A Persistent Case of TOJam
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A Persistent Case of TOJam

TOJam 5 co-organizer Jim McGinley is the event’s master of ceremonies, and a wearer of TOJam-related apparel.

At the fifth annual instance of TOJam, Toronto’s own independent video game development jam, which began on Friday and ended last night, the pizzas were a telling indicator of the event’s rising station in Toronto’s indie game development scene. Which is to say, not so much the pizzas themselves as the fact that there were about fifty of them.

“They got too much,” grumbled the Pizza Pizza delivery guy, as he wheeled a handcart loaded with what looked like a cubic metre of cheese, sauce, and dough into George Brown College’s Autodesk Building, at 210 King Street East. His cartload was the first of two.
These huge quantities of high-calorie food were necessary to feed TOJam 5’s 180 exhausted participants. That’s double the attendance of last year’s TOJam (which we wrote about).
TOJam is an annual event that originated in 2006. It’s primarily an endurance test―a marathon for video game developers. TOJam participants bring their computers to a downtown location (which has historically changed from year to year) on a Friday. Once they arrive, they have until 8 p.m. the following Sunday to bring a video game all the way from concept to completion. This three-day development cycle can be extremely hard for participants to adhere to, since video games often take years to complete, and are usually the work of large teams of programmers and designers.
Because of the extreme time constraints, many participants discover that they need to prioritize, or perish. “We had to cut half the game,” said Peter Stevens, who handled the visual art for Throw That Fight, the game he developed at TOJam 5, along with his programmer brother, Andrew, and their friend Andrew Gardner. “But that’s part of the festival.”
Peter and the two Andrews estimate that they spent about forty-eight hours on their game over the course of the event. They left TOJam at around 4 a.m. each night, and returned early each morning, each of them nabbing about four hours of sleep between marathon development sessions. (Some participants chose to sleep on site, and some never slept at all.) At the end of it all, their final product―a boxing game in which the goal is not to win matches, but to throw them convincingly―had three full levels, a story arc, and background music to rival any early NES game.
Some of TOJam 5’s attendees were professional or aspiring game developers, who make their living by coding freelance, or by working for any of the smattering of established game development companies that have sprouted in Toronto and surrounding areas over the course of the past five years. Michael Patoine, a triOS College student who works for Cerebral Vortex Games, in Thorold, Ontario, called the atmosphere at TOJam “inspirational, and intimidating.” Part of his reason for coming, he said, was to network with local industry players. Other attendees were hobbyists, there strictly for the challenge and camaraderie. There aren’t many other opportunities for Toronto game developers to gather, though the Hand Eye Society’s regular meetings periodically serve that purpose.

Throw That Fight, running on a laptop.

TOJam was booked to capacity this year. Co-organizer Rob Segal thinks the event could draw more than twice as many developers, given a large enough venue. Renting out the capacious Metro Toronto Convention Centre, he said, “is something we’ve often joked about.” This year, with TOJam reaping the benefits of substantial corporate sponsorship for the first time ever, large-scale expansion of that magnitude still seems a long way off, but much less far fetched.
Among TOJam 5’s raft of corporate sponsors were companies with stakes in Toronto’s game development community, like Fujitsu, Big Blue Bubble (a game developer), and, most importantly, George Brown College, which hosted this year’s event in a glass-lined, air-conditioned building used by the college’s game design program. Last year’s TOJam, by contrast, was held in a cramped warehouse with intermittent running water and no reliable internet access.
“It’s because we’ve been doing it for so long,” said co-organizer Jim McGinley. As game development in Toronto heats up, with UbiSoft, a major industry mainstay, hiring developers for their soon-to-open Toronto studios, and several Toronto indie game development houses continuing to thrive, past TOJam participants are rising in the world of commercial game-making, and using their connections to deliver corporate support to the event.
“It’s getting kind of weird, because people know about TOJam before I tell them about TOJam,” said McGinley. And yet, thanks to all those sponsorships, the event remains, as always, free for participants. It’s an annual gift to members of a local creative industry, who might one day have the clout to rent the Metro Toronto Convention Centre―and, presumably, have their pizza delivered there.
The games from TOJam 5 will eventually be posted on the official TOJam website, but until they appear, you can always try the ones from previous years. TOJam 5 games will be on display in a casual pub environment at the annual TOJam Arcade, a post-TOJam celebration, whose time and place are TBA.
Photos by Remi Carreiro/Torontoist.