I Swapped Places with a Game Developer for Three Days, Here’s What Happened

When it comes to my professional working relationship with video games, I have infinitely more experience critiquing and reporting on the work of others than I do actually making games myself. That’s not to say I have never tried making a video game before, by my experience in game development is much more in writing text for them or generating concepts, and less in execution. I’ve made a few Twine games and RPG Maker projects, I wrote the text for a 2D game once, but I have never jumped into any kind of game creation that required creating my own assets, or playing around with code.

This is why I was so excited when I was invited to take part in #JournoDevSwap this past weekend. Hosted by UKIE and Alzheimer’s UK, Journo Dev swap was a three day long game jam with a very special premise. For three days, game critics like myself with no real game development experience would switch places with game developers. The critics would make the games, and the developers would write coverage of our journey on GamesIndustry.Biz .

Now, as none of the games critics taking part in this game jam had any real experience developing games in anything as complicated as Unity, the suggested development tool for games during the jam, we were each paired up with a game development student from various UK universities. These students had varying levels and types of experience creating games in Unity, knowing their way around code, but not necessarily being so experienced with development that they wouldn’t have to learn how to do certain things along the way. This meant that the critics had a fighting chance of developing a finished game during the jam.

As much as it would be great to turn around and say I made a game from scratch in just a few short days, my game concept would never have come together without some serious help.

In terms of the length of the game jam, each of the eight journalist and student development team pairs had around 17 hours of on site time to complete their game, out of a 48 hour period, plus any time outside of that they wished to spend working from home, to create their games. We were told the theme of the game jam, “Brain”, and we all jumped in to start working.

On the first day of the jam, Friday, I had around four hours in person to work on the game with Regan, a game development college student who I sat and bounced ideas back and forth off. Perhaps uncreatively, I took the theme of the game jam very literally. My ideas were all about the brain in the context of Alzheimer’s, due in no small part to the charity attached to the event, and while we spent a decent amount of time sketching out possible ideas, we ultimately settled on the one that seemed the easiest to iterate on over time. The concept we settled on was a game set in a brain, where players retrieved memories represented as physical items, and as you progress through the game retrieving those memories would become more difficult due to layered game mechanics.

A big part of why we settled on this concept for our game jam title was the fact it seemed relatively easy to iterate upon, adding features one by one. As a games critic, I’ve interviewed game developers often enough, as well as reading enough write ups from developers, to know that whether you’re making a big commercial product for sale, or a small game for a game jam, the one issue that comes up time and again is feature creep, a lack of time, and features having to be cut. Making games consistently takes a lot longer than you imagine, and if you don’t build either extra time, or room for cut content into your scope, you probably won’t finish your game when you expect to.

We came up with what we felt was a simple and achievable game world, four rooms surrounding a central fifth room, each textured to look sort of like a brain. We would theme each room to a different type of memory, populate the rooms with four memory items each, then start adding gameplay features. At its core, the game would prompt you to remember a person’s face, or where you left your keys, or what the word is for the thing that changes channels on the TV. You go and pick up the item from its room in the brain, drop it off, and the game will tell you if you collected the correct memory, before assigning you a new objective. Beyond that, we wanted to layer on a number of possible ways to disorient, slow, or frustrate the player as they retrieved more memories. Randomising item locations, slowing the player, setting a timer to induce panic, inverting the controls, adding visual filters to make memories harder to see, even blocking off a room of the brain entirely to represent the fact the brain shrinks and loses the mass of an orange as Alzheimer’s progresses.

So long as we got the core collection mechanic working, and a couple of the difficulty mechanics in place, we were confident we could create a game that got across our core concept, a game about experiencing the frustration of not being able to recall a memory with ease, even if we didn’t implement every feature idea we wanted. We had scope to cut content without it altering our ability to tell our gameplay based narrative. That was a big part in us settling on the game.

While I had spent some time messing around in Unity on the day before the jam, learning to make a 2D platformer with spawn points and parallax, my student partner Regen felt more confident working in 3D in Unity, so we decided to dive into making the game in 3D, something I had absolutely no idea how to do.

Most of Friday’s four hours developing was spent creating the basic 3D environment the game was set in. With no previous 3D game development experience, Regen basically taught me one of the easiest ways to make a 3D environment in Unity. Using a tool called ProBuilder and another called ProGrids, I was taught how to make basic geometric shapes, get them to snap to a grid so they would line up properly, and create materials to use to add design to those shapes.

In four hours, I made a space containing five connected 3D square rooms, with the rooms having doorway gaps between them. I found a few Unity assets for free on the asset store, and added perhaps four objects to the space out of the total 16 I wanted. I found some scripts in Unity’s basic assets to create a first person character and allow them to move with WASD and a mouse without having to learn any code myself, and went home.

I’m going to be honest, I got home around 8pm that first night, terrified this project would never become a finished game. I knew nothing about coding, and creating a really bad looking box based set of rooms containing some free assets had taken me my entire first day. We hadn’t implemented anything resembling a gameplay mechanic, and I was somewhat frozen. I couldn’t leave the game until the morning, so I got home, took my diner upstairs, and got building.

I stayed up until midnight, and then got up for a while again at around 1am, and managed to create 12 more assets. Four cubes with royalty free images of faces on them, and 8 rectangular cuboid shapes with words on them. That had taken nearly another five hours to learn how to do. I felt like I was taking forever to do what should be very basic things. I felt out of my depth for sure.

The following morning, I set off at 6am to head back to the game jam venue, and on my train ride in I decided to see what the other side of #JournoDevSwap, the developers turned journalists, had been up to while we had been working on our games. I don’t know if my experience was mirrored by the other journalists making games, but I don’t believe any of the devs turned journalists actually came to speak to me at all during the first day of the jam, so I was curious what their coverage would look like.

While much of their coverage was big picture coverage of the event itself and the concept behind the role swap, one thing that caught my eye was the amount of speculative coverage of our development process, not based on discussions with the people making the games. One comment talked about how most teams “seemed” like they had gone with their first idea, and they “felt like” everyone had gone with ideas they had before even hearing the theme. This didn’t really mesh with my experience talking to the other first time developers, there were some really cool ideas I got told about left on the cutting room floor, and I did wonder how much of that was because we hadn’t actually been asked directly about that topic.

Reading that was an interesting experience. To be clear, this isn’t a criticism necessarily of those who were reporting on the game jam, but it did cause me to stop and think about if this is something I do in my writing. Having experienced it myself, I know it’s something I will think about going forward. That piece of coverage will likely result in me being more careful not to assume things I have not asked about in my coverage in future, based on internal observation and an internal story I create from an outside perspective. It was a learning experience for me, experiencing that from the other side.

Day two of the game jam, due to some logistical changes, I was paired up with a different student, Rahul. Rahul was absolutely amazing to work with, but it is worth noting before this game jam he had never made a 3D game project in Unity. As a result, me and Rahul were both very much learning as we were going on days two and three, using bits we knew and applying them in new ways.

While day two of the game jam was the longest, and the day we got the most progress done on the game, it was also the day I really have least to say about. I has spent day one making the 3D environment and assets, and day two was mainly working on creating and editing scripts and C# coding. I have messed around a little with C#; I know about ending lines of codes in visual basic with a “;” and how things are capitalization sensitive, but I can’t remember what a Vector3 does, or when to use what type of brackets. Day two, Rahul carried the heavy weight.

That’s not to say I had nothing to do on the Saturday; Rahul is not much of an ideas person, more of a coder, so I was doing a lot of advising on how I would ideally like things to work, and whether we should raise or lower values post testing. I was making the judgement calls on if the randomization was okay, if the spinning was a good speed, if the character speed needed to change, or if the camera needed to move. It was also my first experience using GitHub, moving the project back and forth as we worked, which was really fascinating.

I think the most valuable thing I contributed on Saturday was writing the prompts for each objective, so that each objective had a different set clue written to help you know what you needed to retrieve. There was a lot of Saturday where I was sat just watching and trying to learn from Rahul coding, picking up what I could for the future and learning from his coding errors where I can avoid errors myself if and when I start to learn to code.

By the end of Saturday, we had something that felt a lot more like a game, and a lot less terrifyingly far from completion. We had the ability to pick up and put down memories, we had a UI to tell you what item to collect, and to tell you if you were right or wrong, we had a randomizer for item locations that occurred after a custom number of correct turns, and we had a core gameplay loop. We had something with completed objectives and the first of its planned difficulty increases implemented. We had a game, and we had progression that demonstrated our core narrative gameplay concept.

I got home around 9pm on Saturday, and pretty much went straight to bed. There wasn’t much I could add, and I was pretty exhausted from all the noise and chaos of the game jam, so I got some needed rest in.

Sunday morning, the final morning of the game jam, I was up at 5am traveling back in to work on the game, due to chaos and closed train routes. I got to the venue for 9am, exhausted but excited to get finishing the project. During those remaining four hours before our deadline I put together a credits screen, an end game screen explaining the charity and some information about Alzheimer’s as a condition, as well as an opening screen explaining how to play the game, and the general premise. Rahul coded a couple more difficulty increases for the game, mainly a timer to complete objectives, and slowing down the player to make that timer more of a challenge. We didn’t have time to implement any of our other difficulty increase features, but with three increases in difficulty we felt we had enough to get our core concept understood. We then sat and tested the game a few times, making sure we didn’t see any major bugs and we were happy with the number of turns between mechanics being introduced and the difficulty of each mechanic, before exporting a build to be played by our judges.

Watch a developer walkthrough video of the finished game here.

Youtube embed coming soon.

Now, something that won’t be a surprise to anyone who has in person presented a game to people who didn’t develop it, the second someone other than the developers plays a game, you suddenly realize all the problems with the core design. In hindsight, I wish I had playtested the game two hours or so before the game jam deadline, because there were unclear text prompts I had written that left some ambiguity in which memory item was being asked for, as well as some bugs we could have fixed, and additional controls text we could have added to explain the game better. This was something I simply did not think to do, and probably one of the biggest flaws in the version of the game we showed the judges.

It’s also emotionally terrifying showing off a game you made to be critiqued, and tough to resist the urge to overly explain it to them as they play. The second they can’t find where an objective is, it’s hard not to jump in and tell them, before they have had a chance to explore.

While I didn’t win the game jam, I had a fantastic time. I came away a lot less terrified of Unity as a development tool, and eager to try making things with it again. It was reassuring not only seeing how much of development over the weekend was possible with free and default assets, but also scripts available online for free. The fact that my paired student developers were googling problems, watching tutorials, and copy pasting code in made me a lot less embarrassed that I had been doing the same while teaching myself to make a 2D platformer before the jam began.

Looking over the developer’s coverage of the event, it was really interesting seeing what aspects of our performance in the game jam surprised them. Looking at coverage of day three of the jam, it seems like the developers turned journalists had expected us to all be in a stressful panic with incomplete broken projects as the final day began. I think a big part of this is developers know how to make games, and as a result can be more ambitious in scope. As journalists, we know nothing about making games, and most of us were terrified of not having an end result. We all worked on small achievable projects, had working prototypes we were proud of in plenty of time, and as such were less stressed as we mainly had polish and additions to do during the final hours. We knew that we knew how to do nothing, so we all aimed small and achievable and built up once that was done.

Additionally, I found it really interesting that none of the developers turned journalists stayed and reported on all three days of the game jam. Granted, they were under no obligation to, but each developer came down for a single day, wrote about that day, and left. If I had been writing about this event as a journalist, I would ideally have wanted to cover all three days, to get the full narrative arc of the event. Act one is everyone coming up with ideas and jumping into creation, act two is trying to make it happen, the bulk of the project, seeing if it’s doable, committing to the idea. Day three is finishing projects, what got cut, what did or did not work, who won, how did people feel. Each of the three days is a perfectly segmented part of a bigger narrative, and it was interesting that none of the developers chose to follow all three days before doing their coverage.

All in all, I was really pleased to be involved in JournoDevSwap, and would love to be involved again. This year has taught me a lot about making a game, working as part of a development team, and having your games judged by players and external critics. It was an eye opening experience, and one I hope continues.

My game about Alzheimer’s may not be very polished, it may be buggy with some ambiguous objective text, but it’s my first ever 3D game, and I am proud of it none the less.

Categories: Gaming