Capturing the Void: A Space Cowboy Game Jam Postmortem
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
The results are in on the Space Cowboy Game Jam, the third game jam I've contributed a finished game to. I wanted to take a little time to go over how my game, "End Transmission," was received and what I can take away from this experience to help make my future games better.
I'll be up front and admit that, as a relative newcomer to the indie game scene, I sometimes find myself worrying too much about what other people will think about me and the stuff I make. It's especially tough to be going down a road without a whole lot of other people in the same position, so I'm maybe a little more eager to find some sort of barometer for my ability than I would be otherwise.
In other words, all this analysis should be taken with a grain of salt -- but I hope it'll help shed some light on what these competitions are like and how I approached the design of my game with that in mind.
When I entered this game jam, I had a few specific objectives in mind:
- Create an environment that tells a story. Rather than spoon-feeding a rote narrative to the player, I wanted to leave them free to explore a small, self-contained space and piece together how they got to where they were. I did include a few written segments when the player examines an important object, but those are scattershot memories that the player recalls -- they're intentionally incomplete.
- Capture an essential experience in the life of a space cowboy. There are deals gone wrong and shootouts and high-velocity escapes. There are also home-cooked meals and weeks of downtime. There's isolation and there's companionship and there's betrayal. There's the beginning and the middle and -- well, I decided to go with the end.
- Render a game in full 3D. I hadn't done any 3D modeling prior to this game, but I felt a full-3D environment would be necessary to make this game properly immersive. I taught myself the basics of modeling, texturing and shading polygonal objects, and while it's pretty rough, I'm very happy with how the objects in the cockpit turned out for my first attempt.
- Leave the player with something to think about after they're done. If I'm gonna make a three-minute game, I want the experience to last longer than the game itself. I knew from the beginning I wanted to have the player's actions subtly influence the outcome of the game, and I wanted to do my best to capture a sense of fear and uncertainty that comes from deciding how to spend your last few waking moments in this life -- and to highlight the incongruous nature of the universe by placing the player in a strangely quiet and serene environment as their life support dwindles down to nothing.
The categories that Space Cowboy Game Jam entrants were evaluated on are:
- The Void
- Overall (user's choice)
It's important to keep in mind that the scoring criteria were a secret; nobody knew what they were until the submission deadline had passed. "Audio" and "visual" are almost a given, but the majority of these categories were theme-specific. We all knew we were making games within the theme of the "space cowboy," though, so it's not like we were walking in blind. But given how specific some of these categories are (in my case, "shootouts" stands out) there's no doubt that a lot of great games saw their overall scores diminished because they took a nontraditional approach to the theme.
But I think that, given the choice, I'd rather not know the criteria beforehand. If I had known what each of the categories would be, I would've treated it like a checklist: "my game needs to have guns, it needs to be psychedelic," etc. My game absolutely would've suffered as a result, and I wouldn't have been able to put myself in a position of total creative freedom -- and I think that's where the real value of a game jam comes in.
So how did I do? Overall, I did well. But there were a couple categories that I was laser-focused on executing as well as possible from the start, and in that regard I couldn't be happier with how I did.
Out of 58 games submitted in this game jam, here's how mine was ranked:
* Ranked from 12 ratings. Score is adjusted from raw score by the median number of ratings per game in the jam.
Note: I'm not sure why there are two "overall" ratings. I think one is user-derived and the other is a site-calculated average based on the criteria above. Either way, I'm honored to have placed in the 18th or 25th position overall.
Okay. Let's walk through these one at a time:
Shootouts: Working from the bottom up, I'm not surprised to see I wound up on the lower end of the "shootouts" category. I knew from the beginning I wanted to create a short, self-contained environment that looked highly interactive but was completely non-functional. I considered adding a gun to the cockpit, but I decided early on this wouldn't be a game that offered suicide as an option; it didn't fit the theme or the nature of the character I was creating.
Visual: When it comes to the visual category, I wasn't sure how things would work out. This is my first published game in full 3D that I've ever made, and I decided when I entered the jam that I'd make every single object myself. I spent a good chunk of my first week learning about modeling, texturing, lighting and 3D animation, and a lot of the ideas and objects I had mind didn't make the cut in the final game because they were just a whole lot uglier than the few necessary elements I decided to include -- things like the throttle, the steering wheel, and so on. I think my biggest failing was rendering the cockpit itself within Unity using basic building blocks like cubes and planes instead of going back into my 3D modeling software and building something much more contoured and interesting, especially now that I know I can do it.
Also worth noting: I wrote the camera script from scratch. There are plenty of first-person camera controllers out there, including one that comes packaged with Unity, but none of them would allow me to do what I wanted to do exactly how I wanted. It was difficult getting the translation and rotation to correspond just right with the mouse's position and movement, but I'm very pleased with how it turned out.
Psychedelia: Other than the music and the Hunter S. Thompson quote that appears in a certain ending, I don't think there's a whole lot here. I'm surprised I rated as highly as I did here.
Audio: I used to be a musician, once upon a time, and I had ambitions of recording some classic (and, importantly, public domain) jazz numbers for this game and mixing it all together with a radio DJ voice to keep the player company. Fun fact: the player's orbiting smack in the middle of the Orion constellation, staring off at Rigel. That's approximately 870 light-years from Earth, which means a radio broadcast from, oh, let's say 1941 wouldn't arrive until the year 2811. I thought it'd be a fun way to add to the conflicting feelings of isolation and connection to humanity by giving the player a fictional Earth radio broadcast from the middle of the 20th century, but time constraints meant I had to shelve the idea.
Romance: I considered making this game about the relationship between two people and the way one of them makes peace with saying goodbye to the other, but I decided against it. I don't think your typical roguish bounty hunter would break down into Shakespearean lamentations in their last few minutes; instead, they'd smoke their last few cigarettes and spend a little time reflecting on the vastness of space, maybe. I also made an intentional decision not to give the player a concrete identity - no name, no gender, nothing identifiable. I wanted the player to be able to immerse themselves in the role as easily as possible. I'm pleased that the game's romantic themes -- not in the intimate sense but in the "romance of the frontier" sense -- translated well.
Lonesomeness: I couldn't have rendered a plausible human character even if I'd wanted to, so I knew this would be a solo affair. Fortunately, I had a story in mind that fit the theme of isolation very nicely. But I knew I didn't just want an empty spaceship for a player to explore -- I wanted to establish that this person had been betrayed, forgotten and double-crossed and was sitting in the sabotaged remnants of their long-trustworthy, now-failing ship. I wanted to have players confront the question of how they'd spend their last few minutes thinking, remembering, maybe even attempting to avoid the inevitable. Lonesomeness was a crucial aspect of this game's design and placing third overall in this category is more than I could've hoped for.
The Void: This goes hand-in-hand with lonesomeness, but it's something else entirely. Emptiness; the unknown; darkness and silence, but also light and color as far as the eye can see. Space is dark and cold but it's also host to countless stars and galaxies and sights to see, and there's a beauty to that dense emptiness. I wanted this vignette more than anything to make the player feel both defeated and fortunate. If you're gonna go out before your time, it helps if you've got a hell of a view in front of you.
It's got plenty of faults, but I'm just happy that the vision I had for this game -- the concepts that drove its design and motivated me to make it feel just right -- translated into the final experience for the people who played it. As a novice game developer who spends a lot of time worrying about whether I've got what it takes to make good games, this is an encouraging sign. I also know I've still got my work cut out for me if I ever want to see one of my games stand out as top-ten material, but compared to my previous game jam entries this one is a clear step forward.
It's worth mentioning that, after years of planning, I decided a few months ago to pursue game development full-time. I knew ahead of time that it'd be tough, but honestly, this has been the most nerve-wracking experience of my life. The last few months have been some of the most challenging I've ever experienced, and as someone who's always stuck to the safe route through life, I've had more than my fair share of days where I've been convinced that I've made a huge mistake, that I don't have what it takes to succeed, that I threw away a career at a wonderful company to pursue a pipe dream.
I still have those fears, and I still have those doubts. But every time I start a new game and put in the work, one step at a time, to see it through to its conclusion, I gain a little more confidence in myself. I see a little progress. I know I'm not getting any worse, and that's certainly better than the alternative. And yeah, it's been a challenging time, but it's also been incredibly liberating. I've learned more in the last three months than I had in the last two years.
After I finish this article I'm going to dig back into a game I'd been working on for six months but shelved recently to focus on this game jam. It's a great idea, I think, and everyone I've talked to about it has gotten excited at the concept, but there are just so many components that go into making a full-length game that the scope was overwhelming. Today I'm reintroducing myself to the game without fear or anxiety. Instead, I'm just putting one foot in front of the other and making it happen, one way or another.