October 04, 2012

Ludum Dare and Forced Community Participation

I’ve been reflecting on my Ludum Dare experience for a couple of weeks now.

I’d heard of Ludum Dare, mostly through friends on Twitter posting updates about it. I’d also done hackathons and game competitions before, so I kind of went in to it assuming it would work more or less like those that I’d already done. It doesn’t. Ludum Dare is definitely its own thing. The first thing that struck me when signing up for it was that the whole thing runs on WordPress. Once you create an account, you land on the admin page showing ~30,000 posts. As a developer, my first thought was just: “what the hell?” How can that possibly work? I poked around the admin for a bit, then went back to the home page. Sure enough, there’s just an unending stream of posts coming through, and anyone can sign up and just start posting. Again–how can it possibly work? How do spammers not just fill it with porn and penis enhancers? How does anyone find anything? Maybe it works because the community is small enough right now, but how could it possibly scale? All those questions ultimately don’t matter–for now it does work, and it works pretty well.

Clicking on a username (like mine: http://www.ludumdare.com/compo/author/simianlogic/) takes you to a stream of their activity. Likewise, clicking on a tag can get you to the stream for a particular competition (i.e. http://www.ludumdare.com/compo/category/ld-24/). The vast majority of games on the site are barely working prototypes, abandoned after competitions end. Skill levels vary wildly, most of the art is terrible… yet it works. The whole thing is just filled to the brim with optimism–which is to say, lacking the pessimism that seems to pervade most indie game hangouts. For those that are making a real go at games as a living, the idea of sharing an idea is almost toxic. What if someone steals my idea? What if they think the game sucks and won’t buy it later? All that paranoia is mostly unfounded. Making a game is fucking hard, and it’s a near-miracle that anyone ever finishes a game of any size. But still… don’t ask me what I’m working on currently. That cynic attitude is entirely missing from the Ludum Dare community.

You can click on the link above to see what I worked on in LD48, but the TLDR; version is that I only had ~12 hours to work on it, but got a Flash prototype up and running with no “real” sound, graphics, or levels implemented… I didn’t even make it to “evolution” parts of the prototype. At competition end, I was expecting a selection committee would play through the 1000-odd entries (really? 1000 games in 48 hours?) and winners would be announced within the week. Instead, there was an announcement that the games were now in “judgement” and that everyone should try to play and rate at least 25 games.

*eyes roll*

First thought: there it is–the community works because of forced participation. My only other experience with such a system is the XBox Live Indie Game channel, which is forced participation in the absolute worst way. The only way for a game to go live is to have at least three other people peer review your game: download it, flash it to the XBox, and then spend a couple of hours trying to make it crash. Peer review is miserable, and the only reason people do it is because they have to in the hopes of a quid-pro-quo review from someone else. Because of the forced participation, you end up with a forum full of people who don’t really want to be there but feel compelled to try and be “visible” so other people can see that they have a game in review.

It was a huge surprise, then, that LD’s “forced” participation doesn’t suck. For one thing, everyone has just made a game in the same 48-or-72-hour block of time, which means there are now ~1000-1400 people looking for feedback instead of the handful of XBox Live Indie developers who are ready for peer review at any given time. “Reviewing” a game really just means playing it for half an hour or so and rating it on a couple of metrics like fun and sound quality. Because you’re playing to play and not trying to see if it crashes when you unplug a memory card while saving, the experience isn’t that tedious.

Participation also quickly becomes a positive feedback loop. I played a few games after the competition ended out of curiosity, just to see how far other people made it (well, really, how behind I was compared to other entries). Every time I’d rate a few games, I’d notice that my game would pop back to the front page of the reviews. Interesting. There are actually algorithms working behind the scenes of the entry listings to try to guarantee quid pro quo reviews. If you review a lot of games, your game will be much more visible and therefore receive a lot more reviews.

At that point reviews and comments on your own game become sort of a drug. I’d refresh the page every couple of hours to see if I had any new comments–much like launching a game on Kongregate or Newgrounds but without, you know, the effort of actually finishing a game. No reviews for a few hours? Shit, then, just go play a few more games and wait. How’d I do? Not great in competition terms (#442 out of 1000), but I scored well in the two categories that matter for a prototype: innovation (#31) and fun (#239). The whole thing was a pretty fun experience, though!

Other random takeaways:

  • Because I’m lazy, I was only playing web-based games (unity, javascript, flash)–it would have made my life a lot easier if there was a filter for only web games, but I can see how that might break the tit-for-tat review process.
  • I was amazed at how many of the entries had sound. For me, sound is always the very last thing added to a game. That tells me that either (a) I’m putting way too little emphasis on sound or (b) if I want to “do well” i should pay more attention to the scoring categories.
  • It would be cool if each entry had to submit an estimate for how many hours they got to work on the game. It’d be interested to see a graph of hours-spent vs final ranking.