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Train Jam brings game designers closer on a cross-country trip to GDC

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After selling out in 35 seconds, organizers have big plans for next year

This year's Train Jam, the cross-country game jam that takes place on an Amtrak train traveling from Chicago to San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference, was an unqualified success said organizer Adriel Wallick.

Wallick, herself an independent game developer best known for her experiment creating one game a week for a full year, said that it has as much to do with the tight-knit, welcoming culture of indie devs around the world as it does the support of larger studios and publishers.

Now in its third year, the 52-hour game jam took place aboard the California Zephyr, one of America's most scenic railways. More than 200 developers set off on this year's adventure, the third group to make the trek. Along the way they made games ranging from mobile titles to virtual reality experiences. A selection of those games are being demonstrated at this year's GDC, on computers provided by Intel.

Nearly all of them will be available online in the official Train Jam archive later this month.

The entire jam took place without reliable internet access, adding to the challenge but also encouraging camaraderie among participants as they were forced to rely on each other to solve problems. Meals were served family-style in the train's dining car, leading to interesting conversations between jammers and the other travelers riding the rails.

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"Over the past three years those meals have been fun to watch," Wallick said. "Those conversations break that stereotype of games as shooty-shooty, bang-bang things for kids.

"We're able to expose other people to the fact that there are little creative endeavors, little art games, little jam games that are really neat," she said. "The jammers are all talking to the other people on the train, explaining what the event is, explaining about GDC. Regular people are just asking all these questions and getting very interested. Then they can go back and approach games again, but from a creative perspective."

The first Train Jam, held in 2014, attracted 60 developers while the second hosted more than 120. This year, Wallick said she sold out 160 tickets in roughly 30 seconds when they went on sale in November. More than 40 additional game developers found a way onto the same train leaving Chicago in order to participate, bringing the total over 200. Wallick said participants came from all over the world, including South America, Europe, Australia, Pakistan and even Zambia.

Sponsors included Epic Games, which provided support for the Unreal Engine being used by some teams as well as an ambassador representing the company. Oculus VR provided three new development kits for use during the jam, and Sony sponsored an entire observation car. From their perch below its glass-enclosed dome Train Jam teams were afforded an unobstructed view of the American West as they crossed the Rocky Mountains, skirted the edge of the Colorado River, traversed the deserts of Utah and finally crested the Sierra Nevada mountains en route to the end of the line in Emeryville, California on Saturday.

Sponsors included Epic Games, Oculus VR, Intel and Sony

One of the participants in the jam was a team from Media Molecule who brought along two debug PlayStation 4 units and two televisions. They used an early build of their upcoming game Dreams to create their jam game, working entirely with Move motion controllers and Dualshock 4 controllers. Fans should expect a blog post from them soon detailing the experiment.

Polygon had two staff members on the train as well, so readers can look forward to more in-depth stories in the days and weeks to come. We'll also have an interview with Wallick on our podcast Polygon Backstory.

So what's in store for Train Jam 2017? Wallick said she has grand plans.

"I don’t really want to expand it to different routes," she told Polygon. "I just want to make it as big as it can be while still being in one train. And then just see what I can do better, and run this for as many years as I possibly can.

"I want to see if I can get the whole train next year, to just have the Train Jam train. Theoretically there’s about 300 people’s worth of seats on these trains, and if I can sell 160 tickets in 35 seconds, I’m pretty sure I can sell 300 next year."