A Game Jam Diary
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Game jamming among ourselves has been a great way to recharge and be creative. We’ve been working on Guns of Icarus for a long time now, and while there are still lots of room to innovate within it, it’s great to step away and get a fresh perspective once in a while. Up until now, the game jams that we’ve been doing have been informal. Every month or two, we set aside a day just to think of and work on new game ideas. The way we formed teams and chose ideas were completely fluid. A few of us had ideas that they’ve been experimenting with, and the rest simply flocked to the different ideas. From jam to jam, ideas and groups carried over.
While the free form way of doing a game jam was a contrast to and a break from our normal process, there was a lack of intensity, and we found it harder to mentally separate game jams from just taking a break.
This month, we decided to try out a new format. We used some social engineering for forming teams so people who don’t usually work together would get more exposure with each other. We also wanted to shuffle our roles, so we could have a chance to take on roles and responsibilities that were outside of our comfort zones. We broke us down into 3 teams of 3s, and each team was nominated a team leader. Everyone contributed game ideas in the form of a short blurb ahead of time on a new Trello board we created, and the team leader helped the team decide what idea to work on and pulled the team together.
This time we set aside 3 days, and the goal was for each team to create a prototype that we could play with and test at the end of the 3 days. After each day, we also made builds so we could get feedback on our work in progress.
Day One Diary
Team Emily (Emily, George, Jack, + Vanessa) - Danu
The idea is about transformation. The protagonist goes a journey and acquires different elements along the way to transform and transcend. For the jam, the goal is to design one level and one puzzle, and to demo a basic combat mechanic. The way to get to the goal iterate quickly and test often. Art wise would be focused on the environmental assets to make the level. Overnight, Emily created a brief design doc so the team could hit the ground running. At the start of the game jam, she pulled references to communicate the overall look and feel, created an art asset list, and worked with her team to assign their tasks for the day.
Team Shelley (Shelley, Alex, Eugene) - Barong
The idea revolved on conveying a simple narrative and involved exploration and collection mechanics. As a goal, the team aimed to create a vertical slice that explored an art style as well as collection and puzzle mechanics.
Team Tom (Tom, Tim, and Derek) - Chest Quest
The goal for this team is to create one scene, demo a basic combat and power up system, and experiment with AI behavior that isn’t typical of dungeon crawler type games. At the end of the jam, the goal is to have a simple but playable level.
At the end of day one, the teams were working out their ideas and building assets and elements of their game ideas. The pieces hadn’t come together just yet. It’s really interesting to see the dynamics of the teams and different styles of collaboration, which were surprisingly distinct. Communications also worked differently among the teams. One team relied more on visuals. Another team prepared a more detailed design doc, while the third team iterated really rapidly and checked in more regularly to delegate micro tasks. Aside from fostering new game ideas, this game jam turned out to be great exercise in teamwork for us as well.
Day Two Diary
Team Shelley’s progress: Things were progressing along, and the task delineation was clearer - Alex was doing polishing of the scene and adding script in as to how the characters would interact with environment; Eugene was animating and rigging; and Shelley was doing character art.
Captain Shelley’s thoughts: “We are definitely rushing to get stuff done, but everyone is really focused. I’m more directing the art and vision, but we have freedom to add our individuality. Getting the team to all buy in to the vision is a challenge for me, and I have to learn to delegate and get ideas from others as well as encouraging my team and be good with how I’m giving feedback. Not knowing as much about Unity is also a challenge for me.”
Crew Eugene’s thoughts: “I get to touch everything, and I am finding new ways to model faster and experiment something different. Work on new subjects and find new way to bring them to life is exciting, but it’s definitely frantic to get everything I want done.”
Team Tom’s progress: Tom was doing character controller and AI while Tim worked on level design and Derek on animations. Tom: “Level layout going well, and animations are being done. Combat mechanics about to start. We are at where we’re expected. We’re more open about the direction and don’t really have hard set goals, so we’ll be iterating and adjusting on the fly. Our process is more fluid, so we’ll see how it goes.”
Captain Tom’s thoughts: “Leading is daunting, and coordinating is challenging, but things are progressing well. As long as we have clear tasks in mind, I think we’ll do alright. After an initial meeting, we’ve been checking in with each other periodically to see what we need and what’s going on. Personally, I’m learning how to do animations! So learning something new.”
Crew Derek’s thoughts: “I’m doing the same animation related work, but I get to do more, such as modeling. I get to do everything from beginning to end, but I’m not polishing. Good enough is good enough in the span of the game jam so it’s a bit of a mental adjustment. I also don’t need approval, and I make the call. Good to get to know someone I don’t usually work with as much. Nice change of pace.”
Team Emily’s progress: “George does programming and doing heavy lifting. We’re working well, but we chose an ambitious project for the timeframe. Next time, we can pick a simpler idea. Visually we got a good idea, and close to finishing the main character. I spend less time on art, but I’m also learning more Unity to lay out the level. The level is designed, but it still needs set dress.”
Captain Emily’s thoughts: “Really fun, learned a lot. Don’t know what I’m doing half the time, but really excited. It’s an opportunity to try things out and finding that balance between doing art and working with the team. Having a great time working with my team.”
Crew Jack’s thoughts: With the game jam, I get to work with people I don’t normally like in a small, nuclear group. Because of the time constraint, I have no time to be precious about it and just have to go for it. Of anything I’m working on, I need to cut it off and move on. I have to go with my first creative impulse, and I have no time to second guess myself. It’s fun to work on a new and totally fresh project, nice refreshing change of pace. There is a stress that isn’t normally there.”
By the afternoon of day two, every team had something playable to test. We set up a machine as the designated test machine, and everyone played the in-progress builds individually and gave feedback. Each team had written down a few specific questions ahead of time that they would like to get feedback on as well. The feedback people gave were focused on the core mechanics and controls, and we were all conscious about scope.
Team Emily’s Danu:
By now, the project had character movement, one attack, and AI enemies that move and engage the player character. The biggest feedback was with character’s movement controls and the range of engagement with the enemy. The team was able to take the feedback and adjust the controls.
Team Shelley’s Barong:
In the prototype, the scene and a basic puzzle had been created, and some of the art assets had been integrated. The team specifically wanted to know if the art elements adhered to the original concept. Based on feedback, the team aimed to make the art elements more consistent, as visual feedback was the core of the game.
Team Tom’s Chest Quest:
The project also had a working scene, character, and enemies. The feedback was focused on camera positioning and how the enemies engaged the character. And the team iterated on the feedback afterwards to get ready for day three.
Every project at this point was still just being put together, so they were in their roughest state. This challenged us to give really focused feedback, so that it would be useful enough to potentially be acted on in the limited timeframe that we had.
Day Three Diary:
Quotes of the Day:
Tom: “Derek, everything in the scene looks purple….”
Derek: “Yeah we want the game to be all purple.”
Day three was our last working day, so it was all about focusing on the core of the experience that we were aiming, putting everything together, and then fixing the myriad issues to get the game to a more playable state. The intensity and stress definitely went way up, and as a result, teams huddled and checked in with each other more frequently.
At the end of the day, everyone wrapped up and delivered the final builds for the game jam, and we took the time to relax and play each others’ games and give feedback. Teams took different routes to get to completion. One project kept to their well defined scope while another team learned to pare back their scope. All the teams ended up showing the one core mechanic that lied in the foundation of each project.
Post Game Jam Thoughts
This game jam was different from us in a few ways. It was neither the topical nor the free-form formats that we were used to. We wanted to form specific teams with the purpose of bringing people closer together, so the team formation was intentionally rigid. By the end of the jam, we felt like we were pretty successful in that respect. We also had more in progress builds and testing, which likely added to the stress level, but helped us with testing. It’s probably the shortest iterative design and testing loop we’ve ever subjected ourselves to, and the trade offs netted to a positive we felt. All in all, we thought this format worked pretty well for us, and we came up with a few mechanics and ideas we could pursue more in the future.