Game Developers Sail, Swim, And Code At 'Pirate Jam'

Seven days on a sailboat will get the creative juices flowing.
March 17, 2017, 11:00am
Image: American McGee

Debates about office productivity begin with a work space's layout.

First, there's the "closed office"—the classic, partitioned cubicle setup immortalized in every office drone satire. It allows for privacy, but also prioritizes space efficiency over aesthetics.

Image: Asa Wilson

An open office plan addresses closed office concerns, but at the sacrifice of productivity. Open plans can also breed distraction, conflict, increased blood pressure, and increased staff turnover.

But what if the solution to peak efficiency was neither open nor closed? What if the concept of the traditional white collar office, with its oppressive, regimented hours, was thrown out entirely? It's this more radical approach that led game developer American McGee to start Pirate Jam.

McGee is a pioneer of the modern 1st person shooter—he was a level designer and creative force behind Doom, Doom II, Quake, and Quake II. He is perhaps most famous for his dark take on Lewis Carroll stories; American McGee's Alice (2000) is a cult gaming classic. A sequel, Alice: Madness Returns (2011) met a similar, positive critical response.

Today, the Shanghai-based McGee has a new focus—on promoting and offering innovative ways for game designers to approach their developments. The first Pirate Jam, which took place earlier this year from February 10-17, was the pilot of that focus.

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A game jam is a social get-together, where developers create several, themed games within a short time frame. But whereas other game jams are intense, all-encompassing work sessions that last a day or three, Pirate Jam was seven days of sailing and adventuring around Thailand. The developers worked only five hours per day, usually in the local establishments at ports of call, on game engine Unity, which also sponsored the jam. Unity is also a long-time, headline sponsor of Global Game Jam, which last took place this past January.

"[The goal was to] put together a platform where development costs was really low, and the development itself was interesting enough that even non-developers might watch the vlogs [we create]," said McGee. "Maybe we do ten Pirate Jams, and only one of the created games is a Flappy Bird? But you're still looking at development and marketing costs that are less risky than what the traditional model looks like today. Plus, it's just a lot more fun."

The traditional game development process can be arduous, particularly near the end of its cycle, when developers struggle to meet deadlines. It's referred to as "crunch," and it consists of 12-18 hour days, for six or even seven days a week. No overtime pay. No compensation. It's 'just the way things are done.' One of the first exposés of this practice was a blog post by ea_spouse in 2004, who was outraged at his/her significant other's 85-hour work week.

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McGee, instead, sees the value of working in "bursts"—of intensely laboring for short, scheduled time periods and interspersing them with play and downtime. There is research to support this work model; the makers of surveillance software DeskTime report that efficient office workers work in 52-minute blocks, alternated with 17-minute breaks.

"When I first came to Shanghai, I did away with working overtime," said McGee. "I did away with working weekends. I wanted to create a completely different culture from what I saw in the traditional Western development studios. I wanted to create a studio built around quality of life. When you have happy, healthy people, you're going to get greater output [from them]."

Image: American McGee

"Everyone at Pirate Jam, before they came out, said, 'We're not sure if we're going to have enough time to produce something,' recalled McGee. "But everyone came away saying it was the most productive, most efficient, most creative jam they had ever experienced. So clearly, there's something to this—of giving yourself the space to think about what you're working on as much as you're actually working on it."

South African game designer Evan Greenwood, one of the participants in Pirate Jam, works and lives out of the same Capetown building. And as a self-admitted workaholic, Greenwood struggles to effectively balance his work life with the rest of his life.

"What was different about Pirate Jam [from other jams] was this enforced period of traveling," said Greenwood in an interview with Motherboard. "We'd have to cool down and enjoy each other's company. Seven days is a very long period to try and make one thing. But my focus, attention, and energy were very high."

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"There is also something about being in a beautiful place," added Greenwood. "It creates a sense of awe, and it's a destresser, where one feels less time pressure. The downtime was longer than I would have given myself if I had just been working in the office. I would have tried to work to the end of every day."

Image: Evan Greenwood

The theme of Pirate Jam was impermanence, and Greenwood created an role playing game in reverse; rather than leveling up to become more powerful, the player starts off powerful and then levels down, by choosing which skills and strengths to discard. The game, called Ascend, is available for download, along with another jam-created game, on Pirate Jam's official website.

"There was a real sense of camaraderie," recalled Greenwood. "It was exceptional at Pirate Jam, and it had to do with being disconnected [from the world] and forming a new family unit."

McGee hopes to have another Pirate Jam crew setting sail before the end of the year—perhaps another collection of disparate game developers from across the globe, or perhaps a single game company that wants to go on a retreat. McGee wants to get the word out; he knows it takes trust for people to fly halfway around the world for such an undertaking.

"Some of the developers told me, some days into it, that they had no idea what they were getting into," said McGee. "The six people who came along were very adventurous souls. But now that we got it done and have video footage, people can see that it's a real thing. I think that will raise interest for doing more of [these jams] in the future."