This is a story of my roller-coaster journey of sheer excitement, utter despair and copious epiphanies through one of my first game jams. And it all happened while glued to my computer screen for 3 days.
What in the world is a game jam?
I love making games. It’s very rewarding. A lot of other people love making games too. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. In fact, releasing a simple, casual mobile game usually involves months of tedious hard work.
Every so often, these people get together and make games over the weekend. Why? Because it’s fun! Whether you’ve made a hundred games before, or none, a game jam is a great opportunity to try something new without a lot of pressure.
Now I didn’t really understand that point about fun nor the without a lot of pressure part, so…
Meet Ice Boy
This is the culprit.
Don’t let that face fool you, it took a lot of (metaphorical) blood and tears to put that smile on his cold little face.
‘Ice Boy’ was the game we made for the second Newgrounds Game Jam in the winter of 2010. The theme was, shockingly enough, winter. I was a 14 year old kid with a love of programming and bad (or non-existent) art skills.
Newgrounds’ Game Jams were special. They were all online, and unlike other game jams, you couldn’t come in with a team of your choice. Everyone would sign up and state whether they were a programmer, artist or musician, and teams would be randomly chosen and announced along with the theme at the start of the jam.
You had 72 hours to get to know people you’ve never worked with before, who could be on opposite corners of the earth, and make a game with them, to be played by thousands of people over the following few weeks.
How awesome is that?
I wanted to win
The story of Ice Boy begins with me wanting to make the best game in the jam. The reason for that is because I just so happened to have made a really bad game in the first Newgrounds Game Jam, 6 months earlier.
With a name that cool, how could it not be an automatic win?
It was the summer of that same year (with a similarly shocking theme). It wasn’t just a bad game, in fact, it was the worst game in the jam. It stood as the last place out of all the entries.
The team that ended up winning that jam had a game designer on their team who had worked on the award winning Journey, which meant I could say that I had competed against an award-winning game developer, so I at least had that going for me.
Atonement, with a fiery passion
I wanted to make the best game. I needed to. It wasn’t just about the competition, it was about proving myself. My family saw my work as a waste of time and friends saw it as childish. And was I even good at it? All the games that I had made up to that point that hadn’t failed were not lead nor designed by me.
I wanted to prove everyone wrong. I wanted people to see the value of my work, but most of all, I wanted to prove it to myself. I was going to make a great game, I was determined!
I had my hopes up pretty high too. I kept seeing all these amazing artists and developers signing up. People with decades of experience and glowing portfolios. I kept imagining how I’d get put in this awesome team, get to work with the best of the best, and create a life-changing game.
The team and theme announcement would go live at 7 am US time, which meant it was 2 pm for me. I was at school at the time, refreshing Newgrounds, excited as ever.
Suddenly, it was up!
I scanned the list, looking for my username. Teams consisted of 1 programmer, 2 artists and a musician. I found my name, next to three usernames I’d never heard of before. A little dismayed, I checked out their profiles, hoping to see something impressive.
I found out I ended up with:
- A 12 year old kid with no experience
- A 14 year old who looked like he had some art experience, but never made a game before
- A musician that didn’t even show up
I was really disappointed. Making the best game? I’d be lucky if I even finished a game! It turned out all the awesome people got put in teams with each other. How could I possibly compete with them now? This was a severe handicap! This was unfair! I deserved better.
I was upset. I wanted to spare myself the embarrassment, and planned on telling my team that I was out as soon as I came home. There was no way this was going to work out.
As we got into the group chat, I was immediately struck by just how excited they were. They seemed to be completely unaware of how doomed this team was. They were tossing all these wild ideas back and forth , declaring how we were going to make the best game ever.
I was feeling pretty cynical at their unrealistic expectations at first, but as we began to brainstorm, their excitement was infectious. I was beginning to come up with ideas and get excited for the jam again! Sure, maybe we weren’t going to win, but maybe we could get something done after all.
Getting to work
Since I knew none of us had a ton of experience, I decided we needed to go for something simple. We still wanted to do something exciting though, so we needed some sort of hook. Our skill wouldn’t carry us, so we had to get creative.
We ended up making this platformer, where you had the ability to create structures by drawing ice on screen.
Because the idea was simple, we were able to finish it really quickly, and had a lot of time to design levels, tweak difficulty and play around with game mechanics.
At some point, we experimented with adding in wall jump, but realized the game felt too much like Meat Boy, a very popular flash game, (and our name was already Ice Boy) so we scrapped that.
We ended up with a very solid game, that actually had a beginning and an end (which was rare for a game made in a jam!)
What? I didn’t say anything about it being a good beginning! Maybe trying to come up with a narrative while sleep deprived at 5 am wasn’t the best idea…
We finally had it up, and I was actually proud of what we had accomplished. We took what little we had, finished a game, had fun doing it, and everyone pulled through in the end (the musician even showed up the next day!)
It wasn’t the best game, for sure. There were all these other games that looked amazing and were really polished. “That one’s a sure winner” I remember saying, “And that one, second place if not first.” I wasn’t annoyed, especially when the comments started coming in. People were actually enjoying playing our game!
We left it at that and forgot about it, and that was going to be the end of a quaint little story about not giving up.
Until the results came out.
Those were the words I saw at the top of the list. Oh no. Was this the reverse order of the rankings? Did we get last place again??
No, we had actually won first place! It was official. We had actually made the best game of the jam!
I was in complete disbelief. My heart was racing.
Wait, it gets better
When I finally calmed down, I realized that there was a secret guest judge who had made the decision. That turned out to be none other than Edmund McMillen, the creator of Meat Boy and many other works that are part of Newgrounds’ history.
And it gets better still. It turned out that the “all star” team never actually finished a game. They got too ambitious and weren’t able to finish on time. Which was unfortunate, but it meant that not only did a legendary game developer validate our game, but we beat out all those other super skilled and experienced people.
What do we learn here?
It’s not about skill, because skill can only take you so far. In fact, your march to success can be severely crippled if you have a crappy work ethic.
What I mean by work ethic here is this unrelenting optimism and willingness to go beyond what you think you’re capable of. I was never the best programmer. Far from it. I always felt like an idiot among many of my peers, especially in the Newgrounds’ community. For every step I took, others around me leapt 10.
I was painfully aware of this, and whenever I partnered up with an artist, I was always afraid they’d ask me to program something that I couldn’t do, and when they find out about my lack of skill, they’d just pick any one of the better programmers out there and leave me behind.
I never said I couldn’t do it, to any task that I was asked. I always said I’d do it, and I’d find myself tasked with, what felt to me, making the impossible happen. I was constantly shoving against the frontiers of my knowledge that way.
It took me years to realize the value of this work ethic, even after Ice Boy. It wasn’t until I caught up with one those programmers that was always light years ahead, but the same age as me. He said something very strange. He said I inspired him.
Who? Me? Uhm no, you inspired me!
There was a curious phenomenon among many of the great programmers I admired. A lot of them hadn’t really done very much. They were active community members, they posted impressive demo’s, but they never really released any full games or projects.
I learned that many of them struggled with things like finding motivation, or building rapport and working with someone, or dedicating to a project. I had exalted pure programming genius as the one recipe for success. My failure to meet these expectations in terms of skill is what drove me to prove myself and double my efforts to dedicate myself to making things.
In a way, we won with Ice Boy because of our lack of skill. And I learned about the value of work ethic in my life for the same reason.
Our prize for winning with Ice Boy was a bunch of Newgrounds swag. I keep the Newgrounds tank in my keychain to this day as a memento. A constant reminder of my first moment of glory. A reminder to never give up.
But perhaps most importantly, a reminder that I’m not the best programmer and I probably will never be, but despite of all that (or perhaps because of it), I can still make it to the top.