Video game developers beat the clock at weekend gathering

Ottawa’s video game industry is growing steadily thanks to a strong local talent base, experts said during a weekend event devoted to bringing game developers and major studios together.

By Marc Shaw

Participants in the second annual Ottawa Game Jam had 48 hours to develop a game based on a theme they were given only after they arrived at Microsoft’s offices on Queen Street, where the event took place.

This year’s theme was “Stay a while and listen. Actions speak louder than words.” The theme, a quote from the popular Diablo video game series, was meant to push attendees, who included developers, artists and mentors from throughout the industry, while letting them be creative.

The space was provided free of charge by Microsoft, which has a history of aiding developers through its BizSpark and DreamSpark program. The programs give startups and students free access to Microsoft tools and services in an effort to help them break into the development industry, which is making considerable headway in Ottawa.

“I was surprised by the amount of community that was here already,” said Michael Macdonald, technical evangelist with Microsoft Canada.

“But over the past three years, I’ve seen it’s growing more and more. You’re seeing a lot more of the startups switch into full studios. We’ve got Ratrod and Snowed In Studios up here. These are great studios, and it’s awesome to see them grow and absorb a lot more of the talent that is up here.”

Mr. Macdonald, whose game development background allowed him to move into a developer outreach position at Microsoft, was at OJAM for most of the 48-hour event visiting each team while it worked and offering advice. Mentorship was a big part of the game jam, which featured representatives from Ubisoft, Behaviour Interactive and Ottawa’s own Karman Interactive.

“This is like a forced effort to do something and get it done. It’s easy to start a project and, once you’re don’t the interesting parts, let it fall by the wayside,” said Mike Baker, co-founder of Karman Interactive, which also helped sponsor the event.

“This is a great way for people who are still developing in their basement, or haven’t broken into the industry, to build that portfolio, build that experience, show they’re passionate and get some exposure.”

Game jams provide a chance for industry hopefuls to experience development from a non-hobbyist perspective and make something that people are actually going to get a chance to play. The best OJAM games will be featured on the arcade section of the Ottawa Game Jam website for people to download and try.

For many jammers, OJAM was their first time developing games under industry-like conditions. Developers and artists were able to collaborate on a project as they would at a more traditional game studio, thanks to the presence of Ottawa’s Pens & Pixels concept art and illustration collective.

“The artists I have in there right now have never worked with a developer once in their entire careers, which is insane,” said Mike Kent, a professor in the concept art and animation program at Algonquin College and founder of Pens & Pixels.

“Their eyes are bugging out of their head right now. They’re saying ‘Oh my god, I get it.’”

The event came to a close Sunday night with the makeshift studios showing their games to one another. Next year’s game jam will coincide with Game Week and the Canadian Video Game Awards, which are being held in Ottawa.