Brian Jamison (right) and team at Jumpdrive HQ in Southeast Portland.

Brian Jamison (right) and team at Jumpdrive HQ in Southeast Portland.

April Baer/Oregon Public Broadcasting

Brian Jamison is so done with the whole elf thing.

Jamison has developed a number of web-based video games, working for well-known companies like Sony and Atari, as well as several other varieties of tech startups.

“I was working on a game,” he remembered, “and it didn’t have elves and dwarves.  And somebody said to me, ‘You really need to have elves and dwarves.’  You know, the world’s got a lot of games with elves and dwarves in it! I kind of think as a species, maybe we’ve hit our universal limit on elves and dwarves.”

That conversation planted the seed for Jamison’s transition to an elf-free life in Portland. He moved up here to found Jumpdrive Studios. His team of five just scored a big win. Jumpdrive’s new game, “XO,” has racked up enough crowdfunding and fan momentum to break into a key indie game community platform, STEAM. That means “XO” will soon be available to hundreds of thousands of new players, globally.

Courtesy of Jumpdrive Studios

The story of how “XO” got to this point is a study — not just in crowdfunding, but in crowdsourced ideas about what a game should be. The early concept was pretty technical, heavy on strategy and the coolest, most Newtonian space flight experience the team could cook up.

“XO” players command a fleet of starships up against a well-armed, vastly larger enemy. The players’ point of view moves around in space, and players have to decide when to fight, when to stop and save civilians, and when to run. 

“If you were NASA planning the trajectories for your ships, like the recent Pluto fly-by, you’d do a dynamic simulation, have a bunch of computers figure optimal spots to thrust and rotate. We can’t do that!,” Dominic Mandy, Jumpdrive’s technical director said. “People aren’t going to be playing our game on a supercomputer. I tried to come up with a system where we break down trajectories into basic movements, traveling in a straight line, a circle. It became a geometric problem. “

Technical director Dominic Mandy has burned through plenty of dry-erase markers doing the math that gives "XO" its signature flight style.

Technical director Dominic Mandy has burned through plenty of dry-erase markers doing the math that gives “XO” its signature flight style.

April Baer/Oregon Public Broadcasting

A lot of developers hunker down until their games are complete. Jumpdrive took their show on the road — as early as three months into development.

In the course of six trips over the past year, to places like Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, PAX Prime and iFest in Seattle, Jumpdrive showed its barely-formed concept to hundreds of people.

Lead developer Justin Pando said Jumpdrive “put the game in front of people as soon as humanly possible. So we expected a lot of confusion and difficulty in understanding what we want people to get out of the experience.”

But Pando said the team was not prepared for just how different player experience was from what they imagined.

“(In early versions) we put a giant objectives thing in the top corner of the screen that says ‘Do this!’ and we brought it in front of everybody. And they didn’t read it!” he laughed. “We’ve been adding tons of visual indicators that kind of guide your eyes without you having to think about it.”  

Jamison said the team decided to introduce a rather dangerous element into their carefully-crafted space flight procedural: people.

"You've got people in your fleet who have conflicting opinions about what you should do. Whoever you go with ... they'll like you more if you choose their option."

“You’ve got people in your fleet who have conflicting opinions about what you should do. Whoever you go with … they’ll like you more if you choose their option.”

Courtesy of Jumpdrive Studios

“We found on the road that we began talking about the political system, and that made people light up and completely transform their experience with the game.”

What was a gridlike galaxy of ships and stars now features a range of faces — the people you interact with on various ships: allies, enemies, and people players need to win over.

Turns out, it’s not a small matter to convert a space flight game into a fully-populated socio-political environment.
But once the team’s art director came up with a series of modular faces in the same linear, glowing style as the game’s ships, even skeptics on the team saw the potential.

Pando said, “It’s become its own thing.”

Jamison said this is still the game he wants to play — just for different reasons.

“What we definitely don’t want to do is whack people over the head and lead them by the nose. There are some games that do that and I just really don’t like that. I like the idea of exploration and playing and just uncovering it yourself. I love that process.”

Jumpdrive has already blown past its $40,000 goal with a little more than a week to go on its’ Kickstarter. “XO” will be added to the STEAM’s online offerings sometime next year.