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Taking your game from jam to commercial release

Taking your game from jam to commercial release

November 5, 2013 | By Kris Graft

November 5, 2013 | By Kris Graft
More: Indie, Design, Production, GDC Next

Game jams are great place for working concepts to emerge. Sometimes, those concepts are good enough to build upon for a "full" game release.

Nathan Vella, cofounder and president at Super Time Force and Super Brothers Sword & Sworcery developer Capy, talked about bringing games from jam to commercial release in a GDC Next talk today.

Traditional game development relies on this cycle: Idea to prototype to production to launch. What game jams do, Vella explained, is break that model and turn it into something else: Jam (which is idea + prototype) to production to…"wtf?"…to launch.

Capy knows firsthand about the challenges and the strengths of game jams. Its upcoming side-scrolling "single player co-op" game Super Time Force originated at the Toronto Game Jam, and is now slated to launch on Xbox Live Arcade this year. Here's what Vella had to say about game jam games that become commercial releases.

Challenges of game jams

Jams vs. prototype

Prototyping games and game jamming might seem the same on the surface, but the mindset involved in each process is notably different.

"At their core, they're both about an idea, then getting a controller in someone's hand to get them playing that idea," he said. But a jam is about "finishing something," whereas prototyping is often meant to "answer a question," said Vella. These involve two different states of mind when making a video game.

Furthermore, jamming places time limitations on the creative process, so developers are forced to nail down a core, functioning concept. Beyond the jam, and moving towards commercial release, the challenge is to expand upon that kernel of an idea.

Vision vs. Mechanics

Another challenge of the game jam model is that they are about choosing between focusing on the vision or the mechanics. Rarely, due to time limitations, developers at a game jam can rarely expand on both, so they must choose wisely.

"A lot of the time you can find the vision during the jam, but cannot typically achieve it," Vella said. If your jam was focused on vision, you'll need to work on mechanics later; if your focus was on mechanics, you'll need to flesh out the vision later.

Everyone totally loves schedules

Actually no, not everybody loves schedules. But developers coming out of a game jam need to be realistic about how long it will really take a game jam game to become something suitable for commercial release.

"In the case of a lot of game jam games, [developers] have this very strong feeling of 'Oh if I can get this much done in three days, imagine what I can do in three months!'" Of course, that doesn't always pan out.

At the end of a game jam, often people feel like they're almost finished with a game. Be realistic " you're probably not three months away from completion. "It's something that happened to us with Time Force," Vella said.

Fun time

Jam games are meant to be fun for minutes. A full game is typically expected to last for hours. "The issue here is that at the end of a game jam, you have a game that's really cool for 15 minutes [of play]," said Vella. "The process of taking a game from being fun for 15 minutes to 2 hours and 15 minutes is really difficult, but it has to be done."

He added, "We all know that adding content is extremely time-consuming. … You're potentially taking something and stretching it laterally." Sometimes that works well, sometimes not. It's just very difficult to do. "Some ideas can be stretched, but some cannot," he said.

Growing teams

If a game is meant to get "bigger," often a team will need to expand to some extent. "For those of us who run teams, from small to Double Fine-size, you have to ask a lot of questions when approaching the full-release model": When to add? Who to add? Should you add at all?

Here's how Capy did it for Super Time Force:

You'll often need to consider staff for audio and art, and if you're working on a console release, someone to deal with certification.

Motivation is hard

Keeping motivation up for a project that goes from a planned four months of work to one that takes a year and a half is a challenge that needs to be addressed. Find ways to fuel the drive to bring a game to completion. "Motivation is the single biggest factor in moving a game forward," Vella said.

Strengths of game jams


"When creating a game in three days, something playable and enjoyable, playtesting starts pretty much right away," Vella said.

Capy brought Super Time Force to a wide variety of expos to get the game in the hands of players, and take notes. "We learned so much about the game. [Events were] a huge driving force in finding out what was wrong with the game," he said.


Promote early, promote a lot, said Vella. "No matter how much you show, there will always be a massive amount of people who have never heard of it." Show the game when its' early, and ugly. Show it often. Let the press know how a game is made.

"One of the best ways to get your game noticed by the press is to have an interesting game, and have an interesting story about the game."

"The Double Fine method"

Vella also took some time to heap some praise on what he called "The Double Fine Method," which involves internal studio game jams. Known as Amnesia Fortnight, these annual two-week jams result in commercial releases including Costume Quest, Stacking, Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster and other titles.

"This has become a ritual for Double Fine," he said. "It's become the 'right way' for Double Fine to make games. … It's at the core of what Double Fine does," Vella noted.

And that's one of the salient takeaways from Vella's talk: Take part in game jams, and don't let the concept of "Jam-production-"wtf?-launch" be so alien to you as a game developer. Be familiar with the many strengths and challenges of the format.

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