This year I was invited to my first Global Game Jam event. It was sponsored by the Northern College of Leeuwarden (pronounced lei-warden, to rhyme with garden) in the Netherlands. I went not as a jammer, but as a judge. In all, there were four judges with a good mix of talents: an audio engineer, an artist, an executive, and me on the design side. No programmers, although I was a software engineer for 12 years and still have a pretty good sense of what's involved. The organizers left it to us to decide what to look for and how to vote, and I was startled to discover how varied our opinions were.
Our jam consisted of six teams, five building video games and one making a board game. There were some strange asymmetries among our dev teams. We had teams in which people could make 3D models but nobody could draw in 2D, and vice versa. We had teams with no audio person at all (a constant problem with small groups). Our jammers had access to a great motion capture studio, but in the end none of them used the results because there wasn't time.
For my part, I hung around the workroom, chatted with the developers (briefly; they were very busy!), and of course played all the games near the end of the jam to assess them. Then the other three judges and I retired to our chambers to debate the results.
It took longer than I expected to choose a winner and a runner-up, and it got me thinking about how we judge games: completed commercial games, student projects, indie festival games, and game jam games.
Let's go back to the beginning for a minute. Just about 10 years ago, Sean Barrett, Chris Hecker, and their friends ran the very first (well, officially the 0th) Indie Game Jam. They started with a uniform code base and programmed for four days to make a bunch of crazy games that explored the question, "What can we do with 100,000 sprites?" I covered this in an earlier Designer's Notebook column.
In 2003 and 2004 they did two more Indie Game Jams, and then in 2009 Susan Gold borrowed the idea and took it worldwide as an IGDA project, with help from Gorm Lai and Ian Schreiber. Since then it has been a huge success, with over 200 jams and thousands of participants.
There are some pretty significant differences between the original Indie Game Jams and the Global Game Jam. The Indie Game Jam was invitation-only, a private event for friends of the founders. The Indie Jam lasted four days, while the Global Game Jam lasts 48 hours.
Because we now have so many ways to make games quickly (Flash, GameMaker, etc.) the Global Game Jam has a common theme rather than a common code base. Perhaps more significantly, the first game jam was in no way a competition. The jammers shared everything, including their rather limited art resources.
I like the idea of an entirely collaborative jam, but I can't deny that the element of competition adds some motivation to the process. The Global Game Jam's own web site says that competition is fine as long as it's friendly and mature.
There was no problem about that in ours -- everybody was great. (However, I hope the competitions remain optional and at the local level only. A worldwide game competition with big prizes would quickly get too professional, which defeats the purpose and shuts out student and small-scale jammers.) The tricky part was figuring out who should win. All the judges had distinctly different preferences.
One thing we all did agree on was that it's simply not fair to put board games and video games in the same competition. Writing and testing code is time-consuming. Changing the rules of a board game consists of making a note on a piece of paper. I'm not saying it's easy to make a good board game, but it's unquestionably faster to build one, and that means you can spent a lot more time polishing the design.