Nordic Game Jam – Two Danes, a Hungarian, a Mexican and an Irishman walk into a game jam…

What a weekend! It’s amazing that spending your weekend staying up late making games can leave you with an energy boost! Nordic Game Jam is another strong argument for Copenhagen being the centre of the universe for game development (or pretty close). 105 games were created in many different styles: shooters, adventure games, party games, visual novels… great variety!

For the uninitiated, a game jam is an organised time for making games around a certain theme. The spirit of a jam is to arrive unprepared and collaborate with new people on a brand new concept. The theme for Nordic Game Jam this year was “That Again”. Abstract. A blank canvas. Brilliant!

Rasmus, Luis and myself had been chatting the past fews weeks about design goals for game jams in general. Something that has become very important to us is simplicity in mechanics. Addition is far too easy when designing games. Distilling a mechanism to it’s pure components and fully exploring the design space can be far more rewarding. Jonathan Blow, designer of the The Witness, speaks to this in several of his talks (thanks Ryan!).

After joining up with Bence & Casper (also in our MSc Games at ITU) we sat out in the sun to dream up a really simple mechanism. We took inspiration from programming mechanics in boardgames such as the Eyrie Dynasty in Root and Robo Rally. Rasmus and myself felt that there is a lot of fun to be got out of following rules you have previously set – the restriction is a puzzle the player creates for themselves. This was the games core. Anything else would be another dimension.

Level 1 of Pineapple

Pineapple is a “wholesome” puzzle game with a simple interface. You can command the avatar to travel in a certain direction. The twist is that it will remember your previous instructions. As you progress through the levels, the difficulty is increased by increasing the buffer size and the number of walls.

I wanted to write about a couple of things I learned this weekend

  • It is important to communicate and establish your priorities at the start of the jam. For example: we are hard at work on our exam project submissions in ITU and we didn’t plan on spending our weekend pulling all nighters for this jam. Instead we wanted to make good use of the time we were there, make something cool and have enough juice to have fun with new people.
  • Our goal of simplicity was at the front of our minds at this jam. We gave everybody unlimited veto power to pineapple any new proposals i.e. to mark a complex idea as a stretch goal (or really something to tackle after the jam). This might sound like we were aiming low but we ended up really proud of the polish and ‘completeness’ of this little game.
  • Working on the sequencer was a fun, little project. An early idea was to make this game have a timing requirement – you would have to enter a new command before the sequencer reached the end. I had built a prototype with colours signifying the different inputs and after showing it to the team, we could quickly see this timed version was flawed: very punishing, felt random and was not the central idea of the game. Fortunately this system was easily flipped into the current version – triggered by the player. Turning this restriction into agency felt far better to play with.
  • The sound design for the game was kept very toned down – I wanted every element to give some form of feedback to the player without dominating the game. I wrote a short, airy melody with a vinyl scratch effect to match the atmosphere evoked by the VHS effect. Lots of people commented that this was very “atmospheric” and this puzzle was “a little escape”. Many people though that the scratch was being generated by the VHS static and glitching on the screen! Being conscious of the relationship between your visuals and audio can enable you to accomplish a lot with very little.
  • We introduced walls as a secondary challenge. An early playtest with this mechanic on Saturday night revealed the player didn’t know if their command was being ignored when they were colliding with the wall. Our initial reaction was to put in a particle effect. After trying a couple of versions of this, we realised that it just didn’t fit the minimalism of the game. Instead I reused the animation I created for invalid sequencer input. Even though I was cutting a corner here, this ended up looking much more consistent with the rest of the game!
  • 5 is a really good number of people to work on a game with during a jam. Enough hands on deck when needed and enough room for every member to express themselves in the game’s design. Well done guys! It was a lot of fun!

If you are interested in giving it a go, please download from the page where it is available for PC and Mac. We are currently working on more levels and if you have feedback, we would love to hear it!

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