GAME JAMS: A SURVIVAL GUIDE WRITTEN BY THE INTERNET

Preface

My name is Nik Pantis (Twitter: @NikPantis). In preparation for Global Game Jam, I asked the internet for its best tips, and it delivered. For those who don’t know what a game jam is, a game jam is a gathering of people for the purpose of planning, designing, and creating one or more games within a short span of time. The key components, of course, being the creation of a game, and a time constraint. Some game jams even ask participants to adhere to a theme, but this is often optional. But, if you’re reading this, you probably knew all that.

Game jams sprung about in 2002 and have been going strong ever since. Some people have created game jams centred on particular themes, for example, Lucy Morris’ (Twitter: @lucymorris) Asylum Jam, which is a 48 hour game jam in which developers are challenged to create a horror-themed game without negatively stereotyping mental health. The jam itself came about to prove that we don’t have to portray mental health, medical professionals, or medical institutes to create a great horror experience.

This document will guide you through some essential information, and can act as a reference in case you forget any of them or just need help preparing for your first jam. At the end is a checklist of things to bring, too! But first, here’s a graph of the top recommendations from my initial research when it comes to game jams, presented in a pretty black and white graph.

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Figure 1: Tips and the number of times mentioned by previous game jam attendees.

Self-care

After receiving over 150 tips from developers worldwide via Facebook and Twitter, the number one essential tip is sleep. While some enjoy the hustle and bustle and are able to stay up all night, it’s important to note that this is not for everyone. Fun fact: Not enough sleep diminishes productivity, undermines performance, weakens social skills, and makes you look weird. You know your body, and you’ll need to pay attention to know when enough is enough. A game jam is an involved process mentally, which takes a toll on the physical. Not sleeping affects your body in many ways, and you’ll end up producing a lower quality project in the end. Even if it’s just a few hours, the benefits will amaze you. Note: If you are planning on sleeping on-site, you can buy inflatable mattresses from your local Kmart for about $9.

Sleep isn’t the only form of self-care you should practice during a game jam. It may seem simple, but it is so important to make time for food and water. If you don’t eat or drink anything, you’ll get real hungry and thirsty, and your performance will drop. Again, it seems straightforward, but during the adrenaline rush that is planning and creating, many respondents advised that they did forget. There are obviously long term consequences for not eating and drinking, like dying, but you absolutely won’t be able to perform to your best without proper nutrition and hydration. To prevent this, most on-site jams will have food and drink readily supplied — but you should always bring a water bottle or two, as well as some snacks.

Up next, we have a form of self-care that is sometimes neglected in life, and even more so during a high-pressure situation. Personal hygiene affects everyone around you, including your teammates. Remembering to shower is very important. Deodorant is also a good bet, but if you plan on bringing some on-site, try to bring roll-on, as using aerosol in some spaces may affect those with asthma. Take the time to zone out and spend some time by yourself — you never know what solution you might come up with mid shower!

Mental health during a game jam is also a vital consideration, and while sleep, food, water, and hygiene all can contribute to positive mental health, there is another thing that can help. The word decompression was used on more than one occasion recently, and I wanted to explain what that means. The official definition is that decompression is the reduction in air pressure. If you have a balloon with too much air in it, the pressure would — of course — burst the balloon, tearing both the balloon and the hearts of its family asunder forever. By letting some of the air out, some of that pressure, we’re able to save the balloon and ourselves. If you find yourself under too much stress, find yourself getting upset or irritated, you might need to take a few minutes to decompress. Go for a walk. Drink some water. Just relax for a moment, gain some composure, and return. Don’t be afraid to take this time, or to speak to someone you’re close to who isn’t involved in the jam to vent. No one wants a burst developer.

The Jam

When it came to tips and tricks for a game jam, the overwhelming majority of responses talked about self-care. But beyond that, some offered advice about the game you’ll be working on. First, plan. Plan your team and project well. In terms of a team, more people does not necessarily mean the project will be better, and this is a trap oft fallen into. There is always the risk of too many cooks in the kitchen. More people means more minds, which increases the necessity for some form of leadership role. When it comes to planning the project itself, one Facebook user recommended you use relatively equal time on the three steps: planning, developing, and polishing. Being organised is the best way to end up with a finished product. Many people have stated they paper prototype during a game jam, which is a simple way to create and test ideas quickly.

When it comes to planning the project as a whole, the third most stated response was related to the scope of the project, with everyone saying you should scope low, which of course makes sense. To quote game developer Ben Rejmer (Twitter: @BenRejmer), “Figure out the smallest possible version of your idea. Then chop it in half and use the kindling from that unused half to burn down most of what you had. Then just make a game from the tiny bit left”. Scope low, and blow them out of the water with how polished, enjoyable and clear your game can be.

If you need help with planning or scoping, find yourself a producer. Trust me.

The next recommendation might seem like a straightforward one, but it’s often something that changes when the need arises. Using existing tools will give you more time to work on your game. There’s a great list of resources compiled by Ciro Continisio (Twitter: @CiroContns) found at bit.ly/GGJ-Resources. This document lists links to both free and paid resources, ranging from game engines and frameworks; assets such as models, textures and audio; engine tools to help with 3D modelling, 2D and Vector graphics; audio and music middleware; and even task management and source control. Use this list. This is a very helpful list.

Get ready to write the next tip down: save. Save often. I don’t feel as though this needs a full explanation, but obviously if the worst were to happen and your computer caught on fire, you’d want your work to be available on the next computer you curse with your touch. This is also a good time to mention the importance of version control.

People have quite varied ideas of a standard production pipeline when it comes to making a game during a game jam, but one common thought is that a large portion of time close to the end of the jam should be dedicated to polishing your game. This time should be used to smooth out any wrinkles, fix any bugs and make things prettier. This is the time you take to focus on the little details that will make your game better overall. This step can’t be underestimated: an unpolished game can be ugly, non-functional or not fun, or a combination of the three.

Talking to others during the game jam is inevitable, but this should be nothing to fear! Other people have different perspectives on things, and they’ll be able to offer help and advice if you just ask (look at all the tips I got for this article)! It’s important to split your time between your project, talking to your team, and talking to other people outside of your team. Communication within your team will be important for your project, so check up on them as often as you can, offer them water or snacks if they look cranky! Try and remember that you’re not trying to make the world’s best game in 48 hours, you’re trying to make the best game you and your team can make in 48 hours while not compromising yourself and your health. The teams surrounding you are also good to talk to — events such as game jams are so useful for forming connections with new peers and colleagues, as well as learning new things, so take advantage of it! Don’t be afraid to have a small chat, everyone is in the same boat, and who knows, you might be able to help them out too. Go on, talk to people!

In this last portion, I’d like to discuss a final, important thing that is less of a tip and more of a requirement. It wasn’t mentioned in the various threads I created or stumbled upon, but being on your best behaviour is something that you should strive for for numerous reasons. Being surrounded by others for a large period of time can be difficult, especially for those who spend a lot of time alone or in very small numbers, but you need to ensure you’re making a conscious effort to be the best you — for yourself and everyone around you. You may not have met everyone around you, but these people are developers and content creators just like you! They are in your industry, and it’s possible you’ll be working with them further in the future sometime. Make a good impression by working well, being kind to those around you and making a kickass game. It also goes without saying that the organisers and volunteers at the jam will appreciate it.

This survival guide may only have a few tips and recommendations, but I truly feel as though they will help you have the most productive and enjoyable time during your game jam. The most important thing you can do is have fun! So take this guide and go make some games!

Figure 2: A checklist of what to bring to your game jam.

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