Shayla Games VR jam Copenhagen: Team “Is that a horse?” prevails…

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On the weekend of the 22nd of May, 2 weeks into my stay at at Aarhus, Ben convinced me to attend a gamejam hosted by a friend that he had met at A MAZE – Julie Heyde. Julie named the jam after her beloved horse, Shayla. And if I have to be completely honest, it was blatant display of horse fandom, instead of the jam itself, that really sold me on going. Usually, these events are predominantly male, extremely technical, and just super intimidating for a total n00b such as myself. My thinking was, what do I really have to contribute? I can art, yes – but most of these guys work in 3D (It is VR after all) – will I get laughed out of the room?

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Seeing that happy horse galloping with pink ribbons and a tutu made the whole affair seem far less intimidating.
I was completely unfamiliar with VR (for those not in the know – that’s short for ‘Virtual Reality’) and playing with my first occulus when getting there was a totally far out. I broke my VRginity on my good friend Richard Baxter’s game “Trip the Light Fantastic”. It’s a difficult one to describe. But for thick description sake, imagine a disembodied version of yourself being flung through deep space, trying to slightly tilt your “head” (or whatever space ghost entity you are) to take you where you want to go – the aim of the game is to “put your head through” beautiful twinkly sphere’s that float around in space. But that’s not an all-encompassing synopsis either. I’d suggest you try it yourself.

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This is Raxter! He’s trying a VR experience we dubbed the “afterdeath-simulator” (so you look at yourself from above, while having a full 3D outer body experience. eek!

It was impressive to see the amount of people who were already making such advanced games for this emerging medium. But what really made it all click in my head were the applications for film making. The first thing that I saw when entering Aalborg University’s monumental centre for mediology, was a group of people sitting around a fully dressed dinner table with VR headsets strapped on.

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I never had a chance to try this particular film (it was seemingly always occupied), but even just the thought of it seemed so progressive. When I later acted as a research participant for a group of mediology final year students, watching a “live” music performance using VR, my head suddenly exploded with the potential for this. The way the technology can facilitate experience, re-experience; the way that the tech can 3-dimensionally document; how it will allow us to project ourselves, fly, swim, simulate nearly anything (including many discussions on the applications for pornography). I could actually see the Matrix being a real-world possibility.

Imagine living museums, re-watching historic events, like you were right in the firing line.
A few weeks after this I would have a conversation with my new friend Maria (a relatively short girl with a slight left arm disability) about the emergence of VR – and to her, this experience was tremendous. Sitting in one of these films gave her the opportunity to escape her corporeality – to experience the world as a very tall person. And she remembers glancing down, taking in the sheer height of her “host’s” head and the sensation of a fully extendable arm. We spoke about the likenesses with Being John Malkovich, and the exciting potential of VR to teach and facilitate empathy. What would it be like to inhabit many different kinds of bodies? What would we learn about our perceptions and it’s relation to our own embodiment?
Although there was much excitement around the more overarching potentials of VR, the actual talks on the first day had me  feeling very n00bly again. Demo’s of new plug-ins and tactics for fighting dizziness and nausea were a bit high level for me.

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But there was the super exciting team from Rokoko who demonstrated their motion-sensor mo-cap suit. Now, you wouldn’t need a full studio to be able to bring your characters to life. A simple wetsuit-type zoot, and broke-ass game designers can have the full functionality of motion capture absolutely anywhere you can move – democratizing character animation. It seems the entire VR genre is brimming with new little start-ups like this one.

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After the talks, the game jam was to start! We were given the theme “emotion”. To get us into groups, Julie introduced us to Tim Garbos – who is a group-forming legend. Tim asked members of the audience to come forward if they had any ideas for VR games. These quick spitfire pitches ran for about 30 minutes, after which Tim divided the crowd a few times, according to height/hair length/hair colour, clothing colours, etc. Each time we were tasked to introduce ourselves, what we do, and most of all try to hustle for team mates that we liked/ideas we were keen to work on.
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Inger and I ended up playing it quite safe, and although these sessions allowed us to make many new friends – we ended up teaming up with Raxter. Raxter had a fantastic idea to produce a game where the central mechanic is a 2 dimensional platformer, that works with 3D elements in VR. I decided that our theme needed to revolve around a cat, as I was having a particulalry homesick day, missing my little orange kittens. Playing with the theme of emotion, we decided that our little cat would travel through seasons – adding some visual interest to the platformer mechanic. In addition, we would make flat graphics for a 3D world, adding to a pop-up book kinda feel. And for the next 36 hours, we jammed our little hearts out on what would later be known as S.A.D cat – the simple story about a cat attempting to escape his Seasonal Affective Disorder by jumping through the seasons. Inger and I manned the art, and our new besties Kevin Broløs, Max Nillsen and Pétur Örn Þórarinsson helped Raxter bring his vision to life in Unity.

The next day Julie also forced a bunch of half naked, hardly-slept jammers into the freezing lake to compete in the annual Rubber Dingy Race.

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After everyone dried off and got food in their bellies, we all ran around playing each other’s games. It was absolutely incredible to see what everyone came up with in such a short amount of time. You can browse through all of the 18 submissions here and play our game here.

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My new friend Jon Brown, who is an incredible illustrator and games maker, made hundreds of little post its that people could use to vote for their favourite games. The post-its were tallied, and the committee chose winners.

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Afterwards we held a prize ceremony. Which was live blogged:
http://vrfocus.com/archives/15444/liveblog-shayla-games-vr-jam-2015/

If you go through the trouble of reading that you will see that our little baby WON! S.A.D cat, along with a brilliant game called “e-motion” got the players’ vote. Our prizes include a trip to Sweden to go demo our game at the Creative Coast Festival, and tickets to attend Unite Europe – the big Unity conference in Amsterdam!

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At the end of the day, fun won! I guess any apprehension that I had at joining the jam, or any future jams has been squashed properly. I have never in my life been around such amazing, supportive and kind human beings, who really just want to make beautiful experiences for other humans beings. In terms of taking back to my research, this whole weekend really cemented the idea of cultivating functional creative spaces, and using jams as a catalyst for rapid prototyping and quick learning. I’m also totally stealing Tim’s game jam team-forming methods for my next creative jam!

High fives to everyone. Let’s do the next one in Cape Town, okay? 😉

 

thanks to Mariam Zakarian for most of the photo’s. Check out her amazing art and photography here.

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