Toronto Game Jam co-organizers (left to right): Rob Segal, Jim McGinley, and Emilie McGinley. Photo by Brendan Lynch.
Last weekend, challenged with making a game over three days to the theme of “What Just Happened,” over 200 people called George Brown College home for the duration of the sixth edition of Toronto Game Jam. Attendance was the highest yet, with participants coming in from as far away as San Francisco and Finland.
The event, however, has humbler roots, originating as a bootstrapping effort to kick-start Toronto’s games community. We sat down with the organizers—seasoned game industry vets Emilie McGinley, Jim McGinley, and Rob Segal—to discuss the changes in Toronto’s game scene, the rise of mobile games, and advice for game developers.
Top: “Storm Dragons Vs Ninja” by Michael Todd/Spyeart. Bottom: “Massacre at Cuttlefish” by Armasquiddon.
Toronto has become a hotbed for games with recognized critical and commercial successes like Sword & Sworcery: EP, Mega Jump, and Trainyard—efforts led mostly by independent programmers. “The indie community that has come up was unexpected,” says Jim McGinley, who with Emilie McGinley makes up Bigpants Games. For many years, the city had languished: “When I’m talking to other game developers now, they know about Toronto, but it wasn’t like that back then,” he recalls. (Full disclosure: all three co-organizers have also spoken at Gamercamp, a festival I co-founded.)
Big studios like Electronic Arts and Ubisoft had ignored Toronto, favouring Vancouver and Montreal respectively instead. Without jobs, there was a steady exodus of talent out of Toronto. Upon attending meetings for the industry association IGDA and hearing his friends’ plans to leave, McGinley had a blunt reaction: “It sucked.”
“Climb, Jumpguy, Climb!” by David Fono.
At the same time, for the game developers who remained in the city, there wasn’t a sense of momentum. “You’d see people with great ideas talking about them month after month, but not get it done,” says Emilie McGinley. The Toronto Game Jam— suggested by former co-organizer Nelson Yu—would be a catalyst for getting games made and, hopefully, help keep people in the city.
Making games has become significantly easier since the first Toronto Game Jam in 2006. As an example, Flash games—now commonplace—were still a novel idea back then. The majority of small games created were not necessarily for release to the public, but rather showcases to help their creators land jobs with larger studios. The last five years have seen an explosion in technology, benefitting both game makers and players.
New programming languages have lowered the barrier to entry, allowing more people to create games. “We have kids under 16 who, with their parents’ approval, come to the Jam,” notes McGinley. She’s shocked, but pleased by this. “13 year-olds who can code are making games alongside our hobbyists and professionals: that blows my mind.”
With less of a dependence on programming, the Toronto Game Jam—mirroring the greater indie community—has seen artists, musicians, and writers attempt making games. Games journalists like Electric Playground‘s Shaun Hatton and Ars Technica‘s Andrew Webster, usually reporting on games, were now working on them. Dork Shelf‘s Will Perkins and Playback‘s Emily Claire Afan composed half of team Ibehard (get it?) to create a game called “Baconshark.”
The ability to sell directly to players through services like the App Store, Xbox Live, and PSN has expanded the potential audience for a game, and this change in the business model has made game makers more entrepreneurial, says McGinley. “There isn’t a brain drain anymore where talent has to work for big studios. Success isn’t defined any more by getting jobs at a triple-A studio shading hair. You can stand on your own.”
“Poppycock” by Team Golden Slug.
Accustomed to working on their own, Toronto’s game developers were primed to take advantage of this fundamental shift in the games industry. Segal himself is an example: he works as part of Get Set Games, a four-person team that released Mega Jump, an arcade-style game that has topped the Apple charts across the world and scored millions of downloads. “The ability to reach the market is unparalleled,” he says. Trainyard, a surprise hit on the iPhone in 2010, was created by a single person, Matt Rix, who was able to quit his job and work on games full-time.
“My Village” by Angelo Yazar.
With the increased popularity and awareness of games, it’s safe to say that games have gone mainstream—aided by advancements like Apple’s iOS devices, Microsoft’s Kinect, and Facebook. The bar for games is being set higher than ever now, say the TO Jam organizers, as the marketplace gets deluged. “The sheer number of games being made today—I don’t think it’s ever been like this,” says Jim McGinley. This year, the organizers told attendees to aim higher than just completing a game within the weekend, but to instead strive for making a truly memorable one. “The focus has shifted from initially being ‘Can I make a game?’ to ‘Can I make a game stand out?'” says Emilie McGinley.
Jim McGinley sees the rise in quality as inevitable—competence alone isn’t enough—and extending beyond TO Jam to the entire games industry. “There a million good games out there, so if all you want to make is a good game, you’re out of your mind. No one wants to see it. No one wants to play it.”
The participants this year appeared to be listening, as the final products were more polished than one might expect for a 60-hour turnaround. There’s no guarantee that any of the over 50 games created will see a commercial release, let alone be successful. However, without argument, it demonstrated that Toronto continues to stake its claim as one of the great cities for games.