The only sounds in the room are soft conversations and the clicks of fingers on keyboards. Someone is curled up in a sleeping bag by the window, another has their head bent over their desk. At this point, some of the people in the room have been present for almost 36 hours, putting every ounce of effort into designing and creating a unique video game. This is the Global Game Jam at UNC Charlotte, an event created with the goal of allowing developers to learn and work collaboratively to build new games. The catch? They have to build the game in 48 hours. The Global Game Jam, hosted by the student organization Game Developers at UNC Charlotte, took place in Woodward Hall from Jan. 25 – 27.

How does a group design a video game in just two days? Those of us in the Arts and Entertainment section were curious about the answer. To find out, a roving team of five reporters covered the entire Game Jam, hour-by-hour. Read below to learn what the experience was like.

Friday

6 p.m. Noah

Kicking off the event, an intro video on the theme of the Game Jam is shown. This year’s theme: “What home means to you.” A few people from around the globe display their own thoughts on the theme inside the video, and then the event is kicked off. The officers at the front make sure no new people are without a group, and from there everyone splits off into their teams to begin brainstorming ideas for their games.

7 p.m. Noah

The first team I sit down with is Upside Down Bird, a team well-acquainted with the Game Jams already. Benjamin Hamrick and David Dempsey are UNC Charlotte alumni and founded Upside Down Bird. The two have been participating in Game Jams from as early as 2013. The two are programmers along with Matthew Schwiebert. Also on the team is Mike Murray doing level design, Aaron Schwiebert, Nick DeJohn and Cyrus Homesley as musicians and finally Nick Eldridge who is going to help with brainstorming ideas, food runs, and a number of other needed tasks.

As the team gets into ideas, some of them range from a procrastinating simulator to a smart home escape room, as well as a sibling war game/pillow fort builder. Signature to “Resident Evil” is the safe rooms, the few areas where you are truly safe in the hostile environment and save the game. The team springs off this thought and its relation to home by adding the idea of running one of these rooms where multiple adventurers from different game genres come in to save (The player runs and manages this room).

8 p.m. Noah

Jumping to a new group, Guardian Frontier, the team is well into brainstorming their idea. The entire whiteboard is covered in ideas and extrapolation on them. The plan combines two of their initial ideas of a kid talking to several NPCs and finding out what home means to them. Then each NPC will take you into the gameplay in the form of a flashback, bringing out the story from there. Dillon Zhong works as programmer, designer and project manager. With him is programmer Justin Carrasquillo, 3D-modeler/programmer Michael Helwig, programmer/writer Jacob Miller, programmer Hashim Qureshi, designer Don Albert Collins, artist/programmer Irvin Naylor and artist/designer Christina Andre.

9 p.m. Elissa

In the corner of room 140 is the team Pixelsprite, comprised of four members: Jahdiel Couchman, Charlotte Barrett, Vishal Naik and Stephanie Lam. The first three are taking charge of the coding, while Lam is the artist of the four. Pixelsprite met in the fall semester during their Intro to Game Design and Development class, and have created approximately two games together (though Couchman was not a full member for those games). Their project’s concept is that the player will take on the role of an ant which will seek to find safety and a new “home” after being chased by obstacles, such as a vacuum cleaner.  While coding begins, Lam works on creating the aforementioned ant and vacuum cleaner which are red and pixelated in a classic video-game style.

10 p.m. Elissa

Gaming duo Worst Case Scenario works on their project “Mistep.” Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

Nearby is the duo Mike Dorn and Jonothan Sigman, otherwise known as the team Worst Case Scenario. Dorn is in a state of controlled panic, as his Cdrive was accidentally wiped directly before the event. This means all of his pre-made designs have been completely deleted or corrupted, though the team is confident everything will still turn out fine. The two worked together previously when they were randomly placed in the same group during the Fall 2018 UNC Charlotte Game Jam. This time around though, it is clear the team began to plan out their idea before the event. The current concept is a two-player game that takes place in a single, temple-themed room with pressured tiles. At the start of each round, the players will be allowed to link a trap with a specific tile (though this will be invisible to both players once the round begins). When the round begins, both players will set off in hot pursuit of a treasure, both trying to avoid the traps and reach the treasure in the short time allowed. Whichever player survives, wins. It doesn’t really fit the theme of “home,” but Worst Case Scenario is largely unconcerned. Dorn hastily creates graphics, including the tile floor’s layout and animation for when the tiles are activated.

11 p.m. Elissa

As the Game Jam edges into the later hours of Friday evening, first-time team Game PJammers works diligently on graphic design. Half of the team has left the room to go home and grab some sleep, but Shaquiel Smith and Kristian “Axel” Melendez plan to rest later. They hope the team will operate on a shifting schedule in which at least one team member at a time will be working on the game. Focused on the guiding concept of “What home means to you,” their game will be centered around the idea that “friends and stories are what makes a place home.” One will play as a character who has just moved to a new city and will have the option to travel to a number of different locations, such as work, the gym and the library. They will meet new characters at these locations and attempt to befriend them. If they achieve a certain level of closeness, they will receive a reward from their new friend (i.e. a dumbbell or a book) to fill their new-but-empty apartment. At the moment, the main goal is to have as many friends and rewards as possible before the game ends after seven days. At this point in the evening, a few of the original characters and text bubbles have already been created by team member Naima Karzouz. The fourth member, Martin Gutierrez, worked on making an animated typewriter effect for the game’s text before heading to bed. Melendez will spend the evening creating the various scenes and locations while Smith examines various camera angles and different options for how objects can interact with each other.

Saturday

12 a.m. Elissa

One of the less-conventional team dynamics comes from JEM++, a group that consists of current Vice President Jonathan Keku and alumni Matt Ballard and Eric King. They have worked as a team for the past two Game Jams, typically as a cohesive group. This time though, the personal theme of “home” presents a challenge, and each member is working on a different game prototype. They plan to meet within a couple hours to decide which is the most fun and work as a coordinated team from there. Keku and King are both working on varying versions of a “Snake”-inspired gameplay. Keku’s main character is a person, while King’s is a house. Both versions will have the player travel to try and collect houses and from a “tail.” Running into the tail (as well as off the edge of the map in Keku’s case) will result in a Game Over screen. Keku’s idea extends a bit beyond that, as the end of the game in his version will display the way the main character died, as well as list the significant life moments (such as childhood, entering college or getting a job) represented by each house the player added to their tail. Ballard’s strategy is to try various gameplay mechanics until he finds one he likes, though he is currently running with something inspired by “Excitebike.” Midway through the hour, he changes strategy to try and create a sort-of Shuffleboard but with houses.

1 a.m. Noah

Probably the most passionate team I have come across tonight, team Space Shark is making good progress on their bombastic fighting game. Chris Sanchez and Timothy Walker take on programming, whereas Hamilton Rice works on the art and Tyler Johnson handles the concept design and music. The group likens their game to a retro-style “Smash Bros.,” in which the focus is knocking characters off the stage rather than your traditional health bar. The roster consists of four characters, including Heinrich, a hellspawn focused on fire-centered attacks, AieserBeard, deadly captain of the S.S. Grimeback, and Douglas, a muscular dwarf who spends a majority of his time mining in caves. All of these characters feature elaborate backstories on the team’s design document, except their star character Cleetus, whose background simply reads as “Just Cleetus.” I got a peek at Cleetus’ character design, a mountain man who wields a banjo as his weapon of choice. As I sit here writing this, the team debates over whether they should make one of Cleetus’ special moves involve throwing a bottle of moonshine or ramming his enemies with a truck.

Members of Upside Down Bird work on creating their game. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

2 a.m. Noah

Back with Upside Down Bird, the group has settled on the game idea of driving to “the ultimate destination,” home. The challenge presented in the game is that navigation has to be done by pulling up your map, which completely covers your view of the road. With three musically-inclined individuals on the team, the speed of the car will be dictated by changing the radio to faster and slower tempo songs that will control the speed of the car. The team has a driveable car at the moment, as well as a partly designed map for the car to actually drive on.

3 a.m. Noah 

As the night hours draw on, five of Upside Down Bird remain working on their game for the night. At this point, the team has the car driving on a map featuring roads, trees, mountains and other obstacles. The team works on getting the wheel to actually turn, adding hands for the players to see on the wheel, ironing out the kinks in the car’s physics and adding other details on the map, such as a waterfall. It is incredible to see them start off brainstorming their title, and then to come back about 8 hours later and see them have a somewhat playable game already. As the hour draws to a close, the remainder of the team heads home to get some semblance of sleep to be ready to work tomorrow (or today).

4 a.m. Noah

Most of those who remain in these wee hours of the night are either continuing work or getting what sleep they can in sleeping bags on the floor.

5 a.m. Noah

For a majority of this hour, everyone was asleep (or at least trying to).

6 a.m. Noah

The sleep continues…

7 a.m.  Noah

As everyone continues to sleep, the sun finally begins to rise. A pair of students (not associated with the Jam) come into the room attempting to print something. The two are completely unaware that there are multiple people trying to sleep, and after some loud arguing, the two eventually give up on trying to print in the room. A few of the jammers begin to awake because of the disturbance.

8 a.m. Melissa

Hansel Wei is the Site Coordinator of the Game Jam. He is a senior computer science major and Secretary of the Game Developers at UNC Charlotte, the student organization hosting UNCC’s Game Jam. This Game Jam came together quickly: the majority of its organizing occurred two days ago, with some of the work beginning last week. This was partly the result of delays with reservation services. YoYo Games was one of the companies to donate free software which the developers could choose to use during the week of the Game Jam. Their software, GameMaker, enables pieces to be dragged and dropped into the game.

A spotlight on Wei: While he has done some game developing in the past, he now focuses his energy on developing curriculum to teach people about coding. He is currently working on developing a curriculum for UNCC’s satellite location of the North Carolina Science Festival.

9 a.m. Melissa

The Global Game Jam is an annual, international event with sites operating around the world. At the beginning of this year’s Jam, each site played the same keynote speaker video to announce the theme: “What does home mean to you?” There was a social network — similar to Reddit — for the jammers to share their ideas and communicate with other participants. Jammers needed to be careful of the things they posted on their social media (and on the aforementioned network) so as not to spoil the theme for the jammers in the last time zone, Hawaii. The theme could be openly discussed at 11:10 p.m. on Jan. 25, EST.

In addition to the theme, there were specific challenges jammers could choose to attempt that were sponsored by outside companies. Prizes were offered for challenge winners. One such challenge involved creating a game that used iPhones as controllers. As stated by Hansel Wei, “The idea of the game jam is that you band together.” Like an instrumental band with a drummer, singer, guitarist etc., in this game-developing event individuals come together with their specific skill sets to create one cohesive piece.

10 a.m. Melissa

Where are they now? A review of three teams’ progress:

The Game PJammers at work. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

When I first arrived at 8 a.m., The Game PJammers was the only group awake and working. Furthering their theme that friends and stories make a place home, the team concisely states that “home is where you make it.” Having moved on from graphic design for the moment, the team is developing dialogue responses to progress the story.

Jonathon Sigman continues coding solo for Worst Case Scenario as his partner gets some rest. Sigman has just completed writing the code to link multiple traps to a single tile, a game feature that means an unlucky player may set off multiple traps at once. This task was the hardest yet, according to Sigman. Some of the traps proposed for the game include a saw blade swiping across the screen, blow darts and crumbling platforms. A trap that has already been coded is a pit the character can fall into. When a character is killed by a trap, they will respawn so long as it is within the round’s time limit. A round is completed either when a player successfully procures a gem from one side of a room and returns it to a starting place, or when the timer runs out. Currently, the team plans on the game consisting of four rounds. The team’s new response to the query: “Does your game relate to the theme?” is “Yes and no.” The game relates to the theme in the idea that the player is an adventurer, and an adventurer’s home is the places they discover.

Guardian Frontier has begun to develop their cast of characters, that is, the characters the player comes to know during flashback sequences. One such character is Calendella, a soldier who desperately misses her family. A more complex character is Mark. Mark’s parents both died, his mother from natural causes and his father murdered (a fact Mark learns by watching the evening news). With no one to care for him, Mark was sent to an academy for soldiers and put into a class with five others his age. The purpose of the academy is to try and find ways to reduce PTSD. Mark’s backstory focuses on the six characters making up his class.

11 a.m. Melissa

The Game Jam is back in full swing with five teams actively present. The room has grown gradually louder throughout the morning and is currently a hub of activity. In one corner of the room, alumni team, House on Fire works on their game and their fourth member has just arrived. Members of the team have attended Game Jams for the past several years although they have not always worked together. This team is one to watch according to Wei. Wei recalls that last year, they created a game in which players moved physical pieces on a projector (such as pieces of paper) to manipulate virtual items in the game. This year, House on Fire is making a two-player virtual reality game that requires a single headset. The objective of the game is to escape a burning house. However, each player faces a physical limitation. One player, the one that wears the virtual reality headset, is a paraplegic in a wheelchair. This player is to sit in a rolling chair in the physical world outside of the game to simulate the wheelchair. The second player, not wearing the headset, cannot see the virtual world and its obstacles. This character is blind. It is the job of the player in the chair to direct the blind player in moving the chair around virtual objects to escape the burning house in the game.

12 p.m. Maya

At noon, there are still people who are sleeping after a long night. Other participants are currently walking in to begin work, while some are leaving room 140 to grab a bite to eat. There is only a little bit of dialogue between participants. Beyond that, the room is quiet. The only thing you can hear is tapping from the keyboards and clicking from mouses.

1 p.m. Maya

The room is still quiet. Everyone is focused on getting their game finished. Richard Camara from the independent team Game Dev Pro is hard at work. The rest of his team is not there now; they are out taking care of other responsibilities. Even though this is the case, the team keeps in contact by communicating on a message board. In the meantime, Camara is working on a projectile for one of the bosses in the game, which proves to be difficult to create. However, Camara relies on a game engine called Unity for help. It provides tutorials for game developers. Eventually, Camara finds a function that works. It’s not perfect but it’s a start. The artwork seems to be completed already since one team member sent in the artwork. They have made some progress since Friday evening. Game Dev Pro will meet back up 3 p.m.

Tyler Johnson of the team Space Shark. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

2 p.m. Melissa

In contrast to the general buzz of collaboration I left, the silence I return to after my lunch break is deafening. Heads bow over individual keyboards almost reverently. And then the silence is broken by the tinkling of music: many of the groups, having by this time finished the development of their stories, are focusing on the special features of the games. One jammer with the team Space Shark works on designing the menu for the game. Another jammer, Tyler Johnson, works on music, playing a guitar and keyboard. To record the music, he plugs each instrument into a red box and plays. The box is plugged into a laptop, which is then plugged into a monitor. On the computers, the sounds recorded from the instruments can be manipulated. The team plans on creating four songs, one to go with each of the four worlds and four characters (remember: demon, pirate, dwarf and mountain man) in the game. The group is calmly working.

An update on JEM++: Their “Snake”-like game now has a game mechanic differentiating it from the original game, that is, part of the game now includes returning houses to their appropriate plots.

An update on The Game PJammers: Most of the tasks on their to-do list, art withstanding, have been completed. This is far ahead of the schedule they expected. They are now working on the end-game mechanics throwing around ideas such as, angry neighbors smashing the windows of the apartment if the player does not create enough positive relationships by the end of the game.

Global update: Break time approaches. This break time is a feature of the Global Game Jam, with sites responsible for scheduling their own activities for the breaks. Several sites around the world engage in yoga. Others located in the southern hemisphere go swimming in outdoor pools.   

3 p.m. Melissa

The break time was announced and met with little enthusiasm. Some jammers, clearly in the zone, reject the interruption. Others have just returned from staggered break times with their group members and do not feel the need to break so soon. An organizer started writing out team names on the board but gives up on that endeavor as the jammers talk over her in their planning.

4 p.m. Aaron

The teams that are present during my arrival are Team Guardian Frontier and Space Shark. Then, two boys appear.

The duo consists of Riley Jones and Luke Sloop. They are working on a game that features a crab with a colony of shrimp. You control the shrimp and perform certain tasks with them. Jones thinks of the mutually beneficial relationships in marine biology when he hears the theme of this game jam. He thinks of how one big animal needs small animals to clean it while the small animals find the big animal a nice place to stay. This duo has been part of previous game jams. Riley does the art aspects of the game while Luke does the programming and mechanics. The duo met each other through other friends and began to work together during the spring semester of their freshman year.

Continuing on with Tyler Johnson of Space Shark, so far the team has created three out of four of the tracks they were making. He is currently working on the track for the wild character named Cleetus. Johnson has referred to old country music to help give him inspiration for theme track of the son. He uses an unconventional guitar tuning that is D flat tuning (the most common guitar tuning is Standard E). This tuning could be inspired by stoner rock/metal bands such as Sleep, Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age.

5 p.m. Aaron

Work continues on as usual for the teams. Everyone is focused on their work but retains casual conversations with laughter and banter.

The boys of JEM++ so far have most of the basic mechanics of their game. They will be using sample pieces of music as the team does not have a musician in the group.

I begin talking to team Pixelsprite. This team typically does Adventure/RPG games but decided to make a side-scrolling game this time for the convenience. According to Jahdiel Couchman, the previous Game Jam taught them a lot from the sheer scope of what they were trying to do last time.

6 p.m. Aaron

The members of Anticipate (formerly Pixelsprite) present their game, “Bug Out” on Jan 27. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

Continuing on with Pixelsprite, Jahdiel Couchman states that if they were given more than just 48 hours, they would have converted the side scrolling game into an adventure game.

As I write my observational notes, the team is very quiet and focuses on the programming aspect of the game. Couchman uses a calculator on his phone to help calculate the place of the pixels and the animations. This will help him know if the items are way too close or too far.

Couchman demonstrates how he is programming the game. At the time of this writing, he is working on placing the items during the game. He hopes to make the items randomly generate after each level, as well as making the vacuum move faster. The items featured in the game are spiders, webs, ledges, walls, etc. Couchman also uses a blank sheet of paper to draw out the level layout to help plan out on what is doing. This is where he would measure out the ledges.

7 p.m.  Elissa

When I walk into the main room 140, there are a number of groups at work. Sometimes, the lines between them are blurred, as the computer-filled room’s setup requires the teams to format themselves in rows.

The duo Worst Case Scenario’s tile/trap game now has a name: “Mistep.” They’ve made significant progress and feel confident about their ability to finish before 3 p.m. tomorrow, the suggested time to submit games before the server begins too slow. Coder Jonothon Sigman believes he’s conquered his hardest challenge: linking the traps to specific tiles. While he had worked on trying to link multiple traps to one tile this morning, that plot has now been abandoned. Now, each tile can only have one trap. He is now embarking on making the game transfer from one round to the next. Mike Dorn’s animations are complete for at least four traps, as well as the movement of characters walking side-to-side. Each small animation takes him between 2 – 2.5 hours. President Alexus Smith travels to each team in the room giving them advice and supporting their endeavors.

I take a trip down the hall to room 154, where I find a group of six people including some members of the team House on Fire. They sit around a table with a hand-made game board consisting of squares and three different kinds of dice. The group is all alumni, mostly ex-officers of the club. According to Taylor White, the unique board game is called “Mundane Heroes” and was created at a Game Jam a couple of years ago. It is now a tradition. It functions a bit like “Dungeons and Dragons,” with a game master leading a group of heroes on an adventure. The trick is that they all have lackluster superpowers, such as the ability to summon a toddler. The adventure they are currently on features one of the players, who has the ability to talk to demons but not to understand them. Unfortunately, this means the group is now under attack by a demon. Actions made to try and avoid the demon include throwing food out of a window and hiding in a barrel.

8 p.m. Elissa

Three members of the PJammers spend a decent part of this hour trying to plan how the conversation feature of their friendship-building game will operate. The team has set up positive and negative responses to prompts made by the various characters. The debate is whether they should create and program the conversation to have multiple threads and tracks based on how the player responds. Instead, they decide that choosing a negative response will simply send the player back to the last stage of the conversation. Beyond this, they have completed designing the apartment and are working on perfecting how the gym conversation will operate. Once that conversation is completed, they will be able to easily copy the coding format for the other characters and places. The list of planned settings the main character can travel to is currently: the park, a general store, the bar, work, the gym and a bookstore. Rewards one can win for friendship include coupons, alcohol and a lucky pen. The team wants to finish the game before 3 p.m. but seems nervous about their ability to do so. They split up to write the conversation scripts and draw the backgrounds for the other places/characters in the game. Their fourth member, Naima Karzouz, is working on some of the backgrounds from home. She is also in charge of music for the game.

I check back in with the musician Tyler Johnson from Space Shark. He has moved on from Cleetus and is now almost complete with the music for the character Douglas. Since Douglas is a dwarf, Johnson would like him to have a Celtic-inspired sound. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have an electronic bagpipes (though he does have a number of electronic instruments, from cellos and drums to sitars and synths). He rejects the idea of sampling something, and thus decides to use his guitar instead. After he is done with this track, he will move on to creating the theme for AesirBeard.

Matthew Ballard of JEM++. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

9 p.m. Elissa

An update on JEM++: Jonathan Keku suspects that the team will have no trouble finishing their game in time. At the moment, he believes that the only things they have left to do are create a game over screen, create a better feedback system for players and work on improving the graphics. He is in charge of the latter part and is thinking of creating some animations for when the houses “come to life,” primarily a sparkle effect. He has also created a simple animation of a bouncing/jumping house for when the houses join the chain and travel around the map.

An update on Guardian Frontier: Two members of the team, Dillon Zhong and Irvin Naylor, work on creating the dialogue system and finalizing the art for the game. They have just recovered from a three-hour set back in which the code for the dialogue stopped functioning when they were trying to give it the ability to change for different characters. After strenuous troubleshooting, they finally found the one word that was throwing off the code. While they’ve since fixed the issue, this unfortunately means the two are back to solving the problem of switching characters. The team plans on working overnight to finish the code by tomorrow morning. As of right now, they plan for the game to consist of an introduction, three chapters and a conclusion. It will have four characters. First is Alan, a magic character the player will assume the role of. There is also Mage, a magical hunter, Mark, an engineered soldier from the year 2050, and Calendella, a “regular” soldier from an alternate-universe Earth.

10 p.m. Elissa

Catching up with Pixelsprite, Jahdiel Couchman is working on trying to solve a problem in the code. As the ant moves through the level, it comes into contact with a number of objects. While all of these objects are not squares, invisible squares called “collision boxes” appear around them. These squares are what the ant collides with, and unfortunately, they aren’t lined up exactly with the non-square-shaped objects (meaning it sometimes looks like the ant is floating in space). Couchman would like to simply code for the objects at the same time as the boxes. Organizer Hansel Wei walks over to the group to provide suggestions, though it eventually seems to be unavoidable. Couchman will have to code for the collision boxes and actual game objects separately. Meanwhile, Stephanie Lam works on creating the title page for the game. This presents a challenge as the game still does not have a working title.

Wei explains to me that there are actually three Game Jams a year at UNC Charlotte. Two are local 49er Game Jams. These occur in the fall and late spring. The Game Developers club that hosts them typically tries to find sponsors for the events to provide things like food and caffeinated drinks. The Global Game Jam is consistently in January. Sponsors for Global Jams provide things like code and access to their platforms.

When I walk past room 154, the group of six alumni is still playing tabletop games.

11 p.m. Elissa

Team Space Shark works on their character, AesierBeard. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

Team Space Shark is at the point in which they have a working prototype of their game, “Home Field.” They seem surprised by the fact they actually feel like they might have a shot at finishing the game before 3 p.m. Still, there is a lot of work to do. Things still on the to-do list include: a “win” screen, a flashy death animation, adding in the music and the hardest task: trying to make the game use Xbox controllers instead of keyboard commands. They are also considering adding voice lines. Chris Sanchez and Timothy Walker are currently debating over a piece of code that has abruptly stopped working. While they know the code is either A) the one allowing players to select a character or B) the one that carries that character selection on to the next screen; they are unsure which of the two it is.

The biggest area of uncertainty for the fighting-style game is trying to tie it to the theme of “what home means to you.” Currently, the team is running with adding backstories to the four characters that will allow each one to represent a different type of home. For example, the pirate AesierBeard’s ship is always moving and rapidly changing while the dwarf Douglas never leaves his enclosed cave. The team seems unsure of how to make this tie to the theme clear and are toying with the idea of having the backstories appear during the character selection screen.

Midway through the hour, Jonathan Keku plugs his Nintendo Switch into the projector and turns on the game “One Strike” for attendees to play. The room seems torn between watching and trying to ignore it to focus on their work. By the end of a couple rounds though, the room is mostly invested and cheers and laughs at the game.

Sunday

12 a.m. Elissa

As the night (or early morning, depending on how one decides to view it) wears on, discussion about the lack of a “dark room” begins. In the past, the group would book a room specifically for attendees to sleep in without having to leave the Jam. There is not one for this Jam, though people have still brought blankets, pillows, etc. While the dark room was nice for convenience, Marketing Officer Dylan Zhong points out that it wasn’t without issues. People would often walk in and out at varying times, meaning people would be forced awake without planning to be. Without a dark room, attendees have previously slept under tables and in spaces by windows. This seems to be the plan for tonight. Considering the fact that it is absolutely frigid outside, I understand the urge not to leave.

The game playing on the main screen has switched to “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.” The members of Space Shark have been in full control of the Switch since it started. Team Worst Case Scenario leaves, agreeing to meet back in the morning.

The Game PJammers have made a lot of progress in the past four hours. Their debate about how the conversation feature will work is settled. They now have functioning animations for four out of their six characters; scripts have been written for three. At the moment, Axel Melendez is working on completing those last scripts and characters. Meanwhile, Shaquiel Smith is creating the gifts/rewards. Naima Karzouz works on designing the backgrounds at home which she then sends in remotely via Discord. She completes the bookstore scene.

1 a.m. Noah

Preparing for a run to Cookout, the jammers continue to play “Smash Bros. Ultimate” and work on their code as they wait for the groups heading out to be ready. Usually, this event is done as a walk to the actual fast-food hotspot, but due to the near 30 degree temperature outside, travel by car is the preferred method. I ride along with Hansel Wei, Dylan Zhong and Jacob Miller. We talk about our classes in computer science.

2 a.m. Noah

After the recharge from Cookout, some jammers head home, some prepare to sleep and the rest continue what work they can with the energy they still have.

Guardian Frontier presents their game “Where the heart is” on Jan 27. Photo by Niaythi Sulkunte.

3 a.m. Noah

I talk with Dylan Zhong, the sole remaining jammer from Guardian Frontier at this point, a little about what the game itself will turn out as. There is the visual novel aspect as a front for the main protagonist, and the different flashbacks split off into different gameplay variants. The main three discussed include a platformer, a top-down isometric shooter (similar to “Hotline Miami” or “Enter the Gungeon”) and a run ’n gun style game inspired by “Mega Man.” The team has done these different kinds of gameplay as individual games at previous game jams, so the idea is to take this experience into one package. This is the team’s fourth game jam, and when asked about whether he thought they would finish in time, Dylan Zhong said that with cutting certain corners and some retooling, it is always a for sure thing. Essentially, what you can consider “finished” is always subjective.

4 a.m. Noah

Part of the remaining jammers still here are either sleeping or hard at work continuing their games. Dylan Zhong from Guardian Frontier continues programming on his game, as do Vishal Naik and Jahdiel Couchman of Pixelsprite and Shaquiel Smith and Axel Melendez of The Game PJammers. Some time is spent watching short skit videos with Couchman, Naik, Smith and Melendez in an attempt to unwind. Upon asking about their team name, both Couchman and Naik made it clear that they wanted a name change from Pixelsprite. The group opens it up as a discussion for other suggestions, as well as ideas for a name for their ant-themed game. Some ideas included “A Bug’s Life Sucks” and “Bug Out.” Deep theological questions on whether Dr. Pepper actually has his Ph.D. are also discussed, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that the late-night hours are having an effect on all of us.

5 a.m. Noah

Members of “House on Fire” at work. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

I check in on the alumni group House on Fire, though the team has already retired for the evening. Two are asleep on desks, one is on a bed of rolling chairs and the other is in a sleeping bag on the floor. This is a wise decision, as they’ll need as much energy as they can as the deadline approaches. I shadow in on Pixelsprite, and after a bit of explaining in how the designing of levels and the use of XY coordinates work, I get to try out the game for myself. The main objective for Jahdiel Couchman right now is still to make different designs for half of the level so that they can be randomly matched to create a new level on each play. The artwork done by Stephanie Lam is really good, even without considering the amount of time that has been given thus far. Eventually getting into a discussion about game design courses offered in the computer science department, they soon become focused on debating “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” versus its predecessor, “Oblivion.”

6 a.m. Noah

Heading into the morning hours, I sit down with Vishal Naik of Pixelsprite, who gives me a look into adding a smoke effect for the vacuum in his game, which at first glance would seem like a simple task. Essentially an image is used that has multiple sub-images of smoke that gives the effect that it is real, like a gif. There are then a number of values associated with getting it into the level in the correct spot, size, transparency and much more. It’s clear that Naik has a good understanding of how this process works, and he even is able to explain it in a way that makes sense to myself as well. It is a great example of how little things in games can be taken for granted when in reality there is a whole process and amount of time needed to even implement something as simple as a trail of smoke. It makes me much more appreciative of those kinds of things in games, and for the endless number of names in the credits that appear in your typical triple-a game. Satisfied with the progress made, both the jammers left from Pixelsprite and The Game PJammers make a trip to McDonalds for breakfast/dinner.

7 a.m.  Noah

Dylan Zhong remains the only person left coding for the time being and has just finished the dialogue boxes for his game, the visual novel aspect specifically. This gets his team over a tremendous hurdle where a good portion of the work now is to get some art assets created and added in. He now would like to get some sleep. As the sun rises, the McDonalds crew also makes their return with newfound energy. The PJammers present now, Shaquiel Smith and Axel Melendez, both have been working on multiple aspects of the game. Now those pieces are coming together at once so the pair is obviously very excited.

8 a.m. Elissa

When I arrive, only one PJammer remains. The room is mostly empty, and a couple of attendees are asleep at their desks (plus one in a sleeping bag on the floor). Hansel Wei attempts to get some sleep while sitting in his supervising chair. The sound of light snoring fills the room, only interrupted by Pixelsprite’s Jahdiel Couchman as the lone attendee coding. Talking feels like disturbing the peace. Eventually, two other coders awake and work silently on their projects.

9 a.m. Elissa

Finally, there is some semblance of conversation and life. A couple of the coders break into “Tell Me Why,” by the Backstreet Boys, blaming it on the long hours and delirium.

Worst Case Scenario returns; they’ve come a long way since I last spoke to them. “Mistep” is now a (mostly) working game with spike, pit and dart traps functioning. The duo is in the process of playtesting the game for bugs and creating a final to-do list. The main goal is refining the already created traps, and adding in springs and rocks. They tried to create the rock trap last night but decided to come back to it later after it caused persistent issues. Other things on the list include walking and death animations, finding public domain music and fixing some lighting problems with the game.

10 a.m. Elissa

Everyone works diligently at their games. The room is largely silent except for when bugs appear in someone’s work.

An update on Space Shark: This group largely didn’t work overnight and remains about where I left them on Saturday evening. Only one of their team members, Hamilton Rice, is currently on site. He is working on completing some of the final animations; other tasks that need to be finished are adding in Tyler Johnson’s music and playtesting for bugs.

An update on Guardian Frontier: This team still has a fair amount of work to do, probably because their game seems to be one of the more elaborate ones. Irvin Naylor is adding color to the hand-drawn character designs; he will then scan them in Atkins Library to digitize them. Dillon Zhong is working on coding the platforming round of the game. Other rounds still need to be coded for, and the dialogue also has a couple of holes left. Four members of their team will be arriving soon to help finish the process.

The goal of their game is to allow their main character to learn what home means from their three other OCs, each of which has their own definition. What are those definitions? For Mark, it is the idea of not being alone and creating a family of friends that will support you. For Calendella, home is whenever and wherever she can be in contact with her family and know that they are okay (even if that is just via letter form since they are separated by distance). Alan defines his home as being located within himself, sort of like a self-assuredness that he will be okay.

Members of independent team “Game Dev Pro” rush to meet the 3 p.m. deadline. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

11 a.m. Elissa

I travel down the hall to rooms 144 and 145, where most of the alumni and independent teams are working. There I find the team Game Dev Pro, which is composed of a group of adults that attend Meetup game design events at Central Piedmont Community College. Outside of game design, they range from a college student to an eighth-grade teacher to a programmer at Duke Energy. Since UNC Charlotte’s Game Jam is the official Charlotte location, they’ve been using the space during the day but returning home to work at night. Their game’s concept focuses on a young artist living with his overbearing, controlling parents. His “home” is art which he must use to escape his physical house. There is still a significant amount of work to be done; models, the combat system and a boss are only partially completed. Team member Alec Ziskund tells me the goal for today is simply to complete one level and one boss. As a whole, Game Dev Pro wishes they had been able to spend more time working on the game.

An update on Upside Down Bird: This team did not visit campus yesterday, but has returned with an almost-completed driving game titled “Cruise Ctrl.” The aforementioned map still blocks one’s view, but now it also causes changes to the viewer’s perception via filters. When I play, the map causes the game to look blurry and turn into a green notepad. I am absolutely awful at the game, though I am consoled by the fact no one else has made it home yet either. The team is especially proud of the comedic commercials that play on the vehicle’s radio which were crowdsourced from friends using Facebook and Google Voice. The only things left to complete are simple logistics, such as finishing the credits, completing the main menu and inserting a “real” house instead of a simple placeholder one.

An update on House on Fire: Progress is going slowly. Team member Ryan Carpenter is worried about the team’s ability to finish in time but reminds himself that a majority of the coding typically occurs in the last couple of hours at the Game Jam. For now, they have the basic set of the room. However, they still need to add in the puzzles and interactive aspects.

12 p.m. Elissa

Team member Eric King of JEM++ tells me the group is at “rush point.” They’ve rejected the concept of adding any new ideas and are simply sticking with polishing what they currently have. This means adding some simple missing animations for the houses and as well as background music and sounds.

The Game PJammers are also hard at work putting all the pieces of their game together. Currently, three of them are working to code in all of the characters’ dialogues. There are still two locations and two characters left to be animated as well. The exhaustion in this group is palpable (Shaquiel Smith is taking a nap on the desk when I arrive), but they are confident and driven to finish in time.

1 p.m. Elissa

All four members of Pixelsprite collaborate, determined to complete the game by 3 p.m. Charlotte Barrett is searching for music/sound effects for public use. Vishal Naik is still working on the vacuum’s smoke and adding powerups while Stephanie Lam attempts to create 10 different color variations of the game’s background. Jahdiel Couchman has headphones on and talks to no one as he concentrates on coding the game to have new levels generate one right after the other.

The teams are quite aware of the time crunch.

2 p.m. Elissa

While the teams rush to complete their tasks, I interview Game Developers at UNC Charlotte’s President, Alexus Smith.

Smith was elected President almost three years ago, after attending only one Game Jam and maybe two meetings. She had a history of leadership experience and a strong background in computer science. In all, her election took less than 15 minutes. While the Game Developers have been around long enough that only alumni remember when and how the group started, Smith’s goal has always been to maintain and grow the club. She says, “My main focus was to make sure that it existed, no matter what, outside of just the people who always want to do Game Jams, so that there is something for other people that are going to come along and will eventually be just as passionate as them.”

In the past three years, a number of things have changed in the structure of the organization. The days and structure of meetings, the roles of eboard members and the addition of a Discord channel are also components of that list. The club has also shifted to trying heavily to recruit from outside CCI. “When people are like ‘I’m a musician,’ we’re like ‘Yes!’” states Smith. She continues, “Because we are always trying to bring artists and musicians more than programmers. Everybody will eventually program on the team. So we feel like we should supply teams that need that type of specific…you know, someone that can hear and write specific music, or artists, assets. That’s the type of person you need.”

Since I’ve talked to only three women participants during the entirety of the Game Jam, I ask her about her experience as a woman in computer science. She notes that my experience of representation at Game Jam is pretty comparable to her classes where she has typically only seen five or six (always less than 10) women. When asked what that experience is like, she remembers a time recently where a student in her ethics class asked the professor why equality of the sexes in computer science is important. Why is it important? Smith references a study that was published in the American Journal of Public Health that demonstrated that women were more likely to die in car crashes because all the safety features (seatbelts, airbags) were designed with crash test dummies that were men. If more women had been involved, she argues, that would change. She also discusses the fact that Dr. Fatma Mili became the Dean of the College of Computing and Informatics last year. Smith tells me that as an employee of the department, “She’s [the Dean] taken the good staff that we already have and worked with them to say: ‘How do we do this?’ And they haven’t just been like ‘Okay, we’ll quietly implement changes and see if we like them.’ They’ve actually taken the time to be like ‘We’re going to host a forum, we’re going to have one-on-ones.’ The personal assistant of the Dean wants to meet with us next week to talk about what is going on with the college. So I do see the change…it is happening.”

3 p.m. Aaron

One of the members of Chip Boat, the team responsible for “25-Piece Shrimp Meal Organic Fresh-Caught.” Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

I go to catch up with the duo of Riley Jones and Luke Sloop (later known as the team Chip Boat). They are currently test running their shrimp-themed game and adding any else to refine the game. Jones stated that this is a game he is really proud of due to the amount of work they’ve put into the game. He cited the fact that the Game Jam was very early on the semester and that he did not have anything major in his classes to prioritize as reasons the team was able to be very creative and put so much effort into their work.

Jones has noted that the teams in this Game Jam are more ambitious than the previous ones. The title of their game is called, “Fresh Cut Organic 25 Piece Shrimp Meal.” According to Jones, having long titles for their games has been a running gag for a very long time.

I notice that the atmosphere in the room is very vibrant. People are either still working or are talking to each other and laughing. I can only assume that this is due to it being the final hours of the Game Jam. They can at least relax a bit before presenting their games.

4 p.m. Aaron

Checking in on Space Shark, all of the animations that Hamilton Rice made are finished while Tyler Johnson is importing all of the music into the game. They are also testing the game out so they can deal with bugs. One of the bugs in particular features characters being stuck on the floor after performing a particular jump. At the moment Rice does not have a solution to the problem. Regarding his final thoughts on this year’s Game Jam, Rice feels proud. He says that he is much more prepared this time and that this Game Jam was able to fit into his schedule better than last year’s.

I check in with the boys of Worst Case Scenario. Apparently, a game bug has been very persistent and caused a delay in turning in the game. They now expect to be finished by 5 p.m.

5 p.m. Aaron

Mike Dorn from Worst Case Scenario talks to me about the bug in their game. The rock trap that they were working on was described as a “sentient being.” When this trap was activated, one of three things would happen. One, every trap in the field would activate. Two, a random trap in the field would activate the rock. Three, the trap would shoot diagonally across the field like a meteor. The solution for this rock trap? They had to delete everything involving the rock trap and replace it with a GIF that features an animation of the rock falling down. That GIF solved a lot of problems. According to Dorn, this bug took over three hours to settle. The other bugs that they were handling were effectively dealt with. It has already been announced to that they made the upload deadline.

Some of the people involved in the Game Jam had begun to pack up and leave. The link to the server to submit the game is shown on the projector. There are still some teams left working on the finishing touches and uploading their games. It leaves me wondering if 48 hours is enough for people.

6 p.m. Aaron & Noah

Overhearing the conversations of various teams, they are quite relieved about having the whole thing come to an end. The overall atmosphere is in good spirits. Some team members said cheers before drinking their soda.

—-

Final Teams and Games

Anticipate (formerly Pixelsprite)

Anticipate displayed their platformer “Bug Out,” which has players take control of an ant escaping a vacuum trying to make its way to its hole/home. The final game features random level generation, matching two of six different level designs together to make each playthrough different. Jahdiel Couchman handled programming and the mixup system of the level design, Charlotte Barrett worked on the different levels themselves, Vishal Naik worked on the background, powerups and smoke effect of the vacuum and Stephanie Lam created the game’s terrific retro art style.

Chip Boat

Chip Boat created a sea-exploration action game entitled “25-Piece Shrimp Meal Organic Fresh-Caught.” A game that allows one to take control of a crab rounding up shrimp, the game’s underwater art style works well with the given backdrop. While there were only two enemies by the end of the jam, they were unique enough in design and play that they kept things interesting. The angler-like fish had a cute animation and could eat the shrimp that you shoot at them, while the starfish became a pest by knocking away your shrimp and stunning them. Riley Jones handled the art for the game and Luke Sloop did the majority of the programming.

Guardian Frontier

An ambitious project at first, “Where the heart is” is a visual novel that leads to different forms of gameplay at certain story beats. The game follows the protagonist to multiple characters that will each teach the player what home means to them. The game was originally set to include a different form of gameplay for each character’s flashback. However, due to time constraints, this was limited to one platforming level in which the player takes on the persona of a soldier named Calendula, whose flashback involves a game of hide-and-seek with her siblings. Dillon Zhong worked as programmer, designer and project manager. With him was programmer Justin Carrasquillo, 3D-modeler/programmer Michael Helwig, programmer/writer Jacob Miller, programmer Hashim Qureshi, designer Don Albert Collins, artist/programmer Irvin Naylor and artist/designer Christina Andre.

The Game PJammers

The game that probably meshes the best with the Jam’s central theme, “Jem’s Adventure,” finds players in control of Jem, a character who just moved to a new city and is looking to make friends. The main theme behind the game is “home is where your friends are,” which was inspired by one of the game’s own developers, Shaquiel Smith. Smith moved to the U.S. from Jamaica and was faced with the challenge of making new friends himself. The game’s other two programmers were Kristian “Axel” Melendez and Martin Gutierrez. Melendez also authored the game’s story, as well as contributed to the art with the team’s artist, Naima Karzouz. Karzouz also created the game’s soundtrack. The game had an overall wholesome vibe which can really be attributed to its great character animation.

Space Shark

With inspiration taken from “Super Smash Bros.,” “Home Field” is a retro fighting game with four main characters with vastly different backgrounds. There is Heinrich, a hellspawn focused on fire-centered attacks, AieserBeard, deadly captain of the S.S. Grimeback, Cleetus,  a powerful mountain man, and Douglas, a muscular dwarf who spends a majority of his time mining in caves. Just from the well-designed main menu and heavy metal soundtrack, “Home Field” immediately leaves a positive impression. The game was also a huge hit with the crowd during its presentation and garnered a lot of laughter during matches. Chris Sanchez and Timothy Walker took on programming, whereas Hamilton Rice worked on the art and Tyler Johnson handled the concept design and music.

Upside Down Bird

A well-oiled machine with experience making games, Upside Down Bird created the game “Cruise Ctrl.” For the team’s roles, Benjamin Hamrick, David Dempsey and Matthew Schwiebert handled programming. Working on music was Aaron Schwiebert, Nick DeJohn and Cyrus Homesley. Mike Murray worked on level design and Nick Eldridge handled design ideas, crowdsourcing and food runs. In line with the Jam’s theme, the objective of the game is to drive a car to “the daily final destination” — aka home. The actual driving mechanics are intentionally difficult, which can lead to some funny moments. As discussed in their presentation, another challenge in the game is that to see your long-term destination, you have to block your short-term sight by using your map. Not only does it cover up the entire screen, but once it is put away, a distortion to the screen is added as well. This was the team’s first year without an artist, though they did have the three musicians, so music played a large role via the form of the car’s radio which dictated the speed of the car.

JEM++

A sort of combination of “Snake” and “Pac-Man,” “Home Run” has you play as a house chasing other runaway homes, slowly building a chain of houses. The game features a nice upbeat theme song and meshes well with the 3-D, isometric-like art style. You have the option of picking either a small map or a big map, the latter of which definitely fits its adjective of choice. Eric King and Matthew Ballard worked as the game’s programmers, and Jonathan Keku oversaw the game’s art.

Worst Case Scenario

This duo created the two-player game, “Mistep,” in which your goal is to beat your opponent to a prize hidden in a tile-based grid. To sabotage your opponent, you can utilize a number of different traps. The game’s setting is an ancient temple, and the traps are similarly-themed. They include pits, spikes and darts. There were multiple maps planned, though only the temple was ready for the demo. At one point in the jam, the team had the choice of paying for their licensed music or buying a pizza. They chose the music. There is also a funny victory animation for the victor. Jonothon Sigman handled the programming side while Mike Dorn helped with the design and created the art.

No Name

“Boxing” is about moving, and in regards to the theme, runs on the notion home is always on the move. Played in a 3-D space, the game simply has you boxing up items from your house as you move to your new home. Items include rotary phones, slim vases and even your own baby. Once the boxes are packed up, you are immediately taken to your new home, where only the rotary phones will follow you due to a bug in the game. With no team name, the game was created by James Kingdon and Vuong Le. They created the game outside of the space used by Game Developers at UNCC but came in to present their final work.

House on Fire

An ambitious project created for the HTC Vive, “Fire Buddies” is a cooperative game for virtual reality. The main premise is that the player with the headset is in a wheelchair and must guide his blind brother (the player without the headset) to escape their house fire. The team was composed of alumni such as Ryan Carpenter, William Karnavas, Michael Pedersen, Ryan Cook and Bijan Razavi. Vuong Le contributed voice acting. 

Game Dev Pro

This team, composed of Richard Camara, Lynden Hill, Alec Ziskund, Manaka Green and Keith Isham, created the game “Tasukete.” The premise is that the player takes on the role of a young artist trapped in his house by his overbearing parents. He then realizes that art is his true “home.” Gameplay is centered around escaping his overbearing parents and the family home he is enclosed in.

You can play the games and read more about the teams here: https://globalgamejam.org/2019/jam-sites/university-north-carolina-charlotte/games

Correction: The article originally stated that Hansel Wei was the organization’s Treasurer. Wei is actually the Secretary.

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Noah Howell is the Arts & Entertainment Assistant Editor for Niner Times. He is currently majoring in Computer Science with a minor in Journalism. He is a fan of all things "Star Wars" and "The Muppets," and spends his free-time playing too many video games and watching the Oklahoma City Thunder.

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