5 things I learned from making a video game in 30 hours

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Sten Selander of Media Evolution (Sweden) briefs Arabic Game Jam participants
Sten Selander of Media Evolution (Sweden) briefs Arabic Game Jam participants

As a kid, I had two main hobbies: drawing and playing video games. My passion for visual art eventually led me to study graphic design at university. As for gaming, though I'm not as frequent a player as I was back then, I'm still very much into the medium.

So you can imagine how excited I was when two of my childhood friends, George Habr and Fouad Tabsh, asked if I would be interested in doing the artwork for a video game they'll be developing. At last! Two of my greatest passions finally combined! This is going to be awesome. One catch though: we only had 30 hours to make it.

Arabic Game Jam is a two-day hackathon with a focus on making games for Arabic speaking markets. After three previous editions in Sweden, AGJ came to Beirut for the first time as part of last week’s MENA Games Conference. On March 24th, teams from across the region (including us, team Groovy Antoid) gathered at AltCity to embark on a 30-hour journey towards making a video game prototype.

For 30 hours, we brainstormed, explained, received feedback, and of course, worked, worked and worked. There may have been sleep involved at some point too, I can't remember. Finally, on the 26th, the first day of MENA Games, we pitched our prototype to a jury of experts and eagerly awaited the results.

We didn't win! But I'd be lying if I said I didn't gain anything; on the contrary. To put it in gamer terms: I may not have beaten the boss, but this battle has earned me some major XP. To put it in non-gamer terms: I learned a lot of things, and here's five of them!

1. Criticism is your friend

Experts review a participant's work and offer feedback
Experts review a participant's work and offer feedback

In the absence of any real criticism, every idea is gold and everybody's a genius. That is clearly not the case. When someone comes up with a terrible idea, if you don't call them out on it, you're essentially sabotaging the team as a whole.  

Fortunately, my teammates and I had one another to shoot down any ideas or elements of ideas that just didn't live up to our standard. Someone would suggest an idea, and we'd give our initial impressions. Sometimes it was an instant no; other times there was something of value to be further explored.

Even after we eventually settled on our idea, when we started getting feedback and suggestions from experts, some of it really resonated with us and made us completely rethink certain aspects of our game as we worked on it - and made it better in the long run.

One example of this is when Ziad Feghali of Wixel Studios thought that our game could use more urgency, and suggested our adding something that chases our main character. We didn't end up implementing that suggestion, but it did inspire a totally different game mechanic that would affect the main character's speed. Another important lesson: accepting feedback isn't always about following it word-for-word.

2. It's all about the game

A participant sketches out the concept of his game
A participant sketches out the concept of his game

Consider this: the game that won first place was a bare-bones puzzle game in which the player has to connect several interlocking segments to form a closed shape. Despite having  the most basic visuals and no audio whatsoever, the whole room was enthralled as they watched two judges take turns attempting to beat it. That’s a good game.

The criteria for what makes a game good is a frequently debated topic, but in general, a good game should be fun, constantly challenging (starts out easy and escalates in difficulty), and should be playable with the least amount of explanation or involvement from the creator; the player should be able to deduce everything they need to know about playing just by starting up the game.

Flashy visuals and sound effects may make a game more eye-catching or attention-grabbing, but they're just the icing on the cake. If the player's bored and confused, game over!

3. Arabic game = game designed by an Arab 

Screenshot from our game
Screenshot from our game "Brane"

When people hear the term "Arabic game", many might picture a nondescript game, except the main character wears a tarboush and is in front of the Pyramids or Burj Khalifa. It doesn’t have to be like this.

Any game made by an Arab developer or team is an Arabic game. It doesn't have to look, sound, or run in any pre-determined way to fit that label. As long as it's a reflection of your personal beliefs, culture, and perspective as an Arab individual, the Arab aspect will be laced into the fabric of the game itself, rather than tacked on after the fact.

Rami Ismail is an indie game developer and cofounder of the Dutch studio Vlambeer, as well as a speaker at the conference and a member of the AGJ jury. He's also half-Egyptian and a Muslim. Ismail told us that the games his studio produces actually have some Islamic qualities to them, not in the sense that they're centered around religious themes, but instead for the fact that none of his games feature alcohol. It’s as simple as that.

4. No one likes the smell of bullshit

Groovy Antoid presenting their game at Arabic Game JamMy team and I presenting our game

After the awards ceremony, Ismail shared his personal thoughts on each game with us. Concerning ours, one problem was that we pitched it as one thing but it ended up being something quite different (now that I think about it, he's right). We made a quirky little tapping-based game, but we tried to add some gravity to it by presenting it as a metaphor for deeper "underlying" issues. Bad idea!

The lesson here is pitch honestly. Say exactly what your game is, and then shut up. No, your Pac-Man clone isn't going to raise awareness on the situation in Gaza, or serve as a metaphor for humanity’s endless hunger for knowledge, or anything - unless you build the message into the very foundational DNA of the game.

5. MENA levels up

Arabic Game Jam participants pose at the end of the event at AltCity
Arabic Game Jam participants pose at the end of the event at AltCity

The final thing I learned from the Arabic Game Jam - and the entire MENA Games conference - was not to lose faith in the regional games industry, because there are big things in store. If you’re a games enthusiast here looking to get into the industry, it's easy to think that you're just a minority, that nobody gets what you're trying to do, nobody cares to support it, and the companies that already exist are barely scraping by, so why even bother?

But if these two events have proven anything, it's that there are passionate like-minded individuals all across the region, from game developers, to artists to entrepreneurs, and they're all willing to work together to build up the industry, and the art form, of video games.

In the case of Lebanon, as Minister of Telecom Boutros Harb's opening remarks at the conference indicated, there is great interest in fostering and developing local talent and making Lebanon a formidable force in the regional gaming industry, and perhaps even the global one. "I have accepted the challenge" put forward by the many Lebanese currently working to develop the industry, Harb said. Game on, your excellency, game on.

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