How a 48-hour video game design competition, opened friendships, opportunities for UK students

Rafael Estrada, Sam Morris, Michael Probst and Caleb Geyer work on Singularity, their game for the Global Game Jam Event in late January on the the Bluegrass Community & Technical College’s Newtown campus in Lexington, Ky. Photo provided by Ryan Whitt.

Ryan Whitt

They came together as strangers passionate about video game design and left as friends.

Rafael Estrada, Sam Morris, Michael Probst, and Caleb Geyer met at Lexington’s Global Game Jam Event in late January.

Probst and Geyer are both current UK students, Morris, a UK graduate and Estrada, a game developer from California. Each came from different backgrounds. Yet this game jam at the Bluegrass Community & Technical College’s Newtown campus brought these people, who may have never met each other, together to work on a project.

The Global Game Jam is an event where participants worldwide create a game within 48 hours based off a keyword they are given. Many well-known games like Surgeon Simulator, Super Hot and Reflections at Sunset came from various game jams.

But more than that, a game jam is an event that brings people together, helps strangers connect with each other, and provides the means for anyone to make their passions appear in a video game.

These events are attended by various people who may come from 20 years of experience in game development or may have never even played a video game before. Regardless, anyone is welcome to participate.

RunJumpDev, a nonprofit located in Lexington, Kentucky, whose goal is to cultivate the local game development community, hosted a branch of the Global Game jam at BCTC during a weekend in early February.

Fourteen attendees, at 6 p.m. Friday, were given the keyword “Repair” and 30 minutes to brainstorm ideas.

After that period, anyone with an idea was given the floor to present their ideas. This ranged from a NASCAR-inspired pit stop management game to a “Metroidvania-like” game (a genre of games inspired by the games Metroid and Castlevania) where players collect parts to repair a robot.

Anyone who liked a pitch was welcome to come together with whoever proposed it and form a team. Five teams were created, some attendees worked solo while some worked together with as many as 4 people.

Estrada, 31, is a game developer from California. Currently Estrada is working on a game for Xbox called Unichrome.

Morris, 29, is a UK graduate who majored in Computer Engineering and Physics. His closest experience to game development was working in firmware development at Lexmark.

Probst, 22, is a UK senior majoring in Computer Engineering. He is a cofounder of FricknFrack Games, a game developer in Lexington whose goal is making fun games with a purpose.

“We wanna provide players with an exceptional experience that is not only fun, but they get something meaningful out of it. That can be anything from a simulation game where, you know, you learn a new skill… or you know, just basic education, teaching. That sort of stuff.”

Geyer, 21, likewise is a UK senior, majoring in Computer Science. He is a student worker at the Science and Engineering Library on UK’s campus, who makes small games in his spare time as a hobby.

Regardless of experience, the game jam brought these four together for 48 hours to bring to life their imaginations.

The game these four aimed to create was named Singularity. The initial pitch was to make a competitive game where one player is destroying things, and the other player is repairing the destruction.

Each task a player completed would earn them points to reach a high score, like how an old arcade cabinet game would play.

When they came together, every member had an idea about what they wanted the game to be. They were split from a first-person experience, a 2-D game, or even a game using pixel art.

By the end of the first day, their ideas had changed entirely.

At 10 p.m. after three hours of discussion, the team had come to a consensus on what their game would be.

Singularity would have the theme of robots vs. humans, with asymmetrical gameplay.

One team would be the human destroyer. One player would be in a first-person environment, tearing through a variety of objects and scenery according to a list of tasks on screen.

The other team would be the robot repairmen. Three players would play with a third person overview look on the game, going through an assortment of mini games to repair the items the first human destroyed.

After brainstorming came the division of roles.

“Making video games entails working with so many different types of art form. There’s the visual aspect, the art. There’s the music, the programming, the sound effects, the story,” said Estrada.

“Being allowed to work as a team allows you to split things up and focus on one thing at a time,” Estrada added.

Estrada himself handled the modeling of objects and the environment, while Morris worked on creating the mini-games and some aspects of the level design.

Probst and Geyer worked on smaller tasks. Probst was working on keyboard and controller compatibility with their game, while Geyer was editing movement and rotation of objects and players.

With their jobs determined, the next few days were spent writing over a thousand lines of code, testing for bugs and problem solving.

Midway through Saturday tension seemed to rise as the hours ticked away toward their deadline, and each of them furiously typed away at their keyboards.

That’s not to say no fun was to be had.

“If I’m making a game, I’m having fun,” said Probst.

As they began to work and fell comfortably into their roles, the team began talking over their work, laughing and enjoying themselves.

Estrada, being more experienced in this line of work, offered guidance to the other three members, teaching them how to code in the software they used.

“Being able to work with people who had never used Unity before or had never made a game before and being able to show ‘OK yeah I actually know how to do the particle effects…’ and being able to explain that in a way the hopefully you guys will be able to use later on. I thought that was cool,” Estrada said.

Sunday as the deadline grows close, the silence from the previous day is absent. The members of the team are constantly discussing problems, solutions, and new ideas that are still being thought of.

The borders between teams slowly come down, and attendees begin yelling to each other for advice from other teams for last minute problems. Controller issues, hit detection not working, pieces of programs disappearing.

As all these problems come about, everyone in the room attempts to come together to help each other. For an hour the whole room is one joint community working together on a single project, instead of five teams working alone.

“My least favorite part was those final few hours, realizing that we may not be able to get everything that we wanted to,” said Geyer.

At 6 p.m. Sunday the team submitted their game, although no member really wanted to.

In 48 hours getting rid of every bug was nigh impossible. Sometimes characters would fall through the floor, or the animations wouldn’t work right.

“Sure, I’m proud of what we did. But I wish there was more,” said Probst.

Despite the event being over, development of Singularity isn’t over quite yet.

The team all came to an agreement to go to RunJumpDev’s weekly meetings together, and plan on working on Singularity there over time, to be a truly finished game at a future date.

And while Singularity might not become a hit game on an official platform like Steam or Xbox, it will certainly bring these four together for a long time.