Game jammin’

Last weekend was the global game jam. I was there! Good times were had, presumably by all. I’ve been to a couple of these now, and I’ve heard some discussions of what the point of them actually is. I think that there are lots of possible uses for the things, but it helps to have a good idea in your head of what you’re looking to get out of them.

To prove to yourself that you can finish a game. This is important for the newbies among us. I had some friends at the jam this year who had done a bit of programming, messed around with some tools and such, but never really made a whole game. Now they have. It’s kind of a trial by fire, but whether you finish your game or not, you emerge with a new understanding of how game development works.

To experiment with no consequences for failure. Often, experienced developers haven’t had the opportunity or the motivation to just try something crazy, and hang the consequences. Motivation is key here – it’s one thing to have an idea in your head, but even if you could implement it yourself in a weekend, it’s a different matter to be ‘forced’ to. For experienced developers who are planning to ‘go indie’, this can also be an important lesson in the practice of prototyping – making something, finding that it sucks, and fixing it or throwing it away. May as well get your quota of bad games made before it matters.

To make connections. Personally, I hate making connections. Let me revise that – I hate attending networking events. Frankly, I think a lot of people do. Worse than being unpleasant, though, they also don’t really tell you whether or not you can work with a given person – just whether or not you can stand to have a beer with them. Game jams are a good way of answering that question without going to all the trouble of getting yourself into a potentially long term business situation. Both the game jams I’ve been to have left me thinking “Why don’t we do this every weekend and make a business of it?” and, ill-advised though that thought is, I’m sure I’m not the only one who has turned fellow jammers into co-developers.

To start making a game. Seems kind of obvious, I suppose. You might have heard of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, an event in which a group of deranged individuals (yes I have been among them) attempt to each write a 50,000 word novel in a single November. A lot of people make use of it as a way of just getting a terrible book written, upon which they can then improve – some find the challenge of just getting from nothing to something the biggest challenge of all. Is that you? Having one intense work weekend forced on you can break the back of resistance to making a new game. Particularly in the casual/mobile/whatever space, a pretty big amount of work towards a finished game can be done in one weekend. This works pretty well with the dot point above, too.

To have a party. My motivations for going to game jams these days is a combination of experimentation, networking, and prototyping, but I have to admit that it’s also just because they’re fun. I’m not all that much of a one for drinking or clubbing – when I was younger, people would often ask me what I do for fun, if not that. ‘Game jamming’ seems like a pretty good answer to me. My other reasons for game jamming might deteriorate in the future, but when someone asks me “Do you want to go to a weekend-long party where, instead of getting drunk and shouting over loud music, you make games?” my answer will always be ‘yes’.

Okay, those are the reasons I can think of. Either you’re one or more of those reasons, or you don’t want to go to a game jam. Or my list isn’t comprehensive – a possibility that, for the moment, I will pretend doesn’t exist. In any case, I’m going to attempt to dispense some advice for potential jammers.

Team members should aim to be of similar skill levels. In particular, this is for the newbies. I welcome positive experiences to the contrary – this is just my gut instinct – but the education benefit of a jam is, in my opinion, largely for trial-by-fire nature of it. Having to figure something out, or else it doesn’t get done, is a good way to be forced to learn, and while having an expert around to guide you will certainly make your game better, I think it’s better to make a crap game and learn than it is to make a less crap game and learn less. The other reason for this is… well, lots of people are happy to teach those less experienced than themselves, and some people sign up for 48 hour game jams, but few sign up for 48 hour teaching jams. If someone’s going to be helping you learn for the game jam, you should make sure they’re up for it.

If you’re just there to have fun, you should still care about finishing your game. It’s like a competitive multiplayer game – you don’t have to be cutthroat about it, but the players should at least try to win, or else the gameplay falls apart. Game jams are fun because you’re trying to make the game. If you end up dicking around and not caring, it’ll won’t be fun anymore. Especially not if your teammates have reasons other than fun for being there.

If you are there to make connections, don’t form a team made up exclusively of people you know and have worked with before. Yeah.

If you’re planning to sell your game, make sure you’re happy with your teammates. Finishing off polishing up your game and selling it means these people will be your team mates for a while longer than 48 hours. If you’re not okay with being a potentially weird shared IP situation with them – you can’t always choose your team, after all – consider shelving that plan for the moment.

If you really are only there for the fun, don’t do something safe. If you’ve made a game in 48 hours before, try to make something more ambitious this time. Pick one of the crazier diversifiers, or do something weird and unexpected with the theme. Don’t be that team of experienced developers making the same thing they’ve made before and with no stress or excitement.

Get a somewhat reasonable amount of sleep. I’m not saying reasonable by normal standards – you’re probably sleeping on the floor in your clothes surrounded by strangers, after all. But you don’t want to be falling asleep on days two and three, either. My first game jam, I slept two hours the first night, then the evening after that I spent four hours programming a system that I got so confused and confounded by that I eventually had to scrap it. If I had just slept for those four hours instead, I would have gotten the same amount of work done, and I’d have been more awake at the end of it. If you’re on a team of crazy people attempting some kind of personal challenge, have at it, but let’s not pretend that working for two days without sleep is going to help you achieve optimal productivity.

Okay, that’s the end of my game jam advice. I hope it was of some interest. If for some reason you were persuaded by my advice to not attend a game jam, that’s because I made a mistake, and you should disregard it and go anyway. Seriously, if it seems at all like something you might like, give it a crack – it can really be a great weekend.