What it's like to ride shotgun on a moving game creation festival and take a cross-country pilgrimage to the Game Developer Conference in San Francisco.
I'm shooting down 2,400 miles of American railroad and I'm torn. What's more impressive: The breathtaking scenery outside the California Zephyr's windows, or Train Jam 2016, the greatest game jam experience a developer could hope for?
Game jams see game developers come together in small teams to make video games in a very short space of time. Every jam is different. Some happen in a single location, some are synchronised events spread all over the world, some have prizes attached, some are designed to create topical education games.
As for Train Jam, it's one of the most famous game jams around. Taking place on Amtrak's second longest train route -- Chicago to San Francisco -- over three days, Train Jam delivers its payload of game designers and bright ideas to the annual Game Developers Conference, GDC.
As game jams have spread and grown, people don't feel a need to travel internationally to attend them. Train Jam's attachment to GDC, which attracts tens of thousands from across the globe, gives the jam a most international flavour. More than 200 people are taking part here from all corners -- Australia to Zambia, South Africa to South America, Pakistan to Mexico, as well as many Americans and Europeans. The cultural diversity packed into this observation car provides a density of inspiration for the creative minds on board.
This is Train Jam's third year, and it has almost doubled in size every year since its inception. Train Jam organiser and independent game developer Adriel Wallick pulls it all together with the support of sponsors and volunteers.
"It makes me feel very happy that I get to give this experience to people," says Wallick. "They get to meet a bunch of people from all over the world, make new friends, have this really cool journey experience. This pilgrimage to GDC."
Adriel Wallick, Train Jam Organiser, takes in the view on the journey to GDC. photo: Izzy Gramp
As we travel through the Rocky Mountains, snow-draped peaks give way to impossibly deep canyons. Meanwhile, a team of experienced jammers from Europe work on a project with an American to make a game that uses accelerometers to measure the movement of the train, extrapolating and exaggerating it, then piping it into a VR headset. The experience is designed to trick the player into believing the movements they're physically feeling are far more intense than reality.
"It's a great way to find your sea legs in the indie community," says jammer Jesse. "We're surviving together, sharing an experience. Some people worry about packing introverts onto a train and forcing them to work together, but I see it as a chance to extend outside your comfort zone."
I join other visitors in awe at the mesas, fissures and plateaus of Colorado. Here I find a team working on a multiplayer crafting game about cows that eat emoji. The emoji combine in their stomachs to make complex items for use in future combinations. This concept was born of the limited Internet access available as we shoot across Middle-America, requiring developers to make use of assets they already had on their computers.
Energy wanes and waxes over the journey, but as the train closes in on California, the sound of small talk giving way to friendship is everywhere. People have forged relationships here to serve them as they build their future careers in the games industry.
As these 200 venture forth into the 26,000 gathered for GDC, having new allies and fresh ideas to share makes for a remarkable launching point.
"At the end they even get to show off their games at the largest game development conference in the world," says Wallick. "It's just such a cool opportunity for so many people. 'Wow, I just got to show off my game at GDC, I never thought I'd be able to do that!'"