Tuesday 4 October 2016

Guest Blog: Hosting a VR Gamejam

Earlier this month, we hosted a 24hr Oculus Touch VR Hackathon at The Old Market Theatre in Hove, UK as part of their #TOMTech series of events that run over the course of the month-long September “Brighton Digital Festival”.

The lucky winners clutching their prizes, with judges from Unity & VR Focus

The purpose of holding the event was to allow access to unreleased technology that many indie developers interested in Virtual Reality hadn’t been able to get their hands on, as well as expanding knowledge and understanding of VR development as a whole, whilst promoting community and building relationships within the local area.

The overall winners

Attendees came from nearby or far away, with one flying over from Prague specifically for the event as Oculus Rift is not available there yet, let alone the Oculus Touch motion-tracked controllers. Over the course of a day, night and a bit of the following morning, two working minigames were created as a result and the winners judged by representatives of Unity and VR Focus.

We decided to include the two working mini-games into the vrLAB showcase (something we were also co-hosting at the theatre over the following few days) as a reward to the developers.

Runners-up with special recognition for fun factor

In a short period of time, we were able to reach out and gain support direct from Oculus through our existing relationship manager, via the provision of Oculus Rift VR headsets and Oculus Touch controllers for the teams to use. Sponsorship came in the form of last minute saviours AMD providing x5 VR-Ready PCs so that each team had a VR-capable machine to develop / test on.

Food and drink was provided by our other main sponsor Unity, who have a local office in Brighton and love to support the community. Promotion sponsorship was assisted by local organisations Wired Sussex and Brighton Digital Catapult Centre who are co-sponsors of the overall TOMTech events.

Whilst this was our first hackathon / gamejam that we had organised and it was successful overall, there were some key lessons we learned that will share with you now, ready for next time or if you want to host your own. We had reached out to a couple of seasoned gamejam and VR hackathon event organisers in the US, namely Eva Hoerth (@downtohoerth) who provided some excellent advice, which will be included below.

Lessons Learned

  1. Hold it on day/s / night/s that are easy for people to attend - due to scheduling of other events around the day we had available, our hackathon had to be held on a Thursday leading into Friday and only ran for 24hrs. Allow more time for more development, more sleep and hold it over a weekend when people are able to not have to juggle work commitments and attend.
  2. Charge a nominal fee - whilst free is always best and most attractive, charging a small fee for events organised on Eventbrite helps guarantee signed-up attendee actually appear on the day. Donate the money to a worthy related charity or towards the food / drinks if you do not want to appear to be profiteering.
  3. Make sure teams have appropriate hardware to develop on - whilst it is typical that gamejams require devs to bring their own dev hardware i.e. laptops usually, the nature of VR means that a minimum spec VR-Ready PC is needed for efficient development, prototyping and importantly, testing on. Whilst we initially planned on having one or two available for all teams to hop onto, AMD providing a PC for each team was a life-saver.
  4. Make sure there is adequate internet access, wired and wifi, so that teams are able to access asset stores, tutorials, necessary software patches and installers that they may not have setup prior to the event (NB. We provided a long list of required tools for the development environment with Unity, Oculus SDKs and links to tutorials etc in the event listing but still, prepare for the unprepared.)
  5. Run workshops prior to the main development event itself with experienced developers in the area/s related to the gamejam presenting talks and tutorials - developers of all ranges and abilities will be interested in attending and whilst you can pair novice with expert level devs, it’s best to provide a grounding in the design processes, methodologies and technical aspects of VR development so that everyone can start feeling confident and focused on the long hours ahead. We unfortunately could not arrange this in time but will do for the next one.
  6. Ensure that there is enough breakout space for teams to spread out and setup their own design and development area as they wish - we were lucky in that we had the whole main hall of a theatre to use so space wasn’t an issue for us with the number of attendees we had.
  7. Ensure that there is enough quiet space for developers to sleep and/or take a break - whilst our hackathon was only 24hrs, devs took off approx’ 5 hrs each on average away from coding to sleep with short breaks between to eat, drink, walk about and stretch their legs. With a longer event with higher number of attendees, this would have to be factored in but from experience, a sleeping bag under a desk or on a sofa is good enough for many. We were fortunate in that the theatre had a host of interconnected rooms for a variety of purposes, from the green room with long sofas and lazy boys, to dressing rooms, bar area, back stage and more. Sleeping in a dressing room made up to reflect The Guardian’s “6x9” 360º film solitary confinement experience was a little un-nerving however.
  8. In relation to point 7., as organisers be prepared to have a shift team rotating presence throughout the event or as with ours being 24hrs, be prepared to sleep at the venue too - this ensures that you see what’s going on, can monitor any issues that arise, troubleshoot technically and maintain a sense of connection to the developers working away.
  9. Ensure that your event is open to all, inclusive, encourages diversity and everyone of any ability - developers want to create experiences, no matter their background or interests, in a safe, unthreatening environment. Whilst personally haven’t witnessed any issues in this country, advice from abroad was to ensure all genders are made to feel welcome and valued, especially in an industry that typically tends to be male-dominated. Have clear guidelines as to outcomes of unacceptable behaviour.
  10. Have fun! Don’t forget the purpose is to create games or interactive experiences that whilst under pressure from the clock, stress around development and organisation can and should be reduced so that everyone has a good

Uniquely mostly for the event we ran in relation to the subsequent VR showcase, remember also that things created quickly aren’t going to be the most stable or bug-free finished products, nor are they necessarily going to be designed for repeated use by the general public at that state of development.

Whilst putting the resulting two finished mini-games into the vrLAB showcase was received very well by all who tried them, bugs and real-world usage resulted in more time than expected having to be spent running the installations and even a couple of Oculus Rifts getting broken. But they had fun, we had fun and we would totally do it all again (in fact we will be in December, watch this

By Sam Watts

Sam Watts has been involved in interactive, immersive content production for over 15 years, from learning development and simulation to AAA and casual games. Currently employed as Operations Lead for Make REAL and Game Producer for Tammeka, he keeps busy by evangelising the possibilities and real world benefits of immersive technologies like VR and AR to anyone who will listen. Tammeka’s first VR game ‘Radial-G : Racing Revolved’ launched alongside Oculus Rift in March and HTC Vive in April 2016. Make REAL are currently powering the McDonald’s “Follow Our Foodsteps” VR farming experiences at numerous agricultural and countryside shows around the

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