Last week an Amtrak train left Chicago for a 52-hour journey through the American West. Little did the other passengers on the California Zephyr line know that riding the rails with them were the participants of the second annual Train Jam, a cross-country game jam taking place on the way to this year's Game Developers Conference.
The brainchild of satellite engineer turned indie game developer Adriel Wallick, this year's Train Jam included 120 participants, double the number of the year before. It's all thanks to their sponsors, which include GameMaker, Unity, Sony, Vlambeer, PlayView, Intel and GDC itself.
In addition to 90 veterans of the indie games scene, this year's Train Jam included more than 30 game dev students from around the world.
Train Jam averaged a game an hour while traveling 2,500 miles across America
"Last year, on the first Train Jam, there was one team of four students that just signed up on a whim and thought it would be a fun way to get to GDC," Wallick told Polygon. "They didn't quite realize how cool it would be to hang out with successful indies and get to know them. It was one of those things where afterwards they told me, 'Oh my gosh! I got to talk with all these big developers and all these other people and I can't believe this is how we're starting GDC knowing all these people and doing this thing.' So I wanted to recreate that event."
Wallick sprinkled the students in among the more experienced developers and, after 52 hours of travel, Train Jam arrived in San Francisco with more than 50 games — nearly one for every hour spent on the trip.
Polygon toured the booth and soaked up as much of the good vibes and amazing games as we could. We also have plans to explore more of the games in the weeks to follow.
In the meantime, here are some of the Train Jam games that stood out from the crowd.
This abstract dueling game takes place along a moving sine wave. With a console controller, players use the left stick to spin their orb around and their right stick to wield a wicked-looking blade.
By varying the speed of their orbit, players can control their distance from the sine wave. But as their speed increases, so too does the size of their blade. Where the blades connect, players get a satisfying "pshngg!" sound and are slightly deflected, making their follow-up blows harder to land as they try to regain control of their swing.
Players spin faster and faster, twirling their blades back and forth. Whoever manages to slash past their opponent's guard pushes their opponent back along the sine wave and into a deadly spinning gear.
The trouble with virtual reality games, indie developer Juan Rubio said, is that when players move in one direction while looking in another they can get motion sickness. One solution to the problem is to make a game where players have to use their gaze to move their character through the environment. By doing that, Rubio has found that game designers have been able to remove the need for controllers entirely, with the added benefit that no one loses their lunch.
Working alone on the Train Jam, he created Gaze, a linear shooter where players steer their avatar and shoot at enemies solely by moving their head.
The trouble with making VR games on a train is that it takes some serious horsepower to put up enough pixels to make the game look good. Enter Rubio and his custom-built gaming rig, which packs enough horsepower to drive a side-mounted 2,000-pixel screen and an attached Oculus Rift — in a case about the size of a large shoebox.
The biggest development hurdle, Rubio said, was that sometimes the train lost power unexpectedly. Who brings a battery backup on a train? That would be just be silly.
When Tobii announced its new eye-tracking peripheral, Insomniac developer Lisa Brown ordered one. It was just $150 or so, and it looked like something fun to play with. She had visions of turning it into a game controller, letting people play unique indie games inspired by the fact that their only input would be their eyes.
But one thing came to another, she said, and after a few months with it she had still not found the time to properly mess around with it. So she brought it on Train Jam.
Pay Attention is the result of her collaboration with Rodrigo Lira. It's a game where players have to keep their attention from settling on a series of ever more enticing distractions, escalating from text messages and Twitter feeds to popular internet memes. Just one look at a funny cat picture could spell certain doom.
The hardest part of making the game, Lira said, was not having regular access to the internet. Without that connection to the rest of the world, the team was starved for funny cat pictures. It seems that traveling by train is the one sure way to finally be completely offline.
"There were only certain towns where we could get internet," Brown said. "We would roll into the station and have internet and be like, 'Get the memes! Get the memes! Get the cat images! This is our only chance!'"
Jerry Belich is perhaps best known for helping breathe life into the Choosatron, a peripheral that brings choose-your-own-adventure games to life using a thermal printer.
His Train Jam game was the only one that didn't have a screen. It was also the only one that used a plastic, single-serving wine bottle as a controller.
"This is an ice bucket," Belich said, completely deadpan. "This is a Lysol cleaning wipes container I stole from a bathroom on the train. These are drink cups. I gotta hot glue this button on because it won't stay up, but no big deal. No big deal. These are wine bottles that I harassed customers for, and this is a reel of LEDs and some other micro-controllers and stuff. And the joysticks."
Why did Belich hot-glue a pile of trash together on a train? To make a cylindrical version of the classic Atari game called Tank, of course.
Players place the cylinder on the table between them, creating a physical representation of the fog of war. It's a guessing game to see whose tank comes around the side of the cylinder first to make an attack. But once you send your tank around the edge, you can't see it anymore. Only by carefully controlling the position of your vehicle, and tracking where the enemy fire is coming from, can you hope to hit your opponent.
Sadly, only visitors of this year's GDC will have the chance to play Belich's game, because right now there's only one of it. But soon, Train Jam's organizer Adriel Wallick hopes to have most or all of the other games created on this year's trip available for download at the Train Jam website, where you can play all of last year's games right now.
You can read more about Wallick's year spent making one game a week here.