On March the 13th, 60 developers embarked on a 52 hour train ride from Chicago to San Francisco with the goal of making awesome games. I chatted with Train Jam organiser, Adriel Wallick, about her experiences in planning and conceiving the game jam, how it all panned out and how it compared to the infamous GAME_JAM in LA just a couple of weeks after.
If you are interested in seeing the games produced during the jam, please head over to the Train Jam website and check them out!
So how did you get into games and what was your inspiration for the Train Jam?
I guess long story short, I am Adriel. I used to not make games, When I first started working I worked on satellites. I worked on the next generation of weather satellites that will be going up to the sky for the United States and then once I decided that wasn’t nearly cool enough for me, I wanted to switch over to games. So I started learning how to make games on the side and started going to developer meetups in Boston.
I finally got hired into my first video game job at Firehose games, where I did a lot of programming on Rock Band Blitz. After that, I moved over to a smaller commission company that did a lot of non original IP. Then I went full indie to start working on my own stuff.
Not long after, I also realized I didn’t want to live anywhere anymore. So I packed up all my stuff into a storage unit and then I got on a train that I took across the United States which is sort of where the idea of Train Jam came from. I did that by myself and once I started telling people about it, everybody was like “Oh you should get a bunch of people onto a train and make a train jam” So I did.
So the origin of the Train Jam is based on the decision to leave the house and live on the road?
Yeah, I like to say that I hopped on a train out west like they did back in the day, when you got in a wagon to go out west and leave everything behind.
So a bit like The Oregon Trail?
A little bit, but a lot less dysentery than The Oregon Trail (laughing).
In terms of Unity, are you a Unity Developer? Do you use other tools?
I pretty much exclusively use Unity. It was the first tool that I really started playing around with when I wanted to start making games, way back in 2010, maybe 2011. So I downloaded it and essentially thought: “Ok what can I make that is 3d and will teach me how to use Unity”. I decided for some reason that Tetris would be a really good game to turn into 3d. I sat down for like a week and made a really awful, awful version of 3d Tetris. I had learned the basics of it and since then, I pretty much use Unity for all my projects.
Cool, so the Train Jam was born through your traveling and “Nomadic” lifestyle, but how did it grow? as I understand it this is your first ever game jam that you organized?
Yes, it’s the first one I ever put together and it was such a weird concept for a jam that I wasn’t really sure how people would react to it. So I looked into how Amtrak group reservations work and made a group reservation for 30 people. Later I got my friend Ryan Burrel, who does the megabooth website, to help me make a better website than the one I originally made. I hooked it up to Eventbrite and put the idea out there and all of a sudden, not even a month later, all the tickets were sold out.
So I guess it was an idea that people actually liked! That is when I looked at getting twice as many tickets. I also wanted to get a lunch together so people would be able to meet each other beforehand since nobody knew each other. I had buttons with little meters of fun and all sorts of sponsorships. Then it sort of snowballed from there.
It’s interesting to see how someone who has no experience in setting up a jam has managed to create such a huge thing.
I was really surprised by that! I think it’s because it was such a weird idea. I have a little bit of experience organizing things because I used to help Kelly do the megabooth. One of the big things I took away from watching other people organize is that you just keep asking people for things and every now and then someone will say yes (laughter). I knew a lot of people supported jams in the form of licenses which is why I reached out to Unity and I also reached out to yoyo games for game maker ones. Once I realised I had actually sort of put myself financially in the hole, I thought hey, maybe people want to sponsor this, So I just asked and a lot of people said no and then a few people said yes.
So you are planning on doing another Train Jam next year, what are your thoughts going into that, what would you advise your pre-Train Jam 2014 self?
When I first started planning I didn’t think about the fact that I needed everybody’s legal names, not just nicknames. Also being more aware of random fees on Eventbrite and Paypal, would probably be a good idea.
So you had problems with unexpected fees? How did that pan out?
Yeah, I didn’t really think about the fact that a percentage of the ticket fees would be going to both PayPal and Eventbrite. On something of this magnitude, this ended up being a significant amount of money. It was a bummer mostly because I wanted to be able to afford fun things for the participants, such as snacks and whatnot.
Luckily, through securing some sponsorship, I was not only able to buy a pre-jam lunch, snacks, coffee, and soda, but also refund myself the money that went towards all of those fees. Basically I was able to not be in the hole by running Train Jam. One thing that I want to do next year is to make it bigger. Maybe get a whole coach class car instead of half a coach class car. Also secure a bit more sponsorship because I really want to make it a lot more accessible for other developers. Especially for younger developers, people who are just starting out or people who are struggling financially.
One of the only things that had a point of contention with Amtrak was that we took that entire thing over and other passengers got annoyed. So what I really want to do is somehow convince Amtrak to slap another observation car onto the train. In my head it is just as easy as putting on another car, but I am not a train conductor.
So what about the games that were made and the stuff that people were doing, what were your highlights from that would you say?
There was a lot of really cool ones, I actually still don’t have all of them. If you go to the Train Jam website, I think there are like 17 games up there. But the really nice thing is the wide variety of games that ended up being produced. I mean we had things from mobile, cooperative games to competitive games, to a procedurally generated game based on the audio and visual input from the train, to platformers, to one game that Rami made, where he had to strap an iPad to his back and attack it, which he could only playtest at the station stops, because he had to get out of the train to test it. So we had a whole wide variety of games which I thought was really really cool. Its hard to pick one highlight because they are all so different.
So I guess the advice is to go and play them!
Pretty much, every one that I have up there you can either play online or download. So you should be able to play them, there are some that are PC only and some that are Mac only. The majority of them were made in Unity.
It’s interesting the way that has occurred. I think, at least from my perspective, even before I was working at Unity and was going to game jams and using Unity as a developer. I think just the rapid workflow lends itself to not having much time!
Yeah, thats the thing. I am familiar enough with it now that I can make something very very quickly in it. So I think that especially with a Jam where you have not as much time to fiddle with new technology, if you already know Unity, then you are going to use Unity. That’s just how it works.
It was amazing with the IndieCade Oculus VR Jam where a crazy high percentage of the projects were built in Unity.
We actually had an Oculus game on Train Jam that somebody developed, which I thought was insane and I really thought would make people throw up, but nobody did. There was a really nice little moment when one of the Amtrak employees came by and asked us how the game was going. So we sat her down and plopped it on her head and opened up the demo where you go to Tuscany. For the whole rest of the trip she kept talking about that one time she went to Tuscany.
I guess the next question is not quite so fun because its about what happened post GDC with a different game jam, known as the Game_Jam
Yeah, that was so weird. I had heard about if before and I knew a few my friends were doing it, because I know Zoe and Robin were both leading up teams. Robin asked me if wanted to be a part of his team and I thought OK, I have nothing else to do between GDC and PAX, why not go down to LA and do this. It was supposed to be a Jam that was filmed and released on YouTube in a semi-reality show style. The description was more Top Chef style, it won’t be “Real Housewives of Game Development”. Then 3 days before we were set to go there, they finally sent the contracts for us to look at. The contracts were just… there was just awful stuff in the contracts. It was basically a bunch of stuff about how we wouldn’t be able to represent ourselves on YouTube videos or they could misrepresent us for dramatic effect. It was all very “boilerplate” but it was bad boilerplate. A lot of us as indie developers are the sole face of our companies, so if we can’t go on YouTube, like a Lets Play or Giant Bomb or something like that, that is detrimental to our entire career.
So we started fighting back on that and at that point it started the whole thing on a weird note, because we were very wary of the intense corporate-ness of how it started to turn out. So they started re-wording the contract and we were assured via email that nothing weird would be happening and they just want to show what game development is like.
When we got there, the corporate sponsorship was over the top, the environment was weird, it was very much a game show/reality show/contest feeling. Which in itself was enough to make me think: “Oh god this is awful what am I doing here”. Then they started playing the sexist angle up, asking my team if they had an advantage because of a pretty lady on the team and asking the male teams if we had a disadvantage because we were women. That was the point when we all just walked off and left and shut the entire production down. Which was sort of a nice feeling after all that but it was this weird dichotomy between the game jam that I had run, that was basically everything I pictured game jams to be and the spirit that I feel Game Jams entail. Then two weeks later I’m in this environment, where it’s just everything wrong with how people view game development. It was just such an awful difference between where I was two weeks ago and where I was then and it was really not good.
It seems like a real shame in a way, because I think telling the story of how game jams work is important. There have been a lot of people working on projects to do that, at least through the medium of film.
That was one of the really cool things about Train Jam, and I didn’t think about this before Train Jam happened, but we did a game jam entirely in the public space. We were in a train and we probably didn’t take up half of the people who were on it. So there were all these people who didn’t even really have an interest in games who were all of a sudden exposed to how games are made. I had a lot of people asking me and the participants what they were doing and then engaging with them, figuring out how games are made and appreciating the insight into something they don’t understand. It was really nice to be able to show people that, people who wouldn’t have sought out that information before. It was great to show them this nice indie, collaborative spirit that we all have going on. Then to go to this other jam where they basically wanted to play up a stereotypical view of how we all are was such a shame. There are people out there who are interested in how games are actually made without all this hullabaloo around it.
Yeah I think things like Indie Game the movie and coming up the Super Game Jam
The producers of GAME_JAM were saying that they wanted to create something that showed people how to do game jams, so I said why don’t you check out Super Game Jam and emulate what they are doing. That is what game development is, not this crap hole.
Since then, a few of us have been talking about starting up a different jam, mostly Zoe has been heading it up, where we just get some Go-Pros, rent out an AirBnB and film it that way, then release it to the world. Which I think would be really nice. Making a game is dramatic enough as it is, you don’t need this weird extra crap that they were trying to push onto us that is fabricated. I mean there is already going to be enough personal conflicts and drama of putting yourself into something. So I think it would still make for pretty entertaining media to just film what a game jam actually is.
So it would be more of a documentary than a game show.
Even on Train Jam, which was nice and collaborative, there were still inter-team conflicts, you know, dealing with different viewpoints and different styles of things and people being exhausted and tired and edgy. There were a few tiffs here and there, so there is still entertainment value to be had if they are looking for drama.
It’s not the best environment to be pushing extra elements in, because ultimately everyone is already pretty exhausted and on the edge already.
For Train Jam we had a camera crew there, we had the Polygon crew there and a person from the Game Loading documentary and I am sure they caught lots of drama and they didn’t have to really incite anything.
It was definitely a shame the way the GAME_JAM panned out, but it was a really nice thing to see the community come together. It was sort of indicative of I think the change that is happening, especially for females in the industry, where Zoe and me were uncomfortable and said we were leaving and people supported us 100% and left with us. Which I thought was really nice and then on Monday when we all pushed our stories of what had happened live, I got nothing but support from the entire internets. Which was amazing, I was really nervous about it, because it’s the first time I’ve really made myself vulnerable on the internet and I got all positive things of saying “Thankyou, thankyou for what you did”. All positive except that everyone hates my website apparently, the pink background is offensive to everybody’s eyes (laughter)
Ok so bearing in mind everything you have learnt from the two jams, what is the one key takeaway that you would want to tell somebody else who is organising their first game jam?
I would definitely say, if you planning on making a jam, try and be aware of making an environment where everyone feels comfortable to be creative. That is one of the biggest points of a game jam, that you are doing this in a short amount of time to try something new. Get a creative thing going with people you may or may not have worked with or even met before. If you are in an environment that you are no longer comfortable, it is hard to also be creative.
I’d like to thank Adriel Wallick for taking the time out of her schedule to talk about the two jams and also to Mark Backler for allowing me to use his pictures from the Train Jam.