Empathy Towards Game Developers – My Game Jam Experience

As video games become more and more prevalent, there are more opportunities for gamers to make harsh assessments of these games. It’s an interesting time because we are exposed to peoples’ opinions everywhere thanks to social media, but most often these opinions are negative. You may hear people complain that retro style graphics aren’t realistic enough, or say that they will not play a game because the resolution is 900p instead of 1080p. Consumers seem to be in a constant state of entitlement and this leads to a sense of negativity.

It’s easy to slip into a negative mindset, especially when surrounded by people who are not a part of the gaming industry. Hearing things like, “Wow, they’re so bad at their jobs. Why does every game get delayed?”, or “Games are too expensive!” further illustrates that consumers don’t understand or empathize with developers.

In a way, consumers can’t be entirely blamed for thinking this way. After all, not everyone has the luxury of being surrounded by game developers or unbiased information. Despite that, it is important to address the unfairness consumers portray and to educate them when possible.

As someone who appreciates nearly all aspects of the video game industry, I do my best to expose myself to it from all angles. Recently, I attended a game jam, a gathering of people whose sole purpose was to create a video game in a short amount of time (in this case, over the course of a weekend). The purpose of this, among many, was to put myself in the shoes of a developer, even if it took place on a smaller scale. I went into this mostly blind, having only basic knowledge of how games are made. All I brought was an open mind and my iPad, to make 2D art assets.

Admittedly, the thought of being surrounded by experienced independent developers was intimidating, especially with the expectation of creating a playable product within forty-eight hours. It’s also worth noting that I did not know most of the participants, and even the people I did know were minor acquaintances. Still, I tried to carry myself as confidently as possible.

One interesting thing about this game jam was how open ended it was. The only direction we had was the topic of transmission.” Transmission is a broad term, so I wasn’t too worried about meeting that qualification. During the brainstorming process, our group discussed an assortment of ideas. After going back and forth for a while, though, it seemed like we needed a push, so someone suggested we should pick a genre to get the ball rolling.

Based on the topic of transmission, we decided on a delivery-service game in the same vein as Crazy Taxi or the pizza missions from Grand Theft Auto. While discussing how the mechanics should work, the idea evolved substantially. In this process, I made connections to AAA developers. I started thinking about how many instances creators shift directions during development and, thus, need more time. To an outsider, all that amounts to is a game delay, but to a creator it’s an opportunity to better implement creative ideas. Despite partaking in a junior version of game development, I still felt overwhelmed with the catch-22 of delay versus consumer disappointment or, more specifically, trying to get out all of our ideas within the forty-eight-hour time limit.

Since delaying the game wasn’t an option for this exercise, our team decided to make a fleshed-out level instead of an overly simplified, unfinished game. At this time, we were still sort of rocky on how the game would actually play. In a desperate attempt to lighten the stressed atmosphere, I asked, “Has anyone here played Pepsi-Man?”

I was in awe when most of the crew responded with a laugh, followed by an enthusiastic, “Yes.” Pepsi-Man is a weird, Japanese PS One game that has never released in the States. It features Pepsi-Man, a superhero (I guess) dressed in spandex, running through neighborhoods, with the goal of collecting Pepsi cans. After going back and forth about how quirky and weird it is, we decided to change our approach and make a loose spiritual successor to Pepsi-Man.

I felt proud of pushing the team in a direction in which we all agreed, especially being new to this game development thing. That’s when the real work started.
Aside from being a writer, I am proficient with 2D art. We decided that most of the art would be 2D, though in a 3D world. Aside from the buildings and character model, I was tasked with designing most of the assets for our game. The majority of the team was comprised of artists, something that caused a lack of balance in our dynamic. I kept wondering if this ever happens with commercial game development. Probably not, but it’s an interesting consideration.

After spending hours coming up with the foundation for our game, we had our pitch: “It’s a game where the main character, a half man, half pigeon hybrid, collects and delivers mail across a town, similar to Paperboy. Unlike Paperboy, its presentation is similar to Pepsi-Man, or the running levels in Crash Bandicoot. In addition to collecting and delivering mail, the player must avoid obstacles. If the player hits an obstacle, all of the collected mail would be lost.” We wanted it to be a humorous game, with a focus on being outlandish. We called it Unstoppable Shipment Pigeon Service.

All was set in motion for our game to come to life. Drawing parallels, this is probably the time when a studio would present a teaser trailer at E3 – they have some foundation but nothing totally playable.

One member of the team was in charge of level design, which made me realize how important this is to game development. This is something that I hadn’t thought about before, even as a creator. Despite not actually creating the level itself, this member of the team gave us direction and presented the framework for the layout of the level. Without a properly designed level, the assets would be meaningless.

As I was working on the sprites, I would check in with the 3D modeler every so often and give him ideas and feedback. This guy was amazing. He made a realistic (within context of time constraints) human form with a bizarre twist for the player-character. The character was human, wearing nothing but underwear and boots, with the head of a pigeon and wings that looked almost taped on. This character had…well, character.

The modeler was applying different animations, like jumping, wing flapping, rolling, and even victory posing. I was in awe at how good this guy was, and, drawing comparisons to the real thing, I thought about how there are probably dozens of animators on some projects, applying a more perfect version of what this guy was doing. I had never seen this in person before, and just knowing there are people out there better than this guy had me floored.

While all this was occurring, our programmers were hard at work. Like the modeler, I would check with them and see how the level was coming along. Using Unity, a development platform, they would bounce back between writing code and applying it to the world. I wish I could elegantly describe this processbut watching someone write code can be incomprehensible. I would overhear them racking their brains trying to fix a bug or come up with a solution for something. There was one specific problem that a programmer spent a significant amount of time trying to fix. It had to have been three hours. I can’t recall what the issue was (programming-speak is another language), but it was a glaring problem.

As it turned out, the initial idea ended up being scrapped in the interest of time and sanity. I thought about a game like The Witcher III and imagined how frustrating it must be to have to decide to continue spending time and resources on an issue or to drop it entirely. Neither of those options are good. That dilemma must happen often with AAA development. It then dawned on me, “How do games like The Witcher even exist?” Our team was struggling to put together a two-minute, one-level game about a pigeon. People made The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. How amazing is that?

There was a moment where, after grinding for hours, all the art assets were finally finished. At this point there was not much left for me to do, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit useless, especially since we still had all of Sunday left to work. The game was in playable shape, but it still wasn’t anywhere near completion. I sat with one of the programmers and watched him go to town.

The whole point of this experience was to gain empathy for developers. I never planned on being a developer, and I’m a writer first. What I found was that not only did this experience help me but, as I sat with the programmer, it made me even more empathetic towards him. I pictured all of the ways I could apply my basic knowledge of programming, even as a 2D artist – something as simple as knowing the most efficient way to draw something so the programmer doesn’t have to work as hard. Working in tandem with all members of the team was useful, even if I wasn’t necessarily interested in their role.Having some knowledge of programming, regardless of one’s role on a developmental team, is crucial, something I did not expect to learn. Now, as an artist, I can use what I learned from the programmer to make better assets.

This game jam had exceeded expectations. We had a game that not only was funny, but played surprisingly well. In addition to that, I was way smarter than I had been beforehand.

As people came up to play our finished product, my mind was still in another place. Most of the team was interacting with people, giving our game a try, but I was sitting there, figuring how much we should charge for this game, in a hypothetical world. I counted the members of our team. They were eleven. Let’s say we each worked on the game for twenty-four hours. Using the minimum wage for Ohio, where it was made, each person gets $8.15 an hour. That’s $195.60 per person, or $1,564.80 in total. Now imagine that on the scale of a Call of Duty game. I realize that it’s a little more complicated than just figuring the hourly wage and adding it up, but the point is that games are not too expensive to buy, given their development costsFor people to complain about the price of games is insulting to the developers.

My mindset had been on the sides of developers before, but now I had a better understanding of how their process works. I can now give specific examples as to why people should be more understanding of developers. Most importantly, this isn’t a pledge to discourage criticism of games. There is an art to critiquing and it can be extremely useful, especially during a time when games can be so easily improved.

This article is meant to educate consumers who immediately jump to saying things like, “Yeah, I didn’t like South Park: Stick of Truth because it was too short. They should have made it longer.”

My response to that is, “You don’t know how long short games take to make.” After all, a quick run as a pigeon-man took a whole weekend to make.

Here is a link to download the level we made during the game jam. 

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