In preparation for the upcoming Ludum Dare game jam I wanted to write up what I've learned from my previous experiences. I'm by no means an expert, as I've only participated in a handful of game jams: some LD's, and the Global Game Jam 2014 hosted locally here in Auckland (Media Design School). I've always worked alone during each jam. The games I produced were done using Unity.
You can check out my past game jams here.
There are 3 important periods surrounding a jam; before (preparation), during (execution), and after (networking).
When it comes to the actual game jam, you want all of your focus to be on creative development; working to get your idea playable. As such, when it comes down to it, you don't want to be wrestling with tools or with the submission process.
When the jam actually starts, you don't want to be doing things that you haven't done before and have little experience with. To some, a game jam is a perfect time to try out a new tool or language they've never used before. If you have very specific motives then I'm not going to say you shouldn't - but my opinion is that you want to be using tools and languages that you're experienced and comfortable with. The exercise is mostly in finishing a game, and the learning outcome is in going from nothing to a completed prototype in 48 hours (with a theme to act as creative stimulation). So, prepare yourself and choose the tools you'll be using for the game jam before you start.
Next, warm up by preparing a sandbox prototype. I submitted this warmup game for Ludum Dare 28. Submitting a warmup game prior to the actual jam gets you to actually use the tools you'll be using while also getting down the submission process. I made a very generic first person game with basic interactions. When it came time to actually make a game around a very specific theme, I didn't have to code or problem solve basic interactions. Ideally, this is how you'd want to start your game jam.
If you can get a working playable prototype using a tool you're comfortable with, and have it submittable in some form (web, or an executable), then you'll be in a great position to start a game jam.
Lastly, you'll want to consider the several different categories that games are rated against for Ludum Dare submissions:
To get a good overall submission, you’re going to want to get high scores in all of these categories. Don’t forget about graphics and audio. My LD28 submission had NO audio, which automatically got me an N/A, or 1 star for Audio. That’s a significant hit to my overall score. The same went with graphics. Though my “art style” was intentionally minimalistic, you can still do things to make it look nice. Next time, I’ll pay more attention to these different categories. You'll want to do the same.
So the theme has been announced and the jam has started. What now? My suggestion is to spend at least a couple of hours brainstorming ideas. Talk to friends and family and see if you can bounce ideas around. Check out what people are posting on the Ludum Dare blogs and Reddit, and see what people are saying on twitter through @LudumDare and #LD48. You want to be a part of the conversation.
Don't over scope. Try to come up with a single unique focus. What might happen during your implementation process is that you'll discover new and interesting things worth exploring. That's good! You'll want to explore the idea as much as possible and see what cool things come up.
Eventually, you'll get to a point where you find a really unique hook or mechanic. When this happens, you'll want to focus down and start implementing this thing. Start making levels, if your game has levels. Don't digress and keep at it.
Try to aim for a deadline that is 2 hours before the submission deadline. The hour where things go most wrong is during submission hour, so you want a comfortable period to make any necessary changes and fixes while also trying to compile and submit your project. In these 2 hours you'll also want to get yourself a game icon and some screenshots. If you're up for it, maybe record yourself a gameplay video too. These are all part of the submission process, so give yourself ample time for them.
For uploading web builds: I suggest hosting it somewhere. If you want to post it on your wordpress site, then use Unity Dog, a plugin that allows you to effortlessly embed Unity games by dragging and dropping them into posts. If you want to host it elsewhere (or don't have a wordpress site), then use one of Kongregate, GameJolt, itch.io, or NewGrounds. Dropbox is decent but will eventually stop allowing public downloads of your game when it's reached a certain limit. This happened to me, and you don't want that. So go with the above, and remember to post a blog about it on the Ludum Dare blogs.
Immediately after the deadline hits, you want to start reviewing other games and posting comments. This will get the system to more likely present your game when others are browsing. I almost immediately got more plays of my game once I started reviewing them. Commenting on other games will get others to check out your games too. A rate for rate kind of thing.
Come back and rate at least 10 games each following day. This ensures your game is consistently among the findable games. What I also did was search for games that were similar to mine, commenting that they should play and rate my game.
Be active on social media and post your game on some forums; Unity and GameDev are good ones. Write up a postmortem and post that on Ludum Dare too. The weeks following the game jam is exactly the time others need to know about your game, so make sure you're getting yourself and your game out there.
Be well prepared, stay focused and don't over scope (you only have 48 hours!), make a game and tell everybody about it.
Let me know what your submissions were, how you did, and any game jam tips you'd like to add!
Have a great jam!