Sep 202011

Last weekend was OrcaJam, the annual gamejam event that I organize. Last year I made a blog post about the administration side of things, and I thought I’d do the same again this year!

This one is more of a blog post to other event organizers out there, and is more behind-the-scenes. I’ll make some follow-up posts with some content of what was actually created during the weekend.

The Beginnings

I almost didn’t hold an OrcaJam event this year. I wasn’t really feeling into it and I couldn’t motivate myself to start planning. I was secretly hoping that the event would manifest itself somehow; maybe last year’s attendees would just spring up with a plan and a venue. No such luck.

At a game-dev meetup in August, it occurred to me that if I didn’t announce OrcaJam right then, it probably wouldn’t happen. I called upon the most powerful force known to developers: A SELF-ENFORCED DEADLINE.

Setting the deadline to a mere 30 days in the future was enough motivation and encouragement to make things happen. Organizing the venue, food, ticket prices, and everything else went very quickly – without headache, without waffling on decisions, and while maintaining a certain energy level about the event. Momentum feels really good.

Lessons Learned

Last year I listed the biggest failings of OrcaJam, and I wanted to be sure I touched on each of them this time around.

  • Internet/Venue. The hotel we rented last year was not capable of supporting our internet habits. The very-square and confined-feeling hotel conference room was uninspiring and even made me feel a bit claustrophobic. This time around, we partnered with InHub – a collaborative co-working environment that doesn’t use their awesome facilities on weekends anyway, and had plenty of internets. Win-win!
  • After Party vs. Pre-Party. Last year people had to leave early, and the Sunday night festivities were not enjoyable by all. This time around, we met at the pub before the event (as well as the after-party), giving people extra opportunity to socialize and get to know one another.
  • Catering. The hotel we were at last year did not allow outside food. This was a pain in the butt for people just wanting to bring their own snack, AND it was very expensive hauling in their overpriced buffet. This year we went with simple Subway sustenance (some of the cheapest catering I’ve seen) and chopped our own veggies and fruit for platters – again, made possible by our move the InHub. The private venue even let us bring our own keg in for the afterparty!
  • Rants/Talks/Presentations. Last year the talks/rants slipped off the schedule and we didn’t have much time for presentations at the end. This year there was tons of time for announcements and quick talks each day, and was a nice reprieve from the code-marathon.

I think I took care of all the biggest downsides to the previous OrcaJam!


To break up the endless march to coder-exhaustion, I held a mini-board-game-party every night at 8PM. About a third of the attendees participated, and fun was had by all! I think I’ll bring this feature back next year.

Last year was 60 people, this year we strove to halve that. It’s easier to get to know people, manage size and size related issues (seating, garbage, food, etc.), and took less advertising efforts as well. We made it up to 20 registered attendees fairly quickly, and the final 10 trickled in in the last weeks. I do definitely prefer the small size, but could probably aim for 40 people next year.

Another big improvement was price-point. Last year we relied on sponsors to get us most of our funds, and charged a $10 ticket price to prevent flaky attendees ruining our plans. Attendees were flaky anyway, so $10 wasn’t enough of an enticement – plus the low ticket price gave some people the impression that it was a silly/low class/outreach/student event of some kind. This year we pegged the ticket price at $50 per seat (which seems to be a standard price in Western nations), and we only had 2 complaints on price. This lessened our reliance on sponsors and made our flake-rate drop dramatically.


Though our internet was devoted to us, the router couldn’t handle the strain. At it’s peak usage – Saturday night – it needed reboots every 30 minutes (probably overheating).  When it was working, it was working fine and fast, though! Just need some better hardware for next year.

Socialization was still a problem. Imagine – you are a local developer with a day-job, family, or you live out of town. You can’t make it to the friday-afternoon during-work-hours mingle, and you have to get home or catch a flight before the after-party. There’s no time to socialize! I might have to re-rig the schedule a bit for next year.

The discount I organized at a nearby hotel – same rate as last year (down from $90 to $70 per night) – turned out to be their standard book-online rate. They also didn’t bother to record the event name, so a few people had some confusing phone calls. I’ll have to try to get better rates next time.

Finally, there is clean-up. Even the other co-organizers left early this year, and by 10PM it was just myself and two others finishing up a few games of RockBand. I didn’t finish cleaning up (all by myself!) until about 2:30AM. :C Might be worth hiring someone next time!


Two things genuinely surprised me this year. Feedback for the website, and our Five Minute Game Challenge.

Last year hardly anybody mentioned the website at all, and I didn’t bother to do much more with it this year; just updated a few dates and images and that’s about it. But the feedback this year was tremendously positive (despite having less people show up? crazy!). If anyone else out there is looking to do a game jam, be sure to cover the bases I tried to:

  • Transportation (international and local)
  • Lodging (discounts & directions)
  • Weather (what to expect/wear)
  • Food (restaurants/groceries)

The Five Minute Game Challenge made a return this year as well. Last year it started as a joke mini-event, and two other people joined in and attempted the challenge after I failed (only Chevy succeeded, and barely so). This year, the FMGC took on a life of it’s own, and (to me, anyway!) was the highlight of the entire weekend.

Six individuals attempted The Challenge and most of them succeeded. Unlike last year, where everyone used FlashDevelop and made basic avoider-style games, a few of the games this year were written in various IDEs and actually really good. One of our attendees even wrote a song in five minutes!

One of the games in particular went on to another 20 minutes of graphical polish and still completely blows me away. My own game makes statements about mankind and could be an art game (with an ‘innovative’ mechanic). Chevy’s game is an insane bullet-hell shooter that ends in your own intentional suicide.

I love it. I absolutely love it. If I could hold an entire weekend of 5 minute game challenges, I would. I’m afraid it’s simply too intense, however; it must be taken lightly and in small doses. Lest my brain asplode from awesome. I’ll do a whole other post after this on how awesome the games were (and videos/downloads where I can).

How I Survived

Last year I was completely dead to the world – I could hardly stay awake, and my brain felt absolutely exhausted – even with getting plenty of sleep. I was there in spirit form only. I wasn’t sure how to solve that; I made sure everything was planned in advance, I made sure everything was taken care of, and I made sure I stayed in bed for regular sleeping hours. Didn’t help.

My brain was always going a mile-a-minute, checking and double-checking everything. I guess it didn’t help that it was my first big game dev event, maybe it was the pressure?

This year, I decided something very early on: Despite hosting and organizing a game jam, I wasn’t going to be making any games. I was going to be there to socialize, organize, and keep the machine oiled.

That seemed to do the trick! I slept much better, I didn’t feel constrained by time, and I often found myself sitting idle, without a thought or a worry. It was those moments that I allowed myself to make games.. but I was sure to keep thinking that it was only temporary, and I could stop whenever I wanted.

I ended up making two games! :D

Anyway, I hope this helps someone else organize their own events in the future. All in all it was an awesome event, and even more of a success than last year. Woooo!

Sep 212010

During OrcaJam a few of us were wistfully reminiscing about a “5 minute game” stunt Petri Purho did at GDC two years ago. Talk soon turned to whether or not a 5 minute game is possible at all, and what it would take to make it happen.

I leaned back in my chair, with my hand on my chin. 5 minutes is pretty long, isn’t it? And a basic “avoider”-style game wouldn’t be too hard to make in that time… Would it? I mean… Yeah… I can do it, right?

Colin Northway immediately demanded I put my skills to the test in a public forum – on the projector at OrcaJam with a crowd observing. It wasn’t long before a few more joined in, as well!

Round 1: Me!

Being the first entrant of the 5-minute-challenge, I decided to stack the odds in my favour as best I could; I mapped out (on paper) what my game flow would look like, and decided on using simple mouse controls. I’m allowed to start with an open “new project” in FlashDevelop, and I chose to not use any frameworks or library software of any kind. Straight-up from-scratch AS3 code!

And the horn sounds! 5 minutes is counting down on a nearby clock. The crowd heckles me as I type – sometimes making suggestions on “what I should have done” – definitely should have worn some headphones! It’s quite distracting.

I managed to get a working build in at around 5:40, but not in any state that I would call playable. Turns out I was going to fail the 5 minute challenge. In the end it took me 11:15 to get the game to where I had envisioned. :C

Here’s a link to my game as it was meant to be (20 minutes work), and as produced in the contest (11 minutes).

Round 2: Chevy Johnston

Chevy wanted to show off how his game framework, FlashPunk, could make a more complicated game in under 5 minutes. Brazenly going in without any preparation, the clock was set and he was off!

Chevy benefited a bit from a receptive crowd – there was a few ooohs and aahs as he slammed out some magical code with blazing speed. No heckling for this codemonkey!

Partway into his game design he ran into a bit of scope-shock, and decided to ditch his original game design and do a basic replication of mine (costing him precious seconds!). Chevy also lost a time-draining 30-45 seconds on setting up and tweaking keyboard inputs though! A terrible mistake?

At approximately 6:30, Chevy finished his game – another side-scrolling avoider with an interesting gameplay twist (while not moving to avoid things, your speed increases dramatically!).

Check out Chevy’s challenge game here.

Round 3: Mike Lee

Mike wanted a go too, and would be using Flixel for his portion of the challenge. He also started with a blank project in FlashDevelop and was also going in without any form of planning (like a madman!).

By this point, a full gaggle of developers had crowded around the projector and were announcing play-by-plays as the code was rapidly produced. Though it sounds like it might be a bit encouraging, I can imagine it was terribly distracting.

Wasting a few minutes on a silly collision-detecting bug didn’t help things, and setting up a keyboard control handler took a little longer than my mouse routine, but in the end Mike churned out an awesome game in only 8 minutes.

He not only implemented the same game that Chevy and I did – but he also included a score counter, and “gold” pickups as well! Definite bonus points for that, despite clocking in a bit beyond Chevy’s time.

Check out Mike’s game here.


What surprised me the most, and made my heart sink, was how quickly the first minute went by. Colin announcing “1/5th of the way complete!” stunned me – I had just barely started typing some basic setup items and declaring functions! I think both Mike and Chevy agree with me here – the first minute or two go by way faster than any of us had ever planned (even after watching others fail before you).

With all my knowledge and experience gained, I don’t think I can drop my time much more than a minute or so. I was typing fairly fast and did exactly what I want with a few typos being my only bugs… I think 10 minutes is my theoretical minimum time!

Chevy thinks he can definitely get in under 5 minutes if he streamlines his keyboard controls and starts out with a properly-scoped plan in mind. Mike thinks he could have gotten in under 5 minutes, too, if he didn’t run into his collision detection bug.

So there you have it: Using a Flash framework like Flixel or FlashPunk will complete your projects approximately 5 minutes faster. ;)

Can you do better?

Open up a new project window and stretch your hands – It’s only going to take 5 minutes of your time, give it a whirl! See for yourself what exactly you can accomplish in a short timespan. Maybe you can be the first to create a true 5 minute game!

Sep 212010

OrcaJam has finally come to a close. Last night I gave my last big goodbye hugs, the last of the equipment is cleaned up, and all the bills are paid. I can finally dust my hands and relax!

The Inception

OrcaJam started as a thought at a pub, where a few friends envisioned a gameJam event that would bring together local industry folks with local university students. Big thanks to Fieran, the fundraising genius that turned the event from a simple idea to an actual reality.

The Participants

For a “local” event with high hopes of attracting a dozen people, we were all very surprised to see 52 people sign up for the event (approximately 45 attended). Some people came from really far away – North Carolina’s Michael Lee wins the award for farthest-travelled, with Manitoba (Alec Holowka) and Iowa (Mikengreg) as close seconds. A huge number of people from Vancouver showed up too, and a smattering of folks from Washington state as well.

I know three people in attendance wrote their first ever games(!), and perhaps a dozen were attending their first gamejam. Several were students, some were industry workers, some were through-and-through indies – but we were all game developers.

What Went Right

Just about everything went smoothly at the jam. There was no critical failures, there were no major problems, and the event coasted nicely on it’s own steam. Some highlights of note:

  • The free food and discount hotel rates really made the event stress-free for many attendees. Proximity of the nearby hostel was nice too.
  • The timing was just about perfect – the event nestled nicely between other industry events and didn’t conflict with school/work.
  • The after-party was an awesome way to unwind.
  • Close to two dozen games were generated in the 48 hour timespan (that’s more than half a game per participant!) (blog post on the games coming soon)
  • The 5-minute game dev challenge was an awesome self-organizing mini-event (blog post on that soon!)
  • Everyone seemed to meet a bunch of new friends – which, really, is what this whole event was all about.

Many people also commented to me, during and after the jam, that they were surprised “how friendly we all were.” I think this is probably my favorite bit of feedback for the entire event. Not only did we (as a group!) exceed expectations, but we were downright awesome people. Time to give yourself a glorious high-five and simultaneous pat-on-the-back.

For those who were doing their first jam, that must have been a huge, encouraging relief.

What Could Improve

Not all went as well as could have been;

  • The hotel’s internet connection was much too slow, making basic driver downloads a 30 minute operation. Better planning in their IT department would have been nice, but I think a new venue in the future might be a good idea.
  • The after-party should have been a pre-party; Friday night was pretty much mingling anyway, and people have been expressing the regret that they did not get a chance to meet more people. I think the event would have benefited from a nice open-bar, no-seat venue.
  • We needed more artists! We had a room full of programmers with only two musicians (one of which programming) and a definite lack of pretty-producers. Contacting the art departments and getting some Craigslist ads out might be a good idea.
  • It seemed a lot of people had interesting things to say, and  there just wasn’t enough time or opportunities to share. It was probably a bad idea to let the “mini-rants” slide from the schedule. Maybe we just need a Pacific NorthWest Indie Developers Conference?

One of the best things about us humans is our ability to learn and correct. If anyone else is planning a game-jam event I’d be super happy to share all my thoughts and give any advice/tips I can… And you can be sure that OrcaJam II is going to be even better.

The Importance of Sleep

If this post seems to lack my usual level of energy, it’s because the event was remarkably draining. Despite everything going well, despite the complete lack of problems, and despite getting 9 hours sleep – I was still walking like a zombie on day two. It felt like someone stuck a plunger to my forehead and sucked out my brain’s ability to work.

I’ve attended jams before, and even muscled through with little or no sleep while programming some pretty heavy stuff. I’ve always looked at event organizers and shook my head – why did they seem so stressed? Why did they not participate? I couldn’t figure it out. Now I know.

It’s not that the organizers are necessarily stressed, or that they don’t want to participate, or that things are going wrong. They are probably just tired. Tired in a way that they’ve never been tired before; tired in a way that no amount of sleep can fix.

I found I would have ended up just sitting in a corner or staring at a wall for most of the event; I lost my ability to write meaningful code, and I felt somewhat useless. What saved me was a bunch of “fun” events – the 5 minute code challenge; doing cheezy sound effects for people; or even breaking out my Wacom tablet and sketching shitty art for people. Fun, relaxing, low-pressure things that kept me engaged.

But I’m still feeling “zoned out” and can’t quite bring myself back up to my regular running speed.

A word of advice to future organizers: Delegate, relax, sleep well, and most of all: find ways to have fun. For you and your attendees.

Aug 102010

Continuing on the startup success of the VDevs, I’m happy to announce our first GameJam is officially launched!

September 17th-19th, a 48 hour game jam right here in Victoria. I’m really happy/excited/impressed that before the official launch even happend, I’ve already got 7 people signed up!

Check out the official OrcaJam website for all the glorious details. It’s going to be a blast, and you — yes, YOU! — should come!

Jul 192010

Picture by Navaboo

I’ve met up with a lot of game developers in the past few months, and seen awesome local-develpment-hangouts, gamejams, and general community cohesion. It seems every major city in Canada has a vibrant Indie Game Development community!

I’ve also lived in Victoria for 10 years, where we have the University of Victoria and it’s awesome Computer Science department. We have a few game studios in town, and even a branch of Disney up island a bit. I don’t know a single developer here. It feels like I’m a monitor with no computer to connect to (see image).

My friend Fieran and I discussed it over a pint, and we’ve decided we’re going to get things moving, instead of waiting for it to happen!

WELCOME TO VDEV. I founded a group, we’re using our University contacts to secure some computing space, and we’re going to have monthly beer-and-games meetups, and a GameJam in September. I’m really trying to get the local university folks involved, because so many students graduate and immediately move to Vancouver. Vancouver surely has more jobs than Victoria (it is a bigger city after all), but most are completely unaware of how fun Indie Game Making is, and I’m hoping to make a few converts!

VDev's current logo.

Don’t get me wrong; I miss all my international friends, and hope to attract a few to the larger events. I hope a bunch from Vancouver will come out. And most of all, I hope all those quiet Victoria devs finally come out of the woodwork and I get to meet you all!

So take a look at the Meetup group. It’s free to join and you’ll be notified (optionally) of any events we hold. I’d love it if you did!

We’re currently aiming to have our first big GameJam on September 17th-19th. Just waiting on space confirmation; already have a few big ticket guys on the line!

(And for those that might have to travel: Victoria is hosting the annual Great Canadian Beer Festival on September 10th and 11th. It might be a good month to visit!)