The game Escape has just three instructions: Press escape to jump. Hold escape to jump higher. Avoid death.
My avatar, a blue figure, bounds among the walls of a futuristic construction site with each finger tap. “Just three games,” I tell myself, my iPhone in hand. “It’s research.” The character barely clears spike strips along the walls as a laser beam chases it from below. Trying to keep pace with the frenetic soundtrack, I mistime a jump, and it’s zapped into oblivion.
Avoid death. Oops.
Escape, a 99¢ iOS game, arose out of a sweltering August 2011 jam, an intensive programming event designed to put developers into a crucible in which they compete to achieve something interesting — and fast. It’s not unusual for a few housemates or a solo artist to create a video game. Thousands emerge without the benefit of corporate bankrolls or market testing, and many of those emerge from jams.
Some designers expect that if they win a jam, especially a notable weekend event called Ludum Dare, it will be a springboard to a new phase of their game design career. Portland design collective Incredible Ape’s Escape took the prize in the team category two years ago. While it didn’t deliver new lives, they did level up, creating new work and fostering a group in Portland that’s become a hub for part-time game makers of all stripes.
Zen and the art of couch games
Ludum Dare is a free, worldwide, all-volunteer weekend of furious video game coding, artistry, and sound design that I first learn about from Michael Romero at the Portland Retro Gaming expo.1 Romero stands amid banks of clanging pinball machines, vintage video-game cartridge vendors, and gamers vying for the Tetris World Champion title.2 Wearing a T-shirt decorated with Atari 2600 schematics, he shows off Zero Zen, the spaceflight-meets-sumo-wrestling game he designed in a Ludum Dare competition last spring. The theme was minimalism.
Romero and another conference-goer struggle to keep their vehicles in Zero Zen’s playfield, which resembles a wrestling rink. The first ship to be knocked out loses, but players can’t just blast away to win. Their ships’ cannons have strong recoil. Unrestrained barrages fling ships out of bounds. The players must carefully aim, thrust, and steer to maintain control and secure victory.
A computer graphics engineer at Intel, Romero wants Zero Zen polished enough to convince Sony to send him a development kit for its recently released Playstation 4 console. He wants to sell the finished game in the system’s online store when he’s satisfied with his work. “As the game is now, I’m really proud to have said that’s the game I have worked on for 48 hours,” says Romero, who placed 319th at Ludum Dare. “But I would not be proud to release that on the Playstation store and say, ‘Hey, how about you guys check out my shovelware?’”
In Romero’s words, Zero Zen is a “really good couch game” that’s great for parties. Players can pick it up and play for however long they want without getting too invested. He’s already shown it to the public at three conventions. Romero hopes the combination of his work credentials and the fact he created Zero Zen on his own in just two days will impress Sony. The business plan he gave the company says he’ll take up to six months polishing the game. “If I fail to do that,” he says, “I’ll either have learned that I had poor planning, or I will have found out that I didn’t execute the way that I thought I was going to.”
A lifelong game player, Romero might not have actually made a game of his own were it not for the Portland Indie Game Squad (PIGSquad), an informal organization of game design enthusiasts in and around Portland. Its Web site currently lists more than 450 members, though meetings average around 20–30 attendees. While many have experience in the gaming industry, most are hobbyists who design games for fun when not working as Web developers, app designers, marketers, engineers, artists, and students.
The group meets at least three times each month to code, draw, and compose music for independent projects, discuss game development, network, and play games. It’s a collaborative community of gaming enthusiasts who participate in worldwide competitions like Ludum Dare and Global Game Jam, as well as local events.
PIGSquad doesn’t limit itself to video games, as I learn one October night at the Side Door, a Portland café/bar hybrid. When the bartender brings me my beer, we have to clear space for it on a table full of board game tiles depicting dungeons, monsters, weapons, and various treasures. This is PIGSquad’s monthly board game night. I’m playing a game called Lost Legends with Romero, a PIGSquad member named Wick Perry, and the group’s founder, Will Lewis.
After he finished school, Lewis and some friends wanted a space where anyone could talk about any aspect of game design. Their idea evolved into PIGSquad. The group holds regular, casual events and even runs its own game jams. Word spread on various social media and people started showing up. Now PIGSquad is Lewis’s “event-planning playground.”
We talk about game jams as we play, because like games, jams exist for all types of designers and across a wide range of interests. There are creative jams, parody jams, and even ones that force players to design games for genres they hate most. Ludum Dare is a rare competitive jam, though its only prize is the pride of victory and concomitant attention.
Ludum Dare takes place every four months with a different theme, first suggested by its community and then chosen through voting.3 The event began in 2002, and now draws as many as 2,200 entrants. Participants vote for winners based on how fun the games are, theme suitability, graphics, sound, innovation, and other factors. Four volunteers manage the competition, as they have since the end of its second year, when Ludum Dare’s founder, Geoff Howland, decided to bow out.
“Something we strive for is to try to make it as encouraging an event as possible, because inspiration is so hard to get sometimes,” says Mike Kasprzak, the event’s lead organizer. “It’s quite a sight, even for a non-participant. If you have any interest in game development you’ll probably have a blast watching it.”
Pew Pew Pew Pew Pew Pew Pew Pew Pew.
Portland’s most active Ludum Dare competitors are Josh Schonstal and Ian Brock, who call themselves Incredible Ape and often collaborate with musician Guerin McMurry. The trio first met in high school in Beaverton, a Portland suburb. Two years ago, they created Escape in Schonstal’s apartment.
Schonstal works as a Web developer for Kongregate, which distributes homemade games through a service somewhat comparable to YouTube. He got the inspiration for Escape at a friend’s birthday dinner the night Ludum Dare 21 started. Discussing the theme of escape, someone joked that he should make a game in which the player only pressed the Escape key. He connected the idea for one-button control with thoughts he’d had about some titles’ unique gameplay mechanics. Why not combine the ideas? He raced back home to share his idea with Brock, and they set to work.
Incredible Ape’s games are inventive, to be sure. One of the team’s creations is Pew Pew Pew Pew Pew Pew Pew Pew Pew (Schonstal has said it so many times he knows to stop after precisely nine “pews”), an Xbox 360 title controlled by mimicking the sound of laser shots in microphones. Another game, Liliput, plays with reading comprehension and typing chops. Incredible Ape calls it a “deslyxic tkae on the clsasic tipyng defnese gmae wehre all the wrods you tpye are sbutly misspelled.”
“I’d like to someday make something great and actually pursue it as a career, but…for now it’s just finding something that is worth spending the time on,” Schonstal says. “That’s part of what these game jams are all about.” Ludum Dare’s time constraints force designers to form reasonable expectations, but the stakes are low, so Incredible Ape can take risks.
“It’s so disposable that you’re not really afraid to do anything,” he says, though he adds later that the medium of game design is still in its infancy. “There are some really great games out there right now, but I actually think games are very young. There’s still a lot of room for people to make masterpieces.”
Michael Romero watches PIGSquad members play Zero Zen.
A week after the board-game night, I meet up with PIGSquad at the cavernous Lucky Labrador brewpub in Northwest Portland for Art/Code night. As members trickle in — about 30 show up in all — they unfold laptops, plug in smartphones and game controllers, and, in some cases, connect drawing tablets.
“[Programming] is like having the most awesome Lego set you can imagine,” Adam Schackart tells me as he stares at a screen full of code. He’s working on a large 3D game and tinkering with its graphics renderer. Schackart sees coding as a thrilling puzzle. “It’s like Harry Potter, like casting spells. But you have to be precise, or you’ll turn shit into toads and shit.”
A few seats down, Alix Benegas struggles with the shading of a surreal 3D character’s wide eyes. “I’m very, very stuck,” Benegas says. She’s drawing the character for a friend’s game using a popular tool called Unity Game Engine. Occasionally she swaps tips with other PIGSquad members.
Benegas moved to Portland after leaving a game design job at Sony Online Entertainment in San Diego. She now focuses on making art and selling plush toys of her own design. “PIGSquad is a really great way to meet people who are always working on things,” she says. She enjoys the moments learning from fellow members, when she thinks, “Wow, look at what they did; how did they do that?”
Not everyone at PIGSquad has a programming background. Some members spend the Art/Code night developing “setting bibles” for live-action roleplaying games. Others talk about scoring music for games. PIGSquad’s founder, Lewis, isn’t even a coder — though being around so many programmers makes him comfortable using technical terms. Lewis studied film at Portland State University, but he says that’s only because the school didn’t offer enough support for him to afford to study game design. “I’ve always wanted to make games,” he says.
Romero says he “can’t credit PIGSquad enough” for keeping him engaged with game design. Lewis was the one who prodded Romero to bring Zero Zen to the Retro Gaming Expo. “One of the reasons I started PIGSquad was to find other people to help me learn this kind of stuff,” Lewis says. “PIGSquad could function as something that would serve as that same resource for so many other people too.”
As Art/Code night draws to a close, members crowd around a few laptops to play games. At Romero’s Mac, I join other players trying to push each other out of the ring. As we play, Romero starts telling Benegas about his quest for a dev kit from Sony. Having previously been employed there, Benegas has a few ideas for Romero about getting Zero Zen in front of the right eyes.
Romero continues to polish Zero Zen into the winter. With each major change, he records his friends from PIGSquad playing the game so he can show Sony what gameplay looks like in the real world. “That’s what good friends do,” says Wick Perry, a friend of Romero’s. “They play video games for you.”
Photo by the author.
Since August 2010, the get-together has a separately tracked core individual competition, called “The Competition,” and a more relaxed, team-based event called “The Jam.” Romero made Zero Zen as part of The Competition; Invisible Ape entered The Jam. ↩
Bill Lascher is a Portland-based wayward Californian who writes about transportation, resilience and the ways people and places influence one another. He's also chronicling the short, adventurous life of World War II-era reporter Melville Jacoby.