Participants from UCSC work furiously to design a game in 48 hours for the Global Game Jam. At the end of the competition, games are rated on the Global Game Jam website. This year marks the biggest Jam thus far, attracting 6,500 participants from 44 different countries. Photo by Nick Paris.

The Baskin Engineering lecture hall is filled with 69 students, brought together by their passion for game design. The room grows quiet as the students discover what they will be spending the next 48 hours creating.

“This year’s theme is extinction,” UCSC event organizer Teale Fristoe said.

So began Global Game Jam 2011.

Global Game Jam is a worldwide game design and creation event. Now in its third year, the contest attracts students from universities around the world, with participating countries including China, New Zealand and Denmark. Students compete to create the best original game — either video or board — in just 48 hours.

The Game Jams are becoming increasingly popular. Participants this year doubled in number from past events. UCSC entered 13 teams, adding to the 6,500 participants from 170 locations in 44 countries that produced some 1,500 games.

Among the veteran game designers speaking at the opening ceremony on Jan. 28, was British programmer Graeme Devine. Devine, an experienced video game enthusiast, offered words of encouragement for those embarking on the 48-hour design challenge.

Devine encouraged the designers “to scope your designs — focus on the play mechanic you most treasure — your passion, if you will.”

As the 48-hour deadline drew closer, students grew fatigued.

The students, fighting off sleep by downing whole cans of energy drinks, huddled around glowing computer monitors. In the background, the sound of people arguing over whether or not to include pirates, ninjas, zombies or space-marines in their games made the air buzz. Slowly but surely, finished designs began to appear.

Reproduction — a single-screen, brightly colored strategy game — featured a small herd of pixelated moose competing for meat, mates and survival.

Tower of Corpses set the player to the task of creating and climbing a tower of alien corpses. Despite being the brainchildren behind the game, even the creators had no idea what truly lay at the top of the tower, just that defeating it would somehow save the Earth.

By 4:30 on Sunday afternoon, 48 hours after they had begun, the 13 teams met to demonstrate their products in the hope of being crowned the winner of the UCSC 2011 contingency.

All present were allowed to vote for their three favorite UCSC games.

While some games grabbed the attention of all, some voters were critical.

“Some [games] are really impressive — some are just a step away from another game,” said graduate student and spectator John Murray.

Murray was critical of many of the titles he reviewed, saying some of the content was overly outrageous, and “pushed the boundaries of what can be considered a game.”

On a global scale, four of the 10 grand winners were Finnish, with others from locations like China and New York City. Despite not making the top 10, the UCSC team Sock Puppet Cabaret took solace in winning the local prize, a gift voucher for the Bay Tree Bookstore.

The winning title, computer game Generate Exterminate, in which two players compete to first nurture planets, before destroying them and dragging what remained into constantly moving wormholes.

“Think of it as a tug-of-war with planets,” one of the team’s programmers said.

One of the team’s five programmers, Ryan Loeb, was stunned, saying that it was his first time participating in Game Jam. Loeb said his team recognized sleep as a critical aspect and tried to get a lot of it. Their tactical move, along with general collaboration, resulted in their winning the contest.

In just 48 hours, 69 UCSC students proved just what could be achieved with small teams of developers who come together through their passion for game design.

As the contest came to a close and the tired programmers began to return to their lives, former contestant Kevin Meggs reflected on the event.

“I did it last year — it was a lot of fun,” he said. “If it’s something you’re passionate about, when the weekend rolls around you can step back and say ‘I helped
create this.’”