Ludum Dare

Ludum Dare is a game jam. Every 4 months a weekend is selected and a theme is announced. Thousands of game developers have the weekend to design, create, and release games for a competition where there are no official judges and no grand prize.

It’s been the most rewarding creative outlet I’ve ever had.

I learned about Ludum Dare through Notch, creator of Minecraft. One weekend I found myself obsessing over a live feed where he was coding an entire Wolf3D-style game in 48 hours. I saw game mechanics grow from placeholder functions to actual things the player could do. Gameplay sprung up from these mechanics. I learned Notch’s strategies for developing a game efficiently. His map editor was a paint program, and he used the alpha channel of an image to encode walls, doors, and items. His textures were all edited in a single sprite sheet and making graphical changes was very easy. He was hot reloading Java objects in the middle of playing the game, so his code, compile, and test cycle was incredibly short.

I love seeing a professional in any field working at this level—where there’s an incredible economy of action, and never any breaks to figure out what to do next. It’s what I like about shows like Top Chef, because the cast doesn’t stop to tell you every step of what they’re doing, you have to follow along and figure it out. I’d never watched any programmer create something from start to finish before but I saw what Notch was doing and all of it made sense. I wanted to see if I could program that way.

I think many people see computers as opaque things which perform a fixed set of functions. I like to think of the underlying malleability. I grew up building tower PCs and installing DOS and configuring my config.sys in order to have enough RAM to be able to run games. At that point there wasn’t a lot of separation between using a computer and programming one. I was interested in making games and it seemed obvious that they were the kind of thing a computer user could create.

When I was younger, I’d go to computer trade shows with my father. We’d walk around from booth to booth and look for the best prices any of the dozen parts needed to assemble a PC. I would have to be diligent to follow my father through the packed hall. If I were good and didn’t get lost he would offer me the chance to select something I wanted. At one point I found myself torn between a copy of SimAnt and a book on programming games in BASIC. It was a test - I was offered the choice between one $50 game which would be interesting for a few months, or a $5 book which would have helped me make the games I wanted to play for the rest of my life.

I failed the test. I knew you could enter a cheat and play as the spider in SimAnt, the promise of which furiously outshone the potential of even a million handmade games.

But I kept revisiting the choice in my head. At some point, long after SimAnt had grown stale, I obtained the most formidable book on game programming I could locate - “Tricks of the Game Programming Gurus”.

I memorized Gurus front-to-back despite its basis in C, a language I had never used. It was difficult to get a C compiler for DOS at that time - I remember friends having floppy disks with pirated copies of Borland on them. I never programmed a single example out of the book but the techniques lodged themselves into a deep, weird part of my brain where they were never able to escape. To this day I still remember how to do 2D sprite-based animation and effects. I know raycasting for Wolf3D style rendering engines. I know how to make a game, but up until Ludum Dare, I had never completed one before.

It took me nine months from watching Notch to participate in my first jam. In late 2012, when I saw that I finally had a free weekend for Ludum Dare 24 I knew I was finally going to be able to test my limits.

I had some flashes of insight during the weekend. Sprite blitting, hit zones, animation states, all came naturally. But I got hung up on details and didn’t pace myself well. The result was a barely playable platformer missing any of the nuanced controls, level design, or even artwork present in a Super Mario Bros. game. There was barely a single level which displayed a win screen if you got all the way to the right hand side. But it was, in essence, a game which required skill to play. There was a beginning, middle, and end. Importantly, it was the first game I had written with all three of these elements.

I kept going. In subsequent Ludum Dares I didn’t always complete a game, but sometimes I did. And they got better. This April, my brother Kalev and my friend Wes wound up placing in the top 100 for the team competition:

This sounds ridiculous but it turns out the most important part of being a game developer is actually making games. In the years since reading Gurus, I’ve started half a dozen exploratory game projects but never got anywhere. It was tough to start a long term project from scratch, as the temptation to design systems, create intense object hierarchies, and learn half a dozen new frameworks all prevented me from actually making any real progress.

Ludum Dare forced me to cut through all that. To get something done, I had to hustle, make decisions which resulted in a product now. Almost none of the code I write is usable in any long-term project, but the ideas and experimentation are so much more important than that.

The greatest benefit, though, is overcoming the psychological barrier of actually getting a product out there. I’ve been the kid who wanted the immediate gratification of SimAnt over reading a book on game development. I’ve been the teenager who read the book but never wrote any code. I’ve been the adult who wrote frameworks but never built a game.

Thanks to Ludum Dare, I have two games I’m really proud of. I’d love for you to play them and let me know how they can be better. Because there will be more.

  • Moonshot, a space physics game for Ludum Dare 26
  • Heavy Drizzle, a flooding dungeon explorer for Ludum Dare 29

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