The Game.Dev Comps – Part 1

This article originally appeared in Dev.Mag Issue 26, released in October 2006.

Compared to most other game development competitions, Game.Dev’s fondly-named “Comps” have always stood out on one particular front: each new incarnation has always set out to challenge, direct and develop entrants within the field of game development. Instead of the oh-so-typical “create a game about kitties and/or mudkips” mentality that many mainstream events focus on, the Game.Dev competitions have always sought to home in on an aspect of game development that people don’t always consider and try to train new developers in the techniques that it describes. Although some may frown upon this method and drop out as a result, those who engage with the competitions often emerge from the experience as more mature and insightful developers.

Since January 2005, Game.Dev has worked to inspire and lead game developers with these competitions, and some truly intriguing titles have come about as a result. What follows is an overview of early Game.Dev Comp history, along with the lessons that people have learned along the way. Read on and be inspired.

Comp 1: Make a game. Any game. Go for it

The Game.Dev competitions had very humble beginnings, as most things tend to. Comp 1 started off as a simple idea posted on the NAG forums in January 2005, before Game.Dev itself even existed. The concept was basic and the criteria were broad: make a game, any game, and post it on the forums for judgement. The competition eventually produced five games, most of them using the recommended development tool, Game Maker. These entries were crude compared to later offerings, but they proved one thing: there was an interest in game development amongst gamers (who would have thought?). Even though some people scoffed at the idea of such a ‘childish’ tool being used to craft games, anyone who bothered to download this free application and take the time to fiddle about with it was generally able to produce results by the time the competition came to an end.

Comp 2: Circles vs squares

After a month of downtime (and the creation of its own forum) Game.Dev decided to host its second competition, themed around circles versus squares. The group was still rather young and wide-eyed at this point, but the competition provided several entries from members who would later become influential components of the Game.Dev group. In any game, it’s important to look at the fun factor first – you can get to the rest of it later. Comp 2 produced some hearty entries from people who used circles and squares to their best effect to create a fun and engaging experience, limited to a simple graphics set and forced to figure out how they can make their game stand out from a field of similar-looking entries.

Comp 3: Remakes

Game.Dev’s Comp 3 asked gamers to do a remake of famous old-school games (aside from a few horribly cliché ones like Pong and Tetris). The results were interesting, to say the least. Some opted to take the classics and improve upon old dynamics with the availability of better development tools and greater processing power. Others took even more creative routes and merged several classics to create an entirely new game using rules from each. This competition was possibly the first to display the game development maturity of entrants: the top games homed in on the most fun aspects of these bygone offerings, proving that they understood what made great games great, and added improvements in the correct places to make these titles even better. After all, everybody knows that Pacman is famous: not everybody truly understands why. To excel in game development, Game.Dev wanted entrants to analyse the games they play more critically, and adopt that special ‘game developer’ mindset that’s critical for anybody who wants to do gamecrafting for a living.

Comp 4: Simple rules, complex game

Too often, game developers try to make a good game by adding more bells and whistles. Not enough variety in your project? No problem, just add more enemies and abilities … right? Wrong. A flawed game doesn’t become better simply because you add more features – it’s the core dynamic, that little kernel of your game which defines it and makes it special. This was an exercise to create a few rules that the game developer could twist and manipulate to generate a massive variety of gaming scenarios, and exercised the creativity and flexibility of developers. This particular competition produced one of the finest games of Game.Dev’s early era – an offering called Roach Toaster which stood head and shoulders above the rest of the entries up until that point and raised the bar for all competitions that followed. It didn’t have mindblowing graphics. It didn’t have a load of flashy scripted events. It didn’t even have sound effects. It just had a basic roach generation algorithm and a few well-balanced roach busting tools that were meticulously considered to provide a player with a simple experience that felt like an epic.

Comp 5: Action!

Action games are difficult. They tend to be real-time and a lot of control leaves the developer: you can’t force the player to take a turn, deal a specific amount of damage and tailor the enemy response to provide a balanced counter-attack. Every split-second matters, which means that the developer needed a lot of help to make sure that the game felt ‘just right’ no matter who played it. By the time Comp 5 came about, a flood of new developers had entered the forum and it fell upon the established crowd to help them get into the swing of things.

This revealed a trait about the community which has successfully lasted to this very day: an openness and friendliness which is critical for allowing good game development. Whether an entrant was a development veteran or a complete newbie who had just learned the concept of “player.x + 1”, feedback from the community was inevitably constructive and helped make early, clumsy offerings into golden games by the end of the competition month. Those who posted early drafts excelled in this competition, because instead of relying on a single developer to playtest and hunt for bugs in their title, these entries had the feedback and collective expertise of at least a dozen enthusiasts to back them up.

Comp 6: Polishing an old game

Game.Dev’s Comp 6 decided to go in a slightly different direction and forced entrants to look at previous work for inspiration. Most new game developers are quick to generate a fun or quirky title, but tend to lose steam after they’ve finished a “full go” of the game or realised that there were too many extra resources to generate easily. Comp 6 was very much a discipline competition – people are often reluctant to revisit their old creations, favouring a hop to new titles rather than lingering with the old. But polish is important for good game creation, and most of the successful games out there weren’t simply done with one take – they repeatedly changed as development progressed, and no matter how heartbreaking it may be to throw away a particular piece of code or artwork and start again, it’s necessary to allow growth in your game where it’s needed. Successful competitors were also generally able to modify their games quite easily – they’d left enough room in the design for change, rather than creating a static game with no opportunity for expansion. Remember to plan ahead when designing your game – you never know how it may change at the end, and it’s much better to modify a small amount of code rather than being forced to restart the whole mess.

Comp 7: Style

Have you ever played a game with that certain x-factor that made it really special? That feeling or vibe which turns an average Joe game into something a little more involving? Style is an elusive aspect of game development and competitors found it difficult to define. In all respects, this was the most advanced Game.Dev Comp to date – not only were people required to craft a game, but they had to grasp an abstract concept and try make it show in their final work. To ease the process, this competition was once again oriented around remakes, to ensure that game developers had a springboard to launch from instead of floating about in a haze. Many of today’s remakes often have some sort of revamp or stylish factor to make them more appealing to players, whether it’s a particular colour theme, the type of sound effects employed or even just a funky change of art direction. Once consolidated in a remake, these sorts of ideas can be carried over and used in original games to put your own particular stamp on your work.

Comp 8: Consume

By this time, Game.Dev had evolved even further and was beginning to look at other development groups for inspiration and ideas. The idea for this Comp came from Experimental Gameplay, a site known for its interesting prototypes which was holding a similar competition at the time. There were two major points in this competition: firstly, the description was simply “Consume”, affording a great deal of flexibility to entrants keen to pump up their creativity. Secondly, each entrant was required to submit two games instead of one. The result was that developers had to learn the skill of prototyping – rapidly conceptualising and establishing the framework for potential games without getting bogged down in details or long-term development. Prototyping is an incredibly important skill in game development: new developers often try to make “the next big game” and end up getting bogged down with a concept that often isn’t all that good. A far better idea is the rapid generation of several minor game concepts, allowing the developer to gather a broader range of experience and browse through an entire collection of ideas to see which one works the best.

Comp 9: Google it

Comp 9 was odd in the way that the lesson it taught was quite dramatically different from the one which was originally thought up. After more than a year of competitions (running one every two months) Game.Dev decided to engage developers a little more and have them looking in rather exotic directions. The premise for this one was therefore quite creative: entrants were each given three words to use, and all of their in-game graphics needed to consist of imagery extracted from Google image searches based on these three words. This was meant to be another competition which focused on the generation of good gameplay while forgetting about complicated graphics. Unfortunately, for some developers this task was a little too restrictive – they found themselves developing games that they didn’t feel entirely comfortable with, and the results showed in these cases. Discipline is important in game development, but it’s also important to remember that game development is an expression of your own creativity and enjoyment, and that the best titles are created when the developers love what they’re doing.

Comp 10: Management games

By the time Game.Dev had hit the double digits for its competitions, it had gained enough influence and enough of a following to sponsor a R10 000 (just over $1000) cash pool for Comp 10. This was met with considerable enthusiasm from the community, and to do justice to this cash sponsorship it was decided that the competition would run for an extra month, focusing on a particularly challenging subject: management games. This genre, more than most, requires developers to carefully think out their game design in advance, considering every addition to their game and how such an addition would affect the rest of the objects already in play. Although it was the players who would ultimately be keeping track of resources and variables, it was the developer who needed to pay meticulous attention to ALL of these values to ensure that the game remained consistently challenging and fun to play. Planning was key, and the winner of the competition (a game called “Fast Food in Space”) exemplified this principle by providing players with a management game that kept developing and offering new challenges as play-time increased, ultimately providing a steadily rising difficulty curve which managed to keep gamers hooked for multiple playing sessions.

This concludes Part 1 of the Game.Dev Comp series. Stay tuned for the second half of the series, where we investigate more contemporary competitions and see where they’ve taken participants following their first tender steps nearly four years ago. If you’re from South Africa and are interested in entering Game.Dev’s latest competition, keep an eye on their Website and scout about on the forums for news on the most recent offering.

About Nandrew

Rodain Joubert is a South African game developer based in Cape Town, currently working for QCF Design. He likes his job. He likes being opinionated on the Internet. He likes fighting evil with his heat ray vision. And he also likes cats. [Articles]