Towards the end of January 2015 I participated in my first Global Game Jam, a 48 hour game development event where the entrants meet up in physical meatspace to collaborate. This was the first time I'd worked in a team during a gamejam, and also the first time I'd gone to a physical jam location instead of working from home, and so was also the first gamejam where I was fully clothed ;).
My local GGJ meetup was at Belfast's Farset Labs. The majority of jammers arrived in pre-formed teams (where's the fun in that?) and so I formed a team with the other stragglers and unwanted outcasts. None of us shared any engine experience, my only 'off the shelf' engine experience being with Unity, but my teammates being familiar with either Unreal or Gamemaker. We decided on Gamemaker as we felt it was the most friendly towards new users, and I settled in for what I expected to be a weekend of painful fighting with the limitations of our chosen game development tool.
The theme was announced as 'What do we do now?'. I'd estimate my team and I spent at least two hours 'discussing' interpretations and game ideas before we eventually decided to 'rip off FTL as a multiplayer game'. Our design was actually a little more involved, we also planned on borrowing elements from the board game Red November, in which players scramble around a sinking submarine, fighting fires, bilging compartments clear of floodwater, keeping the engines in good repair, fighting off kraken attacks and other disasters - not entirely disimilar to our gamejam process.
Gamemaker. How do I count the ways I expected to hate thee? I expected Gamemaker to be horrible to work with, have a clunky, unwieldy interface and programming language. Superficially I was right, but it really isn't as bad as I had expected. Having a teammember experienced with the tool smoothed the learning curve into a mild speedbump and we had our first prototype in no time at all.
Although we were sat in the same room, the team experienced some communication issues. I spent far too long working on art assets that ended up scaled down to a quarter of their original intended size. Our map designer requested assets that were never created. Some disagreements about design details were left unresolved, resulting in some assets and gameplay elements not fitting together nicely.
Despite these minor issues, the game quickly took shape and was even fun to play from an early stage. Our decision to make the game cooperative multiplayer was largely responsible for this; blaming your shipmates for failing to fix whatever disaster was destroying the ship was as an important part of the game as the graphics or ingame systems themselves.
The game did suffer from some design issues, particularly with regards to communicating gamestate to the player. Player characters can be hard to see and distinguish from eachother, and the healthbars atop every burning fire, invader and critical ship system result in information overload. Players have a limited time to resolve problems but are not warned when a particular problem's timer is about to expire and it is often unclear what caused the players to lose.
But the game shines when players cooperate, communicate and struggle just enough to keep their doomed ship afloat for a few more seconds. Fires that are extinguished just in the nick of time, engines repaired moments before they fail, a good shot with the turrets that takes out two enemy ufos before they set yet another area of the ship alight.
The GGJ judges at Farset labs agreed, and awarded our game the distinguished honour of being their favourite entry, making this the first time I've won a gamejam.