indiespeedrun.jpgThe new game jam on the block, Indie Speed Run, is wrapping up its first event, and co-founder Michael Kayatta "couldn't be happier with the outcome." He says that future Runs will happen, and it will "at least" be once a year.

The inaugural competition saw 182 developer teams pay the $25 fee and complete a 48-hour game. They are competing for $2,500 and recognition from some of the industry's top designers, including Notch, Kellee Santiago, and Jason Rohrer.

Whether it be because of the monetary prize, the recognition, or something else, the event brought in a sizable batch of developers who've never jammed like this before. Kayatta said that more than 20% of Indie Speed Run developers had never made a game in 48-hours before this event.

Indie Speed Run has announced four its seven finalists so far and will reveal the winner February 5. With the downtime, Kayatta was able to talk to me about creating the jam, the positive use of celebrity, handling the issues and nuances that came up during the jam, his philosophy of "game jam," the functions of prizes, how Indie Speed Run differentiates itself, and hints at its future.

michael kayatta.jpgThere are tons of compos and jams, why was this one necessary?

Michael Kayatta, pictured left: Necessary may be a strong word for almost anything, but we started Indie Speed Run because we believe there is always room for something different--doubly so in the case of a game jam. Right now, the world supports a ton of fantastic game jams but, if you look closely, most are identical.

You get in a room with other people, are given a general theme that's the same as everyone else's, and make a game in what's often a "Scout's Honor" 48-hours. This is a great concept, and if amazing groups like Global Game Jam and LD48 weren't already nailing it, then we'd have gone in that direction.

But right now, why start another game jam like GGJ when GGJ already exists? That's why nowadays you hear more about events like What Would Molydeux and Fuck This Jam, where the organizers came up with a fresh concept and ran with it. That's not to say the groups that pioneered jamming are outdated, just that cloning them is a pointless endeavor. Pointless for the would-be-cloner and, in some ways, pointless for the development community.

More than 20% of Indie Speed Run developers had never made a game in 48-hours before this event. The most important thing about trying to innovate events like game jams is offering new challenges to attract and encourage people who would have otherwise never been involved in this sort of thing. Again, it's not about being better than the others, it's just about creating options and helping to cast a wider net for these developers. The more things out there expanding the landscape of independent creation, the better.

protein pirates.png

Finalist, Protein Pirates

Why make a competition with monetary prizes? Why isn't it prize enough to be reviewed and selected by notable devs?

I'd actually take this back one step farther, and say that conceptually speaking, it's prize enough to just make something. I'm sort of dreading the awards, in a way, because I know how many people will come out wrongly feeling like they've "lost" Indie Speed Run, which is impossible.

That's something we will be trying to mitigate as much as possible, and one of the reasons we've tried to embed this event with a genuine sense of encouragement; the monetary prize, and even the judge panel, is just an extra motivation for these creative people to get off their butts and actually create. If they don't need it, awesome. If they think it's cool and want to go for it, also awesome. Either way, they're making games, and that's what we care about.

How do the creators of ISR define a "game jam" and how does ISR fit into that?

We'd like to define that term as "any sort of organized event that encourages game makers to make games," but realized soon after launching that some members of the community tend to disagree with that idea. In the sense that a game jam is more traditionally an in-person event with a unifying theme, no real judging, and no prizes, we have to sort of step to the side of that and say, "okay, so we're not that. We weren't trying to be that. We're just a game event. For developers. In which one jams."

Again, the game jam world hasn't been exposed to much radical change since its inception, so only history and people who passionately discuss such things in obscure internet forums will decide how we eventually interact with the standard meaning of "game jam". Will we be absorbed into that definition and help to expand it, or will we be the start of some different term entirely? At the end of the day, that's going to be something that game makers decide, not us.


Finalist, Cheese & Punishment

The cash prize doesn't seem like much to get a full game grown from a 48hour game. Do you think it is the responsibility of ISR and other jam organizations to encourage games to be expanded to full games? How should they?

On one hand, yeah, $2,500 is not exactly game budget material. Much of this will depend on growth and other factors, but we're really hoping to raise that prize money up substantially over time. That being said, at least for now, it's not really meant to be exclusively for these developers to expand their game. Lots of creative people just need supplemental income to help them spend less time at their day job so they can pursue game development. Many of them aren't hiring artists and contracting composers, they're just busting their ass in their own spare time.

As far as "responsibility" goes, that's a tough one. I can't really speak for other game jams, but we, at least, have an internal set of goals. The first priority is simply to kindle creation, give people a reason to invest their time and energy into their true passion. The second is to actually help those creations become successful. We want these games to grow and blossom, we want to see them distributed, and we want to see them be the next indie success story.

Realistically speaking, right now, we're limited in how much we can truly help these developers make that dream a reality, regardless of how much we try. It's just math: resources and exposure. But, over time, the more people pay attention to Indie Speed Run, and the more people that participate in Indie Speed Run, the more effective we'll be at using our resources to complete that second goal and become a greater and greater help to them. We think about how to achieve that every day.

If not through ISR, what do you (maybe some of the game dev judges too) suggest to the devs of these 200 games, heck, to the thousands of jammed games from 2012, as for what they should do next and how they should figure out if their game is worth further developing?

That's a really tough question, because today's marketplace is such an uncharted territory. Everything has become so democratic, where a total no-namer has the chance to make millions off his or her game just by people happening across it and telling their friends.

That's one of the overall ideas of Indie Speed Run, to try and facilitate these game makers breaking through the static of the hundreds of thousands of games all looking for that same break each year. I think that if you are truly good at what you do, then all you need is the right platform to stand on, and system will take it from there. That's some of the value we're trying to build for these guys in participating with us. "Hey, check out my game," just doesn't carry the same weight as, "Hey, check out my game that Ron Gilbert hand-picked."

That's not to say it's an easy task, regardless of our involvement with them. These developers need to learn that producing a great product is just the beginning. Next, they need to learn how to make a solid trailer, learn how to deal with the gaming press properly, learn how to independently distribute, and where to find the rest of the community. They need to make friends and contacts, and vigorously support their fellow game makers so that they have people they can count on.

As with anything creative, you've got to be your own best advocate. That's part of the reasoning behind having Community Choice finalists. It's an imperfect microcosm, sure, but still somewhat representative of how games actually make it out there.

Why is audience voting important again? Is there a prize attached?

Audience voting is important for a few reasons. For one, while we have some really amazing game developers who've been kind enough to get involved, game players hold just as important a role in making this industry work. So, when each of the seven judges select one game to push into the finals, we wanted the community to push its own three games alongside them on equal footing. In that spirit, People's Choice finalists will each win prizes equal to the Judge's Choice finalists.


Finalist, A Letter to my Valentine

Not all the games were made available at once. I've also heard people could vote every day for the same game. How are these exceptions handled?

As soon as the entry period ended, we realized that we had some problems. For one, in the spirit of not restricting the competitors, we'd failed to lay down any guidelines regarding final game dimensions, how to best package files, or even how to name those files.

So, of course, when we realized that the database had been using a different numbering system than the site, we had tons and tons of files--about a third of which without so much as the game title attached--in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and formats. We spent the first day working to "repair" as many as possible, and at some point during the second day, decided it best to just get as many posted as possible, then roll out the rest as fast as we could.

Fortunately, 99% of games were up within 24 hours of that process ... not much downtime as compared to three weeks of voting. Still, we realize that those games didn't have the same head start, so we've accounted for it in our rating algorithm. We weight three factors for the community-chosen finalists: the game's rating, the game's view count, and the game's publishing delay (if there was one).

As far as voting every day, that was, and is, 100% intentional. We have a "one vote per IP per day per game" system in place that allows for multiple voting. We did this because the first time someone votes on a game, it's usually for his or her own entry, or a friend's or family member's. They come on, they vote it 5-stars, and they get back to their daily lives.

We notice that when people come back to vote a second, third, or forth time, however, they're far more likely to start snooping around other submissions, which they then tend to rate more honestly. And our IP monitoring, which is in place to catch vote exploiters, fully supports this idea. Using this system helps these games garner more plays and exposure overall and, fortunately, is leading to some very level ratings across the board.

Have the developers/persons in charge thought of other jams/competitions?

ISR 2013 will work on the same basic idea of 2012, but will have a fresh set of weird themes and elements, as well as some ... interesting new tweaks to the formula to keep developers on their toes (including something code named "Danger Dice"). We'll be announcing some of the ways the event will grow when we announce 2012's winners in early February, and hopefully soon after, we'll be ready to reveal some of the larger plans in store for this event, and the developers who've gotten involved. Our goal is continually make ISR a worthwhile event for developers of any skill level, and that's going to mean a commitment to constant innovation, and a focus on new offerings to that community.

What went right and what went wrong in ISR's maiden voyage?

Let's see ... what went right? Dozens of emails from first-time jammers, people who were crazy excited to have their work seen by the ISR judges, and the ridiculous level of support and participation from an extremely friendly and accepting community. As for the wrong, it's hard to say. For the most part, the first Indie Speed Run went as planned. Our greatest flub was our unfortunate database issue, which caused some of our participants to wait longer than was acceptable to be seen by the public. We also just flat out didn't account for a lot of things, like people competing more than once rolling similar themes, wildly varying game dimensions that didn't fit the web template, and how best to allow reasonable hotfixes after a team's timer had ended.

We'd also tried to design a system that would be scalable for entries, which affected a lot of what we did. So, playing through every game submitted, formatting them manually, repairing files ... all of that was multiplied by a factor of 182, the number of first year entries. It was ... a lot of work, and not much sleep.

As one of the participants commented, it was like we were doing our own Speed Run. Being able to offer a lot of this stuff, from the technology, to the rating system, to coordinating with judges, to working to increase the exposure for these people's games has just been a veritable truckload of work, and now we have a much better idea of that moving forward. We're confident that the specific issues we encountered won't return in 2013, but then again, as we try new things and experiment to make the system better, I'm sure we'll end up breaking something else.

Fortunately, we're surrounded by a community that's defined by that same process: enjoying the rewards of innovation and experimentation, while dealing with the cavalcade of surprise problems that often entails. Right now, our strategy is just to throw as many man-hours as possible at any problem, and commit ourselves to making the ISR experience as polished and fun for every single person willing to give us a chance. So far, people seem happy with that approach.

Will there ever be a cut off for the number of entries? If they eventually reach 1000+, I just don't see how a handful of judges will fairly get through that many games that quickly.

While it's difficult to predict the future, we'd never like to impose a cut off. Maybe divisions, maybe something else, but whoever has the will to participate should be allowed to participate. We have an internal review process for these games before splitting them up and sending groups out to judges, because yes, it's impossible to ask them to slog through 40 hours of gaming each.

Ron Gilbert, Kellee Santiago, Notch ... these people aren't idle celebrities, they're professionals, and have a ton of work to do. So, if we pull in 1,000 entries, we're still committed to making it happen, but we'll need to get creative. We'll try to expand our judge panel first, and then go from there. We'll see what the Indie Speed Run community wants, how they would prefer us to scale it, listen to their feedback, and go from there.


Finalist, The Garbage Collector

Was there a minimum amount of time a judge had to spend on one game?

As Nick would tell you, I tend to get very algorithm-minded. I like formulas, and rubrics, and frameworks to just quantify everything fairly. But even so, after many discussions on the judging process, we decided that any limitations would hurt this event.

We didn't give the judges a rubric, we didn't give them a minimum amount of time to spend with each game. That's how it is out there in the marketplace; you have no guarantee how long someone will try your game, and you have no idea upon which factors others will grade it.

So, as long as we have a trustworthy panel in terms of industry and game experience, we think it's best to just say, "Play these games. Go with your gut." The judges seemed to enjoy that system--something extremely important--and as it turns out, many of them told me they played most of the games more than once. As one put it, "really working them." As far as I'm concerned, that lack of structure and limitation will be a cornerstone of how we continue with to work with them and others in the future.

What qualitative and quantitative goals did you all have set for ISR? Did you achieve them?

"Game jam" is such an established concept that we had no idea how well we'd be able to do. If you look at two of the most well known, and most respected game jams out there, Ludum Dare and Global Game Jam, and check out their first year performance, it's a bit daunting.

These guys are the big leagues, and Ludum Dare's fifth outing only saw 67 submissions. Global Game Jam, currently the world record holder for size and output, spawned off the famous Nordic Game Jam, which garnered only 8 submissions in it's first outing.

Needless to say, it's proof that it's a tricky ordeal setting these things up. Nick [Brunch, ISR co-founder] and I sort of said, "Alright, let's get fifty games. If we can get fifty games, maybe we have a shot at doing something worthwhile." In the end, we saw 212 entries, and 182 completed games on our first outing, which was more than either of us could believe. So quantitatively, we couldn't be happier with the outcome, or more humbled by these people's blind faith in a first-time event.

Of course, a raw number of completed games means nothing if the format that produced them isn't reasonably viable for developers. We heard from so many people that broken games are just a huge part of game jams and a big part of what makes them fun.

I think using game jams as a learning experience is wonderful, but I also think there is a value in seeing yourself produce something legitimately good after investing yourself in such a high-pressure arena. It's not going to happen every time, but when it does, it's a special experience.

On this front, we had two goals: The first was to have 10 or more fully functional games that were great for having been made in 48 hours. The second, which was more of a long shot, was to have at least 10 games that were good period, regardless of the development time.

Fortunately, we achieved both, and then some. Even the judges have been impressed, and not in a "this is a public quote so I'd better be nice sort of way." Dino Patti personally told me how impressive these developers were, especially in such a short development cycle. Vander Caballero jokingly told me that it made him feel useless knowing that it took him a year and a half to make his last game when confronted with the entries he played.

Jason Rohrer, at first, actually had trouble believing the game he ended up choosing had been made in the time frame, while Trent Oster, after his finalist pick was announced yesterday, tweeted that the only thing he'd be able to accomplish in 48 hours was an epic hangover. That's coming from the co-founder of BioWare, you know? What our first Runners (as we call them) have turned out is just ... mind-blowing.