When you release a movie to the world, that’s it. The movie is in the wild and — unless you’re George Lucas or Francis Ford Coppola — a director doesn’t get a second chance to fix or tweak plot holes later. Music is similarly limited to this release method — although Kanye West has taken to issuing “patch notes” for an album to much derision by critics and fans.
However, video games haven’t been limited to one-and-done releases since dial-up internet. They’re updated, tweaked, broken, unbroken, expanded, and sometimes entirely rebuilt. This process of change, which was once ridiculed by some players, is no longer limited to the most well-financed and notable video game developers — it’s now an expected feature.
This is all possible because of the interactive relationship game developers have with their audience of fans and players — thanks to technology like social media.
The video game Sort the Court! has been patched and grown into a more complete game since it was released as a small prototype built over a weekend in downtown Winnipeg.
Three days may seem like an impossibly short amount of time to build a complete video game, and it is. Mega-hit games like Uncharted, Call of Duty, and The Witcher took years and hundreds of developers to bring to life.
Winnipeg-based indie game developers Graeme Borland, 28, and Amy Gerardy, 29, were surprised when they found — or more accurately were found by — an audience of millions online for their very incomplete, funny, and gentle game, Sort the Court! The couple’s game would eventually be found by one of YouTube’s most famous personalities: Markiplier.
Game jams are sport-like events where programmers, graphic artists, musicians, and other creatives gather to create a functioning game in a short span of time. The size of the events vary wildly, ranging from a group of friends plugging away on their computers at a friend’s home to a train passenger car full of game developers, like Train Jam. Participants will usually vote on a single theme or goal for the event.
On a chilly December weekend in 2015, Borland and Gerardy, who had attended several local game jams by that point, set up their computers in an old brick warehouse in Winnipeg’s Exchange District for the 34th Ludum Dare game jam. In a first for the three-day event, the theme was a tie between “two button controls” and “growing.” Borland and Gerardy chose both.
Borland and Gerardy formed a team with their composer and friend Bogdan Rybak. The two brainstormed a concept for the game on the first day, Friday, while Bogdan lent his musical talents to other projects at the event.
Borland wrote the code and dialogue for the project. A seven-year veteran of games development and Tech Director of Owlchemy Labs, he taught himself programming after seeing how 2002’s The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was made. Its creators, Bethesda Game Studios, lifted the veil on making the first completely 3D game in the series by demonstrating the game’s incomplete features. What stuck in Borland’s mind were the simple things that were revolutionary in a time when 3D role playing games (RPGs) were emerging in games: wireframe (coloured, skeletal, outlines of objects) models of caves and wooden boards.
“Look, this house has a board on it and we made the board,” says Borland, smiling as he recalls the developers’ videos. “There really wasn’t anything like it, and that’s so not special now, but them being excited about it made me excited about it.”
Of the dozen or so attendees, experience in creating games ranged from those with years in the industry, like Borland and Gerardy, to hobbyists still learning the ropes of the craft. For game development newcomers like Jake Carewick, Ludum Dare 34 was his first game jam, and the first time he would release a complete video game: MapleCopter. Carewick only knew how to write code for his game in one programming language, but the community at the event helped him change that.
That collaborative and supportive spirit was rife at the event with developers running out to get donuts for each other and bringing takeout back so they could stay at their computers longer.
For Borland and Gerardy, one of their biggest challenges wasn’t figuring out dinner but deciding on a scope for the game. It needed to be finished by the third and final day, Sunday, and still be something players would connect with and want to keep playing.
“You want to design it to be played for 10 or 15 minutes tops. You’re not trying to make a full game; you’re trying to make a toy that’s entertaining, and people see the potential in,” says Borland.
They landed on creating a city building game in a cartoon fantasy kingdom. Players would take on the role of a king sitting atop a throne in the eponymous court as outlandish characters entered the room, and they had to answer “yes” or “no” to the procession of royal subjects’ increasingly silly requests. The cast of characters include Chester, a people-eating treasure chest, and Molder and Skelly, alien investigators who arrive with X-Files jokes in-hand.
With the concept for the game established, they got to work at a dizzying pace.
Gerardy created the game’s art, a task she was familiar with as a former artist at Complex Games then freelance developer for the past seven years. She grew up wanting to create art and found her inspiration in Japanese RPGs like Tales of Symphonia and Final Fantasy X. The games, known for their vibrantly coloured worlds steeped in magic, drew Gerardy in with their rich stories and characters.
“When you read a book, you’re projecting yourself onto the characters and it’s the same way in games,” says Gerardy. “Games make you feel like you have a part in the experience.”
As a teenager, Gerardy loved the feeling of discovery inside the fantasy worlds, but it was the incidental details game developers added to the games that stuck with her the most. Those seemingly minor details, like the way a hero cocked their head in frustration, or a nook created under a house only she could find, brought games to life.
“The world has to be worth exploring,” says Gerardy.
Rybak, who worked on the music from home, visited Borland and Gerardy on Saturday to check on the progress and was blown away by the couple’s wealth of game content.
“I saw this crazy huge Photoshop file where Amy had been adding the different characters, and I said, ‘Holy crap how did you guys manage to do this so fast,’” says Rybak.
“We needed to have as many characters as possible to make this interesting,” says Gerardy. “I was literally drawing characters as fast as I could and gave myself 20 minutes per drawing. I ended up with 50-something characters.”
Gerardy handed over batches of characters on a USB to Borland who brought them into the game, then improvised dialogue and stories. Their inspiration — the vibrantly coloured and bizarre cartoon with a heart, Adventure Time.
“You get characters coming out of nowhere like, ‘I’m Green Timmy and I’m green, LETS GO!’” Borland says with a laugh.
Gerardy’s bright and warmly-coloured artwork paired with Borland’s improvised silliness turned out to be a perfect fit for the game. When it came time to playtest the game on Sunday, players at the event saw more than 15 minutes of fun in a prototype and loved it.
“There was laughter unlike any of the other games,” says Carewick. “People crowded around and there was an energy about it. You could tell there’s something special; like the people who created it had fun and part of their personality and spirit is in it.”
The team submitted their game to the website itch.io, where players could play the game from anywhere in the world from their browser window. After the event finished, the Ludum Dare community ate the game up. Voting by the community began online within the week and Sort the Court! rocketed up the list of entries. Their final position of the 2,865 game jam entries from across the world?
Ludum Dare doesn’t offer prizes — “your prize is your product,” says their official rules page — but the podium finish was satisfying. The team went back to their day jobs and forgot about Sort the Court! for a few weeks.
However, YouTube personalities ensured their three-day creation wouldn’t be forgotten for long. The team soon discovered the simplicity of their prototype game was a perfect fit for YouTubers and their millions of viewers.
Finding success in the age of social media is often a mix of skill, practice, and luck. You need a marketing plan to reach your audience, trailers to grab their attention, a store page to sell them your game, and an endearing social media personality to hold their interest. This is particularly true for independently made video games — indie games — that lack the financial power of billion-dollar publishing giants like Microsoft or Electronic Arts.
Nobody outside of YouTube knows exactly how YouTube serves each person its “Recommended” and “Up Next” videos, but we know a little thanks to papers released by YouTube’s parent company, Google.
When you first load YouTube.com, the videos you see are not the same as what your neighbour or what someone sitting beside you sees when they load the site. This is because YouTube’s “Recommended” and “Up Next” videos are based on what each viewer watched, searched for, subscribed to, and where they’re located. What you get is an algorithm-created buffet of videos served just for you.
Gaming YouTubers hungry for video content often search Ludum Dare event entries for new games to play. Borland and Gerardy believe that Sort the Court!’s third place finish in Ludum Dare 34 is where French YouTuber Amixem found the game. Amixem recorded himself playing the game (often called a “Let’s Play” style video) while creating voices for the various characters and playing off the silly situations posed by the characters. Four years and 2.8 million views later, the video still receives comments from viewers.
Sort the Court!’s simple gameplay, answering “yes” or “no” to Tweet-sized questions from a stream of royal subjects and a lack of voiced characters, lent itself well to creative YouTubers wanting to perform for their audiences. Sort the Court! gave them room to react to silly situations as they played the game, insert their own personality into decisions, and translate it for non-English speakers.
“All the limitations from having to create it in three days unintentionally became positives for the YouTube community,” says Borland. “It was only like that because we had to make it small and fast, but it turns out to be the perfect match for YouTube where someone has a shorter attention span; they see the joke, the character leaves, and now it’s a new improv moment.”
YouTubers loved it and, despite still being a prototype with no ending or its own story, it spread gradually over the months with hundreds of videos in several languages.
The viral nature of Let’s Play culture on YouTube — where YouTubers see other content creators play a game, play it themselves, and share it to their viewers who then create their own Let’s Play video — kept the wave of attention going for eight months. Eventually, Sort the Court! was found by YouTube personality and eight-year veteran of the platform, Markiplier, and he shared it with his tens of millions of subscribers in August 2016.
“I guess we should update it now,” says Borland with a laugh. “It was a runaway train at that point.”
Markiplier included a link to the game’s itch.io page and asked his viewers to support the developers — and they did.
Rybak’s personal SoundCloud profile, which hosts his work including music from Sort the Court!, began receiving kind and encouraging comments from fans — comments he still receives on the page.
Suddenly, the comments on the game’s itch.io page were flooded with requests asking for new content, bug fixes, and giving all sorts of feedback. Itch.io provides each game a comment section and, when the comments become too much to handle, developers can convert them into a discussion board.
The new board filled with posts from players and, as of April 2020, is still receiving comments from players hoping for new content and fixes. In August of 2016, Borland and Gerardy were taken aback by the response from players.
“It blindsided us,” says Borland. “[A player would say] I don’t know about this game; I’ve played for an hour and I’ve already run out of content.”
“Why have you played this game for an hour?!” Gerardy says, laughing.
Borland and Gerardy got to work watching the videos from Markiplier and other YouTubers. It wasn’t just to see people enjoying their work; the Let’s Play videos turned out to be the perfect way to playtest the game for bugs and find new ideas for content. One problem they noticed was the game’s lack of an ending, since it kept throwing the same pool of characters at players in a loop.
“I was trying to make a game that would facilitate a better video because people would just trail off as they ran out,” says Borland. “It wasn’t that the game was bad; I felt bad because their video had to end awkwardly, so we had to add an ending.”
With each update of new characters, stories, bug fixes, and endings, YouTubers would make more videos. Markiplier would go on to make three videos (the third arrived in November 2018 after another update) and, with each video, the game saw renewed interest that drove more traffic to the game. Four years later in March 2020, YouTube videos of Sort the Court! have earned tens of millions of views. Markiplier’s videos alone have garnered over 24 million views and drawn the attention of local fans in Winnipeg.
Carewick met Borland and Gerardy before Ludum Dare 34 through his event Indie Alley. The event, which ran alongside the semi-annual gaming party BaseLAN in 2015 and 2016 at the RBC Convention Centre, brought local developers together to show off their games to thousands of attendees.
The events enabled developers to connect with players, promote local game development, and playtest their games in front of huge crowds without having to invest in expensive advertising campaigns. While nerve-wracking at times, Carewick says the opportunity to be face-to-face with your players was invaluable.
“Kids, you know, are honest,” says Carewick smiling as he recalls the bluntness of players who came to each booth to play games.
Moonradish, a local studio comprised of Rybak and several other local developers, brought their game Wand Wars to Indie Alley as a way to market the game while also collecting feedback. Like the YouTube videos Borland and Gerardy sifted through, seeing players’ reactions proved key to shaping the game.
“It’s a really sobering experience,” says Rybak. “You see the good things about your game, but you also see where people are confused or aren’t into the game.”
By the time Gerardy and Borland brought Sort the Court! to Indie Alley in the fall of 2016, it had been updated several times and seen millions of times by Markiplier’s fans. For them, the experience of meeting wasn’t just about collecting feedback from players in person; it was also personal.
“Kids would walk by and say, ‘That’s the game Markiplier played!” says Borland.
Gerardy recalled one attendee who stood out to the couple.
“One kid said he used to read it to his younger brother since he couldn’t read.”
Now, more than four years after building the prototype of Sort the Court! and over 4 million plays on itch.io, Borland and Gerardy have stopped patching the game so they can focus on other things. Borland is intent on building his career making VR games with Owlchemy Labs, and Gerardy isn’t quite sure what’s next, but she’s been reading a lot of comics lately.
One thing that won’t change is their love for game jams and creating games. The couple intends to go to the next game jam held in Winnipeg and enjoy the creative freedom the events afford.
Borland’s face lights up as he thinks about why he keeps going back to the jams.
“The fact you can make something complete and as complicated as a game in three days is crazy.”
Gerardy smiles when asked about what it feels like to make a game over a weekend.
“It just feels powerful.”
Click here to play Sort the Court! now.