By Marshall Garvey
Making a video game is a painstaking, exhaustive process whose scope many (myself included) may never fully appreciate. It is an artistic grind where every last detail must be built from the ground up. Every move, every NPC, every cutscene, every background, every level must be programmed to the nth degree. There’s no room for improvisation to be organically caught on film or recording.
In order to become a game developer, one must not only have motivation, but also a fertile creative environment in which they can dedicate themselves to every task as meticulously as possible. Such a preference may differ from developer to developer, but with the growing cynicism towards large gaming companies in recent years, many are opting to go independent to achieve their dreams.
One such environment for the indie dreamer is the game jam, where groups of developers try to create one or more rudimentary games in a quick span of 24 to 72 hours. Done by game-makers the world over, the game jam has an especially rich history here in Sacramento, CA. Starting in 2007, local jams began to take off under the leadership of Joseph Burchett and Gabriel Gutierrez, often in two-day formats in which developers pressed to make a rudimentary working game as quick as possible.
If you’re thinking that 1-3 days isn’t enough to really make a functioning game of any sort, well…you’re not alone. Nathan Allshouse, now president of the Sacramento Developer Collective (SDC), voiced his concern to his colleagues at a meeting in 2014 that several days just wasn’t enough for devs to make a viable product.
“When I first came in, we were doing like the two-day jams,” said Allshouse. “And a lot of cool games were kind of coming out of it, but nothing that was really well-formed, nothing that you could publish. And it was also…we wanted to learn the whole development life cycle. So not just putting together what would essentially become a prototype. We wanted to know about marketing, about forming a company, about publishing…the whole thing. And the only way to do that would be over an extended period of time.”
Thus, the “progressive” game jam was born, the term being coined by Gutierrez. This format was expanded to include multiple days of jams over a span of months, in which developers worked through each stage of their game’s creation like design, development, testing, and then release. Far from a flash in the pan, the idea yielded concrete results. By the time of the Sac Indie Arcade Expo in 2015, teams involved in the PGJ had created workable games like Project Settlement and Game Over & over + over.
The most recent PGJ in Sacramento occurred on Saturday, July 20th at the Hacker Lab on R Street. It came during a particularly eventful time for the Progressive Game Jam’s history, as 2019 marks five continuous years for the Progressive Game Jam. During this span, 28 teams have participated and created 21 viable games that are either completed or still in development. Furthermore, it’s not long before the SDCs Capital Creative Showcase on September 7th, where all the current PGJ teams will get a chance to display their games on an especially big stage.
While not every team showed up due to sudden personal obligations, the July 20th jam nonetheless showed an ample display of the kind of work that’s possible with the progressive format. Kyle Winn, a participant for three years who’s now in his first year of running PGJ, displayed his team’s project Evocus. It’s a well-designed multiplayer tactic strategy game where the player uses cards from a hand, throws them onto the battlefield, and then tries to take control points.
Having worked on it since August 2018, Winn cites PGJ’s expanded format as crucial to its maturation, especially in comparison to shorter jams. “I like the ability to kind of iterate on concepts,” he said while demonstrating his game. “With a regular, like a global game or 3-4 day kind of thing, you run into issues like your first idea is the one that gets made. With our game, we’ve had the ability to go through iterations, figure out what worked, what didn’t work, and kind of perfect our game.”
Most importantly, Winn believes the build-up to events like the September 7th showcase provides a level of urgency to balance out the ample amount of creative time. “There’s this incentive to finish the product by that event, so you kind of stick to that strict timeline a little bit better.”
Given its in-depth facilitation of the creative process, consistent scheduling and many talented games and artists who’ve been molded by it, one would think the Progressive Game Jam would have mushroomed across the gaming world in its five years of operation. Yet somehow, it seemingly remains entirely localized to the City of Trees. “Just here in Sacramento as far as I know,” responded Allshouse when asked if anyone outside the city has emulated it.
For now, one could say the Progressive Game Jam is Sacramento gaming’s “best kept secret.” It is a logical, realistic development method that has just enough urgency to inspire creators to make it to the finish line. It’s also an apt measure of how massive yet close the talent pool in Sacramento is. All the same, it’s a trend whose replication across the entire world of gaming is likely due. Now, if you’re a big fan of League of Legends, you can visit unrankedsmurfs.com for the best smurf accounts.