Game jams are a great way to get some game development experience, meet other developers, and, ever importantly, have some fun. No game jams in your area? No problem! This simple guide will have you running your own game jam in no time.
What Is This "Game Jam" You Speak Of?
Simply put, a game jam is an event where people get together for a set period of time with the goal of creating a playable game. The details are open to a lot of creative variation: different lengths of time, online vs. physically located, etc.
The most typical format that I'm personally familiar with is the 48-hour-long game jam that takes place in a physical location, over a weekend, from Friday evening until Sunday evening. This is the format of OrcaJam, the game jam that I've been helping run for the past few years in Victoria, BC, Canada, and it is the format that I'll be discussing here—but feel free to consider other variations that may fit your own needs more closely.
To Jam or Not to Jam?
Maybe you're considering starting up your own local game jam but you're wondering whether it will be worth all of your time and effort (and don't get me wrong, it will require some time and effort to pull it off successfully). Allow me to convince you. Here is a quick list of some of the potential benefits that come from a game jam:
- You're free to make a game without outside restrictions.
- It provides networking opportunities with other developers.
- You can find potential collaborators for projects.
- You'll practice your game making skills.
- You can try out a different game creation role (artist, designer, programmer).
- You'll get feedback on your game.
- You can see how other gamedevs make games.
- It's an opportunity to socialize.
- It's an excuse to stay up really late.
- You'll have some fun!
Did I mention fun? Making games is a ton of fun. Whether you're a novice game creator who's wondering what all the fuss is about, or a seasoned veteran who's been making games all her life, making games can be enormously enjoyable. And making games at a game jam can be even more enjoyable, because you're doing it for the sheer joy of it.
In a game jam, there's no pressure to make something that will sell a million copies or even make a lot of sense to the average person. It's a great way to get back in touch with making games for fun, and to attempt those wacky projects that you wouldn't normally think twice about.
All right, you're probably thinking to yourself, that's great for attendees—but what do I get out of it as an organizer?
That's a good question. As the game jam organizer, you not only get to experience the benefits that everyone else does (as listed above), you also get some other sweet perks. For one thing, you get the satisfaction of giving back to your local game community.
If that's not enough, you also get a chance to experiment with the flavor and results of your game jam by setting the theme and activities within the jam itself. Witnessing the games created at the end of the jam is a pretty fantastic experience. Witnessing the resulting games created from the jam that you organized yourself is even better.
When to Host Your Game Jam
Now that you're keen on starting a game jam, the first question that you should ask is: When should I run this crazy thing? You might be all keen to jump in and announce your game jam for next weekend, but that would be unwise.
You'll need to give yourself enough time, not just to plan and organize all the details, but also to get the word out to potential participants so that they can dedicate a weekend to making games (which is not always easy, if you have family and other responsibilities to juggle). I recommend giving people at least a month's notice, and giving yourself even longer to work out the plan of attack.
Since game jams are typically indoor activities, you can easily book your jam for any season of the year. But keep in mind certain special dates and book around them to ensure good attendance:
- Widely celebrated holidays
- Dates of other popular game jams
- Dates of major game conferences
- Dates of major sporting events (Don't laugh. Try booking hotels when home games are on.)
For OrcaJam, we've booked weekends in August and September close to PAX Prime to get indies from out of town to drop by for our jam. Victoria is super-close to Seattle, so it's easy to get here from there.
Location, Location, Location
Now that you have your date worked out, you'll probably be asking: where should I put the darn thing? Finding the right space for a game jam can be tricky. Some things to consider when choosing a space: the number of potential attendees, your event budget, 24-hour accessibility, and so on.
One approach is to partner with educational institutions such as community colleges, universities, or trade schools. Look for ones that include game-related courses—computer science, art, game design—and approach those faculties directly, asking them to donate space to hold a game jam. They’re often willing to do so, but may have requirements for you to meet. For example, you may be required to hire extra security guards if you want the space to be accessible during off hours.
Other organizations that you might look at include not-for-profit organizations with a focus on technology, art, or business. For OrcaJam, we've partnered with a local outfit called the Victoria Advanced Technology Council (VIATeC) who have an interest in promoting the local technology sector. They've donated their space for our jams and helped promote it in the area. These organizations are usually easy to find with a bit of online searching or by talking with folks in the industry.
If you don't have any willing organizations nearby to partner with, hotels can be a good choice for game jams. They often have meeting or conference rooms that are large enough to hold a decent sized crowd, 24-hour access, and rooms with beds when consciousness is no longer an option. The downside is that they can cost a lot money, especially for the more upscale venues.
A few years back OrcaJam was held at a local hotel at a cost of $1,200 CDN for the weekend, which was mid-range for the city of Victoria, where the prices range from $400 to $2,500 CDN. In addition to room rental cost, some venues will require spending a mandatory minimum amount on catering, which brings us to our next subject: food.
Fuel for the Gray Cells
Providing food isn't a requirement of game jams, but it's a welcome option if it fits into your budget. At least providing snacks and beverages is a good idea. If you're permitted outside food at your venue, you may want to check your local grocery store for prepared food trays featuring cold cuts, cheeses, crackers, fresh fruit and the like: satisfying finger food that isn't too messy. You’ll want to try to minimize any clean-up that you need to do after the fact.
If you go the full meal route, remember that that will probably include two breakfasts, two lunches, and three dinners over the course of 48 hours, depending on how you schedule things. Keep in mind that your jammers may have special nutritional needs, so plan to have some gluten-free, vegetarian, and similar options available.
For the last OrcaJam, we bought pizza, sushi, sandwich and wrap platters, muffin and pastry platters, fresh fruit and vegetables, and lots of pop, juice, coffee, and tea. For 80 attendees, it cost around $2,700 CDN.
Warning: Hotels often have a “No Outside Food” policy, so if you want to provide anything for your jammers, you’ll need to make use of their internal catering services. Catered food can be pretty expensive, often equalling the cost of the room rental, so you’ll want to be sure to budget for it. I recommend trying to get a deal with the hotel when booking the space to receive catering at a discount. More often than not, businesses will give you a deal, especially if you can guarantee a good turnout; and besides, it never hurts to ask.
You may be asking yourself how you're going to pay for all of this. Selling tickets to the jam is one way to help cover your costs, but finding the right amount to charge can be tricky. You want to be sure that you charge enough to recover some of your costs, and also make it appealing to prospective jammers.
Charge too much and people won’t pay it, but charge too little and people will think that your jam isn’t worthwhile. For OrcaJam, we charged $20 per ticket and offered a free event T-shirt.
Tip: Offering early-bird bonuses like ticket discounts or prizes is a good way to get an idea early on of how many people will be attending. For past OrcaJam ticket sales, we've used Meetup.com and Eventbrite and had a good experience with each. I recommend doing a little research on these and other sites to make sure you find one that fits your needs.
A great way to fund your jam is to find sponsors. Sponsorship can come from any number of different sources. OrcaJam has received funds from schools, local game companies, and other non-game companies. Besides money, companies can also donate jam space, hardware, game development software, and door prizes for the jammers. In return, they usually only want to be listed as sponsors at the event and have their logos prominently displayed. The last OrcaJam had six local game companies as sponsors who each contributed $1,000 to the cause.
But how do you find sponsors in the first place? Sometimes, all that’s required is putting the word out to folks who are part of your local game development community. If you're involved with a local group and have been getting out to some game events and conferences and networking with people there, you should have a pretty good idea of who to talk to.
Some of the past OrcaJam sponsors just came from chance encounters with people who happened to be looking for sponsorship opportunities. It goes to show: never doubt the power of networking. Sometimes it can pay off in a big way.
Volunteers Are Your Friends
Running a game jam can be a lot of work, especially if you try to do everything yourself. Why not save your health and sanity and enlist some help? Often other people will be happy to help out in exchange for a free pass to the game jam and a little recognition. Some folks will be looking for some volunteer experience to jazz up their resumes.
OrcaJam typically has about a dozen volunteers who help out over the weekend. We have at least two people staffing the registration desk at the entrance most of the time and at least one person there for the night shift. Other folks help with setup and cleanup, laying out meals, and whatever else needs doing. Their contributions make the whole event run more smoothly and make it a lot more fun for everyone involved.
Let's see, you've got a game jam location, some funding, a bit of food planned, and some volunteers to help out. You've got the makings of a good jam. But what can you add to make it a great jam?
You should decide on a one-time theme for your jam. It can be anything you like, from one-word themes such as "Preserves" to abstract ideas like "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are." (These were actual game jam themes.) Themes help to foster creativity by providing restrictions that can inspire and challenge the teams to make fun projects that incorporate them.
Bringing in someone at the beginning of the jam to talk about making games and get the jammers excited about it is a great way to start things off. Think of someone you know who makes games and is a decent speaker, and send them an invitation. We had Christer "McFunkypants" Kaitila give a keynote last time and he really got the party started.
It's useful to give your jammers an occasional break during the weekend to keep them fresh. I find a great way to do this is to have a couple of events scheduled, one type being a panel or talk featuring game creators. Popular subjects include game design tips, DIY game publishing, and whatever else strikes your fancy.
Note: You may wish to not schedule anything for Sunday, as usually the groups are too focused on getting the last features in before the big reveal.
These are just a few ideas that you can adopt for your own jam. Bear in mind that anything that you add will require more organizing on your part, so be sure not to overload yourself.
One of the best parts of a game jam is when everyone finally puts their tools down and gets ready to show off the results of all of their hard work. Each group should be introduced and then allowed to do a brief show and tell of their game, perhaps getting volunteers from the audience to try playing it.
Be sure to book plenty of time for this, as you don't want people to feel rushed. For OrcaJam, we not only scheduled dinner right before this, but we also brought in a keg of beer for this time so that all jammers (of legal drinking age) could relax, have some food, enjoy a beer if they wished, and check out the great games. It's a great way to end a fun weekend.
In a Nutshell
So there you have it: all you need to get your own game jam under way. If you have more questions, there are plenty of resources on the internet, including pages for existing and well-known jams such as Ludum Dare and OrcaJam.
If you’re looking for a game jam to jump into and be a part of, the Global Game Jam is just around the corner in January. You might want to check out its website to find locations near you. Or, if none are close by, you may just want to host one yourself. Because now you can.