The Challenges and Rewards of Non-Competitive “Compos”

As I mentioned in my previous posts, I participated in Ludum Dare, a game development “compo”, where you build a video game by yourself, from scratch, in 48 hours (a variation gives 72 hours and a team, but I did the 48-hour version).

A “compo” is a “composition competition”, but I’ve yet to participate in a compo where the competition aspect is what actually gets people energized. If anything, the compo is more community-oriented than it is competition-oriented. I participate weekly at ThaSauce.net One Hour Compo, which is a music compo in which you create a song from scratch in one hour. The competition aspect supposedly is because people vote on their favourites at the end, but in the end I don’t think the votes are what anyone’s really fighting for.

In any case, I feel that compo has probably been one of the top ways for me to improve my music making skills and that doing the Ludum Dare compo was an excellent way for me to simply program for the sheer joy of it.

But, I think one of the greatest benefits of doing these compos is simply being able to succeed, and to feel happy and proud doing it. It’s a real self-esteem booster and it also helps you beef up your skills and the ability for you to work under huge time pressure.

Below I’m going to present the post that I wrote for Ludum Dare 26. Most people there tend to write technical post-mortems, but I thought that the emotional barrier was actually a bigger barrier to cross than the technical ones!

An earlier version of this post below first appeared on my Ludum Dare 26 blog.

I think I’m over my Ludum Dare Adrenaline Rush now.

In my first initial post, I said that I was going to fake Ludum Dare. To my surprise, a few commenters actually wrote in and encouraged me to just enter anyway. I did. And I came out with a game that had some interesting ideas, along with a number of problems.

I’m actually happy I participated and would like to thank the handful of people who encouraged me (some strangers, some friends) to enter anyway. It was a great experience and I want to be around next time, if I have time for it.

But, what led me to go down a road of, “I don’t think I can do it?”

I’ve never designed a game before

Well, technically I did. In my first ever C programming class when I was 15, the final project was a video game. Mine compiled but didn’t work – we had Macs at school, and when I realised that my game wasn’t getting close to finished, I brought my game home, wrote almost all of my code on my PC, and hand-checked it to see if it would work, in theory, when I brought into school the next day.

With some work I made it compile, but it didn’t really work as I wanted it to.

In some respect though, it doesn’t take much to be a game. I’ve seen a lot of things that people recognize as games. Top-down shooters, side-scrollers, role-playing games, adventure games, text-based games, board games, and so forth. But I’ve also seen a lot of creative work as well. A game where the main idea was to walk in a city. A game where  you woke up, experienced a main character’s morning, and looked at all of the objects in his or her room. A game where you planted seeds in a garden and watched them grow. They’re barely games by the standard definition – but they are all welcome in Ludum Dare.

Even if you don’t have a strong idea of what you want to do, build a game archetype anyway and then see what comes out. In some respect, one of the thrills of doing a game in 48 hours is that the first few ideas you get, you have to stick with because there’s no time to really make it better. So you get all of these raw, unrefined concepts that are the pure essence of creativity. And it’s great to see so many of these concepts work.

My Programming Chops

I don’t program a lot. I have a computer science degree so I know how to program, but my work is primarily focused on research activities that don’t require any development. I find a lot of programming boring – especially mathematics riddles. “Compute the least-common denominator of two numbers?” Snooze. “Write an algorithm that will identify is a string is a palindrome?” Ugh.

But then I start building a game and suddenly, everything is fun, even when I groan at thinking about the geometry and trigonometry. It’s because those things suddenly aren’t just mathematics. They’re situated in my game as a core concept now. I don’t need to understand them for the sake of knowing them – I’m understanding them because I know that they’re useful to me, now.

I learned a lot on the fly, and suddenly I realized that programming isn’t just about what I know – but about how fast I can learn what I need to know. I didn’t know PyGame existed until the morning I decided to do Ludum Dare. I didn’t know how to blit a sprite to a screen before reading about it on my lunch break. I had never thought about sprite rectangles, mouse movements and controls, or drawing tiled backgrounds until the hour the competition started – so I learned those things with a lot of help from the Internet. I can’t say that I know all of those things well, even now… but I’ve done them before now and I can only improve from here.

So even if you’re not a hot-shot programmer, it’s not just about how well you program – it’s about how well you can get what you need done by learning what you need to learn.

Ludum Dare and self-esteem

I think a lot of people who post on this site have a lot of confidence – you have to to enter something that is billed (albiet weakly) as a competition. The games that get all of the press are the ones that have the shiniest graphics, the best lighting engines, the cutest artwork, the most thrilling sound. In the end, history remembers the winners, and all of the winners kind of blob up together into this gigantic “super-winner” amoeba where it feels like one guy participated in 30 Ludum Dares and came up with a hundred amazing games along with a procedural level generator and a memory-management allocation system in the span of a week. The secret though is that this mythical superhuman game programmer doesn’t exist. That programmer is really hundreds of individuals

I think one big lesson to learn from this is that very few of us are superhuman, and more importantly, the majority of people who participate in a Ludum Dare are normal people. They’re not all rock-star programmers, hotshot artists, or amazing musicians. They’re regular people and normal people. Just like you, just like me.

The second point to remember is that Ludum Dare isn’t really a competition. Sure, it’s about getting votes and comments and people get into the top list at the end, but in the end there’s no reward and there’s very few bragging rights. This really isn’t a competition.

I think a big outcome of these two points is that Ludum Dare is a showcase. It’s not just “how good your game is”. It’s the fact that you’ve managed to produce a game at all. No where else would I have been able to build almost any program in 48 hours and then, in the span of under a week (so far!) convince 50 people to play and download my game and leave constructive comments.

In that sense, everyone’s a winner. And even though I said above that almost everyone in Ludum Dare is a “normal person”, the fact that we’ve programmed something from absolutely nothing to a working, deliverable product in 48 hours (or in a team in 72 hours) makes every one of us extraordinary.

I hadn’t been as excited about something before as I had right after Ludum Dare – and I think that’s because that, as soon as I had finished, I realized that I had done something extraordinary. A few thousand of us, together, had each accomplished something to be proud of.

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