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Energy drinks, ramen noodles and programming: NHTI holds semi-annual Game Jam

Last modified: 11/17/2015 12:41:00 AM
When people walk away from you, they appear to get smaller – that’s how you know they’re farther away. But how quickly do they seem to shrink, and by how much?

This is the sort of question that was pondered this weekend on the second floor of Little Hall at NHTI as some 15 people, from freshmen to alumni to people with no connection to the school, participated in the semi-annual Game Jam, a 48-hour scramble to create computer games from scratch.

From 5 p.m. Friday to Sunday evening, gamers filled a half-dozen classrooms, surrounded by stereotypical geek food like dry breakfast cereal, chips, sodas and energy drinks, and the obligatory ramen noodles – plus, noted one participant, “clementines and bananas to ward off scurvy.”

There aren’t many rules, but one is that everybody must get at least four hours of sleep and one shower per day. Showers were available in nearby dorms.

“People laugh when I give that rule, but I’m serious,” said Gregory Walek, professor of animation and graphic game programming at NHTI, who ran the Game Jam.

This year, a few participants brought cots and blow-up mattresses but at one previous Game Jam, Walek added, “I found one person sleeping under a desk.”

Not a contest

In loosely organized teams that shared far more than they competed, people spent the two days working on computer code, artwork, sound and music, story design and more, all with the goal of creating a cool game, or at least something to intrigue their peers, between 5 p.m. Friday and 5 p.m. Sunday.

“It’s not a contest,” said Walek, who coordinates the two Game Jams held at the school each year. “It’s a community.”

On Saturday, Jake Albany of Manchester, a participant taking a short break to discuss the niceties of blitz game development with a reporter, agreed.

“Competitive Game Jams are more hostile. . . . I’ve left with more enemies than friends,” he said. “This is more fun.”

The excitement in the room was palpable when it came time to show the games. The designers spread out around one of the rooms while teams took turns demonstrating their final products on a big screen.

The games ranged from simpler rail shooter games (clicking on pop-up targets in a maze), to an entire virtual reality based on Citizens of Antiford lore, featuring a orphaned child and many mystical creatures.

Then, there was another live action game that drew on current events closer to home.

Dubbed “Theocracy,” the game was played by four people, posing as Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Each player had to answer questions – debate style. The winner was chosen by how loud the audience clapped and laughed, and bribes could be accepted (as long as the public didn’t find out).

Big business

Computer games are very big business these days – bigger than Hollywood, if you compare game sales to movie receipts. Interest is so high that professional players can make six-figure incomes on a competitive circuit, and a cable channel called Twitch does nothing but show computer games being played.

NHTI is one of several colleges in New Hampshire that offer a game-design degree as part of the computer department; game jams are one way it stands out.

Jams have been a part of game development since 2002, when a group of programmers stormed through the creation of a new game engine in Oakland, Calif., during what has since been labeled the Zero-th Indie Game Jam. (The title plays on programmers’ usual method of counting, in which they being with zero rather than one).

Walek brought Game Jams to NHTI starting in 2007 partly because they’re fun but also because they show the entire production cycle in condensed form, fitting into the school’s associate degree in game design.

“How do writers get better? They write, write, write. How do game developers get better? Make games, make games, make games,” he said.

The second jam at NHTI each year, held in January, is part of the Global Game Jam, at which hundreds or even thousands of jams are held around the world at the same time.

A big part of a Game Jam, as with any development project, is settling on the scope of work – setting realistic goals and parameters. This is harder than it seems.

“If we want miles and miles of complex trails, that’s not going to work,” said Jake Albano of Manchester. The game his team was working on, he said, had a universe exactly four times the size of the screen.

“It requires time management. Knowing your capabilities and pushing your capabilities to a certain degree,” said Zack Wheeler of Manchester, who got a game design degree from NHTI, is a software developer in Manchester and who has attended several Game Jams.

Making these high-level decisions about the scope of the project is hard, said Wheeler, who admitted, “We’re not super great at scoping. Sometimes we just end up with something that’s more of a tech demo than a game.”

Steampunk theme

The overall theme or feel of the Game Jam was set this year by Citizens of Antiford, a steampunk-themed creative fiction group that started at Keene State University in 2010 and has since spread online. They acted as hosts, answering questions about tone and details (Victorian-style machinery is good, Klingon spaceships not so much), drawing from the detailed world that has been developed on their website.

Some final games were loosely based on steampunk culture or the fictional world of Antiford, a desert country featuring plenty of goggles, airships, crazy gadgets and, of course, a requisite shady government.

“It feels like Australia out there,” Citizens co-founder and Merrimack-based software engineer Sam Sarette said of Antiford. “Everything’s trying to get you.”

The group figured Game Jam would be a good way to add some video games to their website.

“We have stories, YouTube videos, a handful of songs, an encyclopedia,” Sarrette said. “It would be great if we could get some games.”

Working in a Game Jam rarely involves programming down the command-line level, but instead makes use of game engines, the term for a software framework that speeds up the work enormously. Many game engines exist, including one developed by participants at this weekend’s jam.

Consider the problem of having a character shrink as it moves up the screen, to give the visual impression that the character is walking away from the player. Instead of having to develop an algorithm to calculate the rate of shrinkage, a game engine contains software which automatically calculates the change after the developer places a horizon on the screen.

Games developed at the jam can come in a variety of formats, from adventure to point-and-click to puzzles, and many were created in what is jokingly called 2½-D, since there isn’t time or resources to create real 3-D effects.

The real lesson, Wheeler said, is outside the computer. “We’re learning how to work as a team. We’re going to need that, might as well learn it early.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek. Staff writer Ella Nilsen contributed to this report.)


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