Category «Game Jam»

The winners of Ludum Dare, and what to learn from them

This was originally a quick and dirty talk I held in 2014 at our Global Game Jam location in Leipzig, Germany. I wanted to give the audience (mostly students, a lot of them without experience in the art of game jam) an impression on what is possible during a game jam even when you're alone and have to do stuff from scratch; so I showed them the last five Ludum Dare compo winners, which means each of them got the first place in the "Overall" category. The talk would conclude with some best practices, at least in my opinion.

As most of you probably know, Ludum Dare is an online game jam held several times in the year, with the big versions always commencing in April, August and December. Thousands of participants make a game in 48 hours each time, and a lot of them also are part of the quite active community surrounding the jam. Everybody who joins can be sure to get feedback and answers via the blog on ludumdare.com, and via the IRC channel #ludumdare on AfterNET. And don't forget that for three weeks afterwards, every participant can rate all the others' games, so the brutal final ratings for each category (e.g. Graphics, Fun, Mood) are there for the whole world to see. With the high numbers of entries, winning the competition may sound nearly impossible. So let's take a look at some of those who actually did it!

 

Ludum Dare 24 – Theme: Evolution

Evoland

Evoland is a Zelda-like with a funny idea implemented well. It has a lot of chests – in each chest you find a feature that hauls the game to the next step of videogame evolution. At first you can only walk right, but you get the ability to walk left soon. After that, you can walk north and south, how cool is that! Scrolling! Colors! Sounds! Weapons! Nicolas Cannasse broke down a pretty standard Zelda clone into its most minimal parts, used those parts to let the player explore them, and made a unique game this way. (Later on he even extended the game and you can now buy it on Steam.)

As a game jam game Evoland is very ambitious and I couldn't believe that it was made in 48 hours. I assume Nicolas had the idea and concept very early in the process, and using a programming language he invented himself might have given him a good headstart.

 

Ludum Dare 25 – Theme: You Are The Villain

Atomic Creep Spawner

Atomic Creep Spawner!! reminds me a bit of Dungeon Keeper, although you can only do a fraction of what is possible in that game. A pompous knight is raiding your very own dungeon, stealing your money and destroying your orbs, and you have to stop him by spawning a lot of monsters. You create those hordes of zombies and ghosts via simple clicks on the floor, and they find their own way (more or less) to the rampaging knight. A fair bit of AI must have been programmed for this game.

Made by Sébastien Bénard (known as deepnight, one of the most successful Ludum Darers!), Atomic Creep Spawner features great humor and amazing pixel art. Sébastien even found time to include a tutorial at the beginning. What the game lacks in interactivity it makes more than up with polish and love for details.

 

Ludum Dare 26 – Theme: Minimalism

MONO

MONO implements the theme via its graphical style (which looks simplicistic, but is actually very well done), but most certainly not via the gameplay. While at first glance it seems to be a minimalistic game in every sense – you navigate a small sphere through a world of rectangles – the levels soon become more and more diverse, which is what keeps the game interesting. This is a nice trick you can learn from: make a game with only some basic functionality, and if you have the time, add another level with new elements and mechanics inside it – rinse, repeat.

Tim Hantel managed to make a neat dexterity puzzle game with a lot of atmosphere, mostly by adding a fitting soundscape. The gameplay mechanics sometimes make the game a bit frustrating (you die by touching a wall already), but in general the player's death is a forgivable experience: you spawn instantly at the level start again. An important lesson I think.

 

Ludum Dare 27 – Theme: 10 Seconds

PROBE TEAM

PROBE TEAM could easily be part of the Ludum Dare before – it uses one single color only, enhanced by some cool looking post effects. While I never liked the theme in itself, because I always felt that it would cripple gameplay concepts instead of fertilize them, Andrew Shouldice actually made an interesting type of exploration game out of it. You start little probes which have 10 seconds of fuel each (so be economical with your commands), lead them through some kind of maze and activate triggers to open doors. It feels a bit repetitive, but the moody atmosphere absolutely helps to tolerate and even enjoy it.

 

Ludum Dare 28 – Theme: You Only Get One

One Take

One Take by Daniël Haazen is a great example for an unusual idea creating a whole new experience. You play as a camera operator taking one continuous take from a movie scene, and all you do is following orders from a film director in the form of short sentences, like "Zoom in on the sheriff" or "Go back to the guy in the alley". The scenes are a bit animated (while most of the action comes from yourself) and actually feel like small movies – already worth an honorable mention in my opinion. The cherry on top are the pixelated newspapers after each level, including reviews about the 'movie' and your performance.

 

Learnings

So what can we learn from these great examples of Ludum Dare rapid game development, for our own jam games?

  • Make something simple. All the mentioned games concentrate on a single idea. Be it spawning monsters in a dungeon or moving a small sphere around obstacles – important is to focus the game's concept on one aspect and not trying to add more and more features. Of course, this implies you actually have a nice idea that can be played barebone and that you like.
  • Be inspired by the theme. This one surprised me a bit, probably because more often than not the theme of a jam hinders instead of helps me. But all the winners above are very close to the theme, and that must tell something, probably about inspiration.
  • Think in two dimensions. Although one of the games uses Unity, all of them are 2D games, varying from totally abstract to concrete pixel art. I don't know exactly why that is, but there is probably more than one factor why jam games prefer to be 2D. My guesses are: the game is simpler to make, the graphics look better while being less work, there are a lot of premade frameworks, and you get a nostalgia bonus.
  • Use a framework. The Ludum Dare rules state that you must make your game from scratch, but it is allowed to use libraries, tools and engines that were already made by you or others. So use them! The winners from above utilized Haxe (compiled to Flash), Java with libgdx, Unity and LÖVE. Three of these games were playable in the browser (with plugins), which might also be a small factor adding to their successes. Remember that Ludum Dare's winner are determined by people who have to play thousands of other entries, too – the less problems they have to play your game, the more likely they will play it.
  • Generally you should try to make your game as accessible as possible. Deepnight's winning game Atomic Creep Spawner includes a tutorial, but you don't always have to go this far. Just don't innovate where it isn't needed, and explain things when they come up for the first time, be it via text or picture (better yet, force the user to play it to understand it).
  • The last learning for now is somewhat vague, as the games tackle this very differently. Some of them use a lot of humor, via little comments from the characters for example, others are pretty atmospheric, often thanks to their great use of sound. What we can take away from this is: don't shy away from trying to evoke emotions in the player. It seems the humoristic way is a bit easier than the one with the dark mood and the feels. Speak to the player, or let them explore interesting places. Give them reasons to attach to your game!

 

Conclusion

Making a game in 48 hours is hard, winning Ludum Dare is even harder. But if you look at the above examples you see it's not impossible! Sure, you need to know your tools in and out – the Ludum Dare Top 10 isn't the place for learning a new programming language. (This could be a bonus learning.) Just keep in mind to have fun and make something worth playing. Everything else comes afterwards.

Artgame Weekend #4 in Lille

I've never been to France before. Home is where my desktop is and I like to stay at home, to work on my games. The only things that are luring me out of the cave are festivals, exhibitions or game jams. Last weekend I got my reason to visit Lille, France. I was invited to be in the jury for a game jam.

TL,DR: It was amazing! Scroll down to see all the jam results immediately.

The theme of the Artgame Weekend 4 already sounded awesome: Instead of selecting a theme the organizers chose to let the participants think up new ways to interact with a game. “Think art, Use controllers, Make a game, Play with us!” is the claim of their event. So here is my blog post to everybody who missed it or didn't realize the amazing French indie scene.

The first moment of an ongoing chain of enthusiasm about the Artgame Weekend was made by the building the jam took place at. The former textile manufactory was rebuilt to an inspiring, modern work space with an amazing area to work, enjoy and to display projects (in the form of a huge Gameboy!).

artgame_location_04

Seventy people worked together in twelve groups. When we arrived the attendees already teamed up after pitching their ideas. With this method no ideas or controllers were used twice!
The second moment of excitement took me when I arrived in this room full of creative energy. There were guitars to control characters, pianos to create objects, buttons attached to human bodies, chalk for blackboards to draw on or even ten mice attached for one game. A group of people was building a bomb. Someone was wearing an Oculus Rift. Two participants connected their smartphones to the laptop to control their game ... Breath in, breath out. Wow!

If you want great games to be made, bring together talented people from different backgrounds in the right place.

The whole event was assembled by Marc Lavigne (game industry north) and Simon Bachelier (One Life Remains). All the people they brought together for technology, exhibition, cooking and organization worked together so well! If I learned one thing in Lille it is how to really make the perfect game jam. If you want great games to be made, bring together talented people from different backgrounds in the right place. I'm not sure if I could copy this event easily. But I think I should care more about the participants well-being next time I organize a jam.

So did the organizers of this jam: To make sure everybody can face technical issues they engaged talents to help out, like Armel Gibson, one of the coaches for design and technique, who was helping with getting the PS Move controllers working in Unity. While Sosowski was whirling around to help a team whose game was called 'Yetis with machetes' (made with the UDK), I met Nicolas Tilly (Ecriture Videoludique Magazine), who was the third coach in this mad mayhem of handicraft work.

photo by Leon Denise, http://poly.gonum.free.fr/
photo by Leon Denise, http://poly.gonum.free.fr/

And they engaged us, a jury to judge the jam's work. A fact that puzzled me, but I guess with competing against each other and a jury to show their stuff to, you get these kind of excellent projects and getting really motivated.
After a while the jury was complete, consisting of Jon Bro (Lucky Frame, GB), Chris Priestman (Indiestatik, GB), Cara Ellison (Rockpaper,etc. GB), Thorsten Storno (Amaze Festival, D) and me (Rat King, D). In the end I was glad we didn't really judge the projects, especially because people could switch between groups. So we grouped up, checked out the projects, talked to people, asked critical questions, got impressed and ate delicious freshly-made food they served at the jam.

And instead of working the night through we did have a party with DJ and nice Belgian beer. And a party after the jam, with J.S. Jousting and a couple of other multiplayer games.

The biggest shame: I didn't bring my laptop, because I feared to have too much package for the flight. Next year I want to take part in game-making myself. Bring my own Arduino and build awesome stuff! Be part of this creative madness.

artgame_location_02

To make sure you understand why the results of this jam where so inspiring that I really missed taking part myself, here is the complete list:

 

1. Chirac If we would have to judge this game would have gotten the WTF?!-Award! I knew some of the team from Bokida before, which is a clean, well-designed sand-box game I first saw at the Notgames Fest. It seems too much artsyness needed to be destroyed with a mad story about people dressing like horses and horses dressing like men. And only six-legged Chirac is able to save the world. Color. Penis-tentacle action. Shooting. Button-smashing. Music! artgame_location_03

photo by Leon Denise, http://poly.gonum.free.fr/
photo by Leon Denise, http://poly.gonum.free.fr/

2. Adsono This game caught my interest from the beginning. The team crafted with Arduino, physical buttons, Xbox-controller and Kinder eggs. The idea: Two people attach the buttons to their body. When one button is pressed, the other player feels a vibration. Both create a sequence dance with pushing the buttons in turns. Although they couldn't finish the game like intended, this game was the perfect essence of a good jamming: Try hard, find new stuff that wasn't made before and learn. I hope you guys finish it! artgame_bomb_02 artgame_bomb 3. Prepare to meet thy god When the last Ludum Dare asked for games themed “10 seconds” how many bomb defusing games did we see? This team had the same idea for the controller, but believe me: Defusing a bomb on a screen and actually sitting fully dressed with glasses, gas mask and suit in front of a box with cables, bottles and blinking lights alone in a room with just a tool to cut these cables: such a difference! From outside we could watch the contestants via webcam, which added an extra creepy real-life level to the game. Guys, your game was a blast! artgame_piano artgame_piano_02 4. Keyboard Mandala In this two-player game you start in an empty, lifeless desert. One player has a controller to move around, while the other does magic with a keyboard. With every key played you can create a huge variety of objects from huge buildings, bridges, fountains to tiny groups of ants. And stones, stones, stones to irritate the other player. I could have played this one for hours! Either you play it to create worlds with your songs or to find out what the creators did hide behind every key. This game is pure magic! artgame_demon 5. Necronomicon Forget Harry Potter! You can be a witch (or witcher ;)) in this game yourself! Just take the Necronomicon and draw the ancient ritual signs on the black board to summon powerful creatures that fight against the other player's demons. What made this game especially atmospheric was the dark cellar vault where it took place at. One of the team members sat in the corner, dressed black with red-stained hands (of course it was blood!). Red lights and the foul-smelling sponge added an extra dark flavour.

6. Space Ship
Imagine combining Space Team with the scenario of FTL. Imagine people running around to find the right computers. Imagine people getting mad to fulfill the right procedure to stop the alien invasion on the space ship. And imagine that all the people that tried to watch you playing to run with you in order to find out what this game is about. Ahh, people should run more often in games!

artgame_holyshit

7. Holy Shit
Holy Shit is just like the name implicates: a game about shit and not getting hugged by it with holy-awesome looking characters. Play it with ten players that click ten mice at once and try to find out what your character is. It's as silly as it is fun.

photo by Pierre Corbinouze, http://oujevipo.fr
photo by Pierre Corbinouze, http://oujevipo.fr

8. Live
In this Kinect game you are the conductor of an orchestra of light and kaleidoscope colours. Just raise your hand and be creative: Dance, jump, draw.

artgame_mindcontrol

9. Cerebro
In X-Men Cerebro is used by Professor Xavier to detect mutants by amplifying the brain waves of the user. In this game I didn't detect mutants, but felt as bad ass by controlling a game with my brain by relaxing and stressing behavior. What I saw were beautifully composed spaces with weird structures that I could manipulate with pure mind control. Not only the game was interesting, but especially the technology they used and improved by building their own devices.

artgame_cake

10. Monkey vs. Cake
In this multiplayer game every contestant gets a smartphone to tap the enemy to death. Cute muffins and cute monkeys! But you don't really know where exactly the buttons lies, so you have find out while tapping. Funny and fast game.

11. Rock'n'Dolls
One player is getting a bass to move the bike with two girls forward. The other player is moving the guitar in front of a camera and so is the weapon of one of the girls on the bike. By playing the guitar you shoot a thunderbolt. You don't really know how to play a guitar, but I felt more bad ass than with guitar hero. Cool idea!

artgame_yeti

12. Shooting yetis with machetes
Why didn't anybody come up with that scenario before: You walk through Doom-like corridors to kill undead yetis with a rocket-empowered machete sling-shot gun. Also, this game brought light effects to the test. Mad.

Okay, ladies and gentleman. Lille did rock! Great people, great conversations, great games. Make sure to follow these guys to get a notification for the next Artgame Weekend! I think you already realized it, by reading this article, but woohoo, Viva la Lille, I highly enjoyed this!

Ludum Dare 27: BLAM BLAM PLANET – Post Mortem

Greetings!

Back in April, Ludum Dare 26 was not so great, as I couldn't participate. It was right after the AMAZE IndieConnect, and this convention drowned my energy so much that I got sick. All I made was some visual experiment, which I couldn't develop much further because the headaches got too strong – partly because of my chosen art style. :-P

So, last week's Ludum Dare 27 was much better in this regard! And after kernel exception, this is the second Ludum Dare we entered together (thus being a Jam entry, not a Compo entry). We had a lot of fun, but also some problems, of course.

Our entry is a first-person shooter, with a little twist: you have five weapons, and every 10 seconds your current weapon switches automatically to another one, randomly selected. And there are "floating devices" all over the world (= a medium-sized planet) which you have to stand near for 10 seconds, so a bunch of power-ups get spawned (ammo and health packs). Enemies spawn in waves every 10 seconds. And when you collect ammo, you basically get an additional 10 seconds of shooting time.

As you might have guessed, this Ludum Dare's theme was "10 Seconds", and we called the game BLAM BLAM PLANET.

blam blam planet

After some minutes of playing the game becomes quite intense, because more and more enemies spawn. If you just run and shoot around instead of waiting at a device now and then for a while, you will soon run out of power-ups, and thus health and ammunition. So it's even a bit tactical, one might say.

The development of the game had its ups and downs, but it went well in most cases.

On Saturday, we thought of the game idea by talking about different possibilities and going for a walk. Ludum Dare starts 3 am here in Germany, and if I remember correctly, it already was afternoon when we agreed on making a first-person shooter, because we never did one really. To make it more interesting we decided that the setting should be on a round surface, which meant the game would need spherical gravity for all entities.

At the beginning we named the game "GLITCHIG", because we wanted a broken look and have destructible environment, so lots of triangles are flying around. Jana started building a neat planet surface with some asteroids around it in 3dsmax, while I started to let my character controller be influenced by gravity pointing to the level origin. Shooting little spheroids was also a priority.

spherical gravity

So both Saturday and Sunday were all about getting this right: a planet, a player, a weapon, some enemies walking around. Mostly I tried to get it all working smoothly, by getting the physics of the character and the weapon right. But the hardest part were the enemies and their AI on the round planet. For this, I searched for some code for creating the vertices of a geosphere, mapped this via raycasts on the planet geometry and connected the resulting points – those were then the nodes for the enemies' path-finding. Just letting the enemies walk directly towards the player probably would have been much easier, but less fun to create. ;-)

Another nice part of development was inventing the different weapon effects – two weapons in the final game deform the geometry, so I can push the vertices of the planet around a bit when the bullets hit something. It looks quite ace. As "glitches" was our personal theme from the start we knew the geometry would look strange and broken the more you use this weapon and we embraced that. In fact, when I last played the game, I fell through the level and I could attack all the enemies from below while they couldn't see me – but that also meant I didn't get any new ammo, so it was okay.

glitchcannon in action

Jana was mostly busy with modeling the three types of enemies and animating them. They look kind of deformed, emphasizing their low-poly nature, and it really looked well. Especially when she added the walk/fly animations, which are really hilarious. When the enemies spawn in masses it becomes a really cool effect.

In order to tie the look together, she also created a color code in Photoshop. After that, the game looked "right", as the colors of most assets didn't need much tweaking afterwards. Having only very few placeholder art from early on really helped the motivation somehow.

colorcode

Sunday evening Jana also started to make some sounds for walking and shooting by using our laptop's inbuilt microphone. High tech! All the sound effects you hear in the game are actually Jana's voice. :-) Adding sounds instantly made the game more alive; in the end, you can't have enough of them – that's why she made more on Monday, along with the art for the bullets and particle effects.

On the third day the theme of "10 Seconds" still wasn't in the game, and I thought long and hard about how to implement it. I weighed the pros and cons inside my head of different game mechanics, like "every 10 seconds, you have to collect new ammo" or "activate 10 bases, 10 seconds each, and then you won (whatever that means)" – and only when I finally began to create the five different weapons and let the enemies spawn in waves, the probably best restrictions (automatic weapon switching, time-limited ammo, etc.) came naturally. So there's that: sometimes tinkering too long can be bad, and you should just "do it", I guess.

In the final hours I was able to quickly implement the main menu and a death screen, which always is satisfying as it ties the game together and makes it look complete. Jana made the logo and the button graphics, and also captured a video of the game.

Ludum Dare 27: BLAM BLAM PLANET Gameplay

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So, that's how it went. Let's take a look on some quick facts about ...

... what went wrong!

  • Finding the idea was hard for us, as we couldn't agree on most things. In the end, the game we created isn't as innovative as I would have liked, but at least it's superfun to play this time!
  • As we struggled with the idea, it's clear the theme didn't help much. Although "10 Seconds" is in the game more than once now, it feels a bit off.
  • On Monday I nearly lost the will to finish the game, because of the lack of a clear direction regarding the gameplay, caused by the theme.
  • Jana had some severe problems with the CAT animation system in 3dsmax. It seems to be buggy as hell, and I heard her cursing a lot. ;-)
  • There are no game-breaking bugs in the game, phew – only some small stuff, like resetting the option settings when you open the "Options" menu. The bigger problem might be that the game is "broken by design", because of the Glitcher (the weapon that deforms the planet's geometry) – we should have used this feature more often, so it doesn't feel strange when you fall through the geometry.
  • A lot of feedback is missing, like some kind of visual hint when you got hit, or a sound and animation when the ammo is depleted. Also, the "story" isn't communicated in the game: you don't know what you're doing here, why your weapon system is defective, and why you have to stand near the floating devices. (Some people didn't understand that the enemies only start to spawn when you do that for the first time.)

... what went right!

  • It's always great to work together with Jana, because we know exactly what each of us can do, and how. While I do the scripting, she does the modeling, texturing and sounds. Perfect team work – all in the same room!
  • I set up an SVN repository, which sped up the work flow incredibly, and also saved my ass at least once when I accidentally deleted some files in the Unity project folder.
  • I prepared some basecode a day before Ludum Dare, by skimming through my former projects and picking useful helper code snippets. Having a basic character controller, path-finding, simplex noise and other functions ready before you even have to think about where to find them is wonderful!
  • Jana recorded the sounds with her own voice and distorted them in Audacity, which was much faster (and cooler) than trying to find sound effects on freesound.org with the right license.
  • The abstract, low-poly, somewhat "broken" graphics style looks quite well and gets very positive feedback, even without textures – AND it also was done very quickly.
  • The five weapons are fun and pretty diverse. This way, the whole game is fun enough for a few minutes, and that's the most satisfying part of this Ludum Dare for me.
  • Before we started I thought the spherical gravity might not work at all, neither as a gameplay mechanic nor as a visual style. I especially was concerned with this style the player would see too much sky and not enough ground surface. In the end, with the recoil of some weapons (so you fly away, looking down) and the high amount of flying enemies, this wasn't any problem.

... what we learned!

  • Due to the lack of time at the end, the balancing is kind of subpar. Good thing the game just is an endless shooter, and thus it is good enough. It's also cool that you can "learn" the game, as using the floating power-ip devices is important, but not obvious. Always try to add stuff like that.
  • "Crappy" graphics often look awesome when animated and with a nice shader. ;-) Coherence is very important though – that's why creating a color code sheet early in the process is a must.
  • Try to not make any placeholder art, because it either means you will have to make an asset twice – or it will be in the final game.
  • Even if you lose motivation near the end, at least try to give the game an ending. Sometimes, it helps to finish the game nonetheless, because this, this and, oh, that too, has to be done before the game can have an ending and be called "done" ...
  • Three days are still too long for me, because it automatically makes the project too ambitious.
  • Every time I see a Unity project with the standard Unity button graphics I get the urge to close it instantly. Really, it's easier than most things in Unity to add some custom button graphics and a downloaded font to the GUI skin. Give your game some love!

As much as I'd want to extend the game a bit, like adding more levels, I don't think it will get much bigger than now. The feedback of players and Ludum Dare ratings is really nice so far, but I don't know if having more enemy types and whatnot would increase its popularity. An online highscore would be nice, though, so maybe I will add that.

Thanks for reading this post-mortem, and I hope you had as much fun with this Ludum Dare as we had. If you want you can play BLAM BLAM PLANET here! :-)

blam blam planet device