February’s mini jam

By Phil Stuart, How we did it

At Preloaded we occasionally find ourselves with some time in which we can create something outside the normal constraints of project work. Last week we had two days to create something completely different to our normal remit and decided to have a mini game jam.

Small team? Make small games

We orientated the jam entirely around the team members available. We had two artists, two developers and a producer. We considered doing one large game, but during idea generation we decided that two small teams creating a game each would be the strongest loadout. Not only do the participants get to produce games they can call their own, but it meant we could create two incredibly contrasting games and thereby learn much more than we would with one, bloated product.

Mixing up roles

A great part of the jam process is team members flexing muscles they may not usually get to use in their day to day role. This could be anything from idea generation, to coding, art or even sound. Fiona, the producer participating in the jam, took the opportunity to get involved in sound production on both of the games we ended up making, creating an array of sound effects and music.

Fiona making some piano magic

The workshop process

To kick off we went in with a similar idea generation process that we use when tackling a pitch of just working a concept up into something tangible. We start by covering the wall with post-its covering inspirational games, mechanics and themes to give us some ideas and motivation. Then, importantly, without any specific goal in mind, we start chatting about fun mechanics or themes. There is no such thing as a bad concept at this stage, it’s all about loosening up and getting into the flow. We’ve found that sometimes the most ridiculous or seemingly unachievable ideas can spark something new or inadvertently solve a design problem or blocker in another concept.

Cutting room floor

Before going into detail on the games we actually made, let’s take a look at some of the concepts that didn’t make the cut. These either didn’t have a definable core gameplay mechanic or just weren’t achievable within the time.

  • Jellybaby Cannibal
  • Burger Sorting Simulator
  • Steal your Neighbour’s Cat
  • Dinosaur Skateboarding
  • Roman Bacchus feeding simulator

In the end we made our final decisions based on what we’d feasibly be able to complete in the 2 working days we had to actually make the games. Some of the concepts were bizarre and sounded like they’d be a blast to play, but given the scope we had to pare back and create something shareable and relatively complete.

Jazz Manatee

This idea that sparked so many ridiculous game mechanics we just had to attempt it. Jon, one of the devs in the team, was confident he could make it work in the time so we ran with it. Initially we liked the idea of a large cumbersome animal having to perform a beautiful piano concert in front of some animal friends by slapping the keys in an attempt to make something coherent. The manatee seemed like a perfectly sympathetic and clumsy hero for the game, so it was set underwater and the rest of the theming just fell together.

In terms of team Jon (code), Laura (Art) and Fiona (Sound) worked to realise the concept. I created the initial art concept and from there Laura produced an array of simple but charming characters and props. The mechanic evolved into a dexterity and reaction based rhythm game that forces the player to never use the same key twice- think Parappa the Rapper in an alternate hell dimension where you have to improvise constantly to stay in the game. Your judgmental father is present at the Game Over screen to chastise you over your performance, egging the player on to prove to him you’re a worthy manatee to carry on the family name!

LupusLupus

As a stark contrast to Jazz Manatee, LupusLupus was born from a mixture of creepy inspirations, including Sentinel and other nightmarish game experiences. The concept was a hunting/survival horror game, the player assumes the role of a ravenous wolf out for blood, who must consume rabbits and dash from tree to tree in search for Red Riding Hood. The more rabbits consumed the more your bloodlust increases and Red’s location is revealed to your heightened sense. The team for Lupus was Matt (code), Fiona (Sound) and myself on 3D art.

A reverse of the Jazz Manatee process, this time Laura created the concept art, in her unique illustration style, and I interpreted it into final game art. Creating navigation and level design in even the simplest 3D game is no mean feat, we decided to use the Zelda ‘hookshot’ style to navigate the environment. This meant simpler, more easily understandable controls and, potentially, a smoother transition to mobile if the opportunity ever arises. To add jeopardy we decided grannies could be the stoic sentinels patrolling the forest, a twist on the classic fairytale. They had to be avoided at all costs, so a balance of this, hunting rabbits and dashing between trees delivered a relatively rich and varied experience given the time frame available.

Did we learn anything?

Jazz Manatee progressed far quicker than LupusLupus, largely due to the fact that it revolved around a single core mechanic and that the environment and props were all 2D. No navigation, AI routines or complex controls. We learned that having a single mechanic and not creating environments allows for a lot more breathing room in terms of realising the heart of a concept.

Level design was one of the biggest hurdles for Lupus. As well as having to create the world and its inhabitants, tools had to be built to allow level design to take place. Matt created grannies and waypoints for them to follow, making it as easy as possible for me to design a quick level. Even so, the process of designing and balancing even the simplest layout was time consuming, and we learnt so much about what made the game fun with each tweak and playtest, but time was against us.

What’s next?

So why did we do all this? Well, aside from using our downtime to increase the teams’ skills and seeing what we could make completely unfettered by a defined concept or brief, the main thing we wanted to develop was our actual jam process.

This is incredibly important for us in terms of developing our own IP, as it shows us the scale of game we can create in just a few days, our limitations and also how much we can learn about a concept by actually putting it into practice. For future mini jams we plan to possibly work on a game with purpose. A loose, improvisational approach that allows us to be creative and generate concepts in different ways to our usual process.

Phil is the co-founder and Creative Director of Preloaded. A fanatical gamer and a champion for the power of games which do more than just entertain, he is responsible for the studio’s ‘Games with Purpose’ vision.

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