Top photo by Paul Hillier
The twelfth annual Toronto Game Jam – an event better known as TOJam – took place over the weekend of May 5-7, as game developers once again descended on George Brown College to spend three days making video games. Most of the participants were residents of Toronto, arriving on foot or via public transit and coming and going throughout the weekend.
For others, getting to TOJam was a bit more of a challenge. That was certainly true for Jarryd Huntley, an independent game developer and first-time TOJammer from Cleveland. Though Huntley planned his trip weeks in advance, he ran into some unexpected difficulties while making the trek from Ohio to Ontario.
“I go to different events in the US and now Canada, and I drive everywhere. The drive was easy, but crossing the border was interesting,” said Huntley, before recapping his conversation with a border agent. “They ask you questions. What’s the nature of your visit? I’m up here for a game jam. What’s a game jam? An event where you make games over a weekend. Are you getting paid for that? No, no. Not at all. So what’s the purpose? It’s for fun. He paused. So, you’re coming up here to make games for free, for fun? Yeah.”
“Then he had me pull over. The car got searched. I just kind of sat there.”
Thankfully, the situation was resolved with out further incident. Huntley was able to direct the border agents to the TOJam website, which confirmed his story and eventually allowed him to continue his journey.
“Nobody was rude,” said Huntley. “It was a bit of delay, but from the outside, spending the whole weekend working on games sounds a little bit different.”
In a way, it’s easy to understand the confusion. Why would professional game developers spend their free time making video games in cramped quarters with hundreds of other people? Why would someone travel across state lines to participate in such an ordeal?
The fact that so many people still make the commitment only speaks to the growing legend of TOJam. After twelve years, the event has a reputation that attracts developers like Huntley, the latest out-of-towner to hear about TOJam through the game development grapevine.
“I’m friends with a couple of Toronto devs,” he explained. “They mentioned TOJam last year, and I’m like, ‘Oh, that sounds really cool.’”
Huntley is a veteran of multiple Global Game Jams and Ludum Dare challenges, as well the annual Summer Jam in Cleveland. For him, the sheer scope separates TOJam – which draws hundreds of attendees from the large and active Toronto games industry – from many of the other jams that he’s attended.
“This is massive,” said Huntley, adding that each jam has its own distinct flavour. “There are a ton of people here, but the way that they’re divided up, it’s almost like each room is its own little jam in itself.”
Of course, there are some constants with any game jam. The bulk of the time is spent making video games, and the location doesn’t matter quite as much when you’re writing code. In that regard, Huntley knew what to expect from TOJam.
“You always go into a jam with grand ideas. You come out with something, and it’s never what you intend to come out with,” said Huntley. He spent TOJam studying procedural generation, something that he’d never previously done as a developer.
“I came up with more of a tech demo than a game, called Robot Box Cleaner. You’re this little box that can go around and pick up pieces of furniture and drop them in the virtual trash. Everything is procedurally generated, so it’s different every time.”
That speaks to the appeal of an event like TOJam. Sure, it’s nice if you can leave with a finished video game, and many developers do indeed achieve that goal. However, that’s not necessarily the primary motivation for participants. A game jam is as much about process as it is about video games. For Huntley, TOJam was a success because it gave him an opportunity to expand his skillset while making new friends and immersing himself in a new community.
“Even though I didn’t quite get a game, I got to learn about procedural generation. I did have a lot of fun and I got to meet people, too.”
The only downside is that Huntley had to check out early. When TOJam ended on Sunday evening, Huntley still had to make the long drive back to Cleveland, so he wasn’t able to stick around for the free pizza and the impromptu arcade.
“I’m pretty bummed that I can’t stick around and chat with people and play their games,” he said. “When you do game jams, everybody’s exhausted, but they’re relaxed and it’s time to have fun and celebrate. I am bummed that I’m missing out on that.”
That camaraderie – the kind that develops over the course of twelve years – helps explain why TOJam has become such a beloved institution, and why game developers come back year after year after year. That’s also why Huntley is already looking forward to 2018. TOJam 13 is still a year away, but you need to plan ahead if you’re going to come up from Cleveland, and now Huntley is the one passing the word on to his friends.
“I posted that I was coming up here, and a couple other Clevelanders were like, that sounds like fun,” said Huntley. “Maybe we’ll submit a team next year.”