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Jamming and experimenting for kids with Project Overboard

Jamming and experimenting for kids with Project Overboard Exclusive

August 16, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

August 16, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Indie, Programming, Art, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

Game jams usually bring together small impromptu teams for a light and frenzied development experience in a short period of time. But what would happen if you tried to jam with a 38-person team?

In Toronto, this experiment has been a success, resulting in an adventure game called Head of the Gorgon that's already begun to benefit kids.

Toronto's annual TOJam was founded in the spirit of developers encouraging one another to actually finish ideas to completion, and in May it welcomed some 400 developers to its seventh year. Last year, the jam was the birthplace of Untold Entertainment president Ryan Henson Creighton's collaboration with his five-year old daughter Cassie to create the viral sensation Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure.

For this year, Creighton, an energetic personality who seems always to be seeking his next big idea, was struck by a thought he had when he once saw an eight-person team -- a bit unwieldy-sized team for a game jam -- assemble and encounter some difficulty in working together.

"They had four programmers and four artists, and the programmers were late risers and the artists were early risers, so their communication was bad," he says. "I thought to myself, all those guys really needed was a project manager, to make sure that when the artists left, there was an asset list coming for the programmers. And if you have that person, then you'll really need a producer to oversee the whole thing."

"As I sat there, I thought, what if eight people isn't too many?" Creighton reflects. "What if it's entirely not enough?"

He thought about how usually only artists and coders are highly valued in the jam environment, and thought maybe "kitchen-sinking" the process, including everyone who wants to participate on a bigger team, might be interesting. "A bunch of people I've met want to practice these roles -- what if we gave them that shot?" He says.

A couple good recruits with good connections quickly resulted in the assembly of a 38-person team including artists and programmers, but also a marketing team and two documentary units to film the team as they ramped up to TOJam. Styling their work "Project Overboard," the marketing team built a website in the two weeks leading up to the jam, even as the bulk of the work was slated for that one big weekend.

One way Creighton saw to ensure it all worked out was to prepare a game design document for the lighthearted, Monkey Island-inspired adventure in full ahead of time, which he did himself. Some participants declined to join the team knowing he had prepared such a specific roadmap, but in the interest of working in a team and finishing a project, he thought it was the best idea. "Instead of artisans, we were all going to be craftspeople this time," he says. This includes writing the game's script, so that the audio team could spend their jam weekend working with the voice actors.

There were other smart decisions designed to make the process go smoothly during the big weekend: The aesthetic of Head of the Gorgon was inspired by the pottery of ancient Greece, so "even though we had a bunch of different artists, everyone could generally target the same style," Creighton says. "And we're ripping off a style, but we don't have to pay anyone any money for it.

Of course, not everything went as planned. Of all of the developers involved in Project Overboard, only a few of the 38 had previous jam experience. Creighton first had an inkling the project might not get done as planned when he saw many participants easing into the process, failing to anticipate the constant-crunch environment of a jam weekend. Although by Sunday everyone had gotten up to an admirable pace, Head of the Gorgon was not quite finished.

But everyone was dedicated enough to the project that they continued what was begun on jam weekend, achieving alpha status as of press time and aiming for a September or October release. There's more at stake than just trying to complete an efficient jam idea, too: Ultimately the game will benefit at-risk youth, by giving them trips to computer camps where they can learn to program and work with design themselves.

"I have a real passion for kids' education in programming, and getting kids spending more time behind screens," Creighton says, pointing to how increasingly-essential computer literacy is to employability. "But schools are still teaching kids cursive writing, and stuff that's just useless."

Project Overboard has partnered with the Foundation for Student Success, the charitable arm of the Toronto district school board. All of Head of the Gorgon's proceeds will go to sending kids to computer camp. The program will start with the Rose Avenue Public School, an elementary school in St. James Town, the city's biggest high-rise neighborhood and one that is identified as economically deprived despite its high population. The elementary school already has a robotics club, so passionate students from within that club will make ideal choices to receive the camp scholarships.

The school's principal was very receptive, Creighton says, explaining the program will begin with about 12 students selected from Rose Avenue before they shift attention to another school district where kids are in need of access to computer education. "It was pretty important to me to pick the right type of recipient for this funding."

Project Overboard collected donations during TOJam weekend, including sponsorships from Sony Music Canada and Bento Miso, a local collaborative workspace incubator. Already the group has been able to send six kids to camp. "It's really cool," Creighton enthuses. "And once this game comes out, we'll be able to send more kids."

"Last year, I had my five year-old little girl making games with me. This year, I had 38 people making a game with me," Creighton muses. So what's next -- 38 children?

"I'm serious!" He laughs. "I was talking to the principal at Rose Avenue, and we both thought we would love to have the robotics club come and check out TOJam. Unfortunately, to attend you have to be making a game, and the principal thought, 'oh, our kids couldn't participate.' And I said, you know what? We have a year to change that."

Since then Creighton has been volunteering his time in elementary schools to teach kids Scratch, MIT's programming language designed for learning and accessibility, and he also led a summer camp at TIFF Bell Lightbox that saw grade 3 students attending nine to ten sessions. "We need to train our kids properly for knowledge work, since there are fewer manufacturing jobs," he says.

Ultimately he hopes some of the kids will be ready to at least try their hand at a game jam, and whether or not they make a polished, finished product, he hopes to inspire them to see they don't have to wait until they're older to start experimenting and creating.

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