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Best of British: game jamming for cross-promotion and community
This is a guest post from independent game developer Alistair Aitcheson
In July this year a team of independent developers descended upon Mind Candy’s offices in Shoreditch for a 48-hour gamedev lockdown. We included developers from Mobile Pie (MyStar), Big Pixel (Off the Leash), Spilt Milk Studios (Hard Lines) and myself, the one-man indie studio behind the Greedy Bankers iOS games. We called ourselves the Best of British mobile games initiative, and with a helping hand from Unity were collaborating to put together the Best of British: Summer Sports game for iOS devices.
Each studio spilt into teams of one or two members and worked to build 7-second microgames, to be collected together into one frantic Wario Ware-style package. Each game would end with the logo of the studio who created it, which would be used on a “More Games” screen where each studio could link to another game in their library. The jam was a fantastic opportunity for cross-promotion, as well as building a developer community, sharing expertise, and as an exciting creative exercise.
The Birth of the Jam
Best of British formed at the beginning of 2012, motivated by the belief that for small indie studios to compete in the mobile market we would need to pool our efforts and our audiences. With the app store charts increasingly dominated by industry giants’ aggressive user acquisition and cross-promotion strategies, small studios need share each other’s audiences to maintain visibility.
Our original plan was to create a games bundle containing some of our older games, which would help promote to our more recent output. However, due to technical issues this proved unfeasible, so our focus turned to a game jam. This meant we could create new content under shared engines and frameworks, and it would be a newsworthy event in itself. With game jams flourishing throughout the industry, a jam where teams collaborate on a single project, and plan to release it to the App Store, is unique and inspiring.
The games were built in Unity, and we were fortunate enough to receive sponsorship from Unity themselves, who provided a commercial license for us to use to release the game. As well as developing content of my own, I handled the task of building the framework for the microgames to be built from, dealing with the technical backend. I also took responsibility for putting together the final app from the participants’ games.
With one of our key goals being to increase the profile of all studios involved in BoB, successful news coverage was proof of the pudding. In the run-up to the event, we had coverage on Guardian Gamesblog, Hookshot Inc. and Pocket Gamer, with Keith Andrew from Pocket Gamer turning up to the event itself and running on-going coverage.
This highlighted the benefits of sharing our networks, as participants who had existing connections with games journalists could introduce them to the other participants in the jam. This extended to mobile studio Kwalee, who turned up Megadrive-in-hand for a mid-jam Micro Machines tournament. This a great way to bond with them and share industry experience, and while I did get beaten in the first round it was mostly because my opponent was the game’s original programmer on NES.
Beyond that, the BoB jam has provided all kinds of useful connections. We now have key contacts at Unity, UKIE, and several mobile technology services, introduced by our fellow BoB members, and many even turned up the jam. As much a social experience as anything else, guests came to share beers and chat with us, with our big event providing an incentive to meet everyone involved. Of course, BoB members have found useful contacts in each other too, with some members providing client work for others since the group’s inception.
You always remember the people you’ve stayed up for 48 hours making games with, and the jam was a bonding experience like no other. Because the jam was collaborative rather than competitive, the sprit of sharing skills was present throughout. After all, we’d all benefit from putting a high-quality compilation in the app store, regardless of whose logo the individual games fell under.
Teams shared Unity experience with each other, with some teams being old hands and others being absolute beginners, so that everyone was able to make a quality game in the time period. Fixing bugs was easier when we could put our heads together over a problem. Teams who know about useful features were able to show other teams how to use them.
Musicians Gavin Harrison and Michael Bowman were on board to provide audio, sharing talents that many of us would be keen to draw upon in our future projects. Teams without artists borrowed artists from other studios, so we all ended up learning some extra skills and working with people we would happily work with again.
The design challenge of making a game to be playable and exciting in seven seconds was embraced by all the teams. The range of ideas that came out is delightfully eccentric, as I’m sure you’ll see when the game hits the App Store this month! As a designer, making a game that could be understood immediately – but would be non-trivial to beat as the game sped up – required some great imagination.
The Challenges of a Collaborative Jam
Of course, any project comes with its challenges and there’s definitely a lot we could learn from the process. With our plan to release a finished, promotion-driving app to the App Store we were perhaps setting ourselves up for a challenge. In typical game jams participating is all that is required – even if you end up with a half-finished product it doesn’t matter because you had fun and came up with a promising prototype. However, we needed the game to be of a certain level of quality to be accepted by Apple, and to give a positive reflection of our studios for cross-promotion. As the hours of the jam drew to a close issues cropped up in many of the minigames that would need to be fixed after the deadline.
Being able to maintain the momentum of the jam after the teams leave the venue is essential if you plan to launch a product at the end of it. Testing the games, fixing bugs and sharing design concerns with the rest of the group is hugely important, and needs time and commitment from every team member. This is something that we had not anticipated beforehand, and managing fixes and cross-communication over this distance was difficult, but entirely necessary. This is definitely something we will plan for better next time we do a project like this, and worth remembering if you wish to run a similar project yourself.
On the plus side, once the final issues were ironed out, the game has ended up being incredible frantic fun! We look forward to seeing how it fares and hearing from players once it launches. (edit: it’s now launched! get it here)
The Future of BoB
So what’s next for the Best of British? The initiative was never meant to be about one product. Our intention was always to find out how we could collectively benefit from each other’s networks and efforts, and Summer Sports is just one way for us to do that. We have further events and cross-promotion opportunities in the pipeline.
Of course, there will be another jam in the future, and once we iron out some of the flaws from the first run we expect it should be even better than the first! Which is a big ask because, despite the challenges involved in releasing the project, everyone involved had a great time and benefitted from the experience.
If you would like to join Best of British, meet the rest of the team or come to our meetings please do get in touch with me by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org - we’d all love to have you on board!