Game Jam Tips: From Struggle to Success

Human Head
07 / 25 / 18
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This blog was guest-written by Matthew Christian, gameplay programmer on Survived By!
Check out his Head Count to learn more about his work.


It’s ten minutes to the deadline; your hair is frazzled, bloodshot eyes struggling to stay open, leg shaking in nervous anticipation. Did you fix the menu bug? The collision one? You click “Build” and cross your fingers, hoping the last 48 hours of marathon game development results in one word: success.

Game jams are immensely fun and challenging experiences that help you build your game development skills, network with other developers, and potentially produce the seed of an idea that will bloom into your next great game. Snake Pass, Titan Souls, Goat Simulator, and Super Hot are all examples of great modern games that owe some aspect of their creation to game jams. But deciding to participate in a game jam can be a daunting thought for anyone, whether you’re just starting out or have been developing games for years. In this article, I’m going to give you a few game jam tips to help turn your next jam from a struggle into a success!

Picking Your Jam

Before we talk tips, let’s take a quick moment to talk about the basics of game jams. Even if you’ve participated in game jams in the past, you can still learn plenty about them as they’re always evolving and often documented in some form. Game jams are like snowflakes: they’re all unique. That’s what makes them so much fun!

Here are some key aspects that, combined, make jams unique from one another:

  • Time – Jams have a set start and end time that determine how long you have to make your game. This can vary from as short as one hour to as long as multiple years. Most commonly, you’ll hear of 48-hour (ex: Ludum Dare solo, Global Game Jam), 72-hour (ex: Ludum Dare team), one week, and one month long jams (ex: One Game A Month).
  • Location – Some jams, such as the Global Game Jam, have physical jam sites where you’ll go to develop your game in the same room as other jammers. Others, such as Ludum Dare, are online and allow you to participate wherever you’d like. A unique example, Train Jam, is a yearly game jam that takes place on a train departing Chicago and arriving in San Francisco just before the start of the Game Developers Conference.
  • Theme – Most jams have a theme, which is simply an idea or subject that your game should include. For example, if the theme of a jam is ‘water,’ your entry should contain water in some form. It could be sailing on water, drinking a glass of water, walking through the rain, or even a game where the player searches for missing water in a grand desert. The theme helps guide all the jammers and its interpretation adds to the amazing variations in the submitted games. Some jams may not have a theme, leaving you to create whatever focused idea you want. A few previous jam themes include ‘Combine two incompatible genres’ (Ludum Dare 41), ‘Transmission’ (Global Game Jam 2018), and ‘Vacation’ (One Game A Month July 2018).
  • Rules – Depending on the jam, the rules can range from relatively strict to very relaxed. Unlike the theme, which is up to you to interpret, the rules are strongly defined and help provide guidelines that make the jam more balanced for everyone involved. Rules in game jams may define the number of participants in your team, what tools you can use, or even aspects of the theme you could be required to implement. As another example, a strictly ruled game jam may ask for you to submit your source code at the end for validation, while a relaxed jam may allow you to work on a game you’ve already started and never ask to see any source.

Now that you’re probably even more unsure of what jam you may want to participate in, I refer you to these excellent calendars that have tons of current and future jams planned out: http://www.indiegamejams.com/ or https://itch.io/jams. Browse the different jams, read their descriptions and what they’re all about, and pick one that sounds interesting. Or just find one with a difficulty and time frame that fits you best. After all, jams are about fun and letting your creativity soar.

This is only a small fraction of the jams available for you to participate in!

Before the Jam

So you’ve decided on a jam. Great! Did you know there are things you can do before the jam even starts? Let’s look at some stuff you can do well before the start of the jam to help you out when it’s time to get your jam on…

Predict the Future

Of all the hurdles you will come across during your jam, possibly the largest is going to be the limited amount of time you have. Many devs have fought to the bitter end, to the very last second, wishing they had one thing: more time. But what if you knew when your game would be finished? What if you knew you had it completed with an hour to spare? I bet you’ll be much more relaxed knowing you’re going in with a whole hour to spare (I sure would be)!

Do you want to know how to predict your jam future?

Create a calendar before the jam starts.

It can be scribbled on paper using pencil, printed from the internet, or scribbled with finger paints on cardboard. You can even generate your own custom calendar online here. I want you to include a few things on your calendar:

  • Jam Timeline – Create columns for each day of the jam and rows for each hour. If generating from the template site above, cross out all the hours before the start time and after the final end time (be sure to make this after the final end time as some jams have submission deadlines after the jam end that you should include). You should have a calendar simply showing a blank chunk of time, that’s your entire jam time.
  • Mark Start, End, Etc. – On your calendar add little notes at the start, end, and any other notable jam times (for example, Ludum Dare has an extra hour for submission after the end time). The start and end times should take up the full hour box. Taking the hour not only helps you see the start/end clearly, but will help pad your time a little bit and give you a little more wiggle room during the jam. Write these in bold lettering and customize them as you like. When I did my previous Ludum Dare, I highlighted the start in green and the end in red.
  • Add Blocks for “Human Time” – Unless you’re a robot you’ll most likely require ‘human time,’ which is time spent on needs for your body and mind. Add large blocks to your calendar for sleep, an hour here and there for food, and a few blocks for time spent away from the jam with a loved one, or simply to take a break. These blocks might seem unnecessary because of the time limit, but this is actually one of the most important aspects of the calendar. Human time helps you relax, refresh, and avoid burnout. During Ludum Dare, I planned eight hours each night for sleep, knowing that trying to focus on programming when I’m tired isn’t something I can do. If I didn’t plan that time I was going to be tired, wiped out, and ready to quit before the jam was even halfway done! Adjust the times to fit your life.
  • Add Deadline Times – The final item to add to your calendar are deadlines or goals you would like to hit by specific times. Here are a few ideas: a deadline to decide on your game idea, an early end goal to leave extra time for polish and final submission, or simply marking the halfway point. Don’t be too specific to your project details with these. Deadlines such as ‘complete all art by X’ are fine, but try to avoid low-level deadlines such as ‘program specific enemy class by hour two, player by hour 3, spinning lasers of doom by 4…’

How does that calendar look? Can you see where your core development hours are going to be? If you’ve added everything from above you should have a pretty good overview of the time you have for this jam.

My calendar for Ludum Dare 41

Now I’m going to tell you the biggest secret about this calendar.

You aren’t going to follow it!

Well, not strictly at least. At any point during the jam you can grab this one sheet of paper, look at the clock, and visualize exactly what time has passed and what time you have left. If you have lunch planned at 11 a.m. on Day 2 and you find yourself ‘in the zone’ with unwavering focus, don’t feel the need to stop because the calendar says so. Taking your lunch earlier or later doesn’t matter, what matters is that you’ve planned for it and you know what time you have remaining around it.

Periodically throughout the jam look at what you’ve got done on your game and what the calendar shows; do you have enough time to finish? Do you need to cut content or move on? Do you have extra time to polish or add more content? One sheet of paper can answer all these questions in seconds with nothing but simple colored boxes. Neato!

Food For Thought

There are a lot of small things we do each day that take time. In the previous section we built a calendar that helped visualize and pad our jam time by adding non-jam related blocks for sleeping, eating, and breaks. While these are simple tasks, you may be able to break them down even further and accomplish more before the jam starts. The calendar we made tells you that you are eating at some time, but what are you going to eat? Is it something that’s going to take time to prepare outside of the time you put on your calendar?

It seems trivial but take a quick trip to the store a few days before the jam. Find some foods and meals you can prepare in advance so when it’s jam time you can worry more about cooking up a great idea and less about cooking up a pile of food!

Participating with a team? Talk to everyone about making it a potluck where each team member brings a different snack or dish to pass. In Rami Ismail’s 2016 talk at the Game Developers of Wellington meetup he says, “the number one question you should be asking each other when working in a team has nothing to do with the game, it is, ‘are you doing ok?’” Regardless of whether your jam game starts turning into a diamond or a dirt pile, everyone on your team is going to be a lot happier with bellies full of delicious, warm food. By cooking up front you’ve already helped to answer the question, “are you doing ok?”Plus, you could even challenge your team ahead of time by deciding on a food theme!

And while you’re at the store…

Treat Yo’ Self!

Buy a few treats you wouldn’t normally buy, or some that you absolutely love to periodically indulge in. These are going to be rewards you can treat yourself to during the jam as you finish your goals. As an example, during Ludum Dare 41, I bought a bag of pistachios, Mountain Dew, and a small box of Swedish Fish (quite the health-conscious choices I made there).

You got procedural level generation working?

Treat!

Whoa, all art and audio is finished?

Treat!

You submitted with time to spare?

Mega-treat!

Everyone has a different concept of a significant goal they can accomplish during the jam, so plan your treats accordingly. Make sure your reward goals are attainable within the jam time, significant to the completion of your game, and will result in you rewarding yourself two or three times during the course of the jam.

Secret tip: if you’re struggling with a part of your game and taking a short break doesn’t help, cheat a little and nibble on one of your treats to help keep your mood up and motivation flowing. It’ll be our little secret.

The goal here isn’t to stuff your body full of the most calorie-dense foods before the end of the first day, but to reward yourself for a job well done. These rewards are going to give you something to look forward to and something to help make those successes even sweeter!

Battlestations!

If you’re jamming at home or in a shared location you can access before the jam, now is the time to clean it up and get it set up for the jam. Declutter your desk of papers and lingering trash, set out a fresh notebook and a pen, and if you’re a diehard you might even attempt the impossible: computer cable management.

Seemingly obvious pro-tip: make sure your computer, software, and other hardware works. Prepare for battle now because this is going to be your battlestation for the majority of the jam, and it’ll definitely get messy before time’s up!

Tl;dr (Conclusion)

One minute left with the jam almost over you click “Build” and… blue screen of death. The computer beeps beside you as it restarts. By now, time has run out and submissions are closed. You’ve spent the last hours, days, or weeks on a project that has been lost.

Have you failed?

You’ve successfully seeked out and commited your time to a jam that fits you and interests you personally. You’ve planned your time with a colorful calendar full of goals and plans you’ve completed one by one. For days you have fed yourself and your team while keeping morale high, all while creating a brand new game concept that didn’t exist before this whole thing started.

Have you really failed?

Regardless of whether this jam was a resounding success or an utter failure, you’ve done it. See, the goal of a game jam isn’t to “win” or to “get the highest score.” Jams are much more personal than that. Jams are an exercise in personal growth, a test each of us takes to sharpen our skills and learn something new. Even if you use tools you’re already familiar with, make a game in a genre you’ve made before, or even start with a pre-existing game, you will always learn something new. Failing to submit a file to a website won’t wipe your brain of the knowledge you gained or the memories you’ve made of the time spent on this one jam. Learning just one new thing that you can take with you makes any jam a worthwhile success.

Now go forth, and jam!