Game Jam Insights

Hexenwerk
11 min readFeb 13, 2024

Game jams are an opportunity for game developers (and those who would like to become one) to celebrate their love for game development together — and all around the world. Within few days, game concepts are developed around a common theme or genre, usually with certain restrictions that vary depending on the jam.

This article is aimed at game enthusiasts who are thinking about participating in a game jam but aren’t sure if it’s for them. I hope I can answer some of your questions based on my own experiences.

Some game jams are on-site, but most of them take place online

General Questions

Where do game jams take place?

Everywhere! Long before the Corona pandemic (since 2002, starting with the Indie Game Jam), there were virtual game jams where people from all over the world could participate. There are also game jams that have actual venues, but I’m limiting myself here to virtual jams, as I’ve only participated in those myself. So it doesn’t matter if you live in a big city, where game developer companies are often based, or if you live somewhere in the countryside. All you need to participate is a computer and internet access.

Is this a competition?

At game jams, the entries submitted are usually judged by a jury or by all participants. There can be several winners who have scored particularly well in the “story” or “fun to play” categories, for example, as in a computer game award. Sometimes there are even prizes for the winner(s). However, the competition is secondary — otherwise it would probably be called game dev competition instead of game jam. It can be very interesting to play the other participants’ entries and analyze what makes them special and fun. And of course, they are just as happy to receive feedback on their contribution as you are.

How long does a game jam take?

There are various game jam formats. For example, a game jam can take just one hour or up to several weeks. Common formats are three or seven days. Probably the best-known jam is the “Global Game Jam”, which takes place every year in January and lasts a week. Another very well-known jam is Ludum Dare — this takes place twice a year, in April and between September and October.

Are game jams useful?

Game jams offer an ingenious opportunity to train teamwork (and game development under time pressure). That’s why game design students are also encouraged to participate in game jams. Even if you have been working in the games industry for years — and even if you work in a completely different profession and are still interested in game development — it can’t hurt to throw yourself into the adventure named “game jam” at least once.

Yes, it’s probably harder to find the time and energy if you’re participating in a game jam on top of your job. But the experience is worth it. Some devs spend their holidays jamming.

Are game jams fun?

Game jams are known for their creative collaboration. But in their own way, they can also be just as annoying and stressful (!) as working in a company. Creative people are often complicated personalities. This requires mutual tolerance and patience.

A game jam should be fun for everyone. Of course, game development is work. But the work becomes bearable if you treat your team colleagues humanely and find a balance between sense and nonsense. Other than in your usual job, devoted failure is also allowed.

Whether you’re a student or already in a job, make sure you get enough sleep and don’t forget to eat and drink during the game jam period. All of this is just as important as not losing the fun of playing!

Prefer being a solo dev?

Perhaps you would prefer to work alone on a game jam because you don’t want others to influence and overwrite your own creative ideas. Perhaps you hope that participating in a jam will give you opportunities for your career and see this at risk if others don’t seem to listen to your ideas only or if you implement other people’s ideas. However, if you want to work in the computer games industry, you must be aware that you will most likely be working with others anyway. It is always a work of many authors.

If you are considering to become a professional game dev, but realize during a game jam that working in a creative team like this doesn’t work for you, maybe you should ask yourself whether you want to work in a game development company at all.

A game jam can be a trial by fire if you want to find out whether the games industry is for you. Alternatively, if game development is your calling, there is the option of becoming an independent developer. But even then, it may occasionally be necessary to fulfill customer demands in order to make ends meet financially. Game dev is a job where you may always need to adapt to the wishes of others instead of realizing your own dreams.

One possible procedure

(there are many ways and you’ll have to find yours)

This is no “How to participate in a game jam step by step” tutorial, just a sneak peek what you may need to do during a game jam:

1. Put on (at least) one hat

Before you start, you should think about which kind of tasks you can accomplish or would like to try out during the jam. This is helpful when coordinating within the team so that not everyone is just modeling 3D characters, for example, and there is no one in the team who can program or develop a game concept. Even if it’s a solo game jam, it helps to know which tools and skills are available to you beforehand.

So what roles and tasks are there in a game jam?

Game Designer

Sure: To develop a game, you first need an idea for a game concept that you can agree on. If you are a team, you can of course develop it together so that you are all game designers in a way. But perhaps someone should — and would like to — be primarily responsible for this.

Programmer

Important if you really want to end up with something playable! There are all kinds of programming tutorials and software that make it possible to create games without programming knowledge. But honestly — without a programmer on board, you will be more limited.

Game Artist

As much as I hate to say it (I’ve been working on games as a 2D artist myself for 20 years): You don’t necessarily need it. Of course, a game jam entry can look adorable if you have a capable graphic artist in your group. But “programmer’s art” can also be incredibly appealing. Take courage. This doesn’t mean that artists are superfluous. It always helps to have someone in the team who can take care of all the necessary graphic assets.

User Interface (UI) Designer

Often overlooked unless it is faulty. Wrongly so — after all, it is the “face” of the game, often the first and last impression the game leaves on players. If you have a UI designer on your team, consider yourself lucky — a harmonious, user-friendly, and responsive UI can round off a game just as well as a suitable atmospheric sound design.

Sound Designer or Composer

It’s great if you have someone who can compose. Of course, a game also works without sound, but graphics (including UI) and music create the atmosphere of a game. Even if none of you have learned this, it is an exciting area, and there is also the alternative of using existing free-to-use assets and designing the sound of your game by selecting and combining them appropriately.

Level Designer

Whether you need a level designer depends on what kind of game you are making. Level design is not only relevant for shooters, but also for survival games, stealth games, puzzle games or walking simulators, for example. Level design is similar to game design and game art — if you don’t have a dedicated level designer, you will somehow manage to create a game world together.

Project Manager

Yes, really. There’s a lot that can be coordinated in a game jam. If you have someone who’s up for management and doesn’t tend to bully you — add them to your team. Fortunately, in small teams (and sometimes small game dev companies) you don’t have to limit yourself to only one role — you can become a multiclass character!

Tester/Quality Assurance (QA)

All of your team mates should test your game during a game jam. Of course, for testing it can be helpful to not already know a game you want to test inside out — but it’s better than not testing it at all before you unleash it on players.

Voice Actor

Games with voice acting are of course often even more fun. However, voice actors are a rather optional luxury at a game jam because there is usually not enough time to finish the texts in time so that voice recordings can be made and implemented into the game. But with good planning and if it’s a two-week jam with not too many texts, for example, it’s perfectly feasible.

Sometimes semi-professional voice actors at jams offer to work on one or more projects. If this is not the case, you can also record your own. Maybe you’ll discover a new talent?

2. Choose your Weapon

Unlike a musical jam, the instruments in a game jam are your hardware and software. You can simply work with pen and paper and create a pure paper prototype (but this is better suited for local on-site game jams, as you will still have to digitize the concept for submission).

Or you can use a game engine of your choice — unless the restrictions of the game jam in question specify otherwise, for example that the game must be developed with the Unreal Engine. There are numerous free tools that you can use for game jams. The game jam description often contains a list of links to everything you need.

Simple, easy-to-learn tools for developing games include “Twine” (for interactive stories) or “Scratch” (small games of all kinds with visual coding). These two tools are particularly suitable for the very first game project and also for solo devs.

3. Shape the design of the game

A virtual whiteboard such as miro can be useful if you are not sitting together in the same room. Here you can brainstorm, collect and visualize your ideas on an infinite canvas. Depending on how you prefer to work, a canvas like this can even replace a game design document.

However, if you want to write such a document in the traditional way, you can edit it together on GoogleDrive or a similar cloud service, for example. Same for asset lists (sheets).

The service you choose should allow editing documents directly in the browser or app without having to download them. This way you can avoid version conflicts if you are working on a document at the same time.

As there are various tools that offer the needed functionalities, it can’t hurt to already try them out before the jam begins. Otherwise the comparison and research may cost you unnecessary time.

4. Beware of Tutorials!

There are tons of tutorials on various game development topics. They are helpful and informative. But you won’t have much time to watch tutorials during a game jam. So use them as selectively as possible. If you can’t solve a specific problem yourself, for example with your chosen game engine, ask on the corresponding Discord if someone has an idea. But don’t rely on this — there is not always someone available to help you at the right time.

5. Start the Prototyping and Coding

As long as you don’t have any real graphic assets, you can develop the gameplay and design levels with simple untextured cubes, for example. This is called white boxing.

Even if it has to be done quickly, try to keep a clear project structure (first create folders for scripts, textures, sounds and whatever else your game needs). This will also give you a better overview of what is still missing.

6. Creating the Assets

You don’t need to buy software for a jam. Instead you can use for example Blender for 3D assets or Photopea for 2D art. You are usually also allowed to use pre-made assets such as character models or sounds in game jams. If you want to do this, make sure that you are actually allowed to use these assets. Sometimes it is enough to at least name the creators in the game credits.

You can find suitable assets that you can use on itch.io and in the Unity Assetstore or at freesound.org, for example. Of course, your game will be less individual if you don’t create your own assets.

By the way: Usually you already start working on the assets while the coding is in progress.

What about AI?

There are now also various ways to generate assets with AI tools (some of these are already integrated into game engines). However, the use of such tools may not be permitted in certain game jams. It’s also a moral question whether you think it’s okay to use these tools.

From a purely artistic point of view, it is usually more exciting and, of course, more personal to implement your own ideas. Let’s be honest — don’t you want to try something out for yourself first to see if you can do it and understand how it works before you automate it? Are you still curious about the real stuff?

7. During the Jam: Communicate!

If the members of your team are in different locations, Discord is ideal for coordination. There you can agree on what you need for your game in writing or in voice chat without being disturbed.

So that you can work together on a project, upload it to Github, for example. This is free and is also used in professional game and software development. Github also offers a so-called kanban board for project planning, where you can collect and manage tasks. Codecks on the other hand is a more playful approach to project planning. This tool also has a Discord connection.

Don’t forget to communicate and give each other status updates during the jam. You motivate each other this way and keep up with what the others are doing.

8. Polishing

Game jam games are never about being perfect. Don’t beat yourselves up! Not even if you don’t end up with anything playable. That’s what happens sometimes.

If there wasn’t enough time to realize your idea, you can continue to work on your game concept after the jam. Of course, only if you enjoyed the concept so much that you would like to refine it. And if you would like to spend more time with your team. Sometimes, for example, voice recordings are added weeks after the actual game jam period.

9. Done!

You made it — you submitted your game on time and created an info page on the game jam platform, with a description, screenshots, cover image or logo and everything else. Maybe you even recorded a gameplay video. Great! Share the link to your jam entry so people can play your game.

Then check out what the others have submitted and leave a few nice comments.

And after that — off to the next Jam?

Organizing a game jam

If simply participating in game jams is not enough for you, you can also organize your own. Perhaps there is a certain subject that is so important to you that you want to draw attention to it with a game jam?

What you need to organize a game jam on site would go beyond the scope of this article. It is much easier to organize a virtual game jam. You can easily start it on itch.io as soon as you have decided on a date and a theme as well as any restrictions and perhaps even prizes for the winners.

In order for the game jam to be noticed by potential participants, you should also advertise it, for example on mastodon or whatever social channels you use.

Conclusion

I hope this article can inspire you a bit and perhaps (re)awaken your joy in game development. With all the games biz scandals happening especially over the past few years, the idea what making games should be about might get lost over time.

Let’s make game development fun again!

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Hexenwerk

Game Dev since 2004, Worldbuilder, Game Artist, UI Designer, Writer without Paywalls