Insights pieces seek out unique perspectives from members of the Game, Film, and Television industries. They aim to provide context for readers and an unfiltered platform for industry-insiders.
Imagine this. . .
The majesty of this nation’s most iconic vistas spanning out before you in all their radiant splendor, while you recline comfortably in the wide-windowed Amtrak California Zephyr train car. You can see rolling plains taper up into white-capped mountain ranges – a jagged line across the belly of a clear blue sky. There are clouds and animals out there, beyond the fog of breath on your window, and suddenly you are removed from yourself. Inspired, even.
Feeling motivated, yet? Are the creative juices flowing?
That’s exactly the kind of environment that independent game developer, Adriel Wallick, hopes to foster with Train Jam – the annual fifty-two hour, cross-country game jam on a train. From Chicago, Illinois to Emeryville, California, aspiring and veteran developers gather in several rented train cars to create games in an environmnet condusive to collaboration, networking, and creative inspiration. But don’t take it from me, take it from the woman behind it all.
Readers, meet Adriel Wallick.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Adriel some questions about Train Jam, about the gaming industry at large and the role of independent developers within it; the shifting trend toward equal representation in our media, and how she finds the time to both make and play games. She had plenty to say, so I have plenty to share with all of you.
This is, more or less, a transcript of our conversation, edited minimally for clarity, grammar, and format.
Game-Jamming on a Train
The Murphy Media Blog: So, what is Train Jam?
Adriel Wallick: Train Jam is an annual game jam that occurs on a train. Every spring, game developers from all over the world meet in Chicago to ride the California Zephyr out to Emeryville, California while making games during the fifty-two hour journey. Train Jame always occurs the Thursday-Saturday before the annual Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) in San Francisco – which means that we then get to show off all of the games that were made during Train Jam at the largest gathering of professional game developers in the world.
Train Jam’s goal is to take developers beyond their comfort zone and push for creative inspiration outside of a regular office environment. It strives to meet this goal by fostering an adventurous and inspiring environment where develops from diverse backgrounds and cultures are able to pursue new ideas in a safe, accessible, and empowering way.
MMB: When did the inspiration for Train Jam strike? What was the epiphany?
AW: The inspiration came from a train trip that I took back in 2013. I was living in Boston at the time and decided to travel for a while. I took the train from Boston to Chicago, Chicago to Seattle, and then Seattle to Vancouver. I found the journey to be super inspiring, and after talking with other game developers about it, the idea of turning that type of journey into a game jam just progressed naturally. I started doing research into how Amtrak’s group-reservations worked, set up an Eventbrite page, made a website, and launched the first Train Jam just a few months later.
MMB: I’ve spent most of my life around trains and on trips. There’s a romanticism to those long journeys and feeling yourself float through the scenery. What an ingenious way to work with the inspiration of the outdoors, but doing so as a group still connected to the Wi-Fi.
AW: There actually isn’t Wi-Fi provided on the train! It’s one of my absolute favorite things about the train ride, because it really forces the developers into a completely different mindset than they’re used to working in. Everyone has to rely on their own innate knowledge OR the other developers around them. It’s also one of the reasons that I keep Train Jam completely non-competitive. I’ve centered so much of Train Jam’s core experience around collaboration and togetherness, and the forced reliability of the other developers on the train really helps solidify that.
“I found the journey to be super inspiring, and after talking with other game developers about it, the idea of turning that type of journey into a game jam just progressed naturally.”
MMB: Now, the average person might never have heard of a game jam, could you explain how one works?
AW: A ‘game jam’ is where a number of game developers get together and work on a new game idea in a short amount of time. There are tons of different types, but most will last around forty-eight hours (usually over a weekend), will have a theme to base the game idea on, and will encourage developers to work in teams of around four people. The concept and motivations for a game are very similar to that of musicians getting together to jam – most times, it’s not so much about creating something that will be commercially viable, or the next “big hit,” but about exercising your creative muscles, working with others, and trying out new ideas.
MMB: The Comparison to music seems appropriate – collaboration and cooperation are key. What are some of the themes or new ideas that you have used for, or have developed from, Train Jam?
AW: The themes I give for Train Jam are always very loose and based on trains, journeys, or adventure. To get a good feel for what comes out of something like Train Jam, you can check out all of the games from the last five years at www.trainjam.com/games.
Breaking into the Industry
MMB: Your Twitter bio mentions that you used to work on satellites, why / how did you make the switch to video game development?
AW: Games have always been a passion of mine, and something I’ve been a huge fan of my whole life. After working as a software engineer for some big companies after graduating from college, I decided that I just needed to make a change and get into an industry that I was passionate about, which would allow me some creative freedoms while still being in a tech role.
MMB: Out of curiosity, which games were most significant in developing your passion?
AW: Final Fantasy IX, Chrono Cross, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Thomas Was Alone.
MMB: How would you encourage others to approach employment in the industry? Any advice for those without a computer-technologies background?
AW: Everyone is different, so that’s hard. I’m self-motivated to learn things on my own, so I just started following tutorials and making small prototypes to learn tech skills specifically relevant to game development. I started attending local developer meet-ups in Boston and just kept networking and meeting people until I finally found an indie studio that was hiring for someone exactly like me.
For anyone wanting to enter the games industry, the best general advice I can give is to just make games. It sounds kind of silly and simplistic, but the best way to get the skills to make games is to make them. If you’re a writer, look into something like the Ink Scripting Language and write a few interactive fiction games. If you’re an artist, draw some character designs, animate some models, or mock-up some UI elements. If you’re a musician, play around with sound effects or practice different genres of music for different levels. People have the misconception that if you’re not a tech person you simply can’t make a game, and that’s just not true anymore. There’s always a way to work on your game development skills.
I addition, meeting other game developers is another good way to learn about game development and to get your foot in the door. If you can, attend local meet-ups in your area. Go and talk to other developers. If there aren’t any meet-ups near you, or you can’t attend, then join an online community. Look for developer forums and start posting. Ask questions, post your work, etc.
A Day in the Life
MMB: Video games have never been more popular, and AAA production studios have never been larger. Do you, on the independent / freelance level, see the higher demand for entertainment and personnel trickling down?
AW: Definitely. I entered indie development just as it was starting to really take off, as a type of game development that people were taking seriously in a commercial sense. As the years have gone on, the line between AAA and indie (and everything in-between) has been increasingly blurred – which means it’s more accessible than ever to dip your toes into game development. Also, the type of person who plays games is so diverse. So, as games are getting more popular, the demand for every type of game is growing, as well. People want to play everything from a small artistic indie game to a huge AAA adventure game, and the fact that games have gotten so popular means that we now have the resources to make many different types of games.
MMB: Do you see Train Jam as a way to further propel the accessibility of gaming to both developer and consumer? Where do you see Train Jam in five years’ time?
AW: I hope so. I see Train Jam as a great place for people to be inspired, to try to make games in a safe and non-competitive environment, and to simply meet other developers. I hope that all of those things will help developers feel comfortable trying to make games or more confident with their current skill-level. I actually really hope that in five years’ time, Train Jam is exactly as it is now, just more refined. I think we’ve grown to a size that I’m completely comfortable with. It’s big enough that I can use it to do a lot of good (e.g. by using our reputation to get more sponsorships that I can put towards our diversity initiatives), but that I can still organize the event with the help of just one other organizer and a small crew of volunteers. That’s kind of perfect to me.
“I actually really hope that in five years’ time, Train Jam is exactly as it is now, just more refined.”
MMB: What does the average day look like for Adriel Wallick? When do you actually get a chance to play the next big release?
AW: Hahaha. As a freelancer who is working on three different game projects (all indie games), who plans a major annual game development event, and also travels a lot, there’s no real “typical” day. On those rare occasions that I’m able to settle into a routine, of sorts, it’s really no different from someone who goes to an office all day. Once I’m done with work I can kick back and play whatever game I’m playing through at the moment. Which, to be honest, is usually just Destiny. However, there are periods of time where I’m speaking at games events, or travelling, or just wrapped up in what I’m working on that I either don’t have access to my console, or just don’t have the brain power to sit down and save the universe. In that case, I just wait until I can.
MMB: Do you think it’s ironic that you work in game development, but have to search for the time to play games?
AW: A little! I actually think it’s a good reminder to find a better work-life balance. I should have more time to play games, and that I don’t is a failing on myself and my time management skills.
MMB: Can you share anything about your upcoming projects? Anything to get excited about?
AW: Most of the things I’m working on are unannounced indie games. I wish I could talk more about them, but I can’t! But, I am excited about all of them.
The State of the Industry
MMB: The industry is changing rapidly. Fortnite has disrupted the shooter-space and loot-boxes have disrupted everything else. As a game developer, what is your opinion on these emergent trends?
AW: Game development is a relatively new industry compared to other forms of entertainment. That, combined with the fact that games are also growing in popularity at such an incredible rate, means that everything has to change rapidly right now. The games industry is still finding its footing, still dealing with huge technological advances, and still figuring out what it can be. It’s interesting to watch these trends change so fast, and it’s terrifying as a developer, because the “stuff” that works for a game right now will probably be completely different from what works for a game in six months.
MMB: Considering the industry’s growing pains and all the noise about evolving technology or trends, Train Jam must seem even more like an escape – a back-to-basics event. Do you find that to be the case, or find it necessary to help tap into the passion that drew you to the industry in the first place?
AW: I never really thought about Train Jam like that, but there’s an aspect to it where we just get down to our basic knowledge and tools, and simply make games. However, it’s that growing accessibility of game development tools that make things like Train Jam possible. I think it would be almost impossible to have something like Train Jam before laptops, before free versions of game engines, before the ability to make builds at the press of a button, and before the level of knowledge-sharing that we have now.
MMB: The gaming industry didn’t have much of a “Me Too” movement. Rather, it had the “Gamergate” period, which was simultaneously a call for more representation in gaming and a significant backlash to it. Comments on Anita Sarkeesian and internet trolls aside, do you think representation is improving? Do you think it starts at the indie level (e.g. Gone Home) before it reaches the AAA – The Last of Us Part II kiss – level?
AW: Though we, as an industry, still have a long, LONG way to go, you can see small improvements everywhere. As there’s been a huge push for more accessible development tools, it’s now easier than ever for games to be made by folks from different backgrounds, countries, viewpoints, sexualities, etc.; which leads to more perspectives in games, more varied stories, and more opportunities to build empathy between people from different backgrounds. Because of this, and because of the push to actually talk about these topics, developers have also gotten more sensitive to the types of games they create, the people that they portray as the protagonist (or antagonist), the language they use, and the views they perpetuate. It’s been interesting to watch these changes slowly take hold.
MMB: It’s heartening to see that your outlook is optimistic about gaming’s future. Obviously, if Twitter and YouTube are to be believed, there’s a vocal backlash to what some view as “the politicization” of gaming. Do you feel this negative perception, and the reluctance associated with it, will change as our collective understanding of “normal” changes?
AW: The backlash that happens is awful, but in my optimistic view, it feels like the death-cries of an outdated way of looking at things. One that will hopefully be obsolete soon. It’s people who are resistant to change, people who are resistant to no longer being 100% catered to in every aspect, and greedy people who feel entitled to an entire industry. The majority of gamers and developers are happy to see diverse representation in media, are welcoming of new viewpoints, and are excited at the number of different games that we see now.
Honestly, who wouldn’t be excited to see a bunch of new and original ideas?
Who, indeed. With people like her leading the charge, the future of gaming is very much worth feeling optimistic about.
My many thanks to Adriel for taking the time to answer my questions during her incredibly busy schedule. It was a pleasure.
Please, follow her on Twitter to stay updated on all things Train Jam, or just to follow the adventures of an independent, freelance game developer. Also be sure to check out the official Train Jam website for more information.
The next Train Jam will take place March 14 – 16, 2019.
As for you, dear reader, I hope you enjoyed this, or that you learned something. There’s plenty more to come.
Until next time.