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Let's get it out there if it wasn't already wildly apparent; I love video games. While I don't get the opportunity to play as often these days (and when I do, it's the Witcher 3), I still love talking about them, discussing the philosophical and narrative decisions of the developers, their influences and the ways they renew and re-envision narrative elements that are as old as civilisation. I love talking about the technical aspects of creating them, thinking about the structure of the code that creates these alternate universes, how the game responds and interacts with the player through a series of tags, triggers and button presses. It amazes me to consider the implications of the system of controls chosen by the developers to get across certain aspects and elements of the game to the player in a visceral way, without being over complicated, fiddly or annoying to use. I also love to marvel at the art that people are able to create, knowing that I'll keep trying forever and still not be as casually skilled as they seem to be. Then I went to the FXPFestival...and watched it all take place in a handful of rooms, over a single weekend at Cambridge Regional College.
FXP is a game jam for developers aged 14 to 19: 48 hours to build a complete, playable video game which follows a theme revealed at the opening ceremony by the competition judges. Scores of teens who love games so much, they want to lock themselves in a stuffy room filled with whirring computers and teams of other sweating developers for two straight days while they feverishly design, plan, code and create something from nothing more than inspiration, sweat, coffee, and an endless number of 1's and 0's. It was inspiring to see the next generation of video games developers come together to create a mobile game, a platform which comes with a range of inbuilt complications - graphics processing limitations and touch screen controls (which need to be intuitive to the user and not feel janky) - which need to be considered and planned for. I was fortunate enough to be able to wander the halls at Cambridge Regional College where the jam took place, speaking with these budding developers about their work and ideas. I heard stories about one Jammer, Wyatt, who went home in the evening on Saturday and through lack of an available machine that could handle testing the code, dry coded nearly an entire game single-handedly using nothing more than Notepad++. Phenomenal passion, to type out walls of C# overnight, organically producing a complex series of interconnected scripts, then come in the next day to see if your night was worth it. Big-Ups to that man!
I also had the opportunity to speak with some of the teachers who had brought teams along from schools around the region, teachers who loved games and coding as much as the kids and who had given up their weekend to offer their advice and guidance to their students, often lending their own passion to keeping the flagging spirits high with a joke or a bit of positive feedback when the pressure became a bit heavy. I had the opportunity to meet Mike Warburton; the course leader for Computer Games Development at CRC and one of the most effusive, friendly and psyched people I've met yet. (Props to you, sir - you changed some lives this weekend.) Mike was a force of nature: on hand throughout the jam to lend a hand to students, install drivers, hook up test tablets, offer encouragement, organise timing and handing in of the final projects and just generally make sure every single person at FXP was having a fat time.
He definitely succeeded in that mission; one of our SkunkWorx team members Jake confided in me as we were leaving the final ceremony that "I love coming to HackLab stuff, I always feel so wired at the end of it. This Game-Jam has been dank! I'm so tired, but in an awesome way - I feel like I've accomplished something, you know?" Yes mate, I totally know what you mean, and I'm pretty sure everyone else who attended FXP feels just like you do. It's that 'righteous fatigue' that comes from putting all your energy and passion into creating something and seeing the project through to the very end.
Mac and I parted ways with the team on Monday afternoon, where everyone was making promises to be online that evening to play some Town Of Salem and chat about how and when they would get together again soon, to polish the game they had bashed out in two days to a level where it might be accepted on the Play Store or Steam. As tired as they were, they were all looking forward to getting back in the saddle and put some more sweat into their inaugural SkunkWorx Studios release. Pretty awesome for a bunch of early teens to want to work that hard on anything!
Their game was called AfterSlice, and it had to follow the theme of 'Twins' that was set at the opening ceremony in honour of one of the execs at Jagex who had just become the proud father of a set of twins. The SkunkWorx team decided that they wanted to make a funny and bright puzzle game, where the player controlled two polarised characters - in the end an angel and a devil - who were trying to escape a series of mazes. The mazes contained 'safe zones' which were where you had to have the character you were currently controlling before the timer ran out and the maze changed it's motif (from heaven to hell or vice-versa) to become deadly to that character, and when you could begin to control the opposite character to navigate a little more of the maze before another timed shift back. You could escape the maze by collecting all the pizza slices that were scattered around the level, hence... AfterSlice.
The ownership these kids felt over their project was huge and the motivation it inspired in them to work themselves silly was incredible. These guys learned more about art, design, programming, collaboration, time and project management, teamwork, problem solving, communication and research in three days than they could've learned in months at school - because they were given the ownership of a problem and asked to find a solution in whatever way they saw fit, rather than being asked if they simply knew the answer, or could repeat an algorithm to find it. Problem Based Learning, guys...it's the way forward. These kids were madly utilising all the tools of the Information Age to learn tips and tricks about C#, Photoshop and Unity that they needed, as they needed them - google, YouTube, reddit and Wikipedia were up in multiple tabs and the tutors were there on hand to offer their advice on the application of these skills and to provide context and tips from their own wide experience. They utilised whatever tools and skills they had to hand, MacGyver style, to create a complex and interconnected project as a team, to a tight deadline. If that isn't preparing you for the working world of tomorrow, I don't know what possibly could.
I know a lot of parents out there think computer games are frivolous fun and a waste of time, but I urge you to consider your kid's choices to play and make video games as a serious career. The digital entertainment industry will be worth 99.6 billion (yeah, that's Billion with a B) dollars this year and it's only growing in value. It's now worth more as an industry than pharma, film, music...you name it. Not only that, but it's high art: it tells a story, utilises artwork and sculptures that evoke emotions in the player, takes technical direction from centuries of collected film and musical experience, and on top of all that, it's an interactive medium. Video games are the only kind of art that responds to the way you interpret it, and as Dara O'Briain once said 'the only art form where your ability to interact with it dictates how much of the experience you can actually access.' Video games ask us to immerse ourselves in an alien context, and to assess, make and then live through what can sometimes be complex questions about the human condition. There's a whole other blog in that topic, so I'll leave off there for today.
But before I go, I just want to express my gratitude and endless respect for all the people who made FXPFestival so awesome. From the tutors, to the organisers at Conscious Communications, the volunteer mentors and 'ranch-hands' who kept the kids motivated and focused, the teachers who were so generous with their time off, Mike and CRC for hosting the whole shebang...and not at all least, the Jammers themselves for re-igniting and fortifying the passion I myself feel for the games industry and games in general. I know that off the back of this, Mac has been super-charged into assembling the SkunkWorks Senior Squad (made up of rag-tag outfit of tamed developers, coders and brainiacs we call the HackLab Heroes) for a series of national Jams in the future, along with it's newest (and now youngest) member - 'Hardcore' Harry, a student from CRC who won the HackLab 'Deadliest Developer' award at FXP for his terminally positive attitude, passion, work-ethic and also for his constantly flying 'nyancat' on Sunday (which certainly helped to pump-up the HackLab team whenever the bright rainbow trailing behind the feline pop-tart caught the corner of their vision.) When you're ears deep in C# scripts, tearing your hair out debugging or listening to the same audio sample for the thousandth time, every little bit helps.
If you're reading this and you think you'd be interested in entering a school team, or just a team of your friends into a game jam in the future, get in touch with us. We'd love to hear from you, and can probably point you in the right direction to having a crack at converting coffee into code at turbo speed somewhere in the country. Ludum Dare is coming up in August - get on board!