Saturday, September 20, 2008

First annual GAmeland Festival

Ameland, the Netherlands

GAmeland logoThe Northern College of Leeuwarden, in conjunction with the province of Friesland and several other funding agencies, decided to put on a festival -- actually more of a game jam -- for game development students in the region. I was invited along as an instructor, coach, and juror. It all took place on an island named Ameland off the north coast of the Netherlands -- hence, Gameland and the joystick/lighthouse logo, which I think is very clever. The whole thing lasted five days, and it was a ton of fun.

Photo of students receiving materials.We had sixteen teams of students from various institutions, along with their instructors. Each team consisted of from four to six people, and the organizers tried to be sure that there was one programmer and one artist on each team, and a sound designer who was shared between two teams. It was wonderful to have all the sound and music people -- most game jams never have enough sound people, and the quality suffers as a result.

Each team had to create a quasi-educational game in Flash and ActionScript, suitable for potential installation in the island's nature museum. On Monday we all headed to the island by ferry from the mainland, moved into our bungalows, and heard a lecture about the island's natural history.

Tuesday morning I gave my Fundamental Principles of Game Design lecture and handed out the worksheets I use in my workshop. I wasn't running a real workshop but I thought they would find them handy. My lecture was followed by one from an art director from NCSoft, Daniel Dociu (pronounced DOE-shu, he's Romanian by birth). After that the students got to work, while the organizers took us instructors on a seal-watching trip -- seals come to the island periodically. It was great to see them in their natural habitat.

Photo of seals.

Photo of student with microphone.Tuesday evening each team presented its initial concept to the whole group, and we instructors commented on them.

Wednesday morning there were more lectures by other folks, and more work in the afternoon. Each of us among the instructors and organizers had been given two teams to "coach" and I visited mine two or three times a day to see how they were getting on and offer advice. I also talked to anybody else who wanted my assistance -- we weren't supposed to be partisan about "our" teams.

Most of the other guest speakers were art people rather than game designers -- in fact, I think I was the only game designer, which meant that I got a lot of questions. My old friend and fellow freelance designer Noah Falstein was supposed to come, but couldn't make it work with his schedule, unfortunately. I hope to see him there next year.

There was some very high-level talent among the artists. Their lectures often consisted of showing how to do things in Maya or ZBrush, although for the purposes of the contest the students were only supposed to make a 2D game.

By Thursday everyone was deep down in it. I gave another lecture in the morning, Emerging Issues in Game Design, which was very well received... probably because among other things I talked about sex in games!

Photo of bungalows.There was quite a variety among the games. Many were simple action games involving racing seals or feeding birds against the clock. They all had an educational theme, so in one of the bird games, you had to make sure the bird that you chose to control ate the correct kind of food for its species, or it would lose energy and fall out of the sky. Others were economic simulations, involving balancing the issues of tourism, pollution, and wildlife on the island. (Wildlife brings tourists; tourists cause pollution; pollution drives the wildlife away.)

Meals were taken in a big central hall, where all the students got a chance to mingle and relax for a bit. Thursday night there was a barbecue for the instructors. Large quantities of beer, mostly Heineken and Grolsch, were consumed at all times of the day and night. Everybody was very well-behaved, though -- the students took the task quite seriously and really put their backs into it.

Photo of dining hall.Friday morning all the teams turned in their work on USB memory sticks and then we judges had to rate them. There was no formal plan for choosing a winner, and we were in a hurry (we had to catch the boat off the island at 2:30). I proposed that each juror just each rate every game from 1 to 10 and we add up the numbers to see who got the most points. This met with everyone's approval and we got to work. It's tough looking at 16 games quickly, but I think we gave each one a fair shot, and the jury was 7 people. Every game but one included a playable demo in Flash, and many included PowerPoint presentations or design documents to explain the game as well.

In the end there was one clear winner that stood head and shoulders above the rest. "Little Sand Ameland" was a game about protecting the island from the sea, which tends to wash it away. As the player you have to defend a sand castle for a period of time by pushing sand in front of it -- but the sand's behavior is a bit peculiar and requires care to figure out. The graphics were charming, the sounds ideal, and the whole thing was very nearly a finished game. The team that built it was a combination of men and women, and included the only black participants in the contest -- it might almost have been chosen for PR reasons, but they won fair and square and everyone recognized their quality of their work immediately.

I was selected to announce the winners aboard the boat home. The Dutch being mild-mannered and low-key, I think they wanted the loud American for the job. Anyway, there was a good deal of cheering, and each of the jurors got a chance to say something about the winner.

The winning team took away 1000 Euro each, so they were pretty pleased. We heard them talking about what they were going to do with the money -- new laptops, school books, audio gear...

After that the boat docked and we all went our separate ways. I rode back to Amsterdam with Alessandra van Otterlo, one of the organisers, and two other speakers -- Daniel and Horia Dociu from NCSoft, who had come over from Seattle to take part.

Many thanks to Tim Laning, the father of the idea, who did a lot of the fundraising and pre-production; Gerdien Dijkstra, who was the primary organizer and queen bee of the whole event; Alessandra van Otterlo, Marjoleine Timmer and Ivo Fokke of the NLGD Festival of Games, who did a lot of the work on the ground; and to Guido Swildens, Jeroen Nauta, and Wessel van der Es of the Northern College of Leeuwarden who provided beer, Internet service, and excellent company throughout. Special thanks and a hug to Alessandra, who picked me up, drove me around, and generally looked after me throughout.

I'm looking forward to next year!