Postmortem: GGJ 2014 and Negative Space

This past weekend I participated in Global Game Jam 2014 at the NYU Game Center. It was my first time competing in a jam of this size and scope, so when I showed up at 5pm on Friday I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was one of 279 jammers at the Game Center, making it the biggest jam site in North America (5th biggest in the world).

The crowd was electric when the keynotes began, and the atmosphere quickly shifted to one of wonder and suspense as the words of Jenova Chen, Kaho Abe, and Richard Lemarchand gave general design advice and hinted at the kind of theme that was about to be unveiled. And then it was revealed:

“We don’t see things as they are, but as we are.”

The Global Game Jam experience

I quickly teamed up with artist David Wallin and programmer Altay Murat, with the intent of creating a game using the Phaser HTML5 Game Framework. Our plan was to get a barebones working prototype by the end of Friday night.

In past jams, my team would settle on an idea very quickly (in less than 1 hour), and begin working on a prototype right away. There would be a great deal of overscoping, and we would wait too long to drop unnecessary features. Throw in some crunch and sleep deprivation, and by Sunday we would be exhausted and stressed beyond belief.

But this jam went differently. We spent the entire Friday evening going back and forth on possible directions before finally settling on an idea. But from that point onward it because easier and easier. David and Altay were excellent at their respective crafts, so our workflow was very smooth. Every few hours we would re-evaluate our situation, adjust the scope if necessary, assign tasks, and continue. By early afternoon on Saturday, our core mechanic was implemented and fun.

One helpful difference was that the NYU Game Center closed at midnight on Friday and Saturday, preventing us from pulling all-nighters. This forced us to go home and get some much needed sleep. making all of the difference in our focus, communication, and motivation.

Negative Space

Our efforts resulted in a game called Negative Space, which you can check out right here. It was nominated for “Best Use of Theme”!

**IMPORTANT: If you do not want our theme interpretation to be spelled out for you, please play the game before reading on!**

NegSpace_screen2

Negative Space is a commentary on the different world views of introverted and extroverted people. Players take the role of two characters in a social scenario and control them both simultaneously using the arrow keys. On the left, the introvert dislikes overstimulation through engagement, and prefers to have space. On the right, the extrovert gets energy from engagement with others, and prefers to be around other people. The goal of the game is to fill up both characters’ happiness meters by catering to their preferences.

Mechanically, the game is about coordinated movement. Since you are avoiding on the left and chasing on the right, you need to analyze the flow of the crowd and constantly make small adjustments to both characters’ positions. Most players loved the challenge of playing two characters at once, but a few felt it was too stressful. People in the crowd move randomly in the early levels, but in later levels they take on different simple movement behaviors (ie: Seek, Avoid, etc.).

Level Design Aesthetics

As the game’s Level Designer, I really enjoyed using the mechanics to paint different aesthetic scenarios. For example, in one scenario the Introvert is surrounded by 10 people with “seeking” behavior. Perhaps in this scenario you are a k-pop star dropped into a crowd of adoring fans? Inevitably, as player weaves in and out, the seekers coalesce into a mob formation, which feels very intimidating and forces the Introvert to always be on the run.

In another scenario, the Extrovert is surrounded by 25 people with “avoidance” behavior. The result is a wave-like radius organically forming around you, as if you truly do not belong at the party. Interestingly, the dominant strategy here is to pin a poor soul in the corner, which many players said felt “wrong”. This same strategy also puts the Introvert safely in the corner, where he can easily hide from social interactions.

I would have loved to have explored these ideas further by implementing and playing with other kinds of movement behaviors, but such is the nature of a game jam.

Playtesting

Watching people play Negative Space was a highlight. We made a bold move in not explicitly stating the concept of the game, which meant we got to witness the “Aha!” moment first hand. There were many instances where people would be playing, figuring out the properties and differences between the introvert and the extrovert, when suddenly it would click and they would exclaim “Oh I get it! It’s an introvert and an extrovert!!”

I also really enjoyed collecting and consolidating feedback. Although I am inexperienced, I feel like I have a natural ability to interpret feedback (even when it is not constructive), and ask the right questions to get them thinking and articulating their thoughts and frustrations in a clear and useful way. Or maybe it’s just luck… but I really enjoyed it and look forward to practicing and improving this designer skill.

Final Thoughts

Global Game Jam 2014 may just be my favorite jam yet! The environment, the energy, the scope and theme… it is just awesome and epic and gets my creative juices flowing in a really satisfying way.

I can’t wait to do it all over again for GGJ 2015! But this time… in Boston. 🙂

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