Global Game Jam for Dummies

I’ve always wanted to do a game jam, but I never had that chance. I thought it was too hard, too overwhelming and I’m just not ready yet. This year I was invited to join a team of some nice guys and here I go.

So long story short — Global Game Jam is awesome and every passionate developer should do it each year! There are a few more things I’ve learned and find pretty handy, so if you’re interested — here’s the long version.

Our game poster, check out links at the end for more info + playing the game

Prepare and think of a game idea

The jam has a different theme each year. I joined a team from my co-working space, and because we didn’t know each other that well we decided to have a short meeting just before the start. And short is way bad description for the one we had. But I think this saved our lives big time!

We decided to think of a basic game. Turned out it’s not the easiest thing to do, merging the thoughts of five different people into a single idea. There’s always someone that doesn’t like Indians or cowboys, zombies or aliens, or wants to smash em up and not do tactics..

But doings this early on saves tons of time later. It builds a team, flats out misunderstandings, clears lack of communication. It helped us figure out the right technology each one could use, as well as how to create and use graphics. Being on a tight schedule creates pressure, even if you don’t believe it will happen. And at the event, there were teams, in the middle of the day, still arguing what is best for the project. You can easily guess what they ended up with. It’s poisonous and something everyone should clear out before they go to the jam. Otherwise they don’t have enough time.

So, we were ready to create our top-view 2d space shooter!

Don’t stick to that idea

Global Game Jam 2016’s theme was “Ritual”. As it was late Friday we decided to have a talk instead of rushing to work on, so we quickly started to incorporate ritual into our space shooter. And it’s obvious how fast our space rituals turned into a total disaster. No one starts a fire in space shuttle, nor he brings voodoo dolls. Not to mention any kind of blood or dance rituals.

At the presentations, from about 16 games (in Sofia, Bulgaria), there were no more than 3 fitting the theme. If you browse the online repository of games published on the jam you will notice, that about 90% of the games are not doing it neither. People made a plan and just stuck to it, even if they saw it’s not working out that well. They wanted to play it safe, and it turned out crappy.

There was a regular jump and run game, with a panda, floating on a train. And the character was chasing… tea pot, trying to do a tea ceremony. And at some point, after finally getting that tea pot, the panda did a quick seppuku. Because seppuku and tea ceremony both represent rituals.

You should be flexible, and not fall in love too deeply with our ideas. I know how hard it is to so, but here’s an awesome excerpt from Scott Belsky’s “Making Ideas Happen” — Kill Ideas Liberally, which brings it straight to the point. If it’s not working — just come up with a new one! It’s better to do it early on, than to regret later when the panda is dead.

This is one of the things I’m most proud of. We were able to cut off our initial idea in favor of a game that uses the real theme, properly.

Game play is what fun means

Let’s face it — best games are best because of the game play. There’s no such thing as an awesome game only because of sound. Or based on CGI effects. It’s the way you play it that’s most fascinating (with some minor exceptions).

The best thing in our initial idea was the ability to switch control over characters. It’s too common to chose a character and use it through the rest of the game. We wanted to allow the players to switch those characters, get to experience their usage on different stages of the game.

So we took just that part, and created a whole new game (more about it later on). And others loved it! There were people calling on the phone saying how good it was. Because they found it different in some way.

We took the risk to think of a new strategy, new concept art, story and everything just in a few hours on the first evening, and it turned out to pay well. We didn’t have anything ready — no graphics, sounds, code, nothing. But that’s what the jam is all about — taking the risk of doing something completely from scratch, on a specific theme. Not preparing your game at home and trying to stuff and twist it with some idea later on.

Don’t overestimate your capabilities

Everywhere around the globe there were awesome teams, that can’t deliver. There were games presented as slide shows, without any kind of game play. There were big green boxes and the thing that was said on almost each and every presentation was “if we just had a bit more time this would have been…”

There was a business simulator project. A pretty sophisticated one, with different users, scenarios, all the ingredients. But first — it looked cheap, and second — it didn’t work, like at all. Two-dimensional side-scrolling one with just a single small level and green and blue squares being a “monsters” that kill you. Awesome!

I think it’s better to create something as functional as possible, rather than doing something that “would’ve been great only if there was a bit more time”. Well yeah, most of the guys were able to make the new Assassin’s Creed, but just not in 48 hours!

Plan accordingly and rely on simple but great mechanics rather than fancy graphics and sophisticated rules.

Sit on your butt and just work

You should be prepared for this. The truth is time is scarce. It’s very easy to dive into details. Generating ideas of what could be better, what and how should be done, how things should be polished with tons of details. But without any major push, here’s the result:

You can easily see where I ate sandwiches

We didn’t work the first night, and we didn’t stay that late the second one. But boy were we working hard! Because of the meeting the previous evening, we quickly managed to separate the tasks withing just a few minutes and just hit them minutes after we met in the morning.

We had sandwiches for lunch. We walked away from the screens just to go to the toilet. It’s not something that you need to suffer, it’s just the way it happens. You do your best and time just flies by.

Don’t be afraid of that and don’t expect it’s a pretty nice party with an evening cocktail.

Save the last minutes for polishing

Trust me you don’t want to leave any work for the last minute. Besides something not working properly, there are tons of other things to think for! Things that you don’t know the first time around.

The rules are that you have to publish your game before the deadline. And publishing means you have to register on the global site as a participant, then register a team, and then a game. The game needs a poster. You have to e-mail the guys organizing the event details about your team. It’s a bunch of bureaucracy, along with Readme, gif creations, explanations, home screen for the game, “how to play” screen and all that.

We had to explain the whole game logic in just one screen, done for 10 minutes.

So don’t leave work for the last minute as you will fail. You might have a great game, but fail to publish it (I’ve seen that with my own eyes).

The most important thing — the presentation

I realized that after everything was over. I was so excited we had finished game without any major bugs that presentation struck me like hell.

Turned out a few minutes are just not enough for people to get your idea. And explaining the way you did it or what the graphics represent, or how the green box is an enemy — totally worthless.

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

This one is from an awesome TED talk by Simon Sinek — How great leaders inspire action.

The game for the third place was a very basic tile scrolling one with the main idea to pick up a few items. There were the ugliest naked viking women as pixel art I’ve ever seen. Absolutely awful. But what won the crowd was the way the guys presented it — they’ve made custom sounds in our native language and made Viking like comments while demonstrating it. It was hilarious trying to get away from the naked women saying “Okay, okay, we know you find them ugly, we’re trying to run away so they stop appearing!”.

The game for the second place was made by three artists. They had no developer on the team, bought some demo online and spend the whole time polishing graphics and sounds. And it was touching to see their struggle with bugs just because they know nothing of coding.

Sell your own story behind the game, not the game itself. Tell the people why it happened this is the final results. Not something that you think is good or will earn you the award. It just doesn’t work.

Enjoy

At the end of the day, it’s all about joy. I’m pretty happy with what we did — it was a great game, great graphics, no major bugs. We did it without lots of pressure or arguments. Everyone on the team were just awesome and we totally nailed it. We’ve managed to do something I would regularly say it takes more than a few days. And we did it with love.

It turned out to be a single computer multi-player game with a cow and a mouse, defending a totem. The cow was the fighter and the mouse — a kind of ritual guru, that was doing some special casts on the cow. It was able to switch the cow’s weapon, so it will kill different kind of enemies. The second skill of the mouse was to swap their souls, so that the cow turns into mouse and vise versa. The great thing here was that the character controls swapped so the player were starting to control the other character.

Both characters have “stamina” bar, which was used to perform actions. The enemies are chasing the mouse, because if they hit it, the mouse won’t be able to cast switches on cow, which turns into living creeps and game over. This allowed fun game play with different scenarios, and the need to swap characters in order to escape.

You can see more images, get the code and play the game on Github.

Thanks

Big ups for the great team! I really enjoyed being there with these three guys and would like to say a special thanks to them!

Thanks Ivan Berov for the greatest graphics someone could draw in that short amount of time! We still owe him a beer for the two hour sleep he got.

Radoslav Stankov for dealing with the nasty movement stuff and knowledge about the jam.

Thanks to Ilian Nikolov for that major effort on every level possible and ideas polishing.