Game Developers Fight Deadlines and Fatigue at TOJam 7
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Game Developers Fight Deadlines and Fatigue at TOJam 7

At this year's instalment of the annual event, programmers struggled to make video games from scratch in just one weekend.

Three developers collaborate on a game at TOJam 7.

Somewhere in the depths of east-end Toronto this past weekend, fish were flying over volcanoes, marionettes were fighting, and everything was exploding. One false move and you could have been blown to smithereens. Or, with a stroke of a key, you could have been home free.

That’s right, it was the seventh annual TOJam.

TOJam is a 58-hour weekend of DIY video-game making for anyone and everyone who has an interest in sitting down and coding, crafting, and collaborating. Between 10 a.m. on Friday and 8 p.m. on Sunday, teams and soloists were plugged into George Brown College’s design computers with the aim of completing a game.

That’s a very tight schedule. Typically, game developers take months or years to polish a product. At TOJam, they’re encouraged to think small, and to do what they can in the three-day timeframe.

The event has changed venues several times, but for the past three years George Brown has donated floor space, use of computers, and other material support. This year, the coders gathered in the college’s School of Design, in the Toronto Sun building.

TOJam is free to attend, and it functions as a kind of open-source platform: with all 410 participants spread out over two levels of computer labs, anyone could simply ask someone with the know-how for tips and feedback on a project. Torontoist stopped by on Saturday afternoon, in the thick of the action. Or, the making of the action.

Prior to the first TOJam in 2006, the game-making scene in Toronto had yet to materialize. Montreal and Vancouver, “triple A” cities that are home to large game-making companies, were the hot places to be. Toronto’s game-development community was homeless and decentralized.

Co-founder Jim McGinley initially saw TOJam as a solution to that problem. “The point of the event isn’t to make games, but to collaborate,” he said.

In 2010 Ubisoft, a game-development giant, opened a local office, which some expect will put Toronto on the map, gaming-wise. Even so, McGinley thinks TOJam continues to fill a gap in the community

He must be right, because the event’s popularity is exploding. In 2009, there were just 89 participants. This year, there were more than 400. McGinley admitted he’s not quite sure how they all got there.

By his account, the crowd this year was roughly one-third hobbyists, one-third students, and one-third professionals, with about 80 per cent hailing from the GTA. McGinley seems to know all of them by name and background. Strolling through the hallways, he asked Matthew Luke, a recent animation graduate from George Brown, what he was working on. As a solo attendee, Luke had come to TOJam to polish his programming skills.

Luke demonstrated his game while simultaneously scrolling through through pages and pages of code. On the screen was a bowling pin that danced and dodged its way down the lane while fending off merciless bowling balls. Luke said that he was still working on making the bowling pin do pirouettes as it made its way from the lane’s toe line.

McGinley suggested adding a logo to the pin so users could see that it was spinning. “You’ll need to create something to show the texture,” he said.

Luke grinned. “I’m going to put a tutu on it.”

Strolling down the hall, McGinley talked animatedly about the openness of the event, the different types of technology participants may use (they can pick any programming language), participants’ sleep schedules (most go home, but some stay throughout, eschewing sleep), and what to expect at the 8 p.m. Sunday cutoff (a really good time).

He poked his head into a room filled with jammers. He peered over a few heads to point out someone’s illustrations. A person in the middle of the room was passed out on his keyboard. Surprisingly, he was the only one asleep at his computer on the entire tour.

In between visiting the different labs, McGinley spoke with enthusiasm about game-making. His openness and the genuine joy he takes in organizing TOJam are probably key contributors to the event’s success.

McGinley sees TOJam’s lo-fi output as an alternative to the elaborate studio games that hog most of the glory in the press. “There is no point in building a Hollywood blockbuster,” he said. “It’s more fun to do something different.”

Andrew Gardner agrees. This was his third year at TOJam. He said the event is his only chance to sit down and concentrate on making a game. He likes the creativity of the weekend. “What the mainstream idea is of video games,” he explained, “is like thinking all movies are like Transformers.”

Upstairs, a group of University of Toronto students got ready to pose for a studio photo. One of their members was sleeping on a sofa in direct sunlight, but it still took the whole group of nine or so to get her up. The hours at TOJam are long, but there are still far too few of them.

Back at their desks, the U of T students demonstrated their game and planned their next moves.

One student, focused on the screen, clicked her mouse furiously.

Asked if she was bummed that she’d had to spend a sunny weekend indoors, she said, “No, we’d be playing inside anyway.”

All photos by Angela Lau, and courtesy of TOJam.