Not every origin story involves radioactive spiders, murdered parents or babies sent from planets with silly names. Sometimes a single idea, an offhand conversation or an innocent post on a forum can find a life of its own. Let’s throw a party. Let’s start a band. Let’s make a game. Like a snowball tossed down the side of a mountain, these ideas can gather speed and strength. And over time, that one little idea becomes something that makes people sit up, notice, and occasionally get a face full of snow.
Such is the tale of the Game.Dev forums. Danny ‘dislekcia’ Day (a name that should be familiar to most Dev.Mag regulars) started up a thread on the little slice of the internet belonging to a South African gaming magazine encouraging other aspiring game developers to show their stuff in the first of what would become a series of regular competitions. It was simple enough; no restrictions, no rules, just a deadline and a loud and enthusiastic GO!
“I don’t think I started that very first competition thread with anything other
than the idea that it would be neat to see if anyone else shared my
passion for making games,” says Danny, looking back. “I certainly wasn’t aiming to start Game.Dev, probably because there was already a local game development community online and they didn’t really DO anything.”
Encouraged to use the limited features of the free version of Game Maker, the few responses were little more than early baby steps, but that wasn’t what was important. The real prize was the realisation that there were a number of people interested in making these games, and that they were all eager to help each other. A couple more threads were created, purely to help that core group start to refine the skills they were experimenting with. Games were made, help was given, bugs were hunted and fun was had by all. Unfortunately, this was cluttering up the place for rest of the forum users who were only there to compare their Counter Strike screenshots; so like a modern day Moses with the blessing of the Great Moderators in the Sky, Danny led his people into their very own subforum. Thusly was Game.Dev born, and we saw that it was good.
In those early days the forums were mostly just a small kernel of indie developers getting to grips with the fundamentals, while Danny was adopted as a leader of sorts with his experience and enthusiasm for the hobby. The members started to create more complete games, and would drop into each others threads with a word of advice or an offer to try out and bug-hunt works in progress or prototypes. There was an attitude of accessibility and encouragement that is still around in the forums these days, although it’s a much larger and more productive beast now. Over the years, the forums have expanded quite substantially, largely due to the increase in activity and the number of stellar products that have emerged from the community. The forums’ emphasis on “building games, not engines” means that even those without the coding skill necessary to build their own base can start learning straight away, without needing an extensive knowledge of programming.
As far as the games themselves go, there have been quite a few that have garnered some outside web attention (Simon de la Rouviere’s Roach Toaster enjoyed its 15 seconds of fame, including both positive reviews and some racism claims, a rather arbitrary accusation to be levelled at a game which combines Powerpuff Girls homage, cockroaches and references to David Hasselhoff in women’s swimwear). One or two of the games that have come out of the competitions have gone on to be adapted into commercial titles, one even breaking into the mobile gaming market, a remarkable achievement for a small project from a country with a very tiny professional gaming industry.
But that was just the start. The members of the forum, despite often having joined as novices or as programmers with no game development experience, were proving themselves with outstanding products comparable to those from better known devs. Soon the community started to venture out into the daylight to meet in person, which resulted in an annual stand at the rAge gaming expo, where the developers can strut their stuff and get live feedback from each other. Quite recently, Danny and forum member-cum-business partner Marc “Aequitas” Luck landed a spot in the top twenty of Microsoft’s international DreamBuildPlay competition with their frenetic SHMUP, Spacehack (one of two South African entries to achieve this honour, the other being a title called Save Jack that wasn’t affiliated with the forums).This, together with their business enterprise, QCF Design, earned enough public attention that they were interviewed by a local TV station on their progress with Spacehack.
But the most important outcome (in our humble and totally unbiased opinion) was this very website you are reading from right now. Initially put together as a community project for the various members of the forums with an affinity for writing and released as pretty bare-bones PDF, the little webzine took a few baby steps before evolving into the production we slave away to get to you readers today.
Of course, discussing Game.Dev without mentioning the competitions would be a bit of an oversight. Game.Dev Comps form the trunk that the rest of the forum branches out from, the source that ties them all together and pushes them onwards. By combining the beginner-friendly attitude of the community with original and specifically aimed restrictions, the Comps always seem both inviting to those still learning and challenging to those looking for something to stretch and hone their talents. There isn’t any aggression or nasty competitiveness though; every entry is discussed and refined by the rest of the community so that almost everyone has something they can be proud of by the time the deadline rolls around.
These competitions (which you can read about in Dev.Mag issues 26 and 27) have resulted in a few notable milestones in the forums’ timeline, most importantly the sponsoring of two of the competitions (10 and 15) by companies like Mindset Learn. As if a cash pool of R10 000 wasn’t enough incentive, the winner of 15 (Cadyn “Evil_Toaster” Bridgman, with his game, Cartesian Chaos, fitting the “Guerrilla Learning” theme perfectly) also gained publishing interest. A lot of windows of opportunity were starting to open up for the community, and it was a sign of good things to come.