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It Came From the Molyjam: Bowl or Die

Over 48 hours, Juan Rubio was a designer, programmer, composer, and anything else required to make survival horror meets bowling come to life.

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This is the first of three stories about my time at the Molyjam. Tomorrow, you'll read about a husband and wife couple who faced incredible adversity and kept going. On Friday, learn what Peter Molyneux thinks about...well, all of this.

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No matter the size, creating a game from scratch in 48 hours is daunting. That’s why the first night of game jams are usually spent getting to know people, sorting ideas, and finding teammates on your wavelength.

35-year-old Juan Rubio decided his team only needed one person: himself.

Over the course of the Molyjam, more than 300 games were created in the US and abroad.
Over the course of the Molyjam, more than 300 games were created in the US and abroad.

Game jams are events where creators--designers, programmers, artists, musicians, whoever--come together to create tiny, focused games in a short period of time. I helped organize What Would Molydeux? (aka Molyjam), an international game jam inspired by the audacious, inspiring tweets of Peter Molydeux, itself a parody of Populous and Syndicate designer Peter Molyneux.

Rubio was one of more than 100 who attended the San Francisco arm of the Molyjam, which was hosted within our own building.

The prospect of creating everything required for a game by himself didn't scare him--it was part of the attraction in the first place.

“I thought it would be something that I would enjoy,” he told me. “I would be enjoying my weekend by crunching on something! [laughs] [...] I just wanted to test myself and see what I could pull off within that timeframe.”

By trade, Rubio is a visual effects contractor, having worked on The Matrix sequels, The Day After Tomorrow, Watchmen, The Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift, X-Men: The Last Stand, and others. On X-Men, Rubio helped Juggernaut (digitally) remove some walls while he raged. Tinkering around with game development is what initially drew him into manipulating graphics, and he’d been playing with middleware software Unity long before it was popular.

Rubio had already mostly settled on a Tweet before arriving at the jamming location in downtown San Francisco:

“Survival horror meets bowling.”

No joke, while the Molyjam was coming together, I told people that if we got nothing but hundreds of people creating variations on this theme, I’d be satisfied. There were several teams who took on the task in San Francisco alone, including Rubio and Stacking designer Lee Petty. I don't even like bowling that much, but the concept...man.

“The bowling mechanic is just so different,” said Rubio, “and combining that with something an established genre like survival horror seemed really interesting.”

Rubio's looking to make game development a full-time gig, which requires constant kebab.
Rubio's looking to make game development a full-time gig, which requires constant kebab.

His game? Bowl or Die! The trick? The ball is your light source, so when you’re taking out the bowling pins, you’re also tossing away the very object that’s needed to survive the terrors ahead.

Awesome, hilarious, and pretty terrifying, if you think about it.

The first problem facing Rubio was one that every video game struggles with, whether made by a group of amateurs or professionals who’ve been making games for decades: scope. In the first few hours, Rubio had an easier time than most, as sketching out the game required answering to no one but himself.

Convenient!

“I just wanted to get one mechanic down well, which was the bowling aspect of it,” he said. “That was the first thing you guys saw on Friday night. I was just trying to work towards getting the mechanic going and working because I knew just creating the rest of the content for the level was going to take me the rest of the weekend.”

Several times throughout the Molyjam, Double Fine gameplay programmer Anna Kipnis and I would walk around the room with the ever-present web cam and find out how the games were progressing. On Friday, everyone was upbeat. That changed Saturday, but Friday, it was early in the jam, ideas were fresh, and no one was sleep deprived. At around 10:50, you can see the progress Rubio alluded to.

(Yes, I know the sound is off. Sorry.)

Our location was not open all day and night, and people finally filtered out around midnight. The work didn’t stop for most teams, however, including solo teams like Rubio. Excited about Bowl or Die!, he went home and continued working. Hours and hours later, he finally went to sleep. Sort of.

Some teams came back on Saturday, but Rubio didn’t. Not long into Saturday, his decision to forgo much sleep bit him in the ass.

“I actually started crashing a bit,” he said, “and started making mistakes because I was so tired.”

He forced himself to take a nap, resumed work later in the day, and came back to the jam on Sunday.

The most interesting moments from the Molyjam involved watching the creative process play out in real-time. Features that made sense 24 hours ago were now crazy, immediately scrapped, and people's feet are tapping up and down, up and down. Rubio knew to scope small for Bowl or Die!, but even he had to tear limbs from his horror gaming baby. Plans for a visible health system was tossed out, and a meter displaying the ball’s charge disappeared.

In one case, he turned a negative into a positive. When players bumped into the bowling pins, they were unexpectedly launched outside the world. It was a damning bug.

“I ended up taking that and using that to my advantage, and saying ‘Okay, well, then that’s how you can die.’” he said. “You get launched off, and if you go negative on the Y-axis, then you’re dead and you show the game over screen.”

Now, Rubio is mulling whether to craft something new or create a bigger, better Bowl or Die!
Now, Rubio is mulling whether to craft something new or create a bigger, better Bowl or Die!

Suddenly, a bug becomes a feature. Presto.

Though Rubio worked from home, he came back Sunday, and the cramped atmosphere became an aid, rather than a stressor.

“What ended up helping me,” he said, “and what’s gonna help me for the games the future, is the overall creativity from everybody and seeing the process and going through it myself. It was always something that I had a hard time with--coming up with original ideas or original mechanics. Just by being in that room and that atmosphere with everyone, I ended up learning a lot."

Even as someone that doesn’t design video games for a living, I can confirm that vibe was tangible.

As the 7:00 p.m. Sunday deadline neared, ongoing presentations in Los Angeles allowed us to give teams an extra 30 minutes to work on their games. Almost everyone cheered. A little later, presentations began, and didn’t finish for another three hours. It didn’t feel nearly that long, as hoots, hollars, and applause filled the room.

Rubio took the stage at some point, and I held the microphone while he talked and showed his game. The creators who decided to participate in the game jam solo received some of the biggest responses, and that included Rubio.

The best part? You can stop reading this article and play Bowl or Die! right now.

Patrick Klepek on Google+