| | By Chris Barylick
Game jams—those days-, weekends-, even weeks-long sessions where video game developers meet, decide on a theme for their games, and then proceed to create a working game in a marathon run of writing, coding, and testing—are nothing new in the Bay Area.
In the South Bay and San Francisco, game jams occur with amazing frequency at tech headquarters and workspaces, averaging at least one per month. But, 20 minutes away in the East Bay, and in Hayward in particular, nothing of the sort had taken place. Nor did it seem likely to.
But thanks to the initial efforts of California State University East Bay student Jonard La Rosa, 25, of Guam, the game jam has officially broken on through to the East Bay. With faculty help, La Rosa organized the East Bay's first game jam at CSU East Bay on a May weekend, an event that drew 18 aspiring video game developers who convened in the school's arts building. Over a 60-hour period, they created no less than five working video games. It probably won't be the last time for an East Bay game jam.
"In all the years I've been here, I've sort of been waiting for the upper-level classes where I get to learn about making video games, but as I got to the higher-level classes, I saw that they weren't available. It took me by surprise, and I was disappointed," said La Rosa, who had participated in game jam events around the Bay Area. "I felt that the only way to show students, especially those that had a spark of interest in making games, that they don't have to wait for anyone to tell them that they could make it or they need permission. I just wanted to show students that they could start making games with their own abilities."
What began next was a three-month quest to collaborate with CSU East Bay faculty to make the Hayward campus' first-ever game jam a reality. With the help of assistant professor Ian Pollock as well as other members of the faculty, La Rosa was able to assemble CSU East Bay's first event for students who had an interest in creating video games and getting development underway.
Six quotes set the tone for the developers, whose games needed to embrace the sentiment in some way. The inspirations were: "Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle."; "If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading."; "A person's a person, no matter how small."; "If I'd observed all the rules, I'd never have got anywhere."; "The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn."; and, "I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage."
Over the next two days, the participants split into five teams, each creating its own work to present at the close of the weekend. The new games featured sandwich-stacking, floating stardust collecting nearby matter, a maze, and a character that becomes weaker to advance to the next level.
Where game development events are typically thought of as massive coding sessions, they actually boil down to a matter of cultivating the talents on hand, with the the inaugural CSU East Bay game jam being no exception. Even if a team primarily consisted of artists and writers, its members collectively figured out an approach, collaborated on the code behind the game, and scaled back efforts if necessary. "When we first started out, we were planning a minor boss or a major boss or a super chaotic storyline, then we scaled it back," said participant Kim Zib, 19, of Alameda. "'We can't draw all of this or write all of this or program all of this,' we said. So let's scale it down to something simpler that we can handle."
Throughout the weekend, students with backgrounds in graphic design found themselves working with sound, programmers contributed to the writing process, and participants expanded on what they thought they could do within the game creation process. Nowhere did this shine through more clearly than in the cases of Christine Bui, 25, of Alameda, a design student who forewent working with a team to create a single-player maze navigation game, Fate. Bui handled the design, art, sound, writing, and coding on her own.
Across the hall, CSU East Bay student Brandon Biggs, 22, of Walla Walla, Wash., who was born visually impaired and offered audio skills to other teams as he signed up for the game jam, surprised fellow students, faculty members, and event speakers by programming the code for his team's video game to allow both sighted and non-sighted players to easily use the final product. Biggs stopped only occasionally to ask mentors for advice and feedback on his code.
When it all was said and done, the participants left both tired and happy, with games and new experiences under their belts. Some, like Mitchel Stein, 26, of Alameda, had built their game's engine from the ground up, while others, like Cassandra Lowe, 33, of Iothian, Md., had worked harder on sound design than ever before. Still others, such as Ben Hawklyn, 25, of Santa Cruz, had tried their hands at every aspect of game creation. Hawklyn ground into the early hours of the morning only to catch a quick nap in the corner of the classroom before his teammates arrived to work on the next stage of their game.
"I think it went really well. It being at the school, you have a lot of space to work; everybody's not cramped, and I think the coordinators did a really good job," said Bui as she ran her game through final testing. "To anybody else who might be scared to do game jams, I think you should just go for it."
Although future game jams at CSU East Bay have yet to be announced and may be open only to currently enrolled students in the short term, efforts are underway to make the game jam into a quarterly event. "For the administration to run these things, that's sort of the wrong approach. It has to kind of bubble over from the students to take the leadership on these projects," said assistant professor Ian Pollock, 48, of San Francisco. "And the moment that happens, you see this kind of magic that happened this weekend, because everyone wants it to happen."
If you're interested in finding a local game jam or participating in one, Google "game jam event" or go to www.GameJamCentral.com for more information.
A Providence, R.I., native and former Washington, D.C., resident, East Bay freelancer Chris Barylick has written the Washington Post, Macworld, and MacLife, and he is interested in the intersection of video games, education, and technology.
Jammin': The East Bay Game Jam taught newbie developers the power of collaboration and initiative. Photos by Chris Barylick.