Train Jam: Onboard the cross-country game jam

Thursday, March 10

11:00 a.m.

"Hi!" booms Adriel Wallick.

"Hi!" roars back a crowd of eager developers.

The Junction is bursting with people. I've gathered with nearly 200 others in the restaurant in Chicago's Union Station to witness the kickoff of Train Jam 2016, Wallick's cross-country game jam. Or rather, the soft kickoff. I squish my way through the crowd, winding through empty spaces with awkward delicacy as Wallick delivers instructions and introductions. Her tiny voice cuts through the chatter with surprising force to reach even the room's corners.

"This is our biggest Train Jam ever," she says.

At 2 p.m., developers from all over the world will depart aboard the California Zephyr. The train will zip through the flats of Iowa, the mountains of Colorado and more before arriving at its final destination of Emeryville, California. But before it does, developers will take over multiple train cars to create new games with people many of them have never met before.

Getting this many people coordinated and even on the train to begin with sounds like a herculean task, but Wallick knows how to motivate a crowd.

"There are no refunds," she says.

11:19 a.m.

Chaos. It's minutes after Wallick has announced the jam's theme: Maximum Capacity. Everyone scrambles to find a place to jot down ideas or chat with others. The notebooks come out as developers furiously scribble down ideas, while others sketch out their early plans. People walk around, swapping game pitches and professions.

"This is our biggest train jam ever."

The group is a mix of professionals and hobbyists, indies and not-so-indies. Some will end their train trip with their first-ever visit to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, while others are just along for the ride. The restaurant's atmosphere is friendly, but still a little socially strained with the oddity of the situation. A few people watch uncertainly on the sidelines of conversations, looking as sure about jumping in as a cat peering at bathwater.

As the crowds continue to mingle, one developer stops another. Do you have experience with voice acting, he asks? The latter does not. But his voice is deep and striking, and that's exactly what caught the first man's attention to begin with.

Slowly, even the most reluctant developers emerge from the sidelines. Everyone has something to trade or talk about, even if they don't realize it at first.

8:37 p.m.

With appetites satiated, the Media Molecule gang and I resume our talk. The group has staked out a table in one of the cafe cars to support its equipment, and oh, what an equipment setup it is.

"What's happening here?" I ask, pointing to the mess of cables, PlayStation 4s and other unidentifiable objects.

"A fire hazard," they reply.

The Media Molecule team has a series of cables and cords, as well as a private server for the purposes of the train, to run its creation. The group is working on a herding game within Dreams, in which players will gather "little cute dudes that look like Tribbles from Star Trek" back to their spaceship, Beech says. It's a surprisingly adorable game from a group of grown men, but it has a dark twist: You're actually using these precious little fellas as fuel. The project is still early in progress.

[It's] a bit like watching Bob Ross paint

They're showing off their game as much as they are playing with it; Beech has already demoed the game to a handful of devs in the hours since Train Jam began. He explains that Dreams is very much about performance, and the act of watching someone create.

"It's a bit like looking through someone's sketchbook," Eckersley adds.

Beech asks for a creation idea. I still have Star Trek on the brain, so I go with a spaceship. Using PlayStation Move controllers, Beech takes basic shapes and smooths or resizes them to fit his design. It's done within a matter of minutes and it — well, it actually looks pretty good.

"It was entirely about serendipity in this case," he says. "It grows. These things come out of nowhere."

Watching Beech create in Dreams is a bit like watching Bob Ross paint. It's soothing in a way you don't quite understand, a visual bedtime story. My eyelids droop a little, and I find myself wearing a dopey smile while he works.

"We really want to appeal to people that have a game inside of them, but have no idea or the inclination to learn [how to make games]," Eckersley says.

9:14 p.m.

It's quiet. Sleepiness, and for many, jetlag, is setting in. Jammers are still heads-down on their projects, but the observation cars are noticeably more empty than usual. In the coach cars, the riders are curling up in their seats to sleep.

I'm drifting off a little when a developer next to me leans over and asks if I want to try a game. His name is Vidhvat Madan, and as we talk fellow team member IJke Botman walks over and kneels next to us to chat. Their project, Hellevator, is still in its early stages. I play for a few minutes as someone trying to escape hell on an elevator; it'll be up to the player to save civilians who also want out.

"time is running out. actually running out."

Madan and Botman are both newcomers to Train Jam; they hail from India and the Netherlands, respectively, though they're currently based in Austin, Texas. The chance to travel across the U.S. on the way to GDC struck them as a "bigger, better adventure," Botman says.

"It's just a very different atmosphere than a regular jam," he adds. "Regular jams, everyone sort of understands what's going to happen. They've done them a bunch of times. You go in and you make a team, you go out, buy some food, and you spend the rest of the time in a small room not sleeping and working on a game. Here it's just a different energy. You're very excited because you're looking out. The train is continually moving. It's awesome."

Madan describes the experiences as a little surreal.

"You're making your way to the destination where you're going, and time is running out," he says. "Actually running out."

Time has definitely run out for Thursday. Developers and non-jammers alike are heading off to bed or nodding off in their seats.

Friday, March 11

9:13 a.m.

It's a late morning by Train Jam standards, but early by my own. That seems to also be the case for Jerry Belich and Zach Johnson, whom I find seated at their usual table without Mike Lazer-Walker or Lisa Walkosz-Migliacio — the other half of their FMV project. The two are joking about a new character they've conceived since the last time we talked: Laundry Mike. No, wait. That's not right.

"Laundry Matt," Belich scolds Johnson. "Are you kidding? How do you screw that up? It's a pun. 'Laundry Mike'? That makes no sense. His name is Laundry Matt, and he runs the laundromat but also helps people with ghosts, because ghosts need sheets to use as their corporeal form."

I have no idea what Belich is talking about. This sounds like a far cry from FMV world, but Belich assures me it's connected. According to the two devs, the FMV game is still in progress and "anywhere from 0 to 95 percent" done. But more importantly, the duo is working on separate projects. Belich and Johnson are playing with a line simulator game — think airport queues or theater events, where everything is one big clusterfuck of ropes and slowly moving bodies. You have to manage people's stress as they move through the line. If someone flips out, you lose.

"one way that we deal with it is drinking."

Working on one game under time constraints sounds stressful enough, let alone two. When I ask the pair how they manage to juggle all their projects, they seem unperturbed.

"I mean, one way that we deal with it is drinking," Belich deadpans.

"We had lots of bourbon for our brainstorm last night," Johnson adds.

"We did polish off one bottle of bourbon last night," Belich says.

"But let the record show that we stayed in a bedroom car the entire time," Johnson interrupts.

"Yes," Belich continues. "We followed the rules, and we're very creative because of the bourbon."

9:45 a.m.

Sean Vanaman has a succinct description of Campo Santo when it first started.

"We didn't know how to do shit," he says.

That comes with a major caveat, in which case "shit" can be translated to "something other than a game from Telltale" — the studio at which Vanaman and co-founder Jake Rodkin previously worked. Vanaman compares Firewatch to a two-year game jam in which the team learned how to make a game outside of its comfort zone.

"I know how to make a Telltale game," he says. "But it felt like Firewatch had to exist to really cut the cord. Even in that, I was returning to old habits, old tricks of how to tell a story. I'm very cognizant of myself doing that now, so I'm trying to push myself. But it's fun to do that here. I feel like I'll go home tomorrow night and be like, 'I'm 1 percent better at doing certain things.'"

Their project so far focuses on Maxine, an energy delivery woman. Intercut between her work are snippets of her personal life and the relationship she has with her husband, which is dysfunctional at best.

"We didn't know how to do shit."

"I'm actually really into what makes healthy relationships work," Vanaman says. "I think communication and creating depth in a relationship is one of the coolest things about being able to be a creature that can have relationships. I feel like I can get that out by showing the flip side. How people act out in relationships."

A little further down in the car are Samuli Jääskeläinen and Emily Dillhunt, the other half of Vanaman and Ben Burbank's group. Dillhunt has been learning the hard way how difficult it is to draw on a tablet on a moving train. She's taken to relying more heavily on programs like Photoshop than by her own hand.

"If I drew it in myself, it would look like a 5-year-old drew it in with crayon," she says. "I've never had to consider that for another game jam because normally you're sitting comfortably at a desk. It's well-lit; you have a desktop computer in front of you instead of a laptop.

"It's almost like a sporting event where anything could go wrong. You're not the home team anymore."

10:04 a.m.

Korigan Stone holds up an odd-shaped piece of cardboard. She asks me what I see.

"A pizza box," I reply promptly.

That's what it actually is, but for the purpose of this exercise I need to think a little broader.

"There's no wrong answer!" Stone says. "It is whatever you choose to have it be."

I still have spaceships on the brain, and apparently so does everyone else. It's the most popular answer, while others include a duck, a whale and a sad elephant. It's a game Stone has made to play with me and other passengers on the train. To fit the theme, she's chosen to create a collection of small games, instead of just one. So far, the running count is 20. Stone is interested in physical games, rather than virtual ones. Take rock-paper-scissors, for example — it's an experience everyone can play, regardless of their age or even language.

"I want to do something like [rock-paper-scissors], except it's collaborative and creative," Stone says. "I would love to make something that spreads virally, like any folk game. People don't even know who made it, but it creates positive experiences wherever it goes.

"I am just doing this as I go, and then by having conversations with people I'm inspired by them and then I credit them as they've contributed."

Stone's collaborators include the jam's organizer, Adriel Wallick. Stone says that Wallick was concerned about not making any games on the train, so the two worked with another dev on the train to create a physical version of Pac-Man. One person plays Pac-Man. One person plays a ghost. One person plays the pellet. Go.

4:11 p.m.

In three years of Train Jams, Adriel Wallick has never left anyone behind. It's an impressive feat, given that the original jam in 2014 had 60 members. In 2015, it was about 130.

"It was a very chaotic process getting everyone on last year," she says. "It wasn't until about an hour into the train ride when I got no panicked phone calls that I was convinced we didn't leave anybody behind."

This year has been a much smoother ride, Wallick says, with no close calls and no panic. Even Amtrak now recognizes the group as an annual outing; Wallick says the company has provided logistical support for the ride, and the train employees are far more helpful. In the past, jammers have also run into problems with other passengers who aren't part of the group. With the second, Sony-sponsored observation car dedicated solely to the jam, however, that's less of an issue.

"I've been waiting to see what this year's disaster is going to be, because it's been very smooth," Wallick says.

"You know when you're always on edge waiting for that thing to go wrong? But I don't know what it's going to be."

"I've been waiting to see what this year's disaster is going to be."

Wallick won't be settling in with a team to make any games under traditional game jam circumstances, but she has been able to spend some time with participants. In general, she finds everyone to be far more relaxed than in other jams she's joined. She jokes that the lack of Wi-Fi may be the reason.

"I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that they don't accidentally spend hours on the internet," she says. "There's a lot less distractions, internet-wise. There's a lot more distractions, scenery-wise."

For now, Wallick says Train Jam will continue to be an annual event. This year is the largest the event's been to date, though she's unsure if that's a trend she can continue.

"Theoretically, the biggest we can ever get is as big as the train, which doesn't seem to be too much bigger than 200," she says. "It'll be interesting to see what we do next year, and how many more people we get on it. It's definitely happening next year."

11:14 a.m.

To Sean Vanaman, working on his jam game, Discharge, has felt eerily similar to working on Firewatch.

"Well, day one was like year one," he jokes. "You struggle with your creative insecurities. And day two was like year two, where you have to put your fears in a box and make something. It was actually totally fine! If anything, it made me feel bad for taking so long on other stuff."

Reflecting on his first jam, Vanaman says it made him think about story and development in a new way. He concludes that it's been "good to just make some shit," and that it's helped alleviate some stress he's felt in the wake of Firewatch's success.

"I feel like it could be very easy to get slowed down by the fact that 'whatever we do next has to be better,'" he says. "You come on a game jam, and it doesn't have to be anything. It just has to be done. A couple times I felt myself feeling that sort of anxiety: 'Well, this has to be good because I'm making it. People are going to expect this to be good.'

"No, fuck that. That's a really stupid feeling I had at one point, two nights ago. That's probably the biggest takeaway — just make stuff, because it's easy to not."

11:37 a.m.

If you pass a developer right now, you'll probably be asked to playtest their game. Korigan Stone is making her way through the train trying to learn everyone's name, having completed 50 tiny games by now. The Hellevator team has new monsters to show. Abdullah Hamed can be seen pinging around the car asking people to try the anxiety party game while Ghaida Zahran and Andrei Marks finish up.

"This is often the busiest time of the jam, but also when the best things happen," Marks says as I move on.

It's just after noon when I find the Media Molecule team. The group is pleased with both of its games — Dreams and the jam game it created inside of it.

"Initially, when we first heard about the Train Jam, we were going on it, I was thinking, 'Oh my god, we'll get no sleep,'" says John Beech. "It's going to be like hell on earth. There's going to be loads of sweaty developers and we're going to wish we were dead. But actually, it's been one of the best experiences ever. Traveling across America and meeting all the interesting people and seeing what game they've made — It reminds me of how much I love making games."

1:40 p.m.

"I've enjoyed a relaxing train ride," says Zach Johnson. "There wasn't much pressure to make a game."

Johnson, seated with Jerry Belich, has made good progress on their line simulator game. The FMV game the two originally set out to create with a bigger team didn't make it. At least, not on this train ride.

"I like the idea," Belich says. "I think an FMV game is very going to happen. ... We're missing some key components that would have been really nice to have, and all independently, accidentally started other games and really wanted to actually have time to relax and not turn this into a high-pressure insanity garden."

Belich says his goal at the end of the jam is to find something he wants to keep working on. That, coupled with other ideas to build, is a win.

"There is a happy medium of working and collaborating and taking it easy," Belich says. "That's really nice. That's a nice place to be."

By now, the jam is winding down. We're told to start packing up at 2:30 p.m. for a 3:30 p.m. arrival in Emeryville. Throughout the train, you can hear proud snippets of conversation: "Our game works." "I made a game." "We did it."

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