Space Trash

It’s been a few months since this year’s Global Game Jam, so considering all my free time lately, I figured I would take the time to write a post about my experience there and general thoughts on it.

I find game jams a great way to get out of your head, meet new people, and make something fun in a low-stakes/high-pressure environment. It’s also a great way to get a general sense of what you do & don’t like in a creative team by working with a variety of people.

A lot of people have voiced criticisms over game jams for glorifying crunch culture, and I think the GGJ teams (and especially the Philly Game Mechanics) have done their best to emphasize that that is not what game jams are about. I’ve always had a good experience with PGM; they’ve always made sure to emphasize the importance of (and gently enforce) a health-first attitude by providing free meals and sleeping rooms for overnight jams like this one.

The Beginning

It always helps to know what you want to get out of a jam before going in. In the past I’ve had specific goals like “work on 2D animation” or “write something really moving”. This year all I wanted was to see my friends, make new ones, create something fun, and have a responsible good time.

We started with icebreakers—quick riffs on example themes with groups of strangers. I did my best to talk with people I hadn’t met before. One group was very rapid-fire, high-energy, building off of each other’s suggestions very quickly. Another was more contemplative—each individual would express their thoughts on the theme and what sort of game it inspired in them, and then the rest of the group would mull it over and respond.

After the icebreakers the official theme was announced: Repair. I continued making my way through the room listening to what everyone else was coming up with to see what/who I vibed with, but mainly catching up with friends.

After some time, the organizers had pitches where the teams that had formed so far would share their idea and announce if they needed any other developers to make it a reality. I ended up deciding to join my friend Mark’s team, TV Head, as I’ve always had a great time jamming with him and the idea had a lot of potential.

Project Development

The first thing the team did was go for vegan Chinese food!

(Mike, Mark, Zach, me, Heidi, Andrew, Alex, Dan, and Phil)

Mark’s a veteran jammer and knows how to survive these sort of experiences with his sanity intact, so the second thing he had us do was establish MVP—Minimum Viable Product. The core part of the game that we absolutely cannot “ship” without.

Space Trash is a game about a robot, T.V., who collects garbage to fuel his ship as he flies through space. We established that, in order to develop a “complete” game, we needed flying, crashing, trash collecting, and some art assets. It would be nice to have multiple, different levels and a narrative throughout the game. Animation was designated a stretch goal.

We divided into sub-teams: Mark, Phil, and Alex doing the programming. Alex also did the SFX and music with Zach, Dan, and Andrew. Heidi and I were on art and story, so we coordinated to establish themes and divide the assets.

Heidi and I had previously worked together during the What Are You Afraid Of? Jam. On that project, I did the creative writing and illustration, while they developed the concept and helped edit the story. On this project, they wanted to take a more prominent role in regards to both art and writing. We talked for some time about what specifically spoke to us about repair and little T.V. alone in space. We agreed we wanted an optimistic game exploring radical softness; I particularly was interested in resilience, hope, and the idea of repurposing—that nothing is really trash.

We decided that we would make the game in a pixel art style; I’ve never done pixel art before, but I felt confident that I would be able to develop a pipeline to at least fake it by the end of the first day. We divided the art assets so that I would do the backgrounds and they would do the characters. I would develop some environment/story concepts and they would do the finished writing.

Color palette and shape progression for the three planets T.V. visits

At this point it was getting pretty late in the night, so we decided to go to our respective homes and get some sleep. I made some quick sketches and went to bed.

The Green Planet

The next day I went back to the jam site and, after getting feedback from Heidi on my designs, I got to work on creating usable assets. As I said earlier, I’d never made pixel art before, so I started by making a digital painting. I found the app Pixelator and put my painting into it to see what level of detail would be preserved (way less than I expected!). Most of my time that day was spent on the original painting, but once I saw how little of it would remain, I started producing assets much faster. Essentially, my pipeline was:

Digital painting in Photoshop > Pixelate > Clean up pixels > Export

I ended up having the first two levels done by the end of Saturday. Judie, one of the organizers whose goal was to do a little on every team’s game, was doing some pixelated trash for us. At that point I decided to check in with Heidi to see how their assets—the characters and the spaceship—were coming along.

The Pink Planet

They had some pencil sketches for the characters and had finished a beautifully complex illustration for the rocketship… but it was not pixel art. It turns out, like me, Heidi was also inexperienced with the style. At that point, though, it was too late to change art direction. We tried to put the spaceship through Pixelator, but the detail was lost and the image became unreadable. The worst part was that it was too complex for an asset that would be very small on-screen.

At this point, I made a decision. It was one thing to have illustrated character animations next to a dialogue box, but to have the main player asset be of a totally different style than the rest of the game was not something I felt comfortable with. I decided to make a much smaller, less complex version of the space ship in a pixelated style.

The Red Planet

Looking back, I think it might have been a mistake. Yes, the game was more aesthetically cohesive, but I don’t think it was worth the bad feeling it caused. And, had we simply coordinated better about our abilities and visions, we could have avoided it from the beginning. Game jams are meant to be fun places to exercise old skills and practice new ones. The important thing is to make sure that participants feel encouraged, and by modifying Heidi’s hard work I did the opposite.

Two rules for successful team projects:
1. Always do visual development!!
2. Check in early; check in often.

Sunday, I finished the art for the final level while Heidi was finishing the script; they decided to go in a more humorous direction than I’d expected, but it worked. Afterward we focused on getting the character art completed, which we did with time to spare.

A red planet alien I drew partially based on Heidi’s design

One of the diversifiers we used was Mi casa es tu casa, so I went around collecting art assets from other people to include as trash in our game, which I then pixelated and cleaned up with time to spare before the end of the jam. After that, I just had to wait for the showcase to see the final, debugged product.

The Showcase

At the showcase everyone showed off what they made—you can see my Twitter thread on them and play them from here! I also got to play the final game (you can download the executable here) and it came together really well; I’m really proud of the work my team did!

Published by Art By Nooka

Game designer, writer, and illustrator

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