January 21, 2015

Smooth Sailing on the Coconut Express

By Jan Kaluza

When the theme for November’s UE4 game jam was announced to be “Two Birds with One Stone”, fellow UE4 developer Jason’s mind soon went to this infamous scene from Monty Python and The Holy Grail – and the idea for our game was born. In “The Coconut Express”, you would control two swallows that have to find coconuts and bring them to Castle Camelot. We decided to go with a stylized, untextured lowpoly aesthetic, because that let us cut down a lot on asset creation times and looked visually interesting at the same time.

Unreal Engine’s Blueprint system let us very quickly create a working prototype of the planned game mechanics after we had (more or less) settled on what the game was going to be like – we had the basics implemented by the end of our first night of working on them. The next day was spent mostly on creating all the 3D assets we needed. I mostly worked on Blueprints and materials, and only created the odd one or two models when I needed a break from all that logic. Jason furiously modeled all of our different trees and about a dozen different houses and started working on our main character, the two swallows carrying a coconut. (I suspect he hates me a little bit for this –on our collaboration track record so far, I’ve always made him model and animate really weird, non-standard things!) Yoeri joined us on Saturday to help out with more modeling and to create some of the awesome particle effects he’s known for. The cartoon fight cloud he made is probably one of my favorite effects! Sunday came, and while I fought to make sure we had a working menu and UI, Jason created our antagonist character, the evil falcon. Time went by way too quickly, and we scrambled for the totally unexpected (*ahem*) deadline crunch to get everything working and packaged in time.


At this point you’re probably wondering why any of this should convince you that game jams are great. They just sound like a whole lot of work and stress, don’t they? Well, hear me out. Game jams are awesome and will make you a better game developer for a couple of reasons. First and foremost: there is no real risk involved. You can try out a new idea, new technique, visual style, workflow, or a new game engine and make something with it – and if it doesn’t work out, all you’ve lost are a few days.

Game jams also tend to give you a theme to work with. Working within a set theme you cannot change is a great way to boost your creativity! Just like in the “real world”, you’ll always have to deal with certain constraints, and practicing how to navigate creative constraints like a preset theme can sharpen your mind to deal with more serious constraints in larger projects.

Going hand in hand with this is the time limit; most game jams give you only a weekend or maybe a week to complete your project from start to finish. Like theme restrictions, the time pressure of game jams teaches you to prioritize. Sure, you could polish this one aspect of your game for weeks, or refine that 3D model or texture more and more until it meets your high standards of quality, but in game jams, you just don’t have the time for that. The motto is: “Good enough, ship it!” That focus on output over polish can be an enormous boost to productivity, and it just feels good to finish something!

So, to sum it up: game jams are a great opportunity to make quick and dirty prototypes, test and improve your skills, and bolster your productivity. And doesn’t that sound great?

Some great places to look for current game jams are:

  • Ludum Dare: a huge online game jam happening every few months

  • #OneGameAMonth: daring you to gamify your productivity

  • CompoHub: an online calendar of currently ongoing game jams

  • And of course, the monthly Unreal Engine game jams on the forums

Also, as a bonus, I wrote up a tutorial on how we built the low-poly environment!

Alright, that’s all I’ve got for now. If you have any questions or comments, or just want to connect, follow the links below!

The Coconut Express (Download and Info)

Twitter: Jan, Jason, Yoeri

November Game Jam thread