Last weekend I was part of the 5th annual Global Game Jam, an event where people from all over the world create games in less than 48 hours. It’s a great exercise in creativity and time management but most importantly, it is a test of will as you will probably be working on your game through the entire weekend with very few breaks (and depending on the size of the game, very little sleep). It’s also an experience unlike any other. The Global Game Jam provides a place where people from all sorts of disciplines and with all levels of experiences can get to meet others who share their same passion for playing and creating games. For me it was also an opportunity to refresh my imagination and branch out into new territories. I had been working on the same two games for a long time and I was growing a bit fatigued with them. But just talking with new people I met during the Jam reinvigorated my love for creating games, and inspired me with some new ideas including ways to improve my current ones.
It’s such an experience that I think more people should try it when it comes around next year. My biggest fear is that there are plenty of people out there with great ideas who are just too intimidated to go out and makes games. Afterall, all the success stories you hear about usually include some great hardships and strife that need to be overcome to make it out on their own or that working for a major studio is just as soul-sucking as working at a call center. Game development is probably one of the most thankless jobs you could have, and I admit that sometimes it scares me that I’ll be entering that field soon. But that is the beauty of the Game Jam. Everyone there is a game creator. Everyone there shares your passions for games. People are going in there with no idea what they’re going to do, they’re making something that they aren’t sure will be popular or not, and they walk away from the whole thing more knowledgeable and perhaps with a few good friends out of from the whole thing.
In a sense, that’s part of the problem. Almost everyone there could be considered experts when compared to the average gamer. Afterall, they are game creators if not at the beginning then by the end. That’s why I think people who are unsure about how they want to express their passion for gaming should participate. When you get to the heart of it, the Game Jam is just regular game development in hyper-drive. You have time constraints, you have to deal with crunches and sprints, and you have work around the strengths of your team in order to make a successful product. It’s a true trial by fire that will let people know if game development is something for them. So what I hope to do is to simply convey some of my experiences from last weekend and give some advice to anyone interested in trying it out next year. I do this with the hopes that more people discover their talent as a game maker, either be a programmer, an artists, a designer, or really anything.
Meet New People to Create a Strong Team
So this wasn’t the first Game Jam I participated in. In fact, I was in the very first one five years ago. During that one, I went in with two friends and since we were all inexperienced, our game turned out awful. We worked tirelessly from Friday night to Sunday morning with virtually no sleep and in the end we had a pretty weak game. While I don’t regret that experience, it was something that really offput me from doing anymore Game Jams while I was in school. It did, however, teach me something pretty valuable. Build the game around your team. The problem was that I didn’t really know what my team could do when I designed the game. Our artists was actually very slow to make the more complex sprites because he was doing it in a 3D program and converting them to sprites, and neither of the them knew much about Game Maker, the tool we were using at the time. It was a game that required a lot of work and art assets, but we didn’t have the team for it.
This year, I was glad to have met someone just prior to the Game Jam who said he was a competent programmer. This meant that I didn’t have to worry about relying on my own limited skills and instead could just focus on the design work, what I consider to by my specialty. We both had a pretty good time, had something that resembled a finished game, and most important of all, we each gained a new friend and professional contact.
You can go into the Game Jam one of two ways. Either with some friends or totally alone. Both have advantages but unless you’re sure that your group of friends can make a strong team, I suggest each of you going in “alone” and finding people who have an idea you would like to work on. Now I was lucky, since I met my teammate earlier that week and we agreed to work together beforehand, but we were surprised that it was difficult just to get one other person on our team. So if you go alone, don’t expect to simply rally a team. Instead try joining another group and offer them as much help as you can. I think programmers and designers are among the most common people who attend these events so if that’s who you are you might be better off getting a team together beforehand (especially designers) but if you can make music, draw sprites, 3D model, write scenarios, you’ll have no problems getting onto a team. Any and all help is appreciated from virtually every team and the great part is that since the games are so small, you will most likely see the fruits of your labor in the final product.
If you do rally a group together, either of friends or strangers, make sure that your team is well-rounded. The Game Jam is a perfect place to use the phrase “too many cooks can spoil the broth” as a bunch of programmers all programming might have a finely tuned game on the outside, but a pretty drab looking game on the outside. Of course, there are workarounds. Aside from the fact that there are plenty of free art and sound assets available online, your team can work to exploits more of its strength to hide its weaknesses. Don’t have an artist? Who needs visuals when you can make a game like Blind Samurai that relies on sound and motion control only. What if you have no programmers but plenty of artists and writers? Make a board game or other kind of table top game. The beauty of the Game Jam is that it is not restricted to just video games, and you would be surprised about how many game designers get their start because of a board game.
Try New Things and Don’t Fear Failure
Each Game Jam has a theme. The theme has several purposes. The first is that it gives everyone a bit more of a level playing field. Afterall, you can’t just pull up a project you have been working on for months and present that as something you made in two days if it doesn’t follow the theme. The other purpose is get people thinking of new ideas. The first year I did the Game Jam, the theme was a phrase. Last year, it was an image of the Oroboros and this year the theme was the sound of a heart beating. It was a pretty interesting theme and was pretty flexible to include all kinds of interpretations.
At the end of the Game Jam you’re going to find two types of games. Ones that use the theme well and ones that just shoehorn them into their game that is really about something else. While sometimes some cool games come out of the latter, I think it’s more important to be part of the former. This can include using the theme as part of your mechanics or using it as a framing device for something much grander but either way, the best part of the Game Jam is seeing the creative things people do with the theme. I think everyone will respect you a bit more if you tried and failed to follow the theme, then if you just abandoned it to make something totally random.
Speaking of failing, that is another part of the Game Jam. The goal is to make innovative new ideas and with that comes the scary possibility of failure. Failure when making a full-fledged game can be devastating, which is why we are starting to see less radical innovation and more refinement when billions of dollars are on the line. This is why if you’re going to fail, you should fail at the Game Jam. Not only are you essentially in a learning environment but if you find a good idea you can run with it later on in your career. If you fail though, at most you would have lost is a weekend and maybe some sleep, but you still gained was a pool of knowledge on why your game failed and perhaps way to improve it. Maybe you even learned some skills from making it that will indirectly help you in later endeavors, but no matter what you walk away with it’s important that you tried and walked away with something at all rather than not trying.
Staying Within Scope
One thing the Game Jam is good for is that it provide an excellent opportunity to practice scoping. Since you only have a weekend to complete your game, as well as following a theme that you only heard of that day, the Game Jam is probably not the place where you’re going to create your dream game with intense storylines, amazing gameplay, and hour long cutscenes. So it’s best to think small, something simple that will give you enough time to design, program, test, and polish before turning it in that Sunday afternoon.
My game, Lifetime wasn’t the original idea my partner and I were working on when we started the Game Jam. We actually came up with a much bigger idea of playing through a person’s entire life and having choice upon choices to choose from, all determined by an RPG inspired stat system. We spent a lot of Friday night prototyping and planning however, the next morning I told him that we had to scrap that idea and instead simplify it because I knew that given how much work was left and how much time we had, we’d never finish it. So we basically took the core ideas of the game, the choices, and took out all the fluff and made a kind of more abstract game that we felt still conveyed the same message but would be much easier to program. At the end of the Jam he specifically told me that the best thing we did all Jam was deciding to re-scope our project.
The worst thing you could do in a Game Jam is have too big of a scope and not catch it right away. Another game in the Santa Cruz Game Jam had a similar story, but they realized far too late that they weren’t going to get their game done so they made one in 3 hours and while it didn’t look very good and was very simple, it was still a complete game that a lot of people thought it was fun. Keeping things in scope is a very important skill for every game developer to have, especially in this day in age where crowdfunding is becoming the norm for small studios. Not keeping your game within scope is a good way to lose all your money before your game is finished. Equally important is your ability to cut the fat of your game when time constraints start to get the better of you. If there is anything I’ve learned over the years of game development is that being a good game designer is about knowing what is essential to a game what is not, and removing all of non-essential elements until all you are left with is gold.
So while the Global Game Jam probably provides everyone with a different experience, I hope that my experiences and tips have convinced you try it out for yourself. And you don’t even have to wait until the next Game Jam all kinds of these happen all the time if you know where to look. You can start your own as either an event for everyone you know or just for yourself to see what you come up with.