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October 23, 2017
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Make the Most of Your Game Jam

by Becca Hallstedt on 10/18/16 09:08:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Last night, I came home absolutely exhausted from an amazing 24-hour game jam hosted by the Voxelles and sponsored by Microsoft here in Chicago. My team was made up of 2 programmers and 2 artists (which ended up being perfect- when one artist/programmer needed to rest, the other could keep going,) and we brought home the winning prize of 4 Oculus Dev Kits! If you'd like, you can check out Drink Up, Witches here on itch.io. For both young and experienced devs alike, I can't recommend participating in these events enough. Game jams are such an amazing opportunity to learn, and I wanted to share some of the most important lessons that I've had over the last few years. Some of them are my own, some are learned from folks that I really respect, but hopefully you'll learn something that makes your next jam go more smoothly!

 

Go in with a strategy... 

Before you go, consider what you're hoping to get out of the experience. Practicing a specific art style? Meeting new people? Getting more comfortable with prototyping? Making something by yourself? There are a lot of different reasons to participate in a jam, and everyone has a unique purpose. Walk into the room with a general goal or two for yourself.

...and then gracefully allow your plans to fall apart.

Expect the unexpected. Realistically, whatever your plans are will be different from what happens. If you go in with a game idea, just know that the results will probably be different for a few possible reasons. Maybe your team changes, a team member has a totally different idea that everyone else latches onto, or your scope is too big and you have to cut planned features last-second. Basically, just be organic and flexible. When change comes your way, bend to it and make the most of it.

Don’t overwhelm yourself. Work with tools that you know.

Anxiety is one of the biggest battles to fight in a game jam, especially when things aren't going your way. Especially for young developers or folks participating in their first jam- I really recommend using tools you're familiar with. Trying to learn new software while also making a game in a very limited amount of time will triple the stress that you're working on and slow your team down.

Scope is the #1 attribute to failure or success.

If you're going to listen to a single piece of advice, listen to this: if you can't describe your game's premise in a single sentence, it's probably too complicated for a single week. Here are a few specific ways to avoid blowing up scope accidentally-

  1. Use modular assets wherever and whenever possible.
  2. Hand-made animations are time-consuming. If you can make an entire game without animations, do that, and then add animations at the end if you have time.
  3. Story is incredibly difficult to communicate in an incredibly small game. Build broad context instead of story, like this: "A witch is being chased by big dogs and she has to escape!" instead of "A witch angered the neighboring king by burning his son on accident, and now the king is chasing her with his dogs in order to bring her back for punishment!"

If you're stuck on scope, try making your game premise only 2-3 words long. "Eat all broccoli." "Escape garbage truck." "Quickly make potions." "Run on clouds." This is kinda goofy, but it can help keep the idea small. Everything can be larger later.

 

There is always more work to do.

If you have 6 hours left and everything is going perfectly, it's a trap! If you don't seem to have enough to do, then ask your teammates what you can do. Constantly seek work so that you're making the most of your limited amount of time. Test your build. Add particle effects. Animate characters. It's great to get done early, but then use that time for polish. A tiny, polished, cohesive game is always better than a half-completed, confusing one that the judges don't understand.

Work with friends.

Game jams are a great time to bond with the folks that you know, especially if you know where their strengths are. This can help you have a better-rounded, more efficient team.

Work with strangers.

Be inclusive and open. Someone is probably going to walk into the room that is nervous and alone. When you see that person, call them over. Be kind and help them find a place to be excited. Make new friends and be compassionate to the people who need a team.

If you're the one walking into a room alone, just remember that everyone is there for the same core reason: to make a game. Don't be afraid to just walk around and ask "Hey! Do you guys need a _____?" Sometimes, you'll end up filling a huge gap in their team, which is awesome. 

Laugh in the face of epic failures (and be ready for them, too.)

This point really hits home with scope. During your first few game jams, you'll learn important lessons about where things tend to fall apart, and that's completely okay. Jams are really just a really concentrated dose of trial-and-error. Just be mentally prepared for huge, disappointing failures- possibly major features not working, failure in communicating how to play, or maybe the entire game isn't working at the end. This happens, this HAS happened to everyone, and it's perfectly okay. Don't put more pressure on yourself than necessary, or a few big bumps in the road will ruin the experience for you. Just enjoy the ride!

Have an objective to-do list to ensure team transparency.

Having a team-built vision is incredibly important. If you're 6 hours in and everyone has a different idea of what you're making, then you're having major communication issues. When discussing your ideas in the beginning, write everything down. Draw out your concept on paper when explaining it. Once you're all on the same page, go into Google Docs and write out a quick asset list, a game description, and other important piece of information so that no one accidentally strays from the concept.

Have back-up plans in case of hardware or software breaking down.

If you work in tech, you know that software and hardware totally fails you sometimes. Game jams are not an exception to this, so play by the rules. Save constantly. Make sure any necessary software is downloaded (and WORKING!) before you go. During the game jam this weekend, my fellow artist and I had to spend about an hour and a half waiting for art software to download because we were borrowing laptops. Avoid that when possible.

Regardless of success or failure, love your project... 

Game jams are about the experience. Sometimes, the final game build objectively sucks, but that's just part of learning. Be proud of the small victories and let go of anxiety when things don't go as expected. Put your priorities in the journey, not the destination.

...love your team... 

Under no circumstances is disrespecting your teammates okay. When they get stressed, invest time in helping them calm down. Unrelentlessly encourage each other. Unapologetically spew positivity. When they do well, tell them. When they amaze you, tell them. At the end of the jam, don't leave the room until you've hugged your team.

...and love yourself.

At the end of the day, don't invalidate yourself if you didn't live up to your expectations. Be kind and compassionate to yourself, and get excited for the next jam!


Feel free to comment with any suggestions or points that you'd like me to elaborate on!

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