At the annual TOJam competition, the rules are as a simple—design a videogame from scratch in a weekend—as the process is difficult
Alex Bethke, co-founder of Golden Gear Games, spent most of this past weekend in front of his laptop, living on orange Gatorade and saltine crackers while he rushed to finish a project he hadn’t even been allowed to begin until Friday: a flash-based video game called Poppycock. And for putting himself through all this stress and gastrointestinal trauma, he wasn’t getting paid a thing.
Was this slavery? Were human-rights complaints filed at some point during or afterward? Nah. It was TOJam. And for Bethke and many other GTA video-game developers, it was a good (and strictly voluntary) time.
The premise of TOJam is that a bunch of people—over 200 this time, but fewer in previous iterations—bring their computers to a George Brown College building near King and Sherbourne on a Friday. The goal, by Sunday night, is for everyone to have created a complete video game from scratch—and that means art, music, code, and all.
Anyone who’s ever taken a course in computer science knows that a single weekend isn’t enough time to make something as complex as a game. Even attempting to adhere to that sort of timetable would be a little insane. And yet, TOJam attendees keep finding ways; this was the annual event’s sixth year.
People continue to come out partly because the pressure-cooker environment sometimes yields brilliance, and also because of the networking opportunities. This year’s guest list included a Superbrother; other local gaming luminaries have been known to participate.
Keeping things simple makes achieving that ridiculous deadline easier. But Bethke and his five teammates (his Golden Gear Games business partner Andrew Traviss, plus four graphic artists) weren’t even doing that. Their game was going to be a feature-rich platformer with an elaborate back-story.
The idea was for the main character to be an old-timey guy ,with a moustache and a bowler hat, who hangs out at a bar. “You just got to the bar, and you’re bragging about the things that happened to you on the way to the bar,” explained Bethke on Friday night, while the game was still in its earliest phases of development. “It starts with you being chased by the elder god Cthulhu.” There were also supposed to be zeppelins and werewolves, among other things. And yet for the moment all the team had were some dots and coloured bars, because none of the art was close to finished.
Some TOJam participants bring pillows and sleep on-premises, but Bethke stayed up for most of Friday night, went home Saturday morning, slept, started to feel physically ill, and then dragged himself back to George Brown to continue working.
By Sunday night, when the scent of the traditional end-of-TOJam celebratory free-pizza banquet began to waft through the hallways, the game was pretty much complete. “We had to cut some features,” explained Bethke. But the zeppelins and werewolves were there.
Dozens more games were completed this year, and they’ll all be downloadable on the TOJam website sooner or later.