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It changed the world: a small game jam with big heart

Friday, 21st March 2014 09:18 GMT By Dave Cook

Game jams are a great showcase for budding talent, and the inaugural Moray Game Jam was no exception. Dave Cook travelled to the Scottish city of Elgin to help judge the event and came away inspired by the projects on show.

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Images courtesy of Scottish Games Network.

It takes almost five hours to reach the city of Elgin by train from my native Edinburgh. About three hours into the journey I wrenched myself away from my laptop to admire the view from beyond the carriage windows. To the left sat snow-capped glens and streams that sprayed surf over unspoiled fields. On my right sat the choppy North Sea that stretched far into the hazy distance, peppered by the outline of vessels hauling cargo up the coast. It’s about this point that the temperature drops noticeably and the air density shifts – the perfect conditions for making world-class Whisky.

“Many gaming professionals in Scotland view Rockstar’s continued success as both a blessing and a curse.”

With a population of just over 25,000, Elgin resides within the Speyside region, which is globally renowned for its Whisky produce and houses some 50 distilleries that have exported quality brands to countries far and wide for decades. Whisky production is one of Scotland’s iron-clad industries. But as you may already be aware, one of our more-modern exports are games, chiefly, the Grand Theft Auto franchise. It’s a brand that, for many, has put Scotland on the map – yet it casts a long, seemingly inescapable shadow. Many gaming professionals in this country view Rockstar’s continued success as both a blessing and a curse.

But these are changed days indeed, where the weight and relevance of triple-a brands like the juggernaut GTA series has shifted dramatically over the last decade. These games continue to sell big but they are also costly, and as such, can only release every two-to-five years. That leaves a new, contested middle-ground open for the taking, and this one reason why the independent arena has flourished rapidly, thanks in part to the accessibility of Steam, mobile platforms and entry-level development tools.

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Winner Vaccine might look simple, but holds a wealth of potential depth

It has also caused the number of money-making studios and solo developers in Scotland to boom in a short space of time. Our capacity for exporting a higher volume of inviting, successful gaming exports has broadened considerably, and continues to expand as you read this. When I told my friends I had been invited to Elgin to help judge the inaugural Moray Game Jam, some of them asked if there were even enough developers up there to support such an event. Remarkably, almost 50 students and game professionals took part in the 48-hour session, and the quality of those final projects was incredible.

I arrived at Moray College at around 3pm on the Saturday, by which point the teams had already been jamming for over 24 hours. The building had been recently-renovated; an amalgamation of old, intricate stone architecture and modern design, outfitted to help educate new waves of technologically-minded and capable graduates. The lab rooms were positively littered with humming PC towers and laptops, balled up scraps of paper adorned with rejected features and mechanics that probably sounded brilliant around midnight, and the odd sleeping body here and there. I would have been worried had the scene looked any different.

“Many of them were first-year students with no experience of in-house development, and were learning Unity3D on the hoof.”

The theme was “It changed the world,” which is as broad as it is taxing. The pitch was conceived by event organiser Andrew Mulholland, who also happens to be co-founder of local developer Hunted Cow Studios. It’s the same team responsible for browser MMO Eldevin, a title which currently boasts over 42,000 members. I visited its office while in Elgin. If it was based in Edinburgh, it’d be the city’s second-biggest studio after Rockstar North.

To familiarise ourselves with the teams and their projects the judges walked each of the rooms to speak with students, get a handle on their pitches and give them test-play feedback. What struck us all at that early stage was just how organised these entrants where and how far along they were with their games. Many of them were first-year students with no experience of in-house development, and were learning Unity3D on the hoof. This was a competition of course, but the opposing teams were helping each other where possible and getting to know one another out of amicable passion for development.

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They Changed Eden is a mix of Spore, defence and other mechanics

You probably know how these jams play out already – plenty of bugs that need ironing out, code challenges to be tackled and tensions that need cooling before team members get at each other’s throats. All of these things happened to some degree, but the jury was consistently amazed by just how much camaraderie and determination there was in the room, not to mention the professionalism on show. Fitting with the theme of world-changing events, we saw games based on the impact of religion, dinosaur extinction, dimension-shifting mechanics and a title based on terraforming to name a few.

All games fitted the theme and had some sort of interesting mechanic, but of course, game development is a gruelling business, particularly when complex systems and concepts need to be implemented. MicroPulse by team RamenSoft impressed with its procedurally-generated blood veins that served as Geometry Wars-style arenas. The idea was to guide a pill from one end of the vein to the other, while spurting bursts of vaccine to neutralise pursuing viruses. In something of an Ikaruga twist, enemies are colour-coded so must be hit with a similarly-coloured cure. The game didn’t place in the top three, but the team has kept in touch and is still making the title.

“We saw games based on the impact of religion, dinosaur extinction, dimension-shifting mechanics and a title based on terraforming.”

That the team bonded to the point they are now able to keep moving forward with a bigger, better product is heart-warming to see, and this team was certainly not alone. Who knows? Perhaps MicroPulse, and its fellow entries could end up being the next Thomas Was Alone. All it takes is a Let’s Play on TotalBiscuit or some positive notoriety in the press. The point is that the tools are out there to spread the word further and louder than ever before. In theory everyone gets their shot.

The jury’s ultimate winner was picked on Sunday afternoon. It was a local multiplayer, node-based strategy game called Vaccine that we were actually a little worried about on Saturday morning, but it had evolved from a simple base concept to a legitimately shippable product by the end. Team Powerpunch could have submitted the finished entry to Apple or Google Play and made money off it there and then. It saw a disease and a cure jostling each other off nodes while capturing territory to spread their influence over cells.

Powerpunch’s concept was simple but it was a finished product, and one that can only evolve from here. I sincerely hope they keep making the game to a point they feel happy to release it for commercial gain. They’d make money. The same is true for runner-up games Dynopocalypse from Dino Games and Labracadabrador’s They Changed Eden. The former saw players flicking asteroids at a spinning Earth to wipe out all the dinosaurs in six moves, while skirting round dodging orbiting moons. The latter tasked gamers with terraforming a doomed planet by absorbing meteorites of various elements in order to help alien species thrive.

Some creatures like it hot, so you had to deflect ice-coated asteroids using a defence turret, while allowing flaming rocks into the atmosphere. Perform well and the aliens stay happy and build their spaceship faster, helping them escape the planet before it explodes. Both this and Dynopocalypse have great potential if their teams decide to keep going. Similar to Vaccine, they could have shipped pretty much on the day, or after another week of polish at least.

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Dynopocalypse saw players actively wiping out the dinosaurs, complete with tragic roars

The same was true of all the titles in those rooms, and that’s certainly encouraging. You have to remember that these were students, and the next potential wave of Scotland’s studio founders and creative-types making our future gaming exports. Like the wealth of distilleries within Speyside and around wider Scotland, the number of game companies across the nation is growing and continue to release fresh products across the world. Events like the Moray Game Jam show what can be done in such a short space of time. These jams are important, and give students practical development experience that some of them said their respective courses were perhaps lacking.

When I took time to imagine what those talented people could have done with a whole year of development, I felt inspired and hopeful for our growing industry, which is already producing incredible content that is perhaps overlooked or under-reported by the wider games press. That’s a shame of course, but as the volume of professionals and games increases, Scotland’s ability to catch eyes and turn heads can only improve.

The Moray Game Jam will return in 2015. Dave will be there.

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