The following article is the fifth and final feature in a series written during a visit to Utrecht, in The Netherlands. The piece assumes that you have already read the previous piece in the series, which can be read here.
As I sit down to write this feature, it is Monday morning, a few days after the completion of the Utrecht Sustainability Game Jam in The Netherlands. While my travel arrangements for the week meant I had to miss the final day of the game jam, where the 16 teams were expected to present their game prototypes to the judges ready for assessment, I left comfortable in the knowledge that when I returned to my office a few days later, I could expect to see the finished prototypes uploaded online, to check out at my own leisure.
As it happens, while 16 teams were working on prototypes, with a deadline of Friday to have them uploaded, only eight teams actually had their prototypes uploaded in time for the original deadline for judging, with two additional game uploaded over the weekend. Around two thirds of the teams taking part in the game jam have so far produced an available prototype, and I want to talk a little about my perspective on why I believe we saw a decent chunk fail to hit their initial prototype upload deadline.
From spending a week embedded in the game jam itself, one thing that was clear was that very few of these students teams have had previous experience taking part in a game jam of this length and structure, and there was a reasonable amount of project mismanagement on show. Without highlighting specific teams, I saw more than one group on the third morning of the game jam debating throwing away concepts they had spent two days conceptualizing and prototyping in favor of new concepts.
When you only have four days to work on your game, from concept to playable prototype, throwing away two days of work and starting a totally new idea is never a good sign.
I think part of this desire from the teams to throw away perfectly good concepts deep into the game jam was due to the student team’s inexperience, and part due to the pressure of knowing their projects were going to be judged by professional journalists, university ethics professors, city council members, and charity organizers. Their projects had real clients involved, and real stakes to the kind of issues they were trying to tackle, which for many teams caused indecisiveness and fear about committing to working on one clear idea.
By and large, the projects that hit the Friday submission deadline, and the projects that have shown the most promise all week, were those projects where the students had a clear and easy to pitch concept by the end of day one, a solid prototype by the end of day two, a digital prototype of some kind ready on day three, and spent day four working on their final submissions. Additionally, the teams that spent the week actively seeking critical feedback feedback from not just their peers, but the people they knew would ultimately be judging their prototypes, seemed to have much clearer visions of how to progress with their projects, and were in most cases the teams that hit their deadlines. The teams that spent the week hidden away not showing off what they were working on, or excitedly telling the judges about their progress, were in most cases the teams that failed to hit the submission deadline. The teams most open to being told the weaknesses in their initial pitches, with the least defensiveness to critique, tended to produce better work as a result.
With that out the way, I want to talk a little below about my impressions of each of the ten currently available Sustainability game prototypes, before discussing which projects ultimately won over the judges present on the day.
Van De Kaart
Van De Kaart, which translates to English as Off the Grid or Off the Map, is a digital board game prototype designed to facilitate debate around sustainability issues, and to encourage seeing local city issues from differing local perspectives.
Players are assigned character archetypes, who each have a couple of different loyalties and things in the city they’re invested in. You might be a busy bee who is also a party animal, valuing quick access to services, but also an active social life in the city, or you could be a left wing member of the city council, invested in balancing city budgets with progressive social policies. Your group of players are then given a situation, such as the local university wanting to replace their student bar with a study area, which you have to debate with the other players from your personal perspective.
The aim of the game is to convince other players that what your character wants is also in their character’s best interests, trying to see the issue from multiple perspectives, and win a group majority by finding a solution that most of the group can agree to go with.
The balance of the game is a little tough, it can be rough to win people over to your side and away from their first choice of solution, but I feel like that’s kind of the point of the game in some ways. As a simulation of the difficulties of sustainable city planning, it does a great job of highlighting that different people have valid reasons for their different visions for the future, and it’s a powerful way to look at the challenges of balancing different viewpoints with the needs of a local area.
Additionally, the game’s character art is adorable.
Harm to Table
Harm to Table is a really impressive split screen game, where two players play through minigames on differing sides of the food production pipeline. One player works as a farmer, trying to manage a profitable and sustainable farm in a developing nation, while another plays a customer in a big supermarket, rushing around chaotically trying to buy items from a shopping list in a rush. The choices each player makes impact the other player, from overly high demand for certain farmed goods, to low stock availability of other goods, as the two halves of the ecosystem try to co-exist.
Harm to table does a great job of putting players in connected roles, with very different tasks and demands to meet, and is honestly one of the best thought out concepts to come out of the whole game jam. Seriously, boot this prototype up, give it a play. I really feel like this game, with some additional time and funding, could become something incredibly promising, where a fun front facing set of gameplay mechanics trojan horse in some important lessons about sustainability in the food pipeline.
Welcome Dome is one of this week’s projects I have been most excited to see as a digital prototype, and while the current version of the game is a very bare bones, I can certainly see promise to the project over the next few months of development.
The idea behind Welcome Dome is that players are living inside a self sufficient dome, where they are able to live in a sustainable manner, but are stuck within very limited confines. Eventually, players leave the dome, and attempt to put their sustainable concepts to use in the wider world.
Talking first about the things this team did well, they initially showcased their concept as a physical escape room style immersive experience, where players interacted with physical food props, a climate control system model, and a person pretending to be an animal that needed looking after. They made use of a darkened room, an enclosed space, and then opening blackout blinds when the player left the dome to really sell the concept of what this game might eventually be.
From my discussions with the judges, it seems the team developing this game kept this concept, and incorporated it into their demo showcase, allowing judges to play their demo inside a replica of the dome, which feels like a really good way to help sell the concept of the game and its potential.
However, I do have some notable criticisms of the prototype they have currently uploaded. Most notable, many of the elements in the environment that need interactive with for objectives are currently featureless grey cubes. This isn’t inherently an issue, it’s quite common for prototypes to feature placeholder assets, but the team didn’t in any way label what these cubes were meant to be, meaning that I was having to guess what to interact with to progress. Simple text labeling in Unity would have vastly improved this prototype, as well as looping the objectives a couple of times to give a better sense that this life in the dome had been ongoing for some time.
Still, the game’s concept as presented shows promise, and the team have a clear concept of what they want to do going forward. It’s not the most polished prototype submitted, but it is a game I am going to be keeping an eye on over the next few months. I still think it has great potential.
The idea behind Tnalp is really interesting, as is its presentation, but right now the prototype comes with some major caveats.
In Tnalp, you play initially as a pumpkin plant, being cared for by a woman who is relying on you growing properly so that her family can eat. Played as a narrative adventure, players can hop consciousness between parts of the food ecosystem, from the plant, to birds that spread seeds, to bees helping to pollinate, all in service of helping to keep this food ecosystem thriving, while learning about the challenges of food sustainability in different parts of the world.
The art in game is well executed, and the text does a good job at making the player care about the food security of the woman at the center of the narrative. It’s a promising concept, but a demo that is currently sub par.
When I checked out the game around half way through the game jam, the game was running in PowerPoint as a digital prototype, and it functioned exactly as expected, proving to be a really strong showcase for the game. However, the final prototype was made in Unity, and the Unity build featured pretty severe bugs and glitches, which made it near impossible to play through.
While I fully expect this to be ironed out before the game’s development finishes in seven weeks, I would make the argument that in this particular case, the game might have been better showcased on the final day still as a PowerPoint prototype. It doesn’t matter what your game is running in, if the experience is solid, and the initial prototype showed off better than the Unity prototype on the day of judging.
Of all the teams I saw developing games during the Utrecht Sustainability Game Jam, the team behind Simfluencer were probably the team that did the best job pacing development of their project. They had a very clear and well thought out concept on the first day, a playable digital prototype on day two, and spent the week honing in on the specifics of what made their game work.
The idea behind Simfluencer is that you play as someone with a reasonably large social media following, tweeting reactions to real world news events. From the fires raging across Australia right now, to issues of diversity around the world, players are given multiple prompts to pick from of how to respond to these events. These responses range from thoughtful and factual breakdowns of the events and how dire things are right now, to sensationalist clickbait headlines, tweets totally ignoring the issue, or gross inaccurate tweets that misconstrue world events.
Players can keep track of how their posts are impacting their social media follower counts, how they’re impacting their credibility, and the impact they’re having on the world around them. Sensational inaccurate clickbait headlines might get followers but lose credibility. Accurate headlines will raise your credibility, raise your followers by a much smaller margin, but too many depressingly accurate posts in a row might make the world outside turn grey and wet, representing the fact that humans really are not built to process non-stop doom and gloom reality.
The prototype is basic, but gets across what the team is hoping to convey with their project. I’m really interesting to see where the full game goes, and what conclusions it might try to draw about the world given more than a few days development.
The core idea is easy to explain, feels very relevant to the world today, and I think this is one project really worth keeping an eye on as it attempts to critique our current social media centric society.
We Live in a Society
While I can tell you a bit about the interesting concept behind We Live in a Society, the prototype uploaded online is very light on details, and a little complex to understand. I will do my best to explain this game, but my primary advice to this game jam team would be that they needed to better explain their core gameplay mechanics in their uploaded prototype.
in We live in a Society, players take on the role of an AI, attempting to manage global sustainability goals, such as improving the quality and variety of underwater life, or reducing pollution. The game aims to show how these sustainability aims could be taken to excessive extremes if looked at in isolation on paper, and need to be balanced to work properly for a functioning society. An example given in development was that if an AI was tasked solely with improving life for underwater animals, they might flood a city to give underwater life more room to thrive.
The uploaded prototype is a paper prototype, with unclear rules as to how the game is actually played. I’ve attempted to understand the game a few times, but honestly the uploaded document feels more like a list of game pieces rather than an actual explanation of how to play the game. Perhaps the game was more clear when demonstrated in person at the game jam, but I would recommend this team revise their prototype to better explain the game to someone who has no context outside of their provided PDF.
Botanic Friends is another sweet looking concept that really failed to explain its own mechanics properly in its uploaded prototype submission. The general idea seems to be that you’re helping a plant find its way home in a world where all life, plants and animals included, can communicate and are granted equal rights. The art style is pretty cute, but the controls are counter intuitive, some of the dialogue is tough to parse, and it’s difficult to understand in isolation what to do to progress in the game.
Me Stadjie, a name that translates to roughly “My Town”, is a minigame collection focused on getting players to engage with short silly games about sustainable living. The prototype currently contains two minigames, focused on two of the 17 global sustainability goals the team was provided, but acts as a fun and engaging way of teaching players about how to better support their city’s efforts to be sustainable.
One minigame tasks players with very quickly sorting items into different bins, depending on if they are recyclable, and if so in which ways. The minigame contains deliberate items designs to trip players up, for example including both a takeaway pizza box stained with oil, vs a freezer pizza box that only ever contained frozen food. While both boxes are made of cardboard, the takeaway box cannot be recycled, because it has been contaminated with food waste, which impacts the recycling process. The idea is to put pressure on players to very quickly sort items, dealing with their misunderstandings and gut responses as a result.
The other game, which feels very at home developed in The Netherlands, involves clicking on passing cards to transform them into bicycles, with larger vehicles such as trucks taking multiple taps to transform.
Each of the currently available minigames is fun, fast paced, and educational. I can undoubtedly see where this game has room to proigress, and how once completed it could work as a really nice interactive tool for teaching about these sustainable goals the city council hopes its citizens learn about. A great example of gamifying education, something I couyld really see being used effectively to teach good practices to school children for example.
Body Mod Shop
The idea behind Body Mod Shop is pretty simple, you work in a shop 200 years in the future helping to fit people with various body modifications. While the demo itself is currently very bare bones, primarily showcasing a system for moving modification parts around and fitting them into place, the judges at the game jam assure me that the team developing this game have some really interesting ideas for how to explore the ethics of body modification as the game progresses.
What wowed our judges most about this game was less its actual prototype, and more the potential the team’s overall concept has, and how well thought out their plan for the next few months of development seems to be.
Life is Fare
Initially conceived as a very Papers, Please style experience, Life is Fare has over the course of the week it was in development really managed to find what makes it unique, and is now starting to really shine on its own merits.
You play as a train ticket conductor in a world where attempts have been made to remove inequality and prejudice as factors of life. In a world where universal basic income has solved issues of extreme poverty, public transport has replaced cars to an extent that it has helped solve our climate crisis, and discrimination based on appearance is no longer an issue, your job is simply to check for fare dodgers on a train.
Unlike games like Papers, Please or Not Tonight, you’re not racing against the clock because of a pressure to avoid losing your job, you’ll be able to survive on universal basic income no matter what, you’re doing this job because you enjoy it. However, there is a leaderboard ranking how quickly and efficiently other train conductors get their work done, and by politely checking each person’s ticket one by one, you’re unlikely to break even the top 1,000 ticket inspectors in the rankings.
Without our current real world discrimination factors, the expectation is that players will begin to discriminate, still based on observed factors. Have a couple of trains in a row where every person in a blue shirt is fare dodging? Maybe you take the risk and rush the train, fining every blue shirt you see. Maybe you get away with it, and get a good ranking. Maybe you keep doing that, and one day accidentally issue fines to a bunch of innocent people.
The narrative progression curve on this prototype is very very short and fast, but it does a great job of selling this concept. I can’t wait to see what comes of the game getting a further eight weeks in development. it appears to be a really interesting spin on an existing game format, and one that has a lot of potential. The demo is already pretty fun, so I highly recommend checking this one out.
While I was not present for the judging itself, the judges present on the day ultimately awarded first place to Harm to Table, second place to Body Mod Shop, and Third Place to Simfluencer.
Based on my time playing through the submitted games today, with only the information the teams included either in their games, or on their Itch.io pages, the games that really caught my personal attention, and that I will be most closely following over the next seven weeks of development, were Harm to Table, Simfluencer, Life is Fare, Welcome Dome, and Me Stadsjie. Each of them has managed to show off their potential to me at some point during my week watching their development, and they are all games that I hope, with more time put into them, could become something really special.
With my week in Utrecht watching over this game jam now complete, I must say I am impressed with the ambition and creativity of many of these student teams. Some of these game concepts, if polished and expanded upon, would have really strong selling points, and stand out from a lot of games available today. I hope that a few months from now I’ll be able to heap praise on some of these finished products, because a few of these games really seem like they have the potential to be pretty amazing.