Category «Game Jam»

Podcast #7 – BPB-Jam – Flucht und Vertreibung

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(We only podcast in German. You wouldn't want it otherwise, trust us. ;))

Friedrich hat den sehr produktiven und thematisch spannenden Jam von der Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung zwar schon in einem Artikel beschrieben, aber um noch etwas mehr ins Detail zu gehen, war uns der Jam noch einen weiteren Podcast wert. Zudem habe ich mit Elise, Florian und Kate vor Ort Interviews geführt, die ihr hier hören könnt.

Elise ist Medienpädagogin und beschreibt ein wenig, dass - überraschend für sie - auch negative Rollen in Spielen wichtig und Computerspiele eine Bereicherung sind. Kate erzählt wie es für sie als Australierin und Autorin war, ihre Erfahrungen in den Jam mit einzubringen. Und Florian berichtet, warum es gar nicht so einfach war mit Flüchtlingen in Halberstadt zu jammen.
Eigentlich habe ich an dieser Stelle auch Daniel interviewt, der ebenfalls Medienpädagoge ist, aber - Asche auf mein Haupt - ich hab den Aufnahmebutton nicht gedrückt. Great work. Einmal mit Profis!

Im Nachhinein ist mir das Wort "Flüchtling" beim zehnten Mal hören beim Schnitt ziemlich unangenehm.Der Podcast diskutiert auch, ob es gut oder schlecht war, dass von einem Geflüchteten selbst beim Jam kein Input kam. Wenn es überhaupt einen Grund gibt, weshalb beim nächsten Jam dieser Art unbedingt auch ein Geflüchteter anwesend sein muss, dann um nicht nur über sie zu sprechen (und jammen), sondern auch mit ihnen.
Wie auch immer, nochmals vielen Dank an das Organisationsteam, das wir im Podcast immer nur als "BPB" bezeichnen: Matthias Uzunoff, Sohiel Partoshoar und Kristina Mencke. Auf ihrem Wiki könnt ihr auch alle Spiele finden.

Außerdem war Daniel Ziegener von Superlevel am Start und hat dazu auch einen Podcast aufgenommen.

Alle weiteren Podcasts von uns finden sich hier.

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The bpb:game jam 2016

At the first weekend of August 2016 we once again visited Berlin in order to take part in a game jam hosted by the bpb, the Federal Agency for Civic Education. It was a special jam for us, as we were actually invited by the organizers, and the theme was a lot more serious than we're used to: "Flucht und Vertreibung" (Escape and Eviction).  We didn't really know what to expect, other than that travel expenses, hotel and food would all be paid by the German tax payer. (Thank you all!)

The whole event went from Friday till Sunday, with Friday being reserved for an unconference. It started with everybody introducing themselves, which took a lot of time as there were over 50 people! We knew some of the participants already: they were fellow indie developers. Nonetheless the introductions were very interesting, because - and this is another uncommon thing for our jam trips - around half of the people weren't game developers, but came from various fields, mostly pedagogics. The youngest participant was 16 years old, and I dare not to estimate the age of the oldest person in our group.
The only gripe was the pretty low ratio women to men. Unfortunately this is common, but at least it was higher than at most game jams.

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The more interactive part of the unconference were the 'sessions', where people suggested various discussion topics, all in accordance to the main theme, and then do group debates. I suggested "Sprachbarrieren" (language barriers), and thus a few of the participants, including Jana and I, talked about apps for language learning and our experiences with different languages, and how we could use these as gameplay mechanics.

The second session for us was about "Perspektivwechsel" (switching perspective), and here the discussion started with the split-screen camera technique in multiplayer games, but soon got more serious and went from the literal interpretation of perspective to empathy, and how we see others, and games that actually let us "live" different roles; consciously or subconsciously.

Overall these debates prepared us well to get into a more serious mindset, as right afterwards we got instructed to come up with game ideas and discuss them in random groups. I still think the idea of a "Refugee Go", maybe a tad cynical, would be an interesting take on the location-based gaming: the idea was to force the player to literally walk at different places in a real city where they have to fill out virtual forms (in real-time, i.e. with a lot of waiting). The idea was to let players empathize with a refugee in Germany who tries to apply for asylum. As you'd play it with a smartphone only which then demands permanent attention, it would also be a bit like Tamagotchi.

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It was new to Jana and me to not discuss our ideas directly with each other, but alas, Jana was in another group. There she formulated the concept of a card game with instructions on each card for the players, and they'd have to run around and solve the tasks.

In the end we found together again. After a few years of jams we became a solid team and apart from a small collaboration now and then we somehow became unable to try new constellations. ;) Some lively discussions later about what our jam entry should be, we settled for a compromise we were actually both happy with: "Visa Runners", later named "Die Stimmung kippt!" (The mood shifts!).

Visa Runners is the prototype for a multiplayer mobile game with real-world interaction, a bit inspired by Space Team. At the beginning all the players connect their smartphones with each other. Afterwards everyone gets assigned a randomly chosen profile of a refugee-seeking person, with character traits like gender, age, birthplace, skin colour, education, etc.

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Then the real game begins.

The players have to flee to safe countries and get a visa as fast as possible. The countries are represented by QR codes lying around in the (preferably big) room, on tables and maybe even hanging on the walls. In order to get a visa you have to run to the QR code and scan it with your phone. Then you get a few days of visa - so you need to renew this visa very soon and very often. (A "day" is a second long in our game.) To make it harder players get a day less each time they try to seek refuge in the same country. If you overstayed your visa you need to get a new one as soon as possible, because you lose if you're without shelter for too long.


Yes, the game gets unfair quickly. Intentionally so.

To underline this, every few seconds a tabloid issue appears on one of the phones - usually it's a (mildly) exaggerated headline about refugees or foreigners in general. These headlines affect all players, so the one who sees it has to tell the others (or can choose not to). For example, if there are news about "black men attacking a puppy" all players with the traits "dark skin" or "male" will get minus points in that country (i.e. less days of visa). At some point, a country will refuse visas to certain persons, and those have to flee to other countries.HeadlineThe game ends when only one person is left.

Here's hoping we made a game that captured the theme of the jam. I wish the end result were more functional, but for a prototype it worked pretty well. The funny thing is: when we presented our game, it dawned on us that we didn't even need the prototype, as we were only running around with our Android phones, yelling what we're doing currently. It could have been a theatre play...

The first day of actually programming the game was hell, as I had to download the Android SDK first (to be able to actually build games for smartphones), then try to get a certain plug-in from the Unity Asset Store running. It was very badly documented, and I needed hours to find out how it actually works. But after that we finally got the multiplayer part running, and implementing the gameplay was easy enough. Thankfully the plug-in for the QR code scanning was much less of a hassle.

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We were very impressed by the games of the other groups, some of them had a team size of five or even more. You can find (German) descriptions of most of the entries at the official wiki - ours is here, even with a downloadable APK.

Overall the first "bpb:game jam" was a success for us, and we think it also was a success as an event. Thanks to the bpb for organizing it! Here's hoping we will be able to take part again next year.

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Ludum Dare 35: Wood for the Trees – Post Mortem

Wood for the Trees is my entry for the 35th Ludum Dare game jam which took place in April 2016. For now I don't know how the other participants will rate the game, as the voting is still going on. Yet it's maybe time for a small post-mortem, especially as my last few entries were not really worthy for one of those.

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The theme of this Ludum Dare was "Shapeshifting", which was a good theme, or at least I heard far less complaints about it than usual. For my part I didn't have an idea from the beginning - or rather I prepared several in advance, but none of them actually motivated me when the weekend began. For some time I just ignored the theme anyway and did some physics-based experiments, but everything of that was scrapped in the end. Semi-inspired by the theme I then went on with an environmental experiment, which would be about looping and changing level tiles. A bit like our 7DRL Me against the Mutants, but this time in 3D. As usual I did all this in Unity.

My base idea was to have tiles as parts for the level map, and each tile would be 10x10m (conveniently the size of Unity's standard plane), and instead of connecting the tiles in a linear fashion or even in a grid, I would define the connections manually so they can loop or have "impossible" connections. This way, a tile could be connected to itself (this actually happens in the game)! A lot of time went into developing the system of instantiating and destroying the needed game assets on the fly.

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With this representation of the game world it's possible for the player to see things that won't be there when they move. Thus I added smooth scaling to all objects when they get spawned or removed, just to make it more appealing and let people accept this strange environment. This system also imposed some limitations which actually turned out to make the game tighter and more focused:

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1) The player is allowed to move only from a tile's center to the next, in cardinal directions. At first I had free movement, but this imposed problems with the tiles that lie diagonal to the current one. It would just feel alien. Restricting the movement was the only solution, and it also made the gameplay (adventure game) much more clear.

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2) With my system it only made sense to display 3x3 tiles at once, thus I had to limit the view distance to 10 meters. This made me a bit depressed in the beginning, because it meant a pretty big, boring wall of fog in front of the player. But then I invented the "fog trees" - trees that would exist only in the fog, vanishing when the player comes near. In the end, they really helped making the distance fog less boring and even gave the game its name.

As usual I experimented only regarding gameplay mechanics, but as soon as I added the fog I naturally began to design the game's appearance. The fog had to have a colour, so I chose one I actually liked. Everything else had to look (more or less) good from now on, which helped tons with not having to do that later. If I remember correctly the pixelation post-effect shader was added at the same time, and I just liked it - I don't really have a justification for it. But it also helps to hide the fact that my 3D models are all very low-poly and have no textures.

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By the way, this is the first time that I used Blender for a game jam; I like it more and more. It fits my style quite well I guess. For the trees I utilized a tool called HappyTree by Sol_HSA, which made it easy for me to generate four different trees and reuse them all the time. I only changed the materials.

The narrative structure of the game also developed more or less naturally: due to the fact I played some "walking simulators" beforehand I was okay with incorporating a personal story. So all content grew out of certain relationships that occupy my mind often enough. As a result it didn't become a straight story really, but more like a set of emotions I wanted to share.

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I didn't plan to do a full puzzle game, but somehow I actually added enough elements like finding typical items and having to combine them, so I can now call it an adventure game without shame. Overall it's a simple game in the sense that I didn't even add a visible inventory (as it wasn't needed), but thanks to the shifting environment and the somewhat allegorical hints the game should be longer than just a few minutes.

You could say the background story and the adventure game mechanics are somewhat contradicting or at least exist in parallel only. But whenever I think of my childhood (which the story is touching), I have certain games in my mind which I played back then, and Wood in the Trees actually recreates them in an abstract way. Furthermore, the seemingly mundane tasks represent the protagonists quest for absolution somehow. The mechanics and plot combined with the fog trees, the game's name, the colors and some of the objects in the game, it all is symbolic and it's okay that only a small percent of players understand them fully.

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Right next to creating the world system in Unity the hardest part of the game was actually planning it. I'm never big with story (something I really have to train), so I just wrote down a lot of things I'd like to say. Not everything made it into the game. And I laid out the puzzle progress on paper as soon as I decided that I would actually have puzzles. But only by actually implementing them I'd see if an item would make sense or not and from time to time a whole path was changed - thankfully always for the better.

Unfortunately I was not able to follow my initial plan to make the game within 48 hours ("Compo") and had to extend to 72 hours ("Jam"). I never felt that I would actually be able to finish it, which send me to a rollercoaster of emotions during the game jam - either I was relaxed and had a "it's okay, I don't care" attitude, or I was angry at myself that I would fail at Ludum Dare yet again. I'm still surprised I actually finished - and it sure helped that for the Jam I didn't have to create my own music. I suck at this still, and don't stop hoping this will change some day. Instead I used a track by my brothers, which they composed many years ago for a game prototype Jana and I made in university. It fits the game well enough and actually adds to the symbolism of Wood for the Trees.

A monster?

After several days between me and the development I can now think about the game again. In hindsight I would change a few things, especially as players rightfully complained about those. Being able to re-read the notes and texts would be a great addition, and probably easy to do. Not removing the notes in the game would be a good start for that. Moreover, the hit boxes for the clickable objects are sometimes to small, and generally it's not clear enough if you can interact with something or not. I would add a few more descriptions to some elements in the game, and also tweak the controls so they would be easier to understand. And I would take extra-care that players find the solution to the first puzzle easily. Last but not least I'm disappointed I couldn't add any sound effects - not even some step sounds!

If I find time and motivation, I might do these changes and upload a post-jam version.

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In any case I'm happy that Wood for the Trees already got some media attention - AlphaBetaGamer made the start (with a title optimized for SEO a bit too much), followed by WarpDoor, PC Gamer and Killscreen. Wow! It shows once more that pixel games - even fake ones - are the way to go I guess. And I visited the A MAZE (a festival for indie games in Berlin) a few days after Ludum Dare, so I even made an Android build of my game. It ran very laggy and the controls weren't working correctly, but it was cool to actually being able to show something when talking about it. Even though I didn't show it around that much I had a lot of fun - the fruits of productivity.

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If you're a participant of Ludum Dare 35, you can rate Wood for the Trees here. In any case, the downloads can be found on itch.io - have fun!

And here's a video - be aware, it's the full walkthrough, so of course it contains spoilers:

Ludum Dare #35: Wood for the Trees (Full Walkthrough)

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