Global Game Jam returns to Honolulu
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Global Game Jam Honolulu 2019. Photo by Ed White. More here.
It typically takes a long time to make video game.
And that doesn't even include heavily hyped big-name games with big budgets that take years to develop... and ultimately never come out.
At the commercial level, games have gotten so complex that the amount of talent and time required to create video game content has grown exponentially.
And across the wider spectrum of the industry, from indie publishers to "triple-A cross-platform extravaganzas," the cost of developing and marketing games has risen quickly and continuously over decades.
Against this backdrop, what should game developers and designers do?
For participants of the Global Game Jam, the answer is to smash their talents together over a weekend to make video games, just for fun.
And in Hawaii, the Global Game Jam has been taking place for over a decade, sparked by a visit by the event's founder.
Global Game Jam takes root in Honolulu
The fledgeling IGDA Hawaii chapter at the 4th annual Hawaii Geek Meet.
The very first Global Game Jam was held in 2009, inspired by a similar regional event called the Nordic Game Jam. One of the co-founders of the Nordic event, Gorm Lai, joined forces with the International Game Developers Association to take the concept worldwide.
In 2011, Lai realized that he would be in Hawaii during the annual event, after previously holding down the fort in Denmark. Having joined the HiCapacity Honolulu Hackerspace, he worked with then-Tetris developer Peter Justeson and a few local geeks to launch a Hawaii chapter of the IGDA.
One of their first outreach events was the 4th annual Hawaii Geek Meet, which I organize. So, there on Magic Island, Gorm and HiCapacity teammates laid out several Arduino sets and demonstrated a simple "K.I.T.T." light display.
Demonstrating Arduino at the 2011 Hawaii Geek Meet.
The first Global Game Jam in Hawaii was a modest one.
"I believe that first jam attracted 8 people and was held at Iolani School," recalls Ed White, a local software engineer and community organizer. "Though Global Game Jam has outlived it, its existence is an outcome of the game dev talent that was brought to Honolulu by Act 221."
The following year, the Honolulu event mirrored its international counterparts by integrating local software engineering students, bringing in DevLeague as well as the University of Hawaii.
"It was held in the classroom that would eventually become the ICS student lounge, in part out of recognition that a space was needed for events like these," White says. "GGJ started to take on more of a feel of the classic hackathon and it became much more focused around the technology community in Hawaii."
White and Jesse Thompson took over organizing in 2018.
"We tried to make GGJ more of a networking event, where people would get a chance to meet each other and try out working together, especially for those in the technical community," White explains. "We moved the event over the UH Manoa's iLab, and worked to grow the participation of non-technical talent, looping in 3D animation students from the Academy for Creative Media and music students.
"That year we managed almost crack into the top 100 largest sites worldwide," he says.
While participants work, streamers host and narrate what's going on for a live online audience. Photo by Ed White. More here.
The local event also pioneered running a hosted live stream, allowing an audience to follow the progress through commentary and interviews rather than just watching a room of programmers from a webcam in the corner. The following year, local game streaming group Twitch Hawaii leveled things up even more.
White notes that the growing popularity of Global Game Jam in Hawaii had a tangible impact for local software engineering students.
"This era directly resulted in the creation of an adaptive game music for video games course at UH Manoa by William Watson, and Brittany Biggs at the Academy of Creative Media investing in animation for realtime 3D environments with Unreal, for which she eventually earned a fellowship with the company," he explains.
Last year, the torch was passed to Andrew C. Wang, a local freelance developer.
Promo art for one of the games being built for Global Game Jam Honolulu.
Wang is no stranger to the Global Game Jam.
"That first 2014 Global Game Jam in Honolulu started me on a habit, or addiction, to game jams, and I've participated in about 140 game jams since then," he says. His online portfolio of games is impressive.
Last year, he and his team developed a game called "The Sock Epic" about a lost sock trying to find its other half in the laundry room, traveling through a drying machine wormhole to the realm of lost things.
Both of Wang's parents were programmers, and he was reading their computer manuals by third grade.
"There wasn't even such a thing as downloading games back then," he says. "We had to make our own, and that's how I got started."
He moved around the country quite a bit — New York, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Atlanta, and Boston — before landing in Honolulu in almost two decades ago.
"Now I can't stand any temperatures below 75 degrees," he laughs.
And while he has a strong corporate resume, he gave up the typical career track for freelance software and web development in 2008. And thanks in part to Global Game Jam, he has doubled down on his passion.
"Just a few days ago, I retired from my web freelancing work so that I can focus on my game development projects this year," he says.
The big weekend
"We are making art to generate later into sprites to use them in our doom style shooter," explains Lora Lyn on 2022's "Team Spleeg."
This year, like last year, Global Game Jam Honolulu is a purely virtual affair. But the international organizers did make one change that helped participants in Hawaii.
"In previous years, the theme was released much closer to the start dates of the jam, [and] all the rest of the sites around the world try their best to keep the theme a secret until we here in Hawaii with our very late time zone, started our event and watch the theme reveal video," Wang explains.
This year the theme "Duality" was announced on January 16, nearly two weeks in advance. Some participants were able to start early. And while the entire local event is being coordinated on a Discord server, Wang notes that it's never entirely clear how many participants there are during the event.
"We'll only really get a sense of how many participants we had at the end of the jam, when they present their games and post them to the GGJ website," he says.
Also in 2022, there are no scores, judges, or prizes.
"Some years, the jam is a competition, but not last year or this year," Wang says. "I prefer noncompetitive jams, because it allows participants to explore ideas that are more 'out there' without having to appeal to the masses.
"In my opinion, the real prizes are the fun you had, the friends you made along the way, the skills you leveled up, and the new games everyone made," he says.
As for his peers?
"Different jammers have different reasons for participating in the jam, but I think it is combination of these: fun, practicing and learning new skills, making new friends, and participating in something huge that is happening all around the world at hundreds of locations."
This year, Wang is on "Team Spork."
"I'm making 3D art/character assets for a game about a gladiator who is half-spoon, half-fork, and all badass," he says.
The finish line
The local jam ends at 5 p.m. HST on Sunday, January 30, 2022. Participants and the immensely curious will convene on the Discord server to show off their game, talk about how they did, the challenges they encountered, team triumphs, and lessons learned.
The games they made, including Wang's "Team Spork" and "Team Spleeg," will also be posted to the official website.
Header image by Alistair Berg/Getty Images.