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TOJam Developer Diary: Day One

Apocalypse Later

I had originally intended to write one development diary chronicling my experiences as a first-time game developer at TOJam, but one article simply couldn’t contain everything that happened throughout the weekend. What follows is consequently the first in a three-part series telling the story of Apocalypse Later, a new adventure game about an ineffectual child hellbent on global domination. You can play Apocalypse Later here, or you can continue reading to learn more about the people (and the process) behind the game.

All times are approximate. All memories and sentiments are true. Let’s begin.

Friday, May 11 – Day one of TOJam

8:15am: Wake up time. TOJam doesn’t start until 10. I toy with the idea of a morning work out but laziness and TOJam curiosity win out.

10:05am: Twitter informs me that my teammate @DavidSGallant (aka David Gallant) has already arrived at #TOJam. Twitter will be a constant companion throughout the weekend. In fact, I’m not even certain that #TOJam exists without a hash tag. I think I spent three days there, but it might have been a Twitpic hallucination.

10:35am: I finally make it to TOJam, where there’s a short lineup for registration. Thankfully, the process is relatively painless. I sign a waiver allowing the organizers to use my likeness in future TOJam material before being handed a nametag and a lanyard that officially makes me a part of TOJam 2012.

10:36am: TOJam veteran and 2012 super volunteer Alex Bethke pulls me aside to confirm that we’re still on for an interview with TOJam co-founder Jim McGinley for Saturday at 8:30. I’m pleased to say that we are.

10:40am: While the primary host of TOJam is bunking up on the fifth and sixth floors of the George Brown College School of Design, Apocalypse Later is situated on the ground floor in a small lounge with far too many windows that will become known as the fishbowl.

10:41am: I find David and #ApocalypseLater is officially underway. David is a programmer who works primarily in Flash and he plans to build our game using Actionscript 3 and Flixel. I don’t really know what that means, but David does and that’s good enough for me. David and I formed Team Apocalypse Later back in April and had a brief brainstorming session prior to the Jam, so we’re more or less on the same page heading into the weekend. I’ll be providing the general design concept and writing the entire script, while David will be taking care of all of the other stuff that makes Apocalypse Later a game.

To keep things manageable, we’ve opted to build a top-down point-and-click adventure game about a boy trying – and failing – to bring about the Apocalypse. The structure will place an emphasis on dialogue and story – I have no programming experience so I’m not good for much else – and we’re planning to limit the scope to one or two rooms so we can pack those rooms with as much gameplay content as possible.

Apocalypse Later draws heavily on the 2012 TOJam theme, “The World’s NOT Ending.” A true Apocalypse consequently isn’t in the cards, but I won’t know how the game plays out until I write it so I crack open my laptop and create a new document in Word.

10:53am: In a spurt of severe randomness, I decree that our main character’s name shall be Gary.

11:01am: A team of volunteers is frantically trying to set up an Internet connection for the fishbowl after the George Brown network proves to be finicky and unresponsive. The whole kerfuffle is illustrative of the unique limitations of an art jam that relies on digital technology, and there is much grumbling and general consternation until a wireless router is placed on top of the recycling bins.

11:55am: David and I collectively decide that lunch and coffee should be the first items on our to-do list. Subway and Starbucks facilitate our procrastination.

12:31pm: After a few aborted attempts at humour, I’ve settled into a writing groove that carries me through the day. Given the demands on our time, the process is inevitably scattershot and I’m raining down references with all the focus and precision of an epileptic monkey dancing on a keyboard. The dance culminates in a script that includes references to Evil Dead, The Walking Dead, and 16 and Pregnant, as well as an entire sequence that doesn’t make sense until the fifteenth viewing of Hackers. Other highlights include a brief-but-heartfelt shout-out to Mother’s Day, a tribute to MCA, and numerous tips of the cap to the occasionally inane logic of adventure games.

The whole experience feels a bit like improv since there’s not enough time to craft the sort of multi-tiered narrative associated with more polished entertainment. Most of the punch lines are either pop culture references or TOJam in-jokes and I’m desperately trying not to take myself too seriously. I want Apocalypse Later to be fun, so I’ll be happy as long as I can communicate a certain level of manic energy and general madcap silliness within the game.

Apocalypse Later

12:46pm: I was expecting chaos but thus far TOJam is almost disarmingly tame. It turns out that many of this year’s Jammers have what are colloquially referred to as “real jobs,” so the bulk of the TOJam populace won’t be appearing until business hours have concluded.

1:04pm: Dissatisfied with lunch, David and I make a supermarket run to stock up on energy for Friday. It is the first of many astonishingly poor food decisions. I devour half a bag of almonds despite already being full of ham sandwich and my stomach now feels mildly distended.

2:05pm: Our artist, Mladen Stambolija of Blinker Studios joins Team Apocalypse Later. Mladen had originally registered as ‘floater,’ a free agent offering freelance artwork to other TOJam teams. This year, over-registration forced the organizers to cut back on the number of floaters so Mladen was added to Apocalypse Later to help manage the overflow.

This is our first meeting with Mladen and he proves to be an invaluable addition to the team. He’s willing to roll with the concept that David and I have in place and – more importantly – he’s able to create a visual representation of a world that currently exists solely in our heads. Mladen provides consistently awesome 2D pixel art that infuses Apocalypse Later with a distinct old-school aesthetic, although I won’t get to see much of his work until much later in the day.

Mladen does tell us that a friend of his is a sound designer, so we file the information away for use later in the weekend.

3:43pm: One of the TOJam attendees has decided to provide Eggs Benedict for everyone at TOJam. I don’t know the identity of this mystery chef, nor do I know how this monumental feat of culinary engineering was accomplished in a George Brown hallway. All I know is that the eggs – topped with hash browns, smoked salmon, and hollandaise sauce – are delicious. I return to my computer and immediately write new dialogue to incorporate Eggs Benedict into Apocalypse Later.

4:47pm: The population of the registration lobby grows to a crescendo as the gainfully employed participants begin drifting into the venue.

6:15pm: Team Apocalypse Later is in full swing. I’m still plugging away at the script, Mladen is bringing Gary’s house to life, and David is building a dialogue system and writing code that allows our protagonist to move.

The early artwork and gameplay treatments look amazing, but I’ll admit that I get a little nervous monitoring the progress of other teams. Apocalypse Later has an extreme demarcation of labor, so while some people already have nearly finished games we’re just going to have to pray that our disparate elements come together as intended.

7:14pm: It’s time for the opening ceremonies. The volunteers drag us to a parking lot behind the Toronto Sun building while Jim McGinley stands above us with a megaphone and reads the list of official TOJam sponsors. Jim isn’t sure if we’re allowed to gather in this parking lot so we all breathe a communal sigh of relief when the helicopter passes overhead. We’re harmless, but I can imagine how a horde of 400-plus people and a megaphone might be misconstrued.

We’d all like to get back to making games, but the impromptu ceremony is otherwise a memorable way to kick off the weekend. TOJam now feels like an event, while I feel like one of many in an exclusive crowd of game developers. Considering that I’m normally a journalist, it’s an unexpectedly invigorating sensation.

TOJam 2012

8:30pm: The organizers have promised us free coffee but numerous elevator trips to the sixth floor kitchen have yet to yield any caffeine. There is a candy stand set up in the octagonal room on the fifth floor, so I stock up on popcorn and Rice Krispies Treats that I don’t particularly need or desire.

I do, however, manage to ignore the free cans of Red Bull. I prefer my caffeine without sugar and I’m sick enough with the Rice Krispies Treats and popcorn, so I shudder as I ponder the potential effects of Red Bull on my stomach lining.

10:22pm: It’s around this time that I head to the washroom and conclude I won’t be using the bathroom stalls at TOJam. During every trip to the urinal there’s invariably some anonymous stranger unleashing a diarrheic cacophony in the stall next to me and the smells sliding underneath the frame are enough to convince me that I don’t want to be the guy on the other side of the door. My apartment is blessedly a short subway ride away, so I resolve to delay more pressing concerns until I’m safely ensconced in the privacy of my own home.

This, as you might suspect, is the unsavoury part of TOJam that they don’t tell you about in the brochures. Strip away the creative atmosphere and TOJam is essentially a high-tech commune with 400 people under one roof and the three proper toilets simply aren’t adequate for the demands of the collected population. As a mild germ-o-phobe, I’m willing to travel for an alternate solution and some privacy.

11:04pm: I’ve now run consecutive Google searches for “Crystal Meth” and “whiskey still designs,” both of which generate information that will eventually appear in Apocalypse Later. I’ve been given free reign to write whatever the hell I want and I plan on abusing the privilege.

11:45pm: A late night falafel run is the closest I get to dinner. The falafel, unfortunately, is dry and disappointing.

12:31am: I call it quits at 1,950 words. I’ve written six of our seven adventure puzzles, but I’d like to get some sleep tonight so I grab the last subway home and make plans to return at 10am. David tells me to look into a program called Notepad++ so I budget some extra time to download software in the morning.

All in all, it’s an eventful and satisfying day one of TOJam.


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