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 V.26 No.3 | January 19 - 25, 2017

Feature

Bring On the Noobs

Global Game Jam: not just for veterans

Game Jam
I've long harbored the opinion that as a writer, my tool kit is nothing but dull edges and clunky machinery. Writing is the clumsiest way to express oneself, relying, as it does, on the mediation between thought, language and receiver. Or as Kurt Vonnegut put it: “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”

Compare it to the art of video games, where a piece is only separated from its audience by varying levels of a user interface. Right. Super Mario Bros. is a long way from Finnegans Wake, but just a sampling of the world's top-selling modern games will convince you that the gap has been cleared in the last decade. Some of the works coming out right now pack an emotional punch that I'll never be able to recreate with these puny words. And if Elon Musk and his ilk are right, it's a mathematical certainty that we'll be making simulations that are indistinguishable from reality (as long as the ice caps don't get to us first).

And that means that the people showing off their talents at the annual Global Game Jam are prototyping what might be humanity's greatest achievement. No joke. Once a year, around the world, game developers big and small gather together for 48 hours to make off-the cuff, spur-of-the-moment games. Jam organizers announce a theme to participants (kept secret until the kickoff) who then team up and build entire games around it in two days. The end result is a pile of new games to play and hopefully an introduction to some new and innovative development tricks.

The Game Jam's local node is hosted by the Albuquerque Game Developers Guild (AGDG), Rio Grande Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics (SIGGRAPH) and UNM Interdisciplinary Film & Digital Media (IFDM). This year, it's being held at UNM's Mesa Del Sol campus starting this Friday.

I must confess that every time I hear about a Game Jam coming up, I feel a twinge of regret. Why did I waste all those years working calluses into my fingertips? I could have spent them studying the occult science of computer programming. I could be creating entire universes from scratch instead of pretending that my words carry some kind of inherent meaning. Folly!

“It doesn't matter if you're an expert, totally new to game development, or somewhere in between ... you can team up with seasoned jammers if you want to learn new things, or you can even just observe or play-test games if you want to see how things work before diving in.”

Of course I kept this secret longing to myself when I accepted this assignment. As far as my editor knows, I'm a plucky reporter looking to cover a story, not a man desperately clawing at the sides of an existential well with a pinprick of light coming in from the top. When I asked John Harger—co-organizer of the event and a member of the AGDG—if he had any words of encouragement, I had to quickly add, “Encouragement for new developers. Not for me.” Someone out there might be interested and just need a little push. No one I know.

“It doesn't matter if you're an expert, totally new to game development, or somewhere in between,” he wrote to me, “you can team up with seasoned jammers if you want to learn new things, or you can even just observe or play-test games if you want to see how things work before diving in.”

Phew! They obviously saw me coming.

But for anyone who's braver than me and wants more than a looky-loo, the task of finding where to start is daunting. I assumed it involved years of schooling and a super computer. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only can a determined person find numerous online tutorials for game design and coding, but right now is the perfect time to become an indie creator. Just last year, two of the biggest game engines—Unreal Engine and Unity—released free versions of their software. And while a more passive electronics consumer might not have the hardware to support Unreal (most home models these days do, though), pretty much anything on the market will run Unity.

A game engine is a piece of software that a developer can use to build an entire game. There are many of them out there, but the two I mentioned both have a rendering engine (which generates images), an audio engine, collision detection (which gives objects in the game the ability to recognize other objects that they come into “contact” with), an animation component and a physics engine (which simulates real-world physics like gravity and mass). Even someone with little-to-no art skills can create a fully functioning game with either of these (even if it doesn't look very good). Both programs are currently free and boast large online communities and support centers. The only catch is they both charge royalty fees on anything produced with their software.

Which still leaves the dreadful hurtle of learning to code—seemingly no small task to the uninitiated. Many of us have at one time or another stumbled across a jumble of letters, numbers and symbols that purportedly gave some program life. Seeing something like that will put the fear into you for sure. It also doesn't help that each engine can use a different scripting language, meaning you need to learn the one that applies to your program as well as become familiar with others to widen the available options when it comes to finding online tutorials.

But don't despair, dear reader. At the base of all that alien writing is a very simple concept:

If (You can understand this) {

You can learn to code;

}

Yes. The most basic building block of a script is the If/Then statement. If you can wrap your head around it, then you've already nailed the first step. The rest is just memorization and creative, lateral thinking. Well, maybe some math, too. But let's not think about that just yet.

Right now, you need to be thinking about how easy it will be to finally take the plunge, and if you aren't ready to participate in the Global Game Jam this year, at least you'll be ready for the next one. In the meantime, you can join all of us lurkers come to gawk and pretend there's nothing missing from our lives. To sign up, go to globalgamejam.org/2017/jam-sites/unm-mesa-del-sol.

Global Game Jam
UNM Mesa Del Sol Film & Digital Media Facilities
5700 University SE #310
Jan. 20, 6pm-Jan. 22, 6pm
Ages: 18+
Tickets: Free
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