“I spent my whole life wanting to make games and not making them,” Will Blanton confessed to me over a discount cheeseburger. I had joined a half dozen members of the RVA Game Jams crew at a bustling Irish pub. Formed in 2012, this team of programmers, artists, and game enthusiasts has grown to become the guiding star of Richmond’s indie game development scene, but it’s formation was anything but a certainty. “I saw other people doing jams and I thought, ‘One day when I’m seventy I’ll be able to do that,’” Will continued, “I thought people like that were demigods.”
For many, video games are nothing more than a harmless form of entertainment. For game developers, though, they are a means of conveying emotion, an exploration of kinetic systems, a method of storytelling. In short, games are interactive art, and game jams are the most freeform, inclusive expression of that art. As group organizer Lauren Vincelli explained, “A game jam is essentially a rapid video game development challenge where participants are tasked with making an entirely new game from scratch.” Most jams last only 48 hours and require submissions to adhere to a specific theme (for example, “You Only Get One” or “Entire Game On One Screen”). While the short time limit may seem like it should scare away potential contestants, it actually has the opposite effect. By placing hard limits on development time, it forces creators to mercilessly focus their project’s scope, resulting in simpler games that newbies can actually pull off successfully.
Game jams have been hosted online for over a decade, Ludum Dare being the first and most recognized event, but it can be daunting to enter when you’re all by your lonesome. Will remembered his initial trepidation, “One of the reasons I didn’t participate at first was because I didn’t know anyone who was into game jams. It seemed like only Eastern European dudes and folks in Canada.” Lauren echoed these sentiments, saying, “For people who have just graduated college or are learning about games, it’s an arduous task to get started. If you don’t get a job at a game company immediately, it can feel impossible to do on your own.” They knew that it would be easier to keep their motivation elevated with a group of developers in Richmond, plus it just sounded like fun.
Their first Richmond jam had about twenty people and membership has only increased since then. The folks they ended up attracting come from all different backgrounds. Take Tyler Rhodes, for example. He works mostly in 3D, specializing in virtual reality environments that require the Oculus Rift head-mounted display to experience. Games like his tend to not get voted as highly in competition because of the extra equipment needed. He joked, “I saw another 3D game last time and even I didn’t play it.” He fared better with the Virginia Fine Arts Museum, they just awarded him an $8,000 artist fellowship to create 3D art. Another member, Momin Khan (also known by the handle foolmoron), started his own video game development company last year called Root 76. Their most recent project, Clash Cup Turbo, is a fast-paced arena-style combat game destined for console systems. David Byers is another member with a few mobile games under his belt, specifically Kid Vector and Love Me Not. Though he had participated in Ludum Dare competitions before joining RVA Game Jams, he absolutely prefers having a team of like-minded folks over going it alone. “Before that,” he said, “I didn’t realize there were any other people in Richmond doing game stuff.”
When it comes time to build a game in 48 hours, you want to make sure every single minute counts. That’s where having a great sponsor like the 804RVA co-working space comes into play. Founder Larkin Garbee reached out to the group after their first event. The ample table space, robust WIFI, and most importantly, after-hours access is perfect for those late night coding sessions. Bob Bloomfield, owner of the retro video game store Bits & Pixels in Carytown, is another big cheerleader, pitching in with pizza for the jam contestants and raffle prizes from his inventory. VCU and the University of Richmond have also been invaluable partners funneling new jam participants their way. For many students, the jams are opportunity to test their skills in a real world project that goes beyond homework assignments.
Even though there’s an element of competition in the jams, it’s definitely not the main focus of the group. At their semimonthly meetings at the downtown branch of the Richmond Public Library, they like to watch technical presentations to stay current on the latest game development techniques. On occasion, RVA Game Jams will host talks by video game-related creators, authors, and other celebrities. But mostly, they just like to keep the comradery front and center. Lauren reiterated, “We try to make a space where people feel challenged but supported in their projects.”
There must be something to that approach, however, because over the past few Ludum Dare events, Will’s games have steadily risen through the ranks. A few jams back, Will had a secret wish to get into the top 100, and his entry went on to be 61st. The next time, he figured that he would try to get into the top ten, and sure enough, his game was voted into sixth place. Will, whose online handle is simply the binary sequence 01010111, recalled, “Once I got a game to number six, I said, ‘That’s it, I’m done! I never need to make another game in my life!” He didn’t actually stop participating, though, and at Ludum Dare 32 this past April, Will’s game entitled BedHogg was voted best overall. As an 8-bit pillow-fight simulator, it’s a simple enough concept, but everything about the experience feels polished and engaging. Still, the victory was difficult to swallow. “There are just so many people making insanely great games that I never expected number one,” said Will. “It wasn’t the prettiest game, it did have a lot of flaws, and it wasn’t balanced at all, but the main thing I was aiming for was fun and it definitely was fun.”
The whole episode underscores that in creative endeavors like these, the act of doing is what develops your skill, more than any armchair theorizing can ever achieve. When asked to consider the value of a college degree in video game development, Momin made the point even more directly: “If you spend four years making games, you’ll be so far ahead of anyone who just went to college for it.”
RVA Game Jams will be in Ludum Dare 33 on August 21-23. To join up, contact them at rvagamejams.com.