During the 2011 Global Game Jam, Michael Molinari and I managed to create The End of Us. He arrived 2.5 hours late to the jam, I was running the jam, both of us slept both nights, and yet we made it to the finish line with a fully fleshed and fun little experience.
People asked how we pulled it off. Besides “Magic”, one fact is pretty telling of our process:
the first line of code was not written until after midnight
Let’s put that in perspective. We only had 43 hours to create a game, between 7pm Friday (code start) and 2pm Sunday (code submit). We slept (underneath desks on yoga mats) for seven hours the first day and five the second, which brought us down to 31 hours. Of those, a sixth was spent not actually creating anything.
What were we doing until midnight? Besides trying to reset the router every 10-15 minutes, we mostly just talked. Half of it wasn’t even traditional brainstorming so much as, “there was this time when…” when I thought, when I felt, when I was. What did we want people to think? To feel? What were we trying to say? What did extinction actually mean? Was it even possible to comprehend?
As humans, and gamers on top of that, we’re all motivated by giant countdown clocks. The moment we get a time limit, especially a 48 hour one, we feel the need to rush, create, work, NOW. I’ve heard playtesting emphasized over and over again – just get something you can play and go from there. Iterate, iterate, iterate. And sometimes in that wild rush to churn code we forget to think, to talk, to design with intent.
There are innumerable accolades about developers stumbling upon brilliant design and mechanics purely by accident, by bugs in code, by tweaking the wrong variable. For creations whose merit lies predominantly in their functionality – the mechanics, the system, the interactivity – experimenting and iterating is a brilliant, proven way to go.
For creations whose merit lies predominantly in their ability to evoke emotion, it can lead to mediocrity.
Had we let playtests dictate where our game should go, we might have trashed the idea straight out. Too boring. We might have added a high score, powerups, fast-paced pew pew action. We might have become like so many other games. Had we just put our first idea up as soon as we thought of it, we might have wound up with a sunset simulator or overzealous ambitions for an RTS.
But because we thought through several ideas and, quite frankly, allowed our game to just suck until a few hours (minutes!) before the deadline, we made it to the design we’d had in mind from the start, complete with the fine tuning and polish, the aesthetics, that define the game and made a half dozen commenters allegedly tear up.
So how did we do it? We took it easy. We went slow. We spent five hours having ridiculous philosophical discussions on the cognitive capacity to comprehend annihilation. We slept. We kept it tiny. We were two people. We put huge emphasis on music. We designed with intent.
If you haven’t, check it out, and tell us if we succeeded.