Monday, March 12, 2012

Halifax Game Jam: Awesome Edition

Last weekend I participated in the Halifax Game Jam hosted by Twisted Oak Studios and held at The Hub. 48 hours of glorious game-making madness. A marathon of creative ideas, sleepless nonsense, and Unity3d hacking, resulting in a dozen surprisingly enjoyable projects.

I skipped the computer hacking and went straight to the index cards and colour pencils. I posted on the Facebook group that I wanted to make a tabletop game and I quickly got a few people interested. When I got there and pulled out my supplies it wasn't five minutes before I was joined by four others who wanted to work on something tangible and computer-free. Thanks to a growler of Propeller Porter, we had good ideas spilling onto the table in no time.

From the list of possible themes, we glommed onto "Randomly Generated" "Show Tunes". We came up with the idea that each player would represent an instrument on stage and would compete with the other musicians to be the most awesome. Without really working on the mechanics, we made cards that we felt were appropriate: "Frankie's Fedora", "Flying V Guitar", "Double Kick Drums," "Bass Solo". By doing this, it became clear that the cards we were making fell into a short list of categories, which eventually became codified into "Style", "Sound", "Sex Appeal", and "Stunts". Likewise, we realised that certain cards applied more to certain genres: "Jazz", "Rock", "Punk", and "Metal" were the ones we would up with, though we experimented with other genres, and instruments, for that matter. We wanted the gameplay to have mini-competitions somehow, and it seemed like those competitions would involve the 4 Esses: style, sex appeal, stunts, and sound. That was as far as the gameplay mechanics went at that point. This was all conceived by Friday night/early Saturday morning.

With an initial deck and a rough idea of how the mechanics of the turn might work out, on the Saturday we tried some playthroughs. It was clear that we had to cut out some of the things that didn't quite work, like attack cards and extra instruments. We were able to put some numbers on the cards and try out some of the mini-comps. The game wasn't near finished, but we were able to see what worked and what didn't (The Sound category of cards was one of the things that didn't work). It was enough for us to write and balance a bigger deck with 15 cards for each instrument.

At about 7 a.m. on Sunday I used that deck to try some more playthroughs. I quickly saw that each player was interested in only 25% of the deck: only the cards that pertained to that instrument. There needed to be a mechanic that made the other cards useful for all players, and able to be moved around from player to player. There also needed to be a way for the genre of the "song" to be manipulated somehow. I came up with the idea of adding to the genre by playing unwanted cards tapped, which could then be fought for in a mini-competition. Thus, players could either build up their instrument with a card from their hand, fight for a tapped card played previously by another player, or add a point to one genre by playing an unwanted tapped card.

From there the game was pretty much done. Further balancing was required plus some tweaks to the scoring. Each style card was attached to one specific genre, and so the point value of the card was equal to the base value marked on the card, plus however many points that genre had. It worked well, and it lead to a really interesting cooperative side-effect: players who wanted to work toward the same genre because of the cards in their hand would tapped cards that were advantageous to their opponent, but applicable to their own favourite genre. For example, if the vocalist was playing points on punk, but the bassist and drummer were focussing on rock, the drummer might discard a bass rock style card, so that the bassist would take the card and continue playing points on rock. It made mechanical, but also musical, sense.

I found it really helpful to keep the metaphor of the game at the fore-front of my mind, and I brought it up to the group several times. We were working on a game where the players were musicians on stage trying to get the most attention. When were thinking about how the mechanics of the mini-comps would work, we went back to the metaphor: if the mechanic didn't makes sense in terms of the metaphor, we scrapped it. That led to better decision making, because we had a model we could check our ideas against, and ultimately a better game.

We finished the game, called Ticket to Jam, about five minutes before the 6 o'clock deadline. The cards are neat and easy to read and the game is simple and fun, and so far, it doesn't seem to be broken in any way. It was a really good experience for me. It boosted my confidence in my game designing abilities, plus I met a lot of other cool designers plus musicians and artists, and hey, we made a good game!

Me and Julie Hall, game designers extraordinaire

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