Game on! The 48-hour University challenge that takes digital games seriously

TEODOR RELJIC speaks to Jasper Schellekens of the Institute of Digital Games at the University of Malta, as they prepare to hold yet a new edition of the Malta Global Game Jam, which challenges participants to come up with a game in 48 hours, while also hosting acclaimed keynote speakers culled from various corners of the gaming industry

How would you describe the evolution of the Malta’s ‘chapter’ of the Global Game Jam from its inception until now?

The Institute of Digital Games started organising the Malta Global Game Jam in 2013 and it has grown in popularity since its inception. It is a testament to its success that many of those who were at our first jam keep returning and that every year more people want to join. Nowadays we have to close off registrations early, because places have filled up. We need a bigger venue!

Creativity and creation has always been at the core of the Game Jam concept and this hasn’t changed over the years. It is a fertile and creative ground for creators (teams have game designers, musicians, writers, producers) to get together and actually produce a game. In some cases this can be developed further, as for example, ‘...and then we held hands’ went on to be a $60,000 success on Kickstarter.

The first edition was run more as a competitive event where the keynote speakers functioned as judges, but we have moved away from that, focusing on the creative and networking aspects of the jam. The idea is also that teams help each other troubleshoot, as someone outside their own team might have a solution to their problem. As organisers, we thought it was more important for people to create freely and we give them the incentive to experiment without necessarily worrying about whether their game would be a ‘winner’. There is still a popular vote prize, but this is very informal and determined by the participants themselves.

An international initiative, the Maltese ‘chapter’ of the Global Game Jam takes place at University each year
An international initiative, the Maltese ‘chapter’ of the Global Game Jam takes place at University each year

Our hard work and enthusiasm has also been noticed by the Global Game Jam team. In early February Prof. Susan Gold, one of the founders of Global Game Jam will be visiting the Institute of Digital Games and giving a talk as well as speaking to our Jammers. There is some interest from corporate sponsors as well which we haven’t had before. There is still a lot of room for growth and we’d like to be able to grow to something like the Nordic Jam, with scholarships and satellite events. They were founded in 2006 so we still have a few years to make those ambitions.


What does the turnout and general reception of the Game Jam say about Malta’s gaming culture, both on its ‘academic’ side and the ‘gaming proper’ side?

The turnout has been dramatically increasing and we barely have place to accommodate all the interested people. I think two main things about Malta’s gaming culture can be drawn from this increased attendance. The first is that we’ve hit upon a legitimisation of gaming as a serious career path and better understanding overall of what it entails. It isn’t just about “playing games”. And from the academic side, it is dawning on people that games are multifaceted and all kinds of roles and backgrounds are relevant to creating games (as a participant in game jam, I can attest to our need for more project managers). So we’re getting a wider spectrum of participants.

Everyone can find a role in the Game Jam, because games are so multi-faceted as a medium. For example musicians and sound engineers don’t often consider joining a game jam, but there is really a lot of potential to use music and musical principles as game mechanics as well as for enhancing the atmosphere and the message of the game.

To take it to the extreme, even someone with a background in neuro-surgery and an interest in games can find a place on a team. They would be able to bring their knowledge of their topic to either create a game whose mechanics are faithful to reality or they could even consider teaming up with the programmers and artists to develop a training tool for remote surgery. Hopefully, it will be a far cry from Surgeon Simulator. The concept and definition of a game is vague and can be shifted to accommodate a lot at a Game Jam. Another sign of the development of the gaming culture in Malta is that the Malta Global Game Jam is no longer the only game jam.


What can you tell us about this year’s keynote speakers, and what would you say they will be able to contribute to the Game Jam’s atmosphere, and what important conversations do you think they could inspire?

This year we’ve managed a great balance of Game Design – Matt Binkowski, Game Narrative – Emily Short, and Game Artificial Intelligence – Mike Cook. The Arts Council Malta has really supported the Malta Game Jam the last two years allowing us to bring in some very impressive guests.

Maciej Binkowski is Lead Game Designer of Techland’s Dying Light, open world FPS horror action-adventure video game published by Warner Bros. Dying Light has won a number of awards including Most Valuable Game Award by Official Xbox Magazine, Best of E3 2013 Award by DvLZGaME, and E3 ’13 Editor’s Choice Award by Polygon.

Emily Short is an interactive fiction (IF) writer, perhaps best known for her debut game Galatea, and her use of psychologically complex Non-Player Characters. Her IF has won numerous XYZZY Awards (the Academy Awards of Interactive Fiction) including Best Individual, Best NPCs, Best Game amongst many more. She has also written for FailBetter Games’s Sunless Sea and Fallen London. Currently, she is working on Where the Water Tastes Like Wine a forthcoming game from Dim Bulb Games that describes itself as a “bleak American folktale.”

Mike Cook is a Research Associate in Goldsmiths’ Department of Computing and is researching ways in which software can design meaningful, intelligent and enjoyable games completely autonomously. He has designed a system called ANGELINA which is basically an AI that makes games. He also writes The Saturday Paper, a summary of an academic games paper for a developer audience.

The keynote speakers kick-start the event and inspire the gamers by teaching them a key aspect of their field. The funny thing about a game jam is that it condenses the process of making a game into 48 hours, but essentially the process is very similar. You need to coordinate the various aspects of the game within the time frame. As the 48th hour approaches you also need to make the decision about what you need to cut from your original idea, just as an AAA company has to strive to the release date and decide what they can safely cut from what they have promised.

Matt Binkowski’s talk ‘How we balanced Dying Light and how I fucked it up’ will be just as relevant for someone in AAA as someone making a game at the game jam. The keynote speakers also do a round of all the Game Jam teams and provide feedback, which hopefully inspires and also allows the jammers to see how industry would perceive their ideas.

In addition to their specific expertise the presence of the keynotes themselves and their interaction with the jammers is a huge networking experience that happens in an informal setting, but at the same time very focused on the topic at hand. In previous years, some keynotes have even expressed interest in collaboration or investment into some of the talent at the Malta Game Jam.


What do you hope visitors will get from this year’s edition of the Game Jam?

“How can I get into the industry?” is a common question at our events and almost without fail the answer provided is: “Make a game.”

So above all we hope that the visitors of this year’s edition get a game out of their jam. It might not seem like a lot, but having a completed project, however rough it may be, is worth a lot. Another thing ; we’d like visitors to get new multi-disciplinary contacts, making it easier for them to pursue their game creation projects in the future. So many different and divergent roles need to come together for games and it isn’t always easy for these silos of expertise to interact. We hope that at the Game Jam play can meet art and science.