Dork Shelf is Live from TOJam 9

tojam-9-logo

Welcome to Dork Shelf’s official TOJam blog! After a sleepy start on Friday, TOJam 9 (Party Like It’s 19-TOJam-9) is underway as teams rush to complete video games before 7pm on Sunday. We’ll have on-site coverage throughout the weekend, so be sure to check back here for updates, interviews, and behind-the-scenes thoughts from George Brown College.

For more, you can follow me on Twitter @Harry_Houdini.

SATURDAY

11:37 am – The Calm Before the Storm

Sleepy-TOJam

Game developers are apparently not an AM crowd. After getting close to capacity during the opening ceremonies on Friday night, the scene on Saturday morning is downright serene, like morning dew on the grass following a summer storm.

That morning dew will inevitably turn into Mountain Dew as the day progresses and the jam’s population climbs back into the hundreds. Until then, the persistent drone of background conversation has effectively been silenced.

The calm is a natural part of the ebb and flow of a weekend jam. Despite the limited timeframe, few participants are able to maintain a frenetic creative output and even fewer stay awake for the full 72 hours. Many Toronto residents will commute to and from the site throughout the weekend, indicating that there are limits to what people will put up with for the sake of art.

In all likelihood, Saturday morning is merely the best time to catch up on sleep, especially for those (like me) who need the weekend to recover from an ordinary Monday to Friday schedule. The pressures of tomorrow’s 7pm deadline are looming but not yet present. There are still a few hours available for procrastination.

In the meantime, Saturday morning at 11am is a peaceful and productive time to be jamming. The wi-fi is faster, there are fewer distractions, and there are free bagels in the lobby and fewer people waiting to get them. It’s an important opportunity to sit and enjoy a leisurely breakfast before the real work begins because such moments will be increasingly rare as Sunday evening approaches.

3:28 pm – Home Sweet Home

TOJam-tent

It’s tempting to think of TOJam in the singular. After all, annual events only happen once a year and much of the discussion focuses on the game jam as a shared communal experience. No one sleeps. Everyone faces creative adversity and local disadvantages.

The reality is that TOJam is more like a fleeting office facility composed of a diverse array of individuals. As with cubicles, everyone adopts unique nesting rituals in order to make temporary living quarters feel more like home.

Sound designer and veteran jammer Ryan Roth has taken that impulse to its logical extreme. For the past two years, he’s brought a 14-person tent to TOJam, pitching the portable residence on any patch of floor that happens to be available.

“It doesn’t reduce any of the noise, but it gives you an environment,” said Roth. “It’s nice to be at a jam with everybody, but it’s also nice to have a place.”

Jammers aren’t typically exposed to the elements – even Friday’s opening ceremonies were moved indoors to avoid the rain – so Roth isn’t entirely sure where the tent’s inspiration came from. However, TOJam’s lack of amenities will be familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to sleep outdoors.

“You camp out,” said Roth of game jams. “I went on Craigslist and I found the biggest fucking tent I could.”

So far, the investment has been worth it. The tent makes it easier to sleep on site, eliminating any commute and maximizing the amount of time spent at the jam. It’s also the kind of personal touch that infuses TOJam with much of its personality. George Brown College is aesthetically unremarkable from thousands of similar institutions, but an ordinary classroom becomes memorable when there’s a tent towering over the tables.

And when it’s finally time to get work done, it helps to have a space to call your own. The limited capacity minimizes distractions even when people come to investigate TOJam’s most conspicuous architectural feature.

That’s why the tent has become a fixture at Toronto jams (the tradition actually started at the Global Game Jam rather than TOJam). It’s a landmark that signifies that this space is different and allows jammers to feel more comfortable with a home away from home.

 5:23 pm – Friday’s Leftovers

Now that the arrival of Chinese food is imminent, it’s worth remembering that the goal at a Game Jam is to create a complete video game in circumstances that are far from ideal.

Case in point: TOJam has food, computers, electricity, and wi-fi for nearly 500 people. But on Friday night, there are no paper towels in the men’s washrooms. The sinks are instead adorned with jumbo rolls of toilet paper that, even when wadded, are highly inefficient sources of absorbency.

Of course, subpar drying materials are preferable to the less sanitary alternatives. The washrooms still had soap and running water, ensuring a baseline of basic hygiene while the organizers addressed the problem. There will be paper towels aplenty when jammers return on Saturday morning.

But the ordeal is indicative of the tumultuous nature of jams. You can try to prepare for everything. The gaming gods will proceed to punish you for your presumption.

Then again, that could be what makes a game jam so productive for the participants. Few public washrooms are designed to withstand the burden of 500 temporary residents, and none are able to provide the familiar comforts (and distractions) of a home facility. When procrastination loses its appeal, games get finished because no one is going to waste twenty minutes with a movement and a magazine.

 SATURDAY (RETCON)

8:28 pm – The Lonely Grind

As Saturday afternoon stretches into Saturday evening, it becomes increasingly clear that game jams are relative. No two are alike, and two people can have wildly divergent perspectives on generally similar proceedings.

These are the thoughts that strike in isolation. I’ve spent most of the weekend camped at a desk in an abandoned hallway without any power outlets. It’s provided a stark contrast to my only prior TOJam experience, when I jammed alongside David Gallant while we created Apocalypse Later in 2012. That collaboration required a constant flow of information. The conversation helped keep me sane.

Working as a solitary member of the press has fostered an intense desire for that kind of basic human interaction.

Despite the emphasis on community, TOJam is not an outward facing event. There are no consumers, nor is there much in the way of foot traffic or circulation. It’s a work retreat rather than a convention, so your frame of reference can be extremely idiosyncratic depending on the specifics of your project. Who are you working with? Where in the building do you happen to be working?

TOJam attempts to cultivate a sense of unity through food and the annual screening of Hackers, but there are limits to what the organizers can achieve given the demands on jammers. You need a certain tunnel vision in order to get anything done. Peek into any given room and you’ll find a lot of individuals with headphones and a lot of small groups with heads huddled together to block out any distractions.

There is community in the sense that there’s a building full of people. When you start to feel a little stir crazy, you can wander in search of someone willing to abet your procrastination. On Saturday, my efforts at socialization lead to a pint at a nearby bar and a distinct lack of productivity.

But to jam alone is to be cut adrift, a figure isolated in a crowd. We’re all together, but we’re all alone, each of us solely responsible for our respective creative process.

SUNDAY

2:01 pm – The Art of Failing Spectacularly

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Art by Yifat Shaik

TOJam seems like a relatively straightforward endeavor. You show up and you try to make a video game. But spend a few minutes wandering the halls and you’ll soon realize that there are many ways to interpret those parameters.

“I view TOJam as a rapid prototyping festival,” said Mathew Kumar of Team MK-Ultra. “Broach a problem while you’re here and see where you get with it.”

With TOJam, Kumar is looking to gauge process as much as product. Last year he arrived with three objectives that were largely incidental to the quality of the finished game.

“I came with the aim of testing myself to see if I could make something quickly, with my own design, that we could move on with,” said Kumar. “It’s always good to have a range of goals because if you hit one, but you don’t hit two and three, you’ve at least got something to build from.”

In 2013, Kumar hit all three with Knight and Damsel. The subversive platformer has evolved from a simple concept into a profession at MK-Ultra, the studio he founded expressly to polish the TOJam graduate. Kumar didn’t expect to achieve that kind of success, but his experiences at TOJam were enough to motivate him to see Knight and Damsel through to completion.

Kumar has returned for TOJam 9 to see whether he can replicate that trajectory with another project. He’s working with a mix of new and familiar faces (he also regards TOJam as a team building exercise), and he admits that heightened expectations have compounded the usual difficulties of a jam.

“I’m worried that we won’t finish anything,” said Kumar. Fortunately, he’s once again set reasonable goals to help keep everyone grounded. He’ll be happy as long as his team emerges with something, meaning that TOJam 9 is primarily an opportunity to figure out what he has with a new and potentially incendiary idea.

“I was interested in empathy games like Papers, Please or Sweatshop,” said Kumar. Unlike most critics, Kumar does not believe those games are fully deserving of the praise they’ve received, but he’s fascinated with idea of forcing players to engage with uncomfortable situations.

His 2014 TOJam game is inspired by Louis Theroux’s LA Stories: City of Dogs, a documentary about animal shelters in Los Angeles. The untitled game puts players in charge of a shelter and asks them to place as many dogs in adoptive homes as possible. No matter how desperately you want to save every animal, players will still have to put unwanted strays to sleep at the end of a given day.

“It’s not an easy topic, and it’s definitely a controversial one,” said Kumar. “It’s ripe for you to fail and to fail spectacularly. Why would you put yourself under that type of pressure?”

The answer, of course, is woven into the limitations inherent in jamming. Given the extreme time constraints, it’s nearly impossible to complete a video game as laid out in the initial design document. Since no one expects to ship following a jam, it’s much easier to wash your hands of an idea should it turn out to be a disaster.

“I think a jam is the perfect place to do that because if you fail, you spent three days and you gave it a shot. If you don’t fail, you have that thing to build upon.”

In other words, TOJam encourages participants to fail quickly, at minimal cost, long before a game becomes a cautionary tale following the closure of a studio. The low risk and high reward allows for experimentation that isn’t possible in a more traditional setting, and veterans like Kumar always appreciate a challenge.

 5:19 pm – Who is Jon Remedios?

This probably requires an explanation.

Photo by Jon Remedios
Photo by Jon Remedios

There are traits that are true of all game jams regardless of theme or location. Participants will always battle sleep deprivation. Venues will typically be overcrowded and jammers will ingest stomach-churning amounts of refined sugar and caffeine.

TOJam adds to that with its own annual consistencies, including Hackers and Chinese food. But every jam eventually develops its own unique and unexpected character. That character will emerge organically over the course of a weekend as conversations snowball into memes.

By Sunday, it’s clear that TOJam 2014 is all about Jon Remedios. Which is appropriate, because he’s a narcissist. (Sort of.)

So how did that happen?

It started with the Chop Shop, a clothing outfit and on-site TOJam sponsor that specializes in nerdy custom t-shirts. On a whim, Remedios and longtime friend Jason Kaplan ordered a matching set dedicated to Remedios’ (greatly exaggerated) self-regard. That was supposed to be the end of it, an ironic inside joke made tangible as clothing.

But game jams are unpredictable monstrosities. The concentration of creative individuals and adverse conditions leads to the recognition of unusual patterns as participants search for any splash of color to make the bleak progression of code more bearable. The Stockholm syndrome takes effect when game developers are locked in close proximity to so many friends and verbal sparring partners.

Toronto could hardly fail to notice Remedios and Kaplan’s delicately themed couture. Mutual friends wanted in on the joke, and since the Chop Shop had the design on file – helpfully provided by Remedios on Friday – there was little Remedios could do to prevent the inevitable escalation.

That’s how this:

Photo by Jason Kaplan
Photo by Jason Kaplan

Turns into this:

Photo by Myriame Pilgrim
Photo by Myriame Pilgrim

Turns into this:

Photo by Myriame Pilgrim
Photo by Myriame Pilgrim

The rest is history. The Chop Shop discounted the infamous t-shirt down to $15 as demand exploded across the jam, to the point that it’s currently unclear if the people wearing the t-shirts are friends with Jon Remedios or merely strangers trying to fit in. And frankly, the distinction is not important. This year’s jammers may not remember the games they made or the Red Bull they consumed. But they will remember that Jon Remedios is a narcissist because a bunch of idiots spent money to get the message printed on their chests.

It’s that commitment to illogical silliness that makes TOJam so memorable, even if the rituals seem foreign and arcane to those not present at the jam. The comedy is forged through shared experienced, and sometimes you have to be there to understand.

 MONDAY

6:55 pm – The Aftermath

I feel like I owe everyone an apology. I went to TOJam 9 hoping to file interviews and observations throughout the weekend, and while that’s more or less what I did, I had originally hoped to deliver far more of everything. I’m sorry I let you down.

Though if I’m being honest, I always knew the endeavor was doomed to end in failure. I wanted to play every game and chronicle every whimsy. As a sole member of the press covering a 500-person event, there was no way that was ever going to happen.

But I don’t have any regrets. I set an unreasonable goal and fell well short, and that seems in keeping with the spirit of the event. Mine is hardly the first TOJam project with scope beyond its aspirations.

It’s also a useful lesson for the future. If I’m ever going to do something like this again, I’m going to have to scale back the intended coverage or make sure that I’m not going it alone. TOJam makes fools of the ambitious.

What was the other lesson?

Journalism is not perfectly analogous to design. TOJam is first and foremost a creative space, and the unapologetic chaos is at odds with a reporter’s quest for accuracy and truth. The need to fact-check and edit articles slowed my productivity because typos that are forgivable in a non-commercial jam game are unacceptable in a piece of published criticism.

Unfortunately, meeting those standards became increasingly difficult by the end of Sunday. I was subject to the same cycle of delirium and fatigue as the jammers, and once TOJam madness sets in, the writing process is akin to chasing a light into a bog. It’s tempting to follow that crazy idea to its conclusion, but it’s unlikely to lead to prose that you’d want associated with your name in public.

Those qualitative pressures ultimately led to my sole disappointment with 2014. I wanted to record many more interviews with developers. TOJam collects hundreds of unique personalities on different life trajectories, and all of them have different motivations heading into a jam. The expectations of a first-year development student will differ from those of a multi-year veteran, and I had hoped to capture and illuminate some of that diversity before exiting the weekend.

Given another chance, I’d stockpile interviews on Friday and Saturday to ensure I have material heading into Sunday. The final day was three quarters gone before I had time to address the shortfall, and no one wants to talk to the guy with the recorder during the last few hours of crunch.

As it stands, I was only able to complete two interviews, both with subjects already established in game development. I’ll try to make up for the error with a pair of post-mortem exchanges in the days to come. The closing gallery on Sunday included dozens of incredible games that I never got a chance to play, and each one has a story that deserves to come to the fore.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to spend the rest of the night recovering. Monday mornings do not forgive weekend indiscretions.

_________

Congratulations to all of my fellow jammers! TOJam 9 was a blast, so here’s looking forward to an equally amazing TOJam 10!


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Comments

  • http://www.bigpants.ca Jim McGinley

    WOW. Absolutely fantastic article. You’ve managed to unearth and explain why people need to physically attend a game jam – something not easily explained nor understood. Be careful when you stare into TOJam, TOJam stares back. THANKS SO MUCH.

  • Pingback: TOJam 9: Jamming with Children | Dork Shelf()