Friday, 14 March 2014

Stencyl Game Jam - Postmortem


The jam schedule has been updated accordingly since participation in this particular jam. 

The Jam

I've been spending the week or so experimenting with and learning the ins and outs of a game creation tool called 'Stencyl'. Newgrounds are hosting a game jam that is entirely devoted for developers using Stencyl. The deadline for submissions is the 28th of March, they're giving away a couple of hundred dollars for 3rd, 2nd and 1st place winning game submissions along with a full license of Stencyl.

The Game

Going into this jam unfamiliar with Stencyl was a big mistake which led me to unsuccessfully submit a prototype for the competition. Having consulted the Game Jam Survival Guide further upon the failed attempt of this jam I found a vast amount of pointers towards the reason this jam was unsuccessful. I did not even have Stencyl installed before the jam meaning already starting out inefficiently before I had even begun! “…the wise jammer already has a game engine picked out, installed and ready to go before the Jam begins. Now is not the time to try to learn a brand new engine. Get to know it before the Jam.” (Kaitila, 2012) I went in thinking I would be able to make something awesome in a new piece of technology, but in the end all I had was a buggy tile based tech demo with bits and pieces of my art aimlessly flying around – wasn’t pretty.

“If I could give one piece of advice to newcomers, it would be: Master your technology. Don’t go into a Jam thinking you’ll make a brilliant game on a new tech that you haven’t used before. Know everything about the game engine that you’re coding in, your art tools, and your skill set.” (P. Kaplan, 2012) having read this, I now realise how naive it was to approach this Jam with confidence.

What Went Well?
At the time of the jam, I was really keen to explore the idea of minimalism in games. I thought that this felt appropriate and within the realm of possibility on top of learning Stencyl. The only thing that did go well from participating in Stencyl Jam was that I was able to devote some of my time to learn a little bit about minimalist art in games.

I am a big believer in minimalistic games and admire the idea of "less is more". Making components appear simple and clean cut is often a fairly complex task and is something that fascinates me deeply. The simplicity brought from eastern philosophy is widely used today everywhere.  We can commonly recognize it from feng shui, but as a more general approach is it known from the design trend of minimalism.  What minimalism states is that less is more meaning that more can be communicated from a simpler message (notice that simpler doesn't necessarily means shorter).” (Lievano, 2009)
Doing Game Jams has led me to become an admirer of minimalism in games. It allows players to become more immersed in the experience, offering them to become more relaxed during states of play. Minimalism strips down a games design to its core, ensuring that the absolute essential design components are included. If you are facing the problem of players becoming significantly confused during your game experience, then I honestly believe that one way you can solve this problem is by iterating your game with focus towards minimalisiing its features. In videogames this translates as avoiding confusing interfaces, writing stories with bold messages, focusing in the most characteristic features of a games and letting other assets complement these, and finally letting the player have more fun from the game experience.(Lievano, 2009)

Lievano list his list for characteristics which can be enhanced from using minimalism as a design philosophy are the following:
·         Simple Interfaces: interfaces with straight functionality.  Each user interaction should go straight to the point described by the interface.  Assuming the right things is crucial.
·         Strong Stories: stories with a coherent plot.  The main subject of the story should be easily recognized by the player.  Characters have strong personalities and its actions can be associated with the player's expectations.
·        entered Design: the design is centered in special features.  All the game components act as a whole to enhance the most differentiating characteristics.

Minimalism can be very powerful if used correctly. The idea of a character not clearly defined with facial features can make players use their imagination more. I find characters more compelling and relatable when they are a few simple pixels on the screen as opposed to high definition, hyper-realistic characters.  This is because you make fewer judgments towards characters that have less definable facial features – a good example of this is in the game Passage by Jason Rohrer. Arguably, this idea is like watching a foreign film, because you are reading the words in your own head, you fill in a lot of the missing information yourself and paint my own picture of how the character sounds –sometimes leading to not knowing if bad actor is taken place.

“Simplicity is an effective form of communication because it leaves less space for confusion, it transmits the idea more directly, it focuses in particular things exalting them from lesser complements and most important, it lets the individual concentrate in the perceived message better.” (Lievano, 2009)
What Went Wrong?

Don’t try out new tools:
“It’s hard enough to make a game in a tiny timeframe, but when you compound that with having to learn a new skill set, it makes things really difficult” (McQuiggan, 2012) I am ultimately guilty of doing this and this let me to appreciate going into a Jam with confidence in the tools I know. Often when participating in events and 80% of Jammers are using Unity it is often tempting to do what is cool and use Unity. However, my gut instinct tends to kick in and tells me to jam with the tools you are most comfortable with. Making a game is hard enough, but learning simply adds to the possibility for error. Entering in Stencyl Jam simply re-enforced this idea more clearly to me, it was a unfortunate that my gut instinct did not kick in for this particular development tool.

Go with what you know
I did not go with what I know, meaning that the effort towards participation of this jam was a little wasted. “If you start from scratch or use a game engine that you’ve never tried before over the Game Jam weekend, it is highly unlikely that you’ll finish anything more than a tech demo by the end. The learning curve is simply too steep. You’ll spend all your time learning a new technology” (Kaitila, 2012) it got to a point during the jam where I realised that learning this new technology was meaningless as it achieves similar results to Flash.

Conclusion/What I Learnt?

I learnt some new things in Stencil but I learnt that learning new software should not really be taken place during a jam – with this in mind it was probably silly for me to attempt this competition. I learnt to select entering in jam carefully, as not all jams will suit you as a designer. If you research and look around hard enough you are likely to find one that fulfils most of your Jamming needs. It is important to take the time in discovering the Jams you feel comfortable in. However, one good thing that came out of this Jam was that is allowed me to learn some new things towards minimalism in games.
List of Illustrations


  • Gabriel Lievano. (2009). Less is More. Minimalism in Games (Part I). Available: Last accessed 2014. 
  • Garstang I. (2013). The Over-scoping Game Designer – The Attack of the Feature Creep. Available: Last accessed October, 2013.
  • Grajko, C. (2013). Overthinking It: Minimalism in the Mist. Available: Last accessed 2014 
  • Kaitila, C (2012). The Game Jam Survival Guide. Canada: Packt Publishing. pg 10 - 73 
  • Kaitila, C. (2012). How to Get the Most Out of a Game Jam. Available: Last accessed October, 2013
  • NA. (2014). Stencyl Jam 2014. Available: Last accessed 2014. 
  • Schell, J (2008). The Art of Games Design. FL: CRC Press. 4 - 450.

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