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In 48-hours, ‘game jammers’ develop video games from scratch

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The soft blue light of computer screens illuminated the faces of more than 50 people in a darkened classroom earlier this month.

Finally, the words appeared on a 30-foot screen: “What do we do now?”

They immediately turned to each other to discuss a plan of action. They had their theme, now they just needed to determine how to interpret it.

Dragons? Aliens? Monsters? With the clock ticking, they had to decide and immediately start working.

The attendees of the Global Game Jam at Arizona State University had just 48 hours to create a video game from scratch.

Many completed the task and presented what they had made at a demo night at the Endgame Restaurant and Bar, a video-game themed bar on Mill Avenue in Tempe.

Teams of game developers, designers, artists and others had to develop a playable game at the game jam event, sponsored locally by ASU and startup incubator Game CoLab.

These developers worked for prizes – and for opportunities. Participants experienced what it is like to work as a team and develop a product, just as if they worked for a company in the growing video-game industry. Prizes included a partnership with Tempe-based Game CoLab and gift cards.

Various groups routinely hold game jams in Arizona. But this one involved 518 locations around the world held on the same weekend, with the same theme.

“Some of the games that come out of game jams have been very successful, even locally,” said Ben Reichert, founder and CEO of Game CoLab. “They’ve gone on to be placed on Steam or even Xbox or PlayStation platforms and become commercial products.”

Steam, a software platform for downloading video games to computers, began carrying Offspring Fling, a game developed by Valley resident and independent game developer Kyle Pulver.

In 2011, Pulver participated in a game jam at the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe over Mother’s Day weekend. The theme was motherhood.

“I made a game where you are playing as this little puffball creature that has misplaced its children,” Pulver said. “You move through a forest and can throw your offspring around using them to solve puzzles. The objective is to get them all to the exit.”

After creating the initial game at the event, Pulver took the feedback and developed his prototype into a fully polished game.

At one point, he hit a roadblock, and a game jam helped him move forward.

“There’s something about sitting down in a room with all of these people trying to make games as fast as they can,” he said. “You feel that energy.”

Pulver and others come to the jams hoping to progress in projects or start new ones with new teams.

“There’s a lot of lessons you learn along the way, like group management, communication and other things,” said Jesse McIntosh, a developer with Higher Level Games, a team in the Games CoLab incubator. “You need to be sure everyone knows what they are working on and what they are working toward. If there is no clear vision, the game isn’t going to get made.”

In a room full of people, communicating and effectively managing a group can be a monstrous task. This year’s Global Game Jam was the largest held in Tempe, with 10 teams working on different projects based around the same theme, Reichert said.

Growth like this is something Reichert said he hopes to see continue as Arizona’s video-game industry begins to expand.

“The gaming industry in Arizona is interesting. There is definitely a lot going on, but it’s not very visible,” Reichert said. “A lot of students graduate university here thinking there aren’t any jobs, and they end up going other places like California or Austin (Texas) or Seattle. A lot of (local) companies that are looking for programmers or designers or artists end up outsourcing because they don’t understand that there are students coming out of the universities. We hope to change that.”

With seven universities in Arizona offering video-game design programs, Reichert said programs like Games CoLab and game jams will help raise interest and grow the industry.