WHAT I'VE LEARNED ABOUT GAME JAMS: A 6 YEAR POST-MORTEM
I first heard about game jams when I started school for game design back in 2014. Since then, I’ve participated in several jam projects, in groups of all shapes and sizes, as part of major jam sites and communities as well as student-organized jams, in-person as well as online. I‘ve gone several years without participating in game jams, but this year alone I’ve been part of 3 game jams! Many of my older jam projects were never completed, but it’s been a really rewarding experience using the knowledge I’ve gained since I started out to create and submit completed builds when deadlines roll around!
Game jams are great, but they can also be daunting and come with their own sets of issues. Which is why I decided to write this blog post for anyone stumbling into the wonderful world of game jams; to warn you, dear traveler, that though the path ahead can be intimidating and stressful, it doesn’t have to be.
First off: what is a game jam, anyway?
Put simply, it’s all about using a central theme to create a quick-and-dirty game prototype within a fixed period of time. Many jams take place over the course of a weekend, for 48-72 hours. Some are longer (they can go up to a week, or a month!) and some are much shorter, but the concept is generally the same. Your code can be spaghetti and full of bugs, your art can be 0s and 1s or squares and circles, and you can even use assets you find online (as long as the licenses allow it!), but the main point is to make something cohesive and simple.
The process of joining a game jam is usually pretty straightforward:
Join a site, if your jam has one.
Form a team - jams usually have communities filled with people looking to join teams or add members to their existing groups. You can also go into a jam with an existing group of friends, or work solo if you want. Ludum Dare (for example) has a compo category that can be an interesting challenge for solo developers.
Work on your game!
Submit your game by the deadline!
If there are any post-submission actions your specific jam requires, make sure you do those! Ludum Dare has a rating system that you may want to follow so your game gets noticed.
Revel in the fact that you just made something!!
Now that we've established some background, here are the things I've learned since my first-ever game jam:
Before the Jam
Define your goals
What do you want to accomplish with this jam? Do you want to learn a new engine or toolkit? Do you want to finish something? Do you want to use the time to focus on prototyping a mechanic for a game you're already working on? Do your best to decide this before you go in, so you don't put too much pressure on yourself to do too much.
Find your people
You can find people to work with through communities online, on different social media sites or forums. You can also work with friends. Do your best to work with people who are as enthusiastic and driven as you are! I've only ever had the privilege of working with friends during game jams, so I don't have much advice to offer by way of identifying people to work with, but I'd say put less pressure on yourself if you're working with strangers - there's usually an adjustment period while you all get to know each other's work styles and personalities!
Set up your environment in advance
If you're using git, do all of your git setup before the jam starts - choose a place to host your repos (BitBucket, GitHub, etc), download and setup your favourite git client. Get your preferred engine(s) set up as well - make a test repo, set up your .gitignore files if you need them. Trust me, you'll thank yourself later.
During the Jam
Pick something and stick to it
Brainstorm some ideas with your friends (or on your own, and finalize something as soon as possible. Define a MVP (minimum viable product) - the smallest version of the concept that you can build. Don't overscope! You have a limited amount of time to get something done, so make sure what you're building is within your means! I try to keep my concepts as small as possible, focus on core mechanics first, and add on later based on how much I manage to accomplish - this way, I usually still end up with something I can submit!
In my opinion, this point is the most valuable, and also probably the most controversial. If you've done game jams before, you will have noticed that the work ethic tends to involve crunching: working constantly during the length of the jam, ignoring sleep, and crashing hard after submission.
Personally, I don't think this is worth it. It'll make you miserable, you'll struggle to solve problems effectively, and you'll mess up your circadian rhythm before the start of a week, which will make you have major regrets. You're human, you deserve to take care of yourself, and if that means cutting scope so you can have a better jam-life balance, I encourage it! I've gotten the most out of jams where I've slept a full 7-8 hours, taken proper meal breaks, and stepped away to do chores or fun stuff for a change of scenery every now and then. It works, I promise!!
After the Jam
Conduct a personal post-mortem
You probably know there are some things you could've done better. You may not have been able to finish your game or submit on time. Be content with what you accomplished, and do your best not to have regrets - there's always a next time! Take a little break, you deserve it.
Play some jam games
Check out other submissions to the jam! It's always great to see what other teams came up with and managed to accomplish with the resources they had. You can get a feel for how different teams prioritize different aspects of their games, how they apply the theme in interesting ways, and it can even help you come up with ideas on how you can improve your approach to your next jam game.
Don't worry about competing
Many game jams frame themselves as competitions. I personally don't like to stress too much about it, because different teams are composed of more/less people with different levels of expertise, and it can feel really bad comparing yourself to others at higher skill levels. Try instead to get as much external input on your game as you can, which brings us to the next point:
Give and take feedback
Leave feedback on games you enjoyed! Leave constructive criticism on games you have suggestions for! Share your game with friends, family, and anyone else willing to try it out, so you can get feedback yourself! It's great to get validation on stuff you did well, and learn about stuff you could do better.
Game jams are, in my opinion, all about having a good time with friends and doing something that brings you joy! If you're stressed about it, take a step back and see what you can do to to relieve that stress - whether it means taking a break, doing some self-care, or lowering your scope. You learn a little with every game jam, so remember not to feel too discouraged if you don't manage to submit on time - just do your best!
Good luck with your next game jam, and remember to have fun out there!