PTBO Game Jam 04

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After every PTBO Game Jam event I like to do a postmortem with the volunteer staff. We cover how things went, and how we can collectively improve things for the next event. This has been a successful formula, allowing the event to make significant gains in the delivery of content and overall enjoyment of participants. PTBO Game Jam 04 is no different, with the exception that I’m making some of the postmortem public. As the event has grown, the complexity and logistics involved have multiplied. There may be some hidden gems of information that ambitious individuals might find useful for their own endeavours.

The Elephant In The Room

Before I get into the details of everything, I have to make sure to be transparent myself. While I will try to stay objective, ingrained in my thoughts are some deep-rooted concerns which are cause for bias.

Elephant In A ForestAs some of you know, things didn’t go exactly as I had hoped to test the waters teaching at Fleming College.  My experience at Fleming confirmed my greatest fears, backed my colleagues’ notions, and reinforced the stereotype that floats around the industry when it comes to education in the tech space: out of touch.

“He’s just a game developer. What does he know?”

This seemed to be the go-to explanation among the majority of faculty when I challenged the status quo. There are some wonderful people trying to make a difference in that space, but their voices are quickly drowned out by those just showing up for a paycheck; if they need to show up at all.

I take this all with a grain of salt. This situation, while not isolated, cannot possibly describe the full landscape of education, I hope. It is a stereotype after all, and I have seen some examples that contradict it. However, when you’re asked the loaded question by someone you respect in the education space:

“Would I feel comfortable with my son attending the program?”

When the answer is “no”, there is a problem. I’ll be writing more about this in the future.

The Morning After

Following PTBO Game Jam 03 I took some time off to recoup and to spend time with my family. That’s actually an important point when organizing an event. That time has to come from somewhere and you need to be aware of where you are taking it from. The notion of “vacation” still seems foreign to me, but that’s for another post. After that short break, I began working on PTBO Game Jam 04.

The flow of emails building on the existing hype started going out trying to lock down sponsors for the next event (this process has started to some extent already for PTBO Game Jam 05). One of the downsides of running a bi-annual event: you really don’t have the time to stop between events. As one event wraps up you need to be starting the process all over again. The take home from all of this is to streamline everything and try to make as much of the events process as turn-key as possible.

A Bi-Annual Event

When PTBO Game Jam 01 ran I hadn’t really decided how often it was going to run. At that point, I was just so excited to actually have the first event run successfully. Shortly before 01, I started talks with Fleming College about hosting the next event at their new Kawartha Trades & Technology Centre. Running the next event on a date which was right around the college systems reading break would be ideal to entice students with a reduced workload. This was definitely a great idea for getting students to come to the event assuming they had that reading break.

In reality, not all colleges/universities have the same break structure. Let alone the uptake from students at Fleming College was non-existent.

Packed Schedules

Another interesting problem with running an event in February is that GDC is right after the event. This leads to some issues with sponsor funding and allocation of resources. Needless to say, I’m currently evaluating the bi-annual nature of the event, as well as when it would be best to run during the whole calendar year to be the most impactful for the community. Some discussions with individuals in the community definitely show a want to keep it twice a year, but there is an understanding if I were to decide to switch it up to an annual event. I know my family would like to see it turn into a once a year ordeal, and that weighs heavily on the decision process.

Despite scheduling challenges, we saw some of our best numbers for PTBO Game Jam 04, with our youth educational block growing exponentially, and our game jam participation climbing steadily. I’m happy to say we saw a variety of participants from both colleges and universities around Ontario.

BREATHE

BREATHE

I will be making a larger post about BREATHE (that will be featured on Epic’s Blog!) and the process involved in turning it out in a 32-hour game jam. However, with it being a big part of something new that we tried for this event, I thought I would touch on it a bit.

The concept started off super simple, a quick experience where the player had to find a chest which showed them the theme reveal video. That humble feature experienced the scope creep effect and grew into what it is today. It, however, stands as one of the most unique ways to reveal a theme for a game jam.

Of the 71 attendees, 48 played through the experience. I’m actually quite happy with those numbers, especially when I heard that often just one person on a team would play through it. The feedback was overall positive on this decision, and I even heard some great heartwarming stories about how it became a family challenge to find the solution to the puzzle.

Putting BREATHE on Steam was actually a cost-saving decision. The potential transit costs on hosting the download ourselves was a cost which the event could not absorb, nor would I from the company standpoint assume the possible risk of getting hit with a couple thousand dollars of transit costs. It might even be another “first”, the first game jam theme reveal experience on Steam.

More on this in another post.

You Can Only Be So Prepared

After running the last couple events at Fleming College things operated much like clockwork. Experience helps in this department. For anyone that has seen the amount of planning and attention to detail that goes into the prep, we are good at what we do. Our teardown after PTBO Game Jam 03 was less than 30 minutes.

Stream Hardware Check

As this event drew closer I wasn’t seeing the internal chatter that was there for past events. The exception being IT; they have always been good at communicating. I think some of that has to do with how they run and rely on a ticketing system. Even if it’s not JIRA, they still keep things organized and on point. It also helps that they have a fantastic manager and amazing staff.

A little over a week before the event I received a response indicating that key players had not been informed about the event. That was pretty disappointing news for all of us and forced some questions to be asked about how we found ourselves in this position. It was around this point that the new Conference Services department stepped in to flex their muscles and show how the relationship should have worked since the start. Their involvement brought the interaction to a level I expected from past experiences. With that, however, came the realization that the insurance coverage we thought we had been in fact non-existent.

Liability Sucks

As an organizer, liability is something you should always be concerned about. You never know what will occur during an event. If someone gets hurt you want to make sure that you are covered regardless. Be aware that liability waivers are worthless. In order for them to be comprehensive they must describe in explicit detail, each possible scenario where injury may occur. The likelihood of being able to do that closes in on nearly impossible. They are effectively just lip service to make everyone feel better on an administration level. Holding a valid liability insurance certificate is what really matters. If, or when, someone gets hurt and a need arises for them pursue a claim, you unequivocally want to make sure you have something to cover that claim so that you don’t lose your house.

Being told that I was actually exposed for the last two events was beyond disappointing.

Always Move Forward

With the help of our new ally in Conference Services at Fleming, I was able to quickly apply for, and receive event insurance two days before the event. Of course, this was one of those unexpected costs that have to come from somewhere. As much as I try not to tap into company funds, this is where subsidizing the event through dotBunny becomes a hidden blessing. Charge it! *sigh*

We ironed out most of the logistics and details in our first meeting. Matt definitely was an asset in making sure that we got to the start of the event; thank you, Matt. This is definitely the sort of arrangement we are going to seek in our future engagements; the way it should be.

Setting Up

One of the things that still baffles me is how at PTBO Game Jam 02 and PTBO Game Jam 03 we were given keys, for the sole purpose of being able to lock stuff up. Yet, when I requested the same arrangement for PTBO Game Jam 04, it was declined. Having keys was particularly helpful at 02 when we locked away cash prizes, and at 03 where we locked equipment overnight. Being able to lock up supplies is just one of those things that should almost be considered a need for any conference space. I did, in fact, push back on Matt about this and was told that it was out of his hands and was a decision made by Security.

I find this a bit odd. We had a good relationship with Security across our previous events. I continue to ask myself what happened there. Maybe someone transferred out that was before a hidden ally? I don’t know. Compound this little blip with the fact they ensured us that the event space would be secure showed an apparent lack of consensus on that definition.

No Postmortem

Setup Friday presented some unexpected challenges when we saw the HDMI relay system fail intermittently. It eventually deteriorated completely after our adult educational block putting a serious damper on the postmortem I had intended on presenting for BREATHE. I did the best I could with a more personal talk, peppered with images as we were able to get the system to work sporadically. For a short period, I was actually having a mild panic attack that our hardware had failed. However, much like any developer we quickly isolated and ruled out that conclusion.

Now here’s a note about the dedication of the IT team and their level of awesomeness; they logged in remotely in trying to debug issues, and worked with us outside of what you would assume were their hours. Even though it sucked that things weren’t working as planned, that level of effort on their part made a world of difference to me. Eventually, we had to call it quits on testing and debugging, our team had to go home and get some sleep (cause they wouldn’t be getting much the following day). We decided that we would arrive early the following morning to address the issue. In the back of my head, I had started working on the contingency plan of streaming out to Twitch and then feeding those streams independently to the projectors.

Super Secure

Lockdown

As I sent everyone home, I started to realize that the “secure” area was not quite possible with doors zip tied open. There was also the problem of seeing people walk into the space to use the meeting rooms attached to where we had all our stuff set up. I don’t know about you? But I just didn’t feel that good about leaving our equipment under that pretence of being “secure”. Again, this comes back to the problem of why we didn’t have keys. I made the decision to remain with the equipment until the building entered its scheduled lockdown mode at 11 PM. At the very least I knew at that point forward no one should be in the space outside of security.

Thankfully, the guard in the area then realized how ridiculous the situation was and opted to cut the zip ties on the doors, and made an effort to get the people that were in the attached meeting rooms out.

You would think this wouldn’t be that hard to understand. I can explicitly remember CPL events at the Hyatt in Dallas and how we had hardware locked up. A different world.

Educational Blocks

Ignoring all the setup woes, focusing specifically on the EDU blocks, I return to my happy place. These blocks are really what sets us apart from other Game Jam’s. We “zero-to-hero” someone walking in the door with an interest in making a video game. I have a personal stake in our youth educational as my son is starting to approach the age where it will become relevant for him and his peers. I want to see this side of the event really succeed.

The educationals ran quite smoothly, despite the ball drop caused by a sleep-deprived Matthew sending an email from the last event without checking the content. At PTBO Game Jam 03 we explicitly told participants of the youth educational blocks not to bring any hardware. However, after some feedback from that event, and some consultation with Briar we thought it might be a better learning experience if the participants did, in fact, bring their own devices to work on. This was all stated on the website and the first introduction email that was sent out upon registering.

We All Need Sleep

Where I dropped the ball was a follow-up reminder email which was sent out with the BREATHE information. I had copied over the content from one of our previous events reminder emails. I quickly went through it changing things as needed. However, my choice to do this at 3 AM was not well thought out. I clearly skipped over the part that said not to worry about bringing anything. Thankfully my team took quick action to resolve it and I wasn’t even made aware of the problem until they had resolved it. Damn it, my team is awesome!

 

The Most Rewarding Part

Near the end of the youth educational, I tried to get a sneak peek at some of the games that were made. Seeing the little games the youths had made put a smile on my face; especially the one game where they made the “c” key flash the sprite. I remember doing stuff like that as a kid. To see the impact we were having, I could not have felt any prouder of my team. Which brings me to Ethan Brodie; what an amazing young developer.

Briar had asked about bringing him on board for the youth educational to help her. While I wasn’t entirely sure, I trusted her judgement call on this one and I was glad I did. Ethan connected with the participants and was able to help them whilst Briar steered the direction of the session. They made a great team, and you could see it in the smiles of the participants.

I had the opportunity to talk with some of the parents while the youth educational was going on. It was great to hear their comments and concerns. One thing that I will definitely look into is the idea of a summer camp. There are lots of summer camps around which advertise teaching youth how to make games, but locally, they are not vetted and that bugs me. I really wanted to talk about an initiative that we were starting, but it just wasn’t fully fleshed out yet. It is NOW!

PTBO Game Jam Starters

So the name is still up for debate, but here is the elevator pitch. We are going to build out little instructional packages of content targeting three platforms (Scratch, Unity, Unreal). These packages will be free of charge to everyone. We want to see this content in the hands of parents, teachers, kids and anyone that wants to learn how to make a video game. Accompanying these packages will be tutorial videos. Our first package (or maybe we call them modules?) will be about making a simple platformer.

PTBO Game Jam Starter - Scratch PTBO Game Jam Starter - Unity PTBO Game Jam Starter - Unreal Engine

The idea is to give this information ahead of the educational side of the event. When we work through the example on-site, the participants would have had an opportunity already to go over the material. That way we can cover not only how they were able to carry out the task, but focus and explained why certain things might not have worked. We can even go so far as talking about and showing different methods of achieving what they had already completed.

I had the opportunity to test this method of teaching earlier and it was extremely well received by the students. So why not apply it to something like this? There will be more on this in the future, I am just starting to have discussions with the right people in the right places.

PTBO Game Jam 04

PTBO Game Jam 04 ThemeIt was nothing short of crazy the morning of the event, a complete polar opposite from earlier events. We arrived at the Kawartha Trades & Technology Center just before 7:30 AM, calling security to let us in. While we were standing waiting for the doors to be unlocked we noticed that the buildings fire alarm panel was beeping. This little annoyance actually was a cause for some concern. At PTBO Game Jam 03 it had gone off and for a bit of PTBO Game Jam 02. Imagine working in a high-stress environment and having an audible tone designed to get your attention going off every 10 seconds. We asked for Security or someone to do something about this; you would think in general this would not be happening on a repeat basis, but from my experience at Fleming College earlier, I knew that this was normal. I was definitely a bit agitated given the previous week and the fact that I had only had one coffee at this point.

Starting The Party

As we entered the space, I was eager to try and get the HDMI issue resolved. However, my first task was to start hooking up our hardware for a full system check. With all the issues the night before, I was preoccupied and forgot to do it then. Annoying mistake. I went to connect to an external feed from one of the allowed remote participants and found the port blocked. Another tough lesson to have to learn, I had skipped over my “pre-event” checklist this time, something that may have prevented this from occurring.

WIFI Isn’t King

It looked like the group responsible for the WIFI/internet (separate from the IT team) had caught on to how we I was getting around their denial of my ask for a hardline connection. I honestly doubt they did that to stop us directly; I think it was more of a fluke in that they just applied a security policy that prevented it inadvertently.

Which brings up a point of requirement, a hard-line connection to the internet. We have been requesting this since day one with Fleming, but have had to find loopholes as they continued to deny our request. Fun fact, a few conference centres I have been in have a nice patch panel you jack into right at the main podium. Snazzy!

The stream machine typically has two connections. A hard-line for uploading to twitch and a wireless connection used to get access to the feeds of participants.

Yes! The Networks Are Bridged

“No they are not.”

If there is any mistake that I made, that I wish more than any other that I didn’t make, it was not extensively testing the network configuration. One of the major pushes for us with our most recent events is our live stream. We use it to promote our sponsors to a wider audience outside of just the attendees. Our first live stream attracted over 800 people to watch it.

From the feedback, I had modified our stream setup to really focus on the developer. I made sure to get their name/alias up on the screen at the same time and a brief description of what they were doing. This subtle change enticed just under half of the people in the room. Of the 28 feeds, because the wireless networks were not in fact bridged, I could only see 3. So instead of having a stream of lots of interesting content, I was forced to flip between 3 internal feeds and 1 external.

I definitely got flak from lots of developers on-site. They were wondering why they weren’t seeing their stream up on the big screen. It ultimately rests on my shoulders for taking a confirmation at face value. Not validating against a checklist myself would have prevented it.

Stall Outs

I first noticed the oddity in our streaming software failing to meet the minimum throughput to the Twitch ingest server. It would connect eventually, but was unable to support 5000 kb/s for a 1080p30s feed. I also was seeing on ~100k frames being dropped (packet loss) in an hour.

I was attached to the wireless as the upstream provider. That meant if I was having this issue, others might be as well. Uh oh. I walked around the room and found others experiencing similar issues with things like downloading 30 MB files stalling out. We had never experienced any wireless issues at any of our past events at the venue. This definitely caught us off guard. Some participants found that the only option was to reconnect to the access point. If they didn’t all their connections from that point forward would time out.

So strange.

HDMI Switcher You Evil Thing

When Travis from IT showed up in the morning I knew things would get fixed. I knew from experience that I could tell him about the problem and his professionalism would carry it to completion. He quickly identified and isolate a defective piece of hardware and removed it from the chain.

We were back in business within minutes of the start!

Hardware failure on the venue’s end is difficult to plan against. Without an investment in projectors and supporting infrastructure we are somewhat bound by whatever the venue has in place already.

Something that continues to be asked is why we cannot input into Fleming’s system and have it broadcast to all the screens. I know this has to fall on an allocation of time and a resources thing. IT just hasn’t been able to prioritize it with all the other tasks on their plate. I know if we are to return for another event we would want that proved out ahead of time.

Power Overwhelming

Up until this event I never even thought twice about the amperage requirement of hosting an event of this size. As we grow it is definitely something that we are going to have to consider. It is now one of the first things I bring up in my discussions. I did some conservative calculations based on the number of desktops, a medium load, and our own hardware. ~140 amps. That’s a fair amount of power when you consider a small data centre will have a 200 amp generator. It’s the video cards, always blame the video cards.

The first sign that there might be some power issues was the fluctuating volumes coming out of our sound system. It wasn’t a show stopper. Just a warning that we need to think about as we grow. It could also be indicative of faulty wiring, or simply an overloaded circuit. Something was up, but narrowing down specifically what happened is rather difficult outside of the environment.

Get Working

The bulk of PTBO Game Jam 04 was pretty uneventful. It was my break time as the organizer. I treated BREATHE as my own little game jam so I didn’t miss out on the experience. There were a few instances of developers getting into emotionally charged situations. They were defused quickly and effectively. For the most part, I sat back and watched everyone making some awesome games.

Occasionally I would answer questions and walk the floor, making sure no one was too stuck. I had thought this time I would be tied up curating the feeds and interacting with the Twitch channel. With the network issues, this became a moot point. I really do enjoy using my experience to help other developers, so I was happy.

Something that really worked well for this event was the upgrading of Arin to being defined as an “Educational Advisor”. It provided participants with another visible person in the room that they could turn too with their questions. This is something unique to the PTBO Game Jam. We specifically try to make people available to help developers when they hit hurdles. I like the idea of identifying people in the community who are willing to help their fellow jammers.

I’m not quite sure I like the title of Educational Advisor.  The position is more about facilitating an experience, so maybe that is what it transitions into “Facilitator”.

One Chair To Rule Them All

At PTBO Game Jam 02 we all learned the importance of a good chair. At PTBO Game Jam 03 we started to see participants bring their own chairs. I brought a big comfy camping chair and did the same for PTBO Game Jam 04. The more you become sleep deprived, the more agitated you will become. It is paramount that your chair is there to support you through these tough times.

Previous to the event I had reached out to one of the major gaming chair manufacturers. It must not have reached the right people. Some of the participants brought their own chairs which were awesome to see. They get it! I’m hoping to see more of that at future events.

The chairs at the KTTC are rather comfortable. Compared to many of the others I have seen they are great. I still would love to have some awesome ergo chairs for them, but that’s on the wish list.

Putt-For-Swag

One of the inevitable things that happens between running multiple events is that you develop a bin of extras. Pieces of swag that sponsors have given you that you didn’t just simply couldn’t give away at the specific event.

For this event, we had looked at refurbishing a mini-putt hole from the recently closed Milltown Mini Golf Family Fun Park. It was an ambitious project which when priced out would blow the budget out of the water. The decision was made to just order a little portable green.  A test to see how the participants responded to having this sort of distraction available to them.

They loved it.

As an added bonus around 11 PM we had whoever wanted to line up and wear an eye patch and putt. If they sunk the ball they got to choose from “the bin of swag”. It was a win-win for everyone and was extremely well received.

Pizza!

One of the most important things to have at any event (feedback tested and approved) is free food. For PTBO Game Jam 03 we operated on what I will call a skeleton budget; we barely made it to the start line on that one. We tried to play it off at the event and organized an impromptu pizza order for everyone. It wasn’t as awesome as it could have been, and the feedback told us that story in so many words. This event I carved out a portion of the budget just for pizza.

Mario Kart Challenge

I had planned on using a TV to play Mario Kart (Switch) at 3 AM. While the idea of having a bracketed tournament was already in my head, I hadn’t thought to have it on the big screen. I even lucked into having someone doing commentary, I could not have imagined how well it would have worked out. I had intended on getting a WWF style belt for the winner, but with budget constraints, it didn’t make the cut. Jairo holds bragging rights until the next event.

Playing Mario Kart also served a purpose internally not everyone really caught. It was an effective morale booster. At previous jams, we saw some attrition overnight and a marked point where participants hit a wall. By interrupting that journey, providing an injection of fun, we were able to prevent it. This runs parallel to why studios often have game rooms and the like for their staff, especially during grind periods.

That’s A Wrap

As the close of the event came into sight, I have learned over time that I need to slip away. The simplest thing of having a shower is key. It makes me a little more presentable to any press that might show up. Of course in the case of our events, the press doesn’t. We always try to encourage our participants to think about taking a shower if they’ve got access to one.

Those that do come out to the show & tell are much more valuable to me anyway. Parents, family and friends of participants coming out to see what was made. I always love hearing the stories and watching the face of someone’s child playing the game their parent has made for the first time. Parents seeing the product of their child’s hard work is also one of those rewarding things that occur.

Our cleanup for the event was once again less than 30 minutes.

All Worth It

At the end of the event, a participant came up to me and thanked me. They told me a story which stuck with me, one that shows why I have to continue to run these events. The participant had attended PTBO Game Jam 02 and had a good time. Following that event, they went to TOJam and had a bad experience. They felt that it was not as inclusive of an environment as we try to offer at PTBO Game Jam events. They returned to PTBO Game Jam 04 and had a blast.

It’s stories like this that continue to make me come out of my cave and fight the good fight.

We Will Be Back

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