Portlanders create video games at the 2014 Global Game Jam

Last week, a little over 80 Portlanders packed themselves into two rooms on the second floor of the Art Institute of Portland to participate in the Global Game Jam, a worldwide video game development event. The jam began on the evening of Jan. 24 and lasted 48 consecutive hours, during which participants were tasked with designing, developing and completing their respective games from scratch.

During the jam, games are developed around a prompt revealed at the start of the event. This year’s prompt was “we don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Prompts from previous years include an audio clip of a heartbeat and an image of Ouroboros, the snake consuming its own tail.

There were no requirements for participating in the event. Event organizers provided computers pre-installed with game development tools, such as Stencyl and Unity. Food was provided at designated times, and there were recommended napping periods.

Jammers’ backgrounds varied greatly, some being game jam veterans who had developed and released their own games previously.

Ian Brock and Josh Schonstal, the creative forces behind the local game company Incredible Ape, developed an augmented reality game called Awkward Butt Touching. Schonstal and Brock have been making games together since high school and have been participating in game jams since 2009.

“It’s a good, galvanizing event that kind of forces you out of whatever, or wherever, you happen to be,” Brock said. “You have no excuse. You just have to do it.”

Schonstal said game jams act as breeding grounds for ideas.

“Every successful game we’ve made has started at a game jam,” Schonstal said.

The first game the two ever released, PewPewPewPewPewPewPewPewPew, began as a game jam game. The release of the game garnered more attention than the duo had anticipated. In 2011 the game was nominated as a finalist at IndieCade, the international festival of independent games. The game’s success opened doors, and the two were able to meet many other game developers at the event.

Both Brock and Schonstal agreed that, during a game jam, time management is crucial. Brock admitted that, with the time restriction, it’s tempting to want to work through the full 48 hours, but that doing so is a mistake.

“Your productivity goes down so quickly when you’re really tired,” Brock said. “It’s worth it to get a full night’s rest.”

Games took on many forms at the jam, with virtual reality games being a popular option. Several participants opted to develop games for the Oculus Rift, a wearable headset that tracks head movements.

Kent Bye brought his Oculus Rift to the jam having never developed a game for it. With his team, Bye was able to create a game called Shadow Projection in which players match shapes by looking at them. Bye said he was fascinated by the Rift’s immersive and educational potential.

“Virtual reality is such a new medium that it’s basically the Wild West of gaming,” Bye said.

Yori Kvitchko worked as programmer for Shadow Projection. Kvitchko acknowledged that virtual reality is new enough that it suffers from potential pitfalls such as inducing motion sickness and eye strain. To minimize negative side effects, the team adhered to the advice found in the Oculus Rift VR Best Practices Guide, a book aimed at new Oculus Rift developers that is commonly distributed with the device.

“A lot of the problems that we might have run into were alleviated by knowing those details,” Kvitchko said.

For many participants, game jams were a relatively new experience.

Jonathan Allard worked as a programmer on Kamma, a 2-D puzzle game about reincarnation. Allard said that the Portland Global Game Jam was his second game jam. He described both jams as positive experiences.

“We had a really good team,” Allard said. “Everyone was really open. Most of us had done one or more game jams, so that definitely helped. But overall everyone was nice and just generally open to ideas. There was no friction at all.”

Allard said that he’s excited to participate in another game jam.

The jam was organized by the Portland Indie Game Squad, or PIGSquad, a local group that promotes game development in Portland. The jam was sponsored in part by SIGGRAPH, a special interest group that promotes the creation and exchange of information on computer graphics and interactive techniques.

“We’re interested in all forms of using computer graphics, so gaming is one of our genres,” said Demetra Gilmore Arnett, chair of Cascade SIGGRAPH, a local chapter of the organization that includes Portland, Oregon and areas of Southwest Washington.

Gilmore Arnett said she first learned about the Global Game Jam when its organizers came to talk at one of SIGGRAPH’s larger conferences. She soon discovered that PIGSquad had been successfully hosting a branch of the event locally and partnered with the group. SIGGRAPH has been sponsoring Portland’s Global Game Jam for the past three years.

The finished games were made playable to the public at an event following the jam. Participants then uploaded their games to the Global Game Jam website. Games archived on the site can be downloaded and played at any time for free.