nasa11In the span of 48 hours, Seattle-based independent game developers created working prototypes of computer games with help from NASA.

They took part in a game jam, an event held in multiple locations in which teams of developers code and design a game in a short amount of time. While some game jams are competitive, this one – entitled “Dark Side of the Jam” – was a more community-driven event, designed to get people more interested in space travel.

Though NASA did not organize the jam itself, they hosted the event at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. and lent developers art assets to freely use in their games. In honor of NASA, the jam encouraged teams to create space-themed games. The jam also featured talks streamed live from the Ames Research Center. Researchers spoke about subjects like satellites and alien life.

In Seattle, two teams of developers used the Academy of Interactive Entertainment’s campus to create their games, which ran on the Unity3D game engine. The Seattle division of the “Dark Side” jam was coordinated by Kevin Tarchenski, an indie developer who created the Windows Phone games “Voyager,” “Rare Earth,” and “BuildDown.” He says that his interest in space exploration is what motivated him to participate, despite this being his first game jam.

darkside“This was my first jam as both an organizer and a jammer,” Tarchenski said. “Ultimately, I pulled it together because I was excited about the theme, I wanted to try my hand at jamming, and if I wasn’t the one who organized it, maybe nobody would have.”

One of the Seattle projects, “Seven Minutes to Heaven,” is an exploration game set on Mars, designed by a team of six. Remotely controlling a rover, players have to deal with the delay inherent in sending signals from the Earth to another planet. The less serious “Moon Douchebags” is a quicker-paced driving game based on early space exploration. Developed by four people, the game has players driving along the surface of the moon to pick up three of their “bros” before their lunar lander takes off.

Ryan Nohr, who worked on the code for “Seven Minute to Heaven,” found that the game jam atmosphere challenged developers’ time management skills and ability to cooperate.

“You have to really know your workflow well,” he said. “You need to know how to roll things out. … There was definitely an element of [wondering] ‘Are we on the same wavelength?’”

Steven Edwon, a developer for “Moon Douchebags,” enjoyed the time restraints of the jam and what that restraint does to teamwork.

“I’ve always enjoyed the collaborative process of working with other people on games,” he said. “It’s way more fun to have that intense energy. You don’t worry about making it clean, you worry about making it work.”

A few projects spawned from game jams can turn into larger projects for their developers. While neither development team has any concrete plans for expanding their games, Edwon is planning to experiment with an Ouya build of “Moon Douchebags,” though whether that could end up on Ouya’s app store may not be likely, he says.

But despite the possibility of critical and commercial acclaim for these games, developers felt this was a worthwhile experience.

“Watching everyone learn to come together over a weekend, and end up with two impressive games to show for it, was incredibly rewarding,” Tarchenski said.

Nathan Ureta is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.

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