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How to Get the Most Out of a Game Jam

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Game jams have hit the big time. What used to be intimate affairs - little weekend gamedev projects held by a few friends - have become giant spectacles of coding prowess with thousands of participants. Many will crash and burn, running out of time or energy. Others will reach the finish line with a buggy game that isn't much fun. In this article, I'll share some tips and techniques to help you enjoy the experience and create a game you're proud to show your friends.


What Is a Game Jam?

A game jam is an event where participants try to make a video game as quickly as possible. Most game jams take place over a single weekend, where everyone has 48 hours to try to make a game often based on a secret theme that is either voted upon or chosen by the organisers. The theme is used as a limitation that encourages creative thinking.

Themes from past game jams have included everything from simple concepts such as fear, islands, and darkness, to abstract expressions like ouroboros, build the level you play, and time manipulation.

Some jams have a competitive element - this type of jam is referred to as a "compo" - while others have no winners or losers and are simply a fun thing to do. Some sponsored events even have prizes, and many feature voting on games to declare a winner in various categories, but the general consensus is that game jamming is primarily done purely for the fun of it. The real "prize" is your finished game.

Game Jam
Getting stumped by a tricky theme is half the fun. Remember: limitations encourage creativity!

People who take part in many game jams do so more for bragging rights, the pride in completing a game, or in the pleasure of honing their craft and seeking inspiration in one crazy weekend of late nights and rapid prototyping.

Though there are team events, jams that last for extended periods of time (such as an entire month), and jams that are held in public places by large numbers of people, the most common type of game jam is one that is performed solo, at home, over a single weekend.


Who Joins Game Jams?

Considering that over 2,000 participants take part in each Ludum Dare and 10,000 people join the legendary festival of game making that is the yearly Global Game Jam, there are likely to be game developers from every walk of life who will join at least one game jam this year.

Many of these jammers are first-timers. Some join a game jam as a "trial by fire" to try cramming their first game project into a single weekend. Others are seasoned veterans with long professional careers in game development who enjoy honing their craft on smaller "throwaway" projects as a way of taking a break from long projects.

Game Jam
Student game jams are common, but even big companies hold them as team-building exercises.

A lot of game jammers are 30-something indie game developers who have computer degrees and experience making games - but don't let this intimidate you! The community is welcoming to newbies and pros alike.

There are many new members to the community, with more joining each month. Many of the most successful game jammers are teenaged students; you don't have to be a pro to do well at a game jam. This is truly a cross-cultural, all-ages community.


Why Join a Game Jam?

The primary reason to join a game jam is to have fun, above all others. It is also a great way to practise your programming and artistic skills. Much like the physical exercise of working out, quick bursts of extreme effort can improve your abilities more rapidly than times without any pressure to "crunch". Game jams are also great for meeting people with similar interests, and make for ideal networking opportunities.

I recently asked 747 participants in a Ludum Dare game jam to complete a survey after they finished their game. Here are some common opinions from the game jammers themselves.

Game Jam Survey Results
TL;DR: game jamming is really fun! Once you try one, you're likely to join another in the future.

Looking at the stats above, you can see that the primary reason why people join game jams is that they have a lot of fun.

The majority were either first-timers or not experienced game jammers. Most are happy with their games, of which about half work in a web browser. In order to finish on time many people had to cut features and simplify their designs. Not everyone was as familiar with their tools or basecode as they should have been, but only a few tried to learn a brand new engine.

Most games did not run on mobile devices, but many were cross-platform. On average most people did not spend time watching TV or movies, going outside, visiting with friends or playing other games.

Contrary to expectations, almost nobody drank coffee, energy drinks or alcohol.  Virtually nobody used version control (such as SVN) or time-management techniques (such as Pomodoro). Surprisingly, not many reported having difficulty with packaging, installers or submitting.


Finding a Game Jam to Join

These days there is without a doubt at least one game jam in progress every day of the year. If you were hardcore you could be perpetually jamming every weekend without fail.

The big daddy of game jams is Ludum Dare. It is held several times a year, with mini-jams every month. The single largest jam is the Global Game Jam, which is held once a year in January. There are also hundreds of other game jams you can find out about with a little creative googling, and new ones are being announced every week.

You can always find out about upcoming game jams by checking out the game jam calendar at CompoHub or this large listing of game jams. Reddit, Newgrounds, Kongregate, Adobe, and many others hold game jams. You have only to look around to find one that appeals to you.


Reaching the Finish Line (Alive!)

The sad truth of game jams is that the majority of participants "fail" to finish their game by the deadline. Many more end up giving up near the beginning, when the enthusiasm-crushing realization of just how much work it will truly require sets in.

Others still race toward the finish line and barely scrape by with a buggy, half-finished, decidedly un-fun game. They are also often suffering from lack of sleep, food, and sunshine, and end up paying the price the following Monday morning.

Game jams are supposed to be fun. Though they can require significant effort and stress, much like playing sports with friends the goal to is to be exhausted but smiling at the end. Try hard, but don't kill yourself. Do well, but enjoy the process as much as the finished product. Remember, even if you don't finish your game, you'll have learned a ton about game development.

The following sections contain tidbits of advice that are sure to help you make the most of a game jam. As with any advice, a wise person will consider each point and accept or reject it depending on their own personal goals and personality.

There's no universal "right way" to attain game jam success, but many of these hints come up repeatedly when the pros (past winners and longstanding members of the game jam community) are asked about their secrets of success. Some of these hints come from interviews that were recorded during the writing of my Game Jam Survival Guide. Others were gathered through a statistical analysis of survey data and post-mortem blog posts. Finally, some of these suggestions come from Twitter polls, reddit threads, blog posts, and Google+ debates.

Rule #1: Treat Yourself Well

The single most important piece of advice is to treat yourself well. Stay hydrated, remember to eat and bathe, and take a break from time to time. Don't try to pull all-nighters: solutions to problems will often come to you when resting. When you're tired, hungry and frustrated, your productivity will slow to a crawl. A little sunshine and some time with your family and friends is a good thing.

Learn From the Mistakes of Others

A "post mortem", in game development circles, is a written report of what went right and wrong during the course of a project. In order to glean advice from the past mistakes of your fellow game jammers, a statistical analysis of game jam post-mortem blog posts was performed to collect the most common complaints by participants.

Blog posts on the Ludum Dare website for the years 2010 and 2011 that were tagged "postmortem" were searched for common themes and the results were collected for use in the following infographics.

Infographic: What went wrong?
Not knowing your toolchain and time management are the most common challenges.

The same analysis also identified the most common areas in which people found success.

Infographic: What went right?
If you DO know your tools, you will have a better experience.

What Do Post Mortems Teach Us?

To draw some conclusions from the data above, everyone should be familiar with their tools and frameworks prior to the jam. Most people loved coming up with a plan based on the theme, but many forgot to set aside enough time for art and level design.

Get people other than yourself to playtest it to make sure that it isn’t too hard, doesn’t have lousy controls and lame enemies, and is easy to figure out what to do. Don’t bother with physics unless absolutely necessary. Prepare to deal with time-management issues, cut features and focus on what’s most important. Keep your plan simple. Finally, and surprisingly, if you include music and sound effects you will be much happier with the final product.


More Game Jam Tips and Tricks

The following list of tips is intended to help you make the most of your next game jam. As in art, all "rules" are meant to be broken; there are no right or wrong answers.

Mull over these tips and feel free to accept or reject them as you see fit: it is all subjective. For example, though many veteran game jammers enthusiastically advise people to focus on "the feel" and leave all art creation to the end after the game "works", there are others (who are equally successful) who swear by creating the perfect mockup in Photoshop first - finishing the final graphics for use in the game - and only then starting on the code side.

Just as an argument could be made that having a functional game is more essential than a good looking but broken game, a valid viewpoint is that having good-looking art up front is a great motivator and helps you to visualize the finished product.

The same holds true for each and every one of these tips and tricks: there's always an exception to every rule and somebody out there has had great success by doing the exact opposite. As long as you're having fun, you're on the right track.

  • "The enemy of art is the absence of limitations" (Orson Welles) [the theme is there to help, not hinder!]
  • The prepared warrior wins the battle. Now is NOT the time to try a new language or engine. Go with what you know.
  • Making a game is great, but doing it with friends is far better. Make use of #screenshotsaturday, join chats, be social!
  • Things to avoid: going without sleep, not going outside or taking a break, not eating properly. Real life matters!
  • "Don't be intimidated, just do it. You'll learn more in a weekend than you would in a year of classes." (@ianschreiber)
  • Hit the ground running!
  • Don't waste time with grand designs. Don't stress about possibilities. Dive in head first and get started!
Game Jam
Some game jams encourage you to form teams. Play to each other's strengths!
  • Student: I had 1,000 ideas yet couldn't decide. Master: You're lucky: I only had one idea and no choice but to get started.
  • Don't forget the sound!
  • Sound and music is often overlooked in jam games, but it is an integral component and greatly affects the perception of quality.
  • "To come up with an idea to fit the THEME: write down the first five things that come to mind, then toss 'em!" @chevyray
  • Key qualities that the most popular jam games have: humor, simple graphics, simple controls (easy to pick up and play)
  • One way to approach your design is to create a "fake screenshot": make a mock-up first, then code it.
  • Another way to design your game: use graph paper, a whiteboard or board game pieces first.
  • First code the entire game using no art at all: just rectangles and circles. Once the gameplay feels fun, make it pretty.
  • Concentrate on the important parts of your game: movement, controls, a way to "die", triggering a "win" state, the "feel".
  • Avoid the latest fad: go low-tech. Great games can be made with pixelated retro graphics that only use four colors.
  • Stay motivated! Keep it simple. Don't give up. Don't do too many things at the same time: lay down one feature at a time.
  • See that light at the end of the tunnel? It's not a train. To finish on time, DIRTY HACKS are okay!
Game Jam
A common sight: jammers burning the midnight oil, coding until sunrise. Just remember to sleep!
  • 2D games take 25% the hours of coding of equivalent 3D games; 2D art takes 25% the hours of design of 3D art.
  • When in doubt: No physics engine. No multiplayer. Square grid (as opposed to hexagons). K.I.S.S.
  • Players hate installers: make your game standalone, portable, with no missing DLLs or frameworks! Make it easy to run.
  • Finish a “working” basic prototype early. At the end of your project there are going to be unexpected problems.
  • Occam's Razor: Aim for a smaller game that you hope to make. If you have extra time at the end you can add more features.
  • Break the rules of computer science! It is perfectly okay to not use OOP.
  • Save time: instead of hand-crafted levels, use procedural generation (fractals, random, etc.)
  • What's obvious to you isn't to your players: get friends to playtest. Did they "get it" immediately?
  • Don't let a bug be a roadblock: move on; comment out buggy code instead of fixing. Improve the features that work instead.
  • Embrace your inner hacker. Cut out any weak parts. Drop features. Do one thing well and trim the fat.
Game Jam
Some game jams are so social they have a party vibe. Make games AND new friends!
  • Stuck? Have a shower! The solution may come to you once you relax.
  • Buggy game? Find something fun about it and call it a feature!
  • Only one level? Call it a “battle arena!”
  • Broken weapons? Make the game an “avoider” with no guns!
  • Sound broken? Your main character is deaf – or in space!
  • Not fun yet? Make it a “joke game” meant to annoy players!
  • Ugly art? Call it retro / hipster / ironic!
  • Poor framerate? Make it a turn based strategy!
  • No story or characters? This is an arcade title!
  • No gameplay / all story? This is a visual novel!
  • No “game over” or way to die? "Can you survive for 60 seconds?"
  • Code won't compile? Comment out parts until it does!
  • Too tired to finish? Call it done right now and submit anyway!
  • It works but it sucks? Take pride in the fact that you finished! Most of the other participants won't!
  • Don't beat yourself up! Don't let your pride stop you from submitting whatever you were able to accomplish.

Keynote Videos

Each Ludum Dare and Global Game Jam begins with a keynote address video. If you search for game jam keynote video on YouTube you will find hours of sage advice (and funny in-jokes) well worth watching. Here's one video with some advice from two jammers, Baby McFunkypants and Lee Taxxor:

Be sure to watch some others - you'll have fun and learn a few things. Here are two great video collections well worth watching:

Ludum Dare Keynotes on YouTube
Global Game Jam Keynotes on YouTube


Conclusion

Before we go, on a personal note, I'd be really glad to hear from you regarding your experiences with game jams. I'm a devoted member of the jamming community, a Ludum Dare and CompoHub administrator, and I'll be holding a Charity Game Jam in November. Heck, I even wrote a book about game jams! I tend to share links to all the newest jams on Twitter and love to meet people who enjoy game jams as much as I do, so I warmly encourage you to follow @McFunkypants.

This article has merely scratched the surface; there are hundreds of people who are game jamming on any given day, and each of them is sure to have opinions on how get the most out of a game jam. Look around, find a jam that appeals to you, and dive in! Use Twitter hashtags, chatrooms, and forums to meet your fellow jammers and ask questions.

You have nothing to lose and you might just walk away with your very own video game, new friends, improved coding or art skills, and the profound sense of satisfaction that comes with overcoming "the wall" and reaching the finish line! Remember: game jams are FUN. That's the whole point.

Don't give up - Keep it simple - You can do it!

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