First Local Game Jam Fosters Future Development, Community

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If you want to go somewhere, but have no transportation, you’re better off building a rollerskate than a car.

Seemingly obvious advice, but when put in the context of game development, it makes more sense. With a two-day deadline, it’s easy to let your eyes get bigger than your programming capabilities. I experienced this first-hand last weekend.

I had the great pleasure of attending the first annual ICT Game Jam here in Wichita, Kansas. Wichita is the biggest city in Kansas, and sports a lively community of gamers and a growing number of developers. It’s the home of Mindfire Academy, a local college specifically for aspiring developers. Wichita also houses Fireshark Gaming, an interactive gaming experience unlike anything I’ve played before, also developed locally. There’s several gaming stores that host competitions, and even a gaming pub.

The community obviously already exists. So, why not a Game Jam? In comes Jim Rice, the founder and organizer of ICT Game Jam.

Creating a Jam

Rice was familiar with Game Jams, but baffled as to why there were none in his community. On the hope that more people than just him would be interested, he got together with DevICT, a local web development and software group, to make his dream happen. And boy, did it ever.

On the evening of Friday, July 31, almost 40 people crowded into The Labor Party, a classy rental office space in downtown Wichita with a lot of orange flair. Some were artists. Others were programmers. Some had experience with sound, or writing. A few had developed games in the past; some were teachers; others had done little more than make a box run into another box in Unity. There was at least one high schooler, plenty of college students, and adults young and old.

Not only were people interested in competing, but Rice managed to convince plenty of sponsors to help make the Game Jam a reality. Five meals total were catered in from local restaurants, all paid for by donations. Butler Community College donated two $1,000 prizes for the two winning teams, plus some flair for honorable mentions. The community was behind this endeavor one hundred percent.

In the time restrictions given, it’s easy to come up with a grand, magical idea and get in over your head, Rice told the participants. Build something simple, but complete.

When I arrived, teams were already forming. Some groups had come in together, either as friends or actual studios with names and a credit or two. Other teams formed on the spot as pairs of friends discovered they had no artist, or needed another programmer to make their vision come to life. A total of seven teams began the jam, with an eighth to form on the second day as two developers realized they wanted to work on something different.

All over the room, tables were being pushed together and apart to house huge towers and dual monitors for some teams, and tiny laptops for others. Cables stretched everywhere as groups struggled to find the ideal setup of plug-ins and power strips. It was delightful chaos.

The din died down as Rice took the podium to explain the rules. First, everyone would vote on a theme. Then teams would have until noon on Sunday to create a game based (however loosely) on that theme. Pre-existing assets were permitted, but teams would have to disclose what they brought in with them, and how much they created during the jam. Other than that, teams were free to make whatever they wanted.

Rice had some useful advice, though: Don’t build a car. Build a rollerskate.

More from Features

In the time restrictions given, it’s easy to come up with a grand, magical idea and get in over your head, Rice told the participants. Build something simple, but complete. If you try to build an entire car, you’ll end up with only a wheel done when the Jam is over. Build a rollerskate instead. Translated into game design, Rice was encouraging participants to build a simple, but complete game over a very complex, but incomplete one.

Rice’s advice was supported by the judging criteria. Two prizes of $1000 each (split between teammates) were on the line. One would be awarded based on community voting, where anyone who wanted to could come by the Game Jam on the final day, test the games, and vote for their favorite. A panel of local judges, all with game development experience, would determine the second winner. Their primary concern? That a game was as complete as possible.

Participants began by suggesting and voting for themes. Some of the proposed themes were very specific, others left a little more wiggle-room. Ideas included: “ghost”, “BANANAS”, “A sport that’s not a sport”, “All on one screen”, “Trial By Fire”, “No Gravity”, “Steampunk zombies”, and “The Penguinator”.

The chosen theme? Useless Powers.

Useful Powers

I floated in and out of the Jam throughout the weekend, watching the progress of the participants. Everyone had quirky, exciting ideas almost immediately. Most groups quickly realized that their big ideas had to be scaled down to fit within the time limit. Though the environment at times could be stressful, everyone seemed to be having a great time making their visions a reality. For some, this was the first time they had ever gone from idea to playable video game. The transformation was fascinating to watch.

By the end of the Jam, it was apparent that this event was a massive turning point in creating an enthusiastic, connected development community in Wichita. Though many of the participants came in with teams formed, few of the teams knew the other teams. Tons of new connections were forged, and even though everyone was competing, no one was shy about sharing tips and advice for overcoming particular challenges. Plus, eight dev teams received notice and recognition from established developers, forming connections that will serve them well should they ever press forward into the development world.

For some, it was simply a chance to realize that they were not alone. Though Wichita obviously has a substantial amount of people interested in development, never before have they come together on such a scale. And many of the participants discovered that they were better at development than they thought they were.

Nowhere was this more evident than the final day, when everyone got to play the finished products.

Next: The contenders!