TOJam in Retrospect
After doing several Ludum Dares and other online jams, but never being satisfied enough with my output from any of them to publish it, I swore off game jams in general. A friend kept recommending I do TOJam, though, and it had at least one major difference from other jams I'd tried: A physical venue.
Maybe a physical venue would make a difference. Maybe I'd be less distracted with so many people around me also working on the jam. Maybe I'd see other people doing creative things and get more inspired. Maybe I'd get the chance to meet people there, and at least do some networking even if my project fails.
It did make a difference, and I do feel better about this jam than any of the others I've done before, but it left me exhausted, and it'll likely be some time before I consider doing another. Even then, I'll have to change how I organize my time to avoid my tendency to just keep crunching.
This post is a mini postmortem of the project and the jam in general.
How does Stargazing fit the jam theme?
In the past, I've treated jam themes very literally, implementing them as mechanics. I've found that this turns into a trap for me, as I focus on the implementation of the theme to the exclusion of my own creativity. This time, I decided to do something different, and think about the theme less literally. With the theme being "winning is for losers", I arrived at the idea of games that aren't about winning or losing in the first place; meditative games with a focus on player expression. Luc Palombo, my 2d art floater, was on board with that plan, but it wasn't until the morning of the day before the jam that the idea of stargazing and drawing constellations started to form. It was able to hold my attention throughout the morning and seemed small enough to be doable. I pitched it to Luc, and he seemed to like it, so we settled on that as final.
What were the anticipated risks, and how were they mitigated?
- Scope. I felt the scope might be too small for even a jam game, and I wanted something that didn't feel like I'd just slapped it together in an hour or two. Thankfully, resolving this just comes down to putting more time and effort into polish.
- Feel. I didn't think there was any chance of getting an immersive stargazing experience on a computer screen, especially in a crowded jam venue. Maybe with VR, but there was no way I was going to learn VR for a game jam. I knew I'd be leaning heavily on white-noise-like audio through headphones to try to isolate the player from the venue, environmental sounds, and avoiding any visible UI once the start button was pressed. This brings us to...
- UI. Whatever was done as far as UI would have to be as unintrusive as possible, but at this point, the UI plans included a basic color picker and a rigid-line vs freehand-brush toggle so that more advanced artists could do fancier things with their constellations. Thankfully, Luc, my assigned 2d floater, pointed out early on that these weren't really necessary, leaving us with no real need for UI outside the main menu.
What got cut from Stargazing?
- Color picker and freehand brush tools. They were part of the original plan, but, early on, we realized they wouldn't actually add much real value, and would actually distract from simple lines that already made things look like constellations out of a book.
- Voiceover intro and mythology. This was going to serve as a UI-free tutorial, and the source of constellation prompts for those who need them. We couldn't find a myth that had the right mood, however, and anything I wrote and voiced on my own just made me cringe. On the last day, having no more time to figure it out, I just cut it, and put in a simple text prompter instead.
- Snapshots. I'd planned to have a feature for collecting snapshots of constellations automatically, and finding a place to display them when a player finished a session, but never found the time to add it.
What went wrong?
- Voiceover. I wasted a lot of time doing the voiceover and audio editing that eventually got cut (probably about 5 hours in total). I was already uncomfortable when it was still in written form, and probably should have cut the feature at that point rather than after finishing all the recording and editing.
- Erasing. Most players never noticed that they could erase lines with the right mouse button. They noticed the drawing input, and didn't look for anything else. Thankfully, this wasn't a critical thing, but short of tutorializing it explicitly, I'm not sure how to ensure players will see it.
What went right?
- Godot. By this point, I've learned enough of Godot to have expected this, but it bears mentioning: My way of breaking down problems maps really well to Godot's scene structure, so working in it feels very natural to me and allowed me to develop more quickly and with fewer bugs than any other tool I've used. This was the first complete project I've completed with Godot, and has vastly bolstered my confidence in continuing to use it.
- Scope. Having a small scope really allowed me to think carefully about what to polish and how, rather than spending all the time rushing frantically.
- Luc. With this being my first TOJam, I didn't know how much I could expect from floaters, but Luc was on board from the initial concept, and enthusiastic about the project. He even went beyond 2d art to handle finding a background audio track that would work for the game.
After the jam.
I was really glad I'd taken an extra day off to recover from the jam. I was exhausted, and I didn't fully recover from it until the end of the week. I had no energy, neither physical nor creative, left, but still had work to do. Submitting the game on itch.io and setting up the store page. Fixing some bugs discovered during the after-jam open house. Making the game work well for streaming and screenshots (print screen wasn't working in fullscreen modes, and I wanted people to be able to manually take screengrabs of their constellations even though I'd had to cut the built-in functionality).
What did I get out of doing the jam?
- I got to meet new people. The focus on getting things done at the jam meant there were few chances to meet people, but even so, I got to put names to at least a few more faces in the Toronto gamedev community, and in rare cases have a longer chat on one topic or another. I've only recently started trying to engage with the community outside the people I work with directly, so every opportunity to do this is valuable.
- I finally have a project that is finished and released under my own name, rather than just being credited on somebody else's project. This is a first for me, and it feels like a significant milestone.
- I got to make something I don't think I'd have made in any other context. It's not something commercially viable. A jam is the only way I could justify doing it.
What did I learn from it?
- Jams (the way I do them) are unhealthy crunch. This isn't a new lesson, but even with an idea I'd thought was too small for a game jam, I still stayed late nights, and still had no energy left at the end. Despite all that I got out of it, I'm not sure I'll do another jam any time soon, if ever. Even then, I'll need to make something still smaller, and define a rigid schedule that doesn't involve crunching.
- It's a lot easier to make progress on a project you actually want to work on. I've recently been working on a personal project that had changed into something I didn't really care about making. After the jam, I know I have to cancel that project (again). I've only got limited time to work on my own ideas, so I should be pickier about which ideas I actually work on.
Bonus: What other games left an impression on me during the post jam showcase?
- A multiplayer game where you play as ducks collecting ducklings in a pond and then jumping off a waterfall (I was especially interested in this one because this team was also using Godot). https://teamawesome.itch.io/ducks
- A 3d multiplayer game where you played as a viking trying to knock your opponents off a platform while physics logs get in your way. https://teamplaincat.itch.io/norse-force
- A falling blocks game where you both place the blocks and dodge them as they fall on top of your character. https://bluishgreenpro.itch.io/droption
- A 2-player game where you play as either a shark that bites or a vending machine that falls over and you try to eliminate more NPCs than your opponent. I'm told this was based on a weird statistic about shark-related vs vending machine-related fatalities. (Disclaimer: This was made by people I know from outside the jam). https://wobbier.itch.io/statistically-improbable
There was also a project that stuck out from the submissions I tried during the week after the jam:
- A puzzle game about collecting coins with the help of blocks that can defy gravity as long as they're connected to each other. https://mrtedders.itch.io/pillar-of-truth
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