Works and Days

Inside the Reed Summer GameJam, Hosted by Mark Chen '95

GameJammers test Joe Wasserman's econ-based barbershop game

Beginning August 1st, the small classroom in the Psychology building was transformed into a studio for aspiring Reed student and alumni game developers. The conversion of the tiny classroom into a software and tabletop game studio is without a doubt more mental than physical— the room remains largely empty, added décor consisting only of a mini-fridge topped with a bag of pretzels, a couple of pizza boxes, an empty coffee cup, and a “to do” list scrawled on the white board.

            “Maybe I should have tried to decorate. Put up some posters or something.” Mark Chen '95, who instigated this summer’s GameJam (which is sponsored by The Center for Life Beyond Reed and alumni & parent relations at Reed with help from colleagues in computer user services and facilities), remarked sheepishly at one point.

            But the lack of anything in the studio other than some snacks to refuel simply demonstrates the nature and focus of the GameJam. Fancy equipment or a specialized, personalized location is unnecessary. All that is needed for a successful GameJam is contained within the participants themselves.

            Mark explains to me that a typical GameJam lasts only forty-eight hours. “It’s much more intense. Seriously. Like…people don’t sleep.” He laughs. “So I guess this is no longer a ‘Jam’, it’s just more of a hang out and make games.” The GameJam that Mark has put together is running for three weeks.

            Everyone has slightly different motivations for their engagement in the GameJam. Joseph Joe, a current Reed sophomore, is developing a digital platformer game. When I ask him about his goals, he shrugs and says, “I’m just trying to see what I know, what I need to learn. I probably won’t finish… but it’s a good exercise.” Joe Wasserman, class of ’09, is working on a complex economics board game about barbershops, in which players compete for customer priorities. (Why barbershops? “I think I’d recently gotten a haircut,” explains Joe). Joe would like to one day see his game published. Mark is hoping to take his space-themed cooperative card game beyond the white walls of the Psych building as well, by having it finished in time to present it as a potential Kickstarter project.

            Despite nuances in ambitions and expectations for the end result of the GameJam, all the participants have gathered because they share a common interest: they want to make games. And everyone in the room agrees that the forum is hugely beneficial, if at the very least to help give flashes of inspiration or semisolid daydreams a more concrete, workable form.

            “It helps just to have the space and the people,” insists Joe Wasserman. “Before, my game was just a page of handwritten notes. Now I have three to four pages of fleshed-out rules and a playable prototype. It’s helpful just to talk through ideas, get feedback from people with different perspectives and gaming experiences. It’s very motivating.” 

            Which is exactly what Mark was hoping for in putting together this prolonged GameJam. “I just created a space,” he says modestly. “I’m not trying to be a leader.”

            But creating the space is vital, and the necessity of having others to collaborate with and help resolve the many complications arising in the path toward creating a playable game is evident as the GameJammers divide to play through two different game prototypes. Max Boddy, Josh Hepworth (sophomores), and Wes Hilton (’09) are tackling a game encompassing two genres. Its major characteristics are those of a deck building game, but it also incorporates elements of 4X, standing for eXplore, eXpand, eXterminate, and eXploit. Told to me in simple terms, the game consists of building up a city and going to war. The importance of taking a fine-toothed comb to every detail of the game is clear as I listen as the group goes to work, probing the format of the game for possible pitfalls or potential disturbances to the flow of gameplay. How many cards will each player end up with in his or her hand if a certain rule is applied? What happens after a player loses a war? What would the effect be of certain card combinations? Will the game remain fair and competitive, with each player’s power flexible but in check? What happens if there is a tie?

            Questions arise, addressing issues of the type that are difficult to see without an outsider’s perspective. More importantly, the issues are then resolved through the group’s synergy and discussion.

            Reed’s summer GameJam is proving that all it takes to get on the road to developing a playable, publishable game is an idea and few other people ready and willing to discuss, contemplate, collaborate, and play! In the words of GameJammer Kara Sowles, class of 2010, “Anyone can do it! All you need is to find some friends and block out some time.”

            Get inspired— that award-winning game might be just a few late nights and pizza dinners away. GameJammers at work

Tags: GameJam, game development, independent gaming, summer program, software design, summer opportunity,