Carrying a bowl of ice cubes and various cups, Trevor Dodd settled into his recording studio — consisting of a folding table, keyboard, and a computer in the corner of his bedroom — for an afternoon of recording sound effects.
“Let’s try this first,” Dodd said while clinking ice cubes together, pouring water and drinking it, creating exaggerated sounds for an audio recording.
Dodd is the composer and sound designer for Punch Card, a digital card game that he and his teammates created as a part of Portland’s Summer Slow Jams event. Video game “jams” are events where participants make video games from scratch in a relatively short period of time. They usually have a quick, 48-hour deadline, but these “slow jams” in Portland give participants a few weeks to build their games.
Summer Slow Jams are hosted by the Portland Indie Game Squad, also called PIGSquad, a nonprofit organization that hosts workshops and events for game developers in the Portland area.
This is the group’s eighth year hosting the Summer Slow Jams. It holds three slow jams over the course of the summer: one in July, August and September.
“We call them ‘Summer Slow Jams’ because you can take your time with them: they’re usually around two weeks or even longer,” PIGSquad officer Marlowe Dobbe said. “And the goal of that is just to be able to sustain doing one every summer month and it being something that’s fun and enjoyable.”
Each slow jam also has its own theme. The most recent August Slow Jam theme was “boss fight” and “dreams and nightmares.”
Every solo or team developer can interpret the theme in any way, whether the player is fighting a classic monster “boss” or their literal boss at an office job.
Building up Portland’s indie game community
PIGSquad formed in 2011 to build Portland’s indie game community. Summer Slow Jams are one of many different events it hosts.
“One of our huge goals is just around access and providing tech and creative education and networking in the Portland area and on for a greater community online and beyond,” founder Will Lewis said.
In addition to game jams, PIGSquad hosts Talent Talks, a lecture series where indie game developers can share their experiences, teach new skills, and network with other video game makers. They also livestream free workshops about coding and game design.
Lewis credits the success and growth of PIGSquad to the community’s code of conduct and dedication to hosting safe events for people to create games.
“You are going to come in and you’re gonna make yourself vulnerable by sharing your ideas,” Lewis said, “You’re going to share something about yourself, you are going to learn about what other people are doing. And there can’t be a possibility that you are going to be made fun of or that you’re going to have your personal boundaries broken.”
Creating Punch Card
PIGSquad has grown to host events that attract hundreds of people across the country, including Dodd and the rest of the team developing Punch Card.
Dodd worked alongside six other teammates to create the digital card game. In addition to sound effects, Dodd composed music that sets the scene.
The team’s project manager, who goes by Dev, said the game has the player take on the role of an office worker fighting their boss.
“You’re going to have a manager for the day. That manager is going to assign you tasks. And those tasks are like little monsters that attack your health bar,” Dev said. “And your goal is to play these cards that represent various strategies of slacking off to avoid the work that your boss is giving you without avoiding so much work that you get fired.”
For the battle music, Dodd stretched his composing skills to create elevator music with a twist.
“I ended up making some really jazzy sounding music and then putting some weird kind of effects underneath it, so that was a really unique creative challenge,” Dodd said.
The Punch Card team members first met at a meet-and-greet event for the August Slow Jam. Besides Dodd and Dev, others worked as game designers, programmers and artists.
Hanna Alvelais, who created the art and animation for the game, had the important job of designing the characters and monsters. For the monsters, Alvelais looked at reference images of paper textures and shapes for inspiration on Google, then found ways to make them look like enemies the player would fight in an office-based video game.
“Just adding crazy eyes or teeth or various animal-looking parts and just trying to make them look monstrous, but also tired and boring to fit that sort of monotone office vibe we’re going for,” Alvelais said.
Unlike major video game companies such as Nintendo or Sony Interactive Entertainment, which have multiple large development teams creating different games at once, Dodd, Alvelais and Dev are indie game developers. That means they work independently or in a small team to create games. While some indie games such as Among Us and Undertale may have achieved major success, many more are not as well known.
The Punch Card team consists of people of different skill sets and experiences, and many hope to develop video games fulltime.
For Dodd, he wants to be a part of the next innovative game.
“I’d love to be a part of… games that are really pushing forward the medium of video games and storytelling and what that can do,” Dodd said, “That would be the dream for me… and then maybe 10 years down the line, some other person will become inspired by what I’ve done and I can pay forward the inspiration.”
As someone who is coming out of burnout from making video games, Dev used the slow jam event to gradually get back into making games again. For them, the greatest part of making a video game is to watch a player’s reaction.
“When you’re watching somebody play your game and you can see the emotion in their eyes, doesn’t matter what it is, I can’t help but just sit back and smile,” Dev said.
Pandemic impact on video game developers
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, PIGSquad organizers held all of their events in person, including the slow jams. Now, they hold every event remotely.
PIGSquad uses the messaging platform Discord to communicate, hold discussions and provide game-making resources. Events are also held virtually on Twitch, a livestream platform where event hosts stream gameplay or hold workshops while interacting with a live chat.
Despite operating remotely for over two years, PIGSquad events still attract hundreds of developers, with 234 participants in the latest slow jam.
For Alvelais, working with her Punch Card teammates remotely has brought challenges, but also opportunities.
“I wish I could interact with my team in person, but it’s also cool because we have some people in our team who aren’t in the Portland area, so that makes it possible for us to work with people from anywhere, really,” Alvelais said.
The pandemic also significantly affected the entire video game industry. A survey conducted by the Game Developers Conference in 2020 showed that 97% of video game developers worked from home in 2020. While the video game industry grew by 20% in 2020, major video game companies across the globe delayed new game releases that same year.
Even big-name titles like the latest release of Halo, a popular first-person shooter franchise, experienced delays because of the pandemic. Because developers could not have the direct conversations they used to in an office setting, they lost a major source of innovation and collaboration.
The future of Portland’s indie game developers
In the future, Lewis and Dobbe hope COVID cases will decrease to the point where they can host in-person events again.
They want to host professional development events for the community by flying in speakers.
“So many people have been with PIGSquad for so long and they really do know what they’re doing now,” Lewis said. “They really have had so many different experiences in making games together that they are either ready or just really want to try out what it looks like to take a game from start to finish and make it a commercial product.”
Another event Lewis hopes to host is a convention for game developers that would draw in people locally and beyond.
“We know that we could really pull something off special and put Portland more on the map with regard to having something in town that very much celebrates independent creatives that are focusing on games,” Lewis said.
Participants submitted more than 40 games to the slow jam. They are now available for the public to play for free.