to my tale. I signed up, and decided to be all lone wolf. Due to the time constraints of the Jam, it is highly recommended to design your game and develop simple code (like for title menus and such) beforehand. I still had assignments pushed to the last minute to deal with, though, so I didn't have much in the way of planning. What I did have was a quirky joke-idea: the theme of this year's Jam was "Missing", so I thought to make a game that would constantly make reference to certain files not being found as a joke (for example, in conversation, maybe the dialogue box would say something like "cannot find gamedata.wittyRemark"). Being as I was inspired by the "stump joke" of The Secret of Monkey Island (which I have yet to play, but know I should) and the various shenanigans of MS Paint Adventures's Problem Sleuth saga, I decided this would be best done in an adventure game style. To borrow again from Problem Sleuth, I thought it should also be about a private eye. I hadn't done an adventure game before, but I figured what the hell, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Turns out that maybe this wasn't the best idea. Day 1 of TOJam arrived (Friday, April 23, 2010, to be exact), and I got to work (on a Flash game, by the way). It soon dawned upon me that a decent adventure game would require puzzles. Proper puzzles require planning. My lack of planning and adventure game experience did not bode well. So it wasn't long before I hit a wall. The most I had was two characters talking, and examining a desk's 4 drawers to find a pair of keys. It was basically a damn slideshow. And with placeholder graphics (i.e.: rectangles) to boot. Needless to say, I was worried.

I then had another idea: What if I expanded further on the missing data concept and had the game "load" something odd to cover up missing data or something? And what if this loaded thing was a JRPG (Japanese RPG) styled turn-based battle (again, somewhat aping Problem Sleuth)? I had never done a JRPG style battle before, but I had always wanted to, and it seemed like a day for firsts. I got crackin', and slapped out a battle against a goat boss (since a specific goat image is a requirement in TOJam games). The player had 4 options (some of them healed, some attacked, some used magic power), and the boss just attacked the player. Now, a good JRPG battle requires planning as well; balance is a major issue as you don't want the player to win by just choosing one choice repeatedly. My inexperience, though, resulted in just that, and I was unsure how to balance things. Plus, time was marching on, and Day 1 was coming to a close. So at midnight, I let things be and headed home to get some sleep.

On Day 2 (yesterday/Saturday), I got back to the Jam at around 11:00 a.m. I fiddled some more with the JRPG battle (mainly with getting the numbers showing current damage and the like to jump up like in any decent JRPG), and then decided to work on an ending of sorts. It would be that the game reloaded the initial "adventure game" to "cover up missing data", but this time at the end. The ending was dialogue (like in the beginning), and then "data corruption" or whatever would take over and the actual game itself would end. After making that happen, I gave a quick playthrough of my game and realized that it was pretty terrible. Not only that, but I still needed to make final visual assets, animations, and audio. I was stressing out of my mind since I knew that I was low on time and that this was the worst game I had ever made (Capture the Frog is godly compared to it).

Now let me bring up the fact that, bad game/planning aside, I was not really having a good time at the Jam. It felt to me just like constant pressure. Some may find that fun, and maybe it would have been if I had been in a team, but I was NOT digging it. After I hit my "omg my game sucks" phase, I loaded up web Live Messenger to talk to friends and maybe de-stress. After some conversation, I realized that if I wasn't having fun, I shouldn't be doing this. Plus, I would rather abandon my terrible game than polishing it into something that would still be terrible. So I stayed on Day 2 until 10:00 p.m., and then I headed home, never to return.

And that brings us here. If TOJam tweets and my clock are correct, there's roughly 10 minutes of Jam game making left. I am at home (and have been all morning), and I am presently typing out this post. Don't get me wrong, I love TOJam as an idea and what it represents, and I really appreciate JP's hard work in getting George Brown to host TOJam, but I wasn't having a good time personally. And if I wasn't having fun, then what was the point? Maybe I'll attend next year with an actual game-plan and with a team, but we'll have to wait and see. From where I stand now, I don't regret leaving the Jam. I hope that those who remain, though, are having a hell of a time and making awesome games. Jam on.

(By the way, if you want to witness my descent into madness at TOJam, I was tweeting sporadically at the event, and I think it paints a clear picture. Just look for my tweets from between April 23 to today. I can't seem to link directly to them, but I don't tweet much, so it shouldn't be too hard to find).


  1. Ah - you've learned perhaps the most important lesson there is to learn about game development, and one that the colleges aren't teaching you, which i've maintained all along is the key: MAKING GAMES IS NOT FUN. It's crazy-difficult, and very grueling, especially under tight time constraints. PLAYING games is fun, and many of your classmates and other Ontario students of game development still haven't learned the difference.

    The fun thing about making games is that AFTER the sweat, AFTER the swearing, you wind up with a product that (hopefully) puts smiles on people's faces. But getting there is often an uphill struggle, especially if you're just learning the tools.

    i gave you this analogy in class, and it holds true: game development is like working in a cake factory. You don't sit around and eat cakes all day. That's what cake EATERS do, not cake MAKERS. You're creating a product that gives joy to other people, but making that product does not necessarily produce the same joy in you. There's satisfaction, sure ... there's the stimulation of learning, of using your brain ... but generally, i find people expect to get the same rush out of building a game that they experience while playing a game, which is obviously complete nonsense. Spread the word.

    i tried to create an adventure game too, and my first day went much like yours ... but i had enough experience under my belt to be able to gauge how difficult it actually is to create a game in that genre (it's deceptive!) i knew i had to rely on the adventure game framework i'd already created for another project. Even though i was reskinning my existing code, the amount of work involved was hideous, and i finished the game by the skin of my teeth at 8PM on Sunday, after making a number of concessions (dropping 10 screens and 5 characters!)

    So no - the point of TOJam is not to have fun. Having fun, incidentally, is not the sole reason for you to stick to any particular thing ... there are lots of great reasons to persevere beyond your need to enjoy yourself. There are lots of benefits to the Jam that i hope you experienced despite cutting out early: you get to appreciate how difficult it is to actually make a game under a realistic timeline (the Jam is a compressed 72 hours - many beginner to intermediate kids' game projects are between 40-76 hours for developement). You get to meet the people you'll be working with in the industry ... yes, if you do decide to stick with it, these are the exact same people who will be hiring you, firing you, and working alongside you. The industry's not that big. Finally, you got to witness the dedication to the craft that other folks are willing to commit. If you can't make the same level of commitment, despite not having fun, the Ontario game development scene may prove to be too competitive.

    Take up cooking!! ;)

    - Ryan

    (all that aside, i'm super proud of you for attending, and i'm amazed we didn't run into each other)

  2. Hey! Thanks for the comment. This blog is usually VERY dead. I'm gonna respond to you, but I dunno if you're actually gonna keep an eye on this space, so it may also end up as an e-mail in time.

    Your response makes it sound like I said I was gonna stop making games period. That is definitely not the case. The point I was trying to make was that the voluntary experience of TOJam was not quite to my liking, especially because I went in blind. If I'd had a plan, or been part of a team, things probably would have been very different, I imagine.

    I know about crunch time, and I realize that this event is basically simulated crunch time. I wasn't all too aware of that fact going in, though. But what I meant about not having fun at TOJam was not that "Urg, making games is harrrd". I know that. I guess I should have elaborated on this better. What I meant was that, at this event, I wasn't having fun in the sense that I was not happy with what I was working on at all. Yes, I know in the industry I will be working on some projects that I may not fully enjoy thematically or have too much control over (like something for an existing IP), but I will still be able to be proud of my work. My TOJam game was nothing to be proud of from any viewpoint. Yes, I learned some new things while working on it, but it is terrible.

    So I know that there's more to things than fun. I know that all too well. I will trudge through the tough times in the industry just fine, I imagine. A voluntary event like the Jam, though, is a different story, especially going in alone without a plan. This wasn't a hired project, it was personal, and one gone wrong. For personal projects, I'd rather take some more time and do it at home (and do it RIGHT) rather than attending an event like that. I don't think I'm necessarily wrong with that stance. If you disagree, though, let me know.

    I hope I've made my position more clear. =)

  3. Appreciate the post. We certainly want everyone to have a great time, it's unfortunate you didn't. Gives us something to look out for at the next event.

    The timing of the jam was not great for many students. Being tired from exam/project crunch at the start certainly doesn't help. For a variety of reasons, we couldn't make the date any later. Sorry about that.

    The reason TOJam exists is that many people never complete a game by themselves at home. It's HARDER to do that. Your post implies that without the crunch you will complete a game on your own (without a school or work deadline). If that's the case, fantastic. That will, however, make you the first person I know of that can complete games on his own time but not at the jam. It's usually the other way around.

    It also appears that you didn't wind up talking to anyone during the jam. Camaraderie (aka. suffering together) is a key element. Next time feel free to drop by and chat with us organizers. Makes a nice break, and might give you some motivation. I would have said your ideas were far too ambitious so scrap your game immediately. Start over, forget about the theme, and create a tiny game that does one thing right.

    Lastly, the 8:00pm deadline is for motivation. We allow people to update their game after the jam (especially for the Arcade premiere). You could have aimed for getting 80% of your game complete by Sunday evening, and then finished the remaining 20% at home. Many people do that when things don't go well.

    We'll be holding the TOJam Arcade ~May 28. Consider attending to see the variety of games that were created. Some will be great and intimidating, others will be bad and inspiring.

  4. Thanks for commenting, TOJam organizer(s)! I realize Bigpants Games is both Jim and Em, so I don't want to assume which person posted.

    You don't have to apologize about the date. I understand that things like these are hard to organize. It was just bad coincidence, I suppose.

    Yeah, I kinda kept to myself at the Jam. It was my first rodeo; I was unsure how focused I had to be on my game. My understanding was that I had to be on it all the time. I see now that I was wrong (to an extent).

    And my game wouldn't have been salvageable even if I did aim for 80%. It would have been better to scrap and start over like you said previously.

    But I hope you know that I am still a big fan of the Jam. It may not be my cup of tea (at least not in this point in time), but I love the idea of it and I love that it exists. Thanks for keeping it alive.


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