Your first game jam is both exciting and a bit scary all at the same time. There are sometimes so many rules to follow, it seems like everyone else has it together, but you feel like you’re hanging on by the edge of your seat. The truth though is that game jams are supposed to be fun! If you want to get into game development, I think it is a great place to get started. Below is a guide for new game jammers. I also included some tips on how you can make it a successful experience your first time.
If you are here to see if game jams might be something you would be interested in, I have written an article about what game jams are and why you might want to participate. They really are fun and a great way to learn if you are new to game development.
1. Find a Game Jam that Suites Your Needs / Wants
There are a lot of game jams out there. Itch provides an ongoing calendar of game jams that happen. Quite honestly, on almost any given weekend you can find one that is happening around the world.
Global Game Jam is held in late January each year. It is one of the largest in-person game jam events held around the world. This year with COVID, things are going virtual. I hope that by 2022, things will be back to in-person.
For Global Game Jam, my school hosted roughly 40 participants, primarily former students. Many of the locations you will find listed will be universities or businesses. You should be able to find an environment that fits your needs or wants. Some are more relaxed environments and others are a bit more structured. In our case, we were somewhere in the middle.
Ludum Dare, on the other hand, is considerably different. It is typically virtual. It does allow for groups to work with one another, but often those are individually organized. Because of the way it is structured, it is probably the most popular game jam in existence, and maybe the oldest.
Ludum Dare is held twice per year. Once in the Spring and once in the Fall. It is a 72 Hour event, held from Friday evening until Monday evening. It is fairly common tradition for people use their platform to provide other people with updates and get feedback. They do have a good system for interacting with other jammers. Prior to the game jam starting, during the off season, they spend some time working with jammers to collaborate on the theme.
I really do believe that to get the true experience you will want to be available the entire time. In my case, I clear my schedule. I don’t have any plans to go anywhere. I don’t plan family activities or anything outside of the jam. In fact, I go to the extent of working with my wife to make sure that she is aware that the game jam IS my plan.
2. Sign Up
A fairly important step, but easily overlooked. For Global Game Jam (GGJ) we plan for food and drinks for the participants. If you plan to participate in an in-person event, it would be helpful for the host to know how many to plan for. In addition to planning, GGJ does have an age requirement.
Also, the online game jams should be signed up for as well. The theme and announcements are generally sent via email. It is a good way to stay up to date with what is happening. In Ludum Dare’s case, you will want to sign up so that you can post your progress.
3. Preparation for a Game Jam
Plan Your Meals
Some game jams may provide food, such as Global Game Jams. The virtual ones, obviously, will not. I would recommend that you plan out what you might want to eat in advance. In my case, it was fairly simple meals that I preferred.
A few good options might be things like sandwiches, hot dogs, etc. If you want to treat yourself, you might do something in a slow cooker. Those are all great options, lend itself to little time away from the computer, and hopefully things that you actually like to eat!
Install Software That Is Needed
You would be surprised at how often this is an issue for a lot of jammers. Get your software installed before the official start time. I generally look a few days ahead of time to ensure that the game engine, any asset creation software, and programming IDE’s are all working properly.
Brush Up on Your Skills
Being a teacher, I may go 6 months without using Substance Painter at times. The best thing I can do before a game jam is just to go through the pipeline. Not only is it a good way to ensure the software is working like you want it to and get rid of any hurdles, but it just lets you remember the process. It makes you feel a bit more comfortable going into it. Be careful though, don’t burn yourself out beforehand!
Plan for Planning
Seems a bit redundant, but I like to try and stay organized during the game jam. I use post-it notes to do a lot of this, even as a solo. Make sure you have those items around, including pens, pencils, etc. A binder can also potentially work, but I like the flexibility of being able to move post-it’s around on a wall or on my desk.
If you want to use a digital version, Trello is a great resource. It’s also the number one resource for working with people remotely. You will need an account all setup beforehand if this is the route you go.
Tip: Find an Area of Interest
I would recommend that you have something in your back pocket that you may want to dive into during the jam. As an example, last Ludum Dare my area of interest was learning more about the NavMesh system and AI in Unity. This helped formulate some ideas that was based on the theme as well. If you know this in advance, you can start diving into these areas with tutorials before the jam starts to have a general idea of how to use it.
4. Be Ready to Go at the Start of the Game Jam
Every game jam I have been a part of, there is an excitement about getting the theme. This is meant to be the official beginning of you coming up with ideas and building something. Try to make sure you are at your computer ready to go when the theme is announced. You will be sad you did not take advantage of the full time in the end if not.
I wrote an entire article on ideation for game jams. I believe ideation is difficult for most teams. I would highly recommend checking it out just to have some process in place for this. A lot of teams get stuck here.
Tip: Work backward on ideation. Starting with the end in mind will give you realistic goals. In contrast, if you start with a story, it’s often a good opportunity to not realize just how big the project you have envisioned truly is.
I would recommend trying to keep your ideation to about one hour. Have I ever actually done that successfully? No, but I try. I think shooting for an hour is ideal, but my goal for the first night is generally to be able to get started on my prototype. I probably am not done with it, but I am at least started.
I did work one game jam in which it was a weekend jam and we had nothing fully chosen by the end of the night. The next morning was chaos. People were showing up at different times and no official decisions were made well into the weekend. Needless to say, this was probably my worst experience in game jams that I have ever had. At the very least, people should be able to get up in the morning at a time that works for them and be able to contribute by building something. DO NOT GO TO BED PRIOR TO THIS POINT.
Once you have your idea, I would suggest that all team members, or you if you are working solo, create an “I would be happy if it was… and nothing else” statement. This means that you have your idea, but what is the bare minimum that it can be that you would be happy with? This would often be related directly to your statement about what you want to learn.
As an example, in my last game jam my area of interest was to do something with AI and the NavMesh system in Unity. Therefore, if my game related to chickens walking around was nothing more than chickens randomly walking in a caged area, I would have been happy. This allowed me to focus on these areas first. Everything I did the first 24 hours related to meeting that goal. Anything extra was just added benefit.
6. Create a Backlog
If you are unfamiliar with the Agile Scrum system, I would recommend just checking out a few videos on it. The idea is fairly simple though. The process begins with adding items to your “backlog”. The backlog is essentially post it notes that list out everything you might potentially want to put in the game.
Coming Up With Items for Your Backlog
Some of your common list items may be things like “Player Model” and “Player Movement”. Note that “Player” is probably a bit too broad. The goal here would be to refine it into fairly small pieces, and often split up in a way that would make sense for your team. Example, a programmer wouldn’t know where to start with a “Player Model”, but a modeler wouldn’t really want to work on “Player Movement”. It allows you to split up the work much easier.
What Should Go Into Your Game Jam Backlog?
The backlog is not meant to be things you are committed to doing. Instead, it is all of the possibilities. Think of it as a brainstorming session in some ways. My advice in working with a team is to put any and all ideas into the backlog.
If you have someone on your team who has some crazy ideas, throw them up there anyway. My experience has been that every now and then even a person with crazy ideas will hit a gold mine every now and then. It also keeps an environment in which people feel comfortable giving suggestions. Keep in mind though that you should have your idea chosen at this point. Your backlog is the individual pieces that will make up your game. Still, sometimes you can get some crazy thoughts in this part as well.
How Should You Organize Your Game Jam Backlog?
Organizing is a bit of a different story as well. I would start with about 20-30 post-it notes for a team of about 5 people. You can always add to this list as you move along or others identify additional parts that haven’t been thought of.
You should prioritize your backlog based on your “I would be happy if it was… and nothing else” statement. If my statement is something like, “I would be happy if it was an environment with chickens that feel life-like roaming around I would be happy.” The key areas in that statement are that I need a chicken model, I need to rig the model, I need some way to make the chickens move from point to point randomly. I have to have some animations associated with them.
These are all backlog items and those listed first would be ones that I absolutely have to have to make my “I would be happy” statement a reality.
7. Move Backlog Items into a To Do List
Your To Do List should be made up of what you can get done in hour increments. Since we are working a very short schedule, you should not be taking items that will take you a full day. If your backlog item will take that long, you should refine it down into small pieces.
In my case, I would not have one backlog item titled “Chicken”. The chicken has many different parts to it. I need to model, rig, texture, animate, and program the chicken. If that’s the case, I would recommend using your time as your discussing what you can get done in an hour to refine your backlog items into smaller pieces as you move along.
With prioritization as an important factor, allow team members to decide what they want to contribute. A programmer may want to give a hand to the modeler or vice versa. Allow them to do this! There are also, in my own mind, tasks that seem more enjoyable than others. Please allow people to take on some fun items, even if they may not be the best person for the job. It’s not about completing the best product, but about the journey along the way.
Tip: Leave time for research. There are going to be people that have to look up some tutorials and documentation. It’s fine. Make sure that you account for that time as well.
8. Execute Your To Do List
Finally, we are actually building something! At this point you should feel like you have a good grasp of what exactly it is you are trying to create.
I would recommend that as you get going, make sure that you understand the rules for your game jam. As an example, there are much more stringent rules in Ludum Dare than there is in Global Game Jam. You don’t want to go off downloading assets from the Unity asset store not realizing that the game jam you are part of requires you to build everything within the 72 hours from scratch.
Secondly, avoid panic. You have an hour timeframe to build something, but what happens if it takes two hours instead? Nothing. This is quite common. More times than not you won’t exactly hit that hour mark. The goal of those hour sessions are to bring the team back together regularly.
Lastly, be proud of what you accomplish. There are times where you have to make some drastic decisions. As a modeler, there are times where I have to simply say “that’s good enough”. I remember wanting to add more detail to my chicken. The truth of the matter is that I already spent a bit more time on it than I should have. I eventually had to set it aside and say it was good enough for me. I needed to move on to something else. Encourage teammates running behind to do the same.
Tip: Make sure you enjoy the process, not the result. You won’t be building the next AAA game in the course of a weekend. Your game is going to feel basic and minimal. Enjoy the process, not what you end up with. This should be the thought with each item on your to do list.
9. At the end of each hour, revisit your to do list
This is one step that I think people miss often but it is so crucial! Have your team come back each hour, maybe two hours depending on progress, to discuss what was completed. Where are you having trouble?
These meetings should be short, typically stand up meetings. All team members should participate, even though it can be frustrating to stop work at times. Use this time to continuously refine your backlog. You might take a few minutes to look at the next few items on the agenda. If someone has completed all of their tasks, they need to assign another hours worth of work. If they are running behind, decide how to help them, if any is needed.
This is also a great time to get feedback. I know that people often like to show off their work. Honestly though, the best time is not in the middle of someone else trying to get stuff done. Instead, wait until the hour is over and show the few items you got completed. Teammates can give feedback at that point. I know this helps me out a lot. My preference is not to be distracted a lot while trying to work.
Continuously be evaluating your work with “I would be happy if it was… and nothing else” statement. Are we doing work that ultimately doesn’t meet that goal? If so, you may want to revise what people are working on when appropriate to do so.
If you put this into practice, the reality is that almost each time, as you move along, everything takes longer than you think it will. Keep refining the backlog and to do list. If you are really struggling, you may need to scope back on your “I would be happy if it was… and nothing else” statement. There have been numerous times where I have had to take a step back and realize that my goals were a bit too much for what I could handle in a weekend.
Tip: In addition to working with your team, this can be one of the more enjoyable parts of working within a team. Grab a snack or a drink and enjoy yourself for a few minutes. Remember, it’s all about the journey, not the result.
10. Upon completion of “I would be happy if it was… and nothing else.” Start Polishing
Depending on how you structured your statement, you may find that you hit this pretty early on. In fact, one game jammer says that he aims to hit this early, maybe within 4 hours. At that point, he uses the remaining 44 hours in a two-day jam to polish his game.
My advice would be very similar. As soon as you hit the low bar of what the game could be and you would be happy with it, begin to make what you have looked better. At times you may need to make some significant decisions as to what that is.
If you are late reaching this goal, I would probably consider doing nothing but polishing what you have. If you are still early, I think this is where you can make the call to add other mechanics or a bit more depth. If you decide you want to add a bit more, consider rewriting another “I would be happy if it was… and nothing else” statement to keep you on track.
Tip: If you have a team you may be able to broaden. My experience as a solo jammer is almost always to polish in place of adding. Polish will generally make or break others perception of your game.
How do you actually polish what you have?
I want to list a few of the common areas that you might consider polishing. There are obviously much more than this, but the process is fairly similar.
How can you improve what you have:
- Areas to consider polishing:
- Start and End Screens
- Bug Fixes
- UI Elements for Gameplay (Health meters, points, etc.)
- Particle Effects
11. Leave 1-Hour to Submit
At the end of your game jam, I would recommend leaving at least one hour for your submission. Generally what ends up happening, even if you plan to do this, is that someone on the team is scrambling to finish something. That’s fine, but the goal is to hit “completion” with one hour remaining.
What this will allow you to do is build your game from your game engine. Generally if you are submitting it somewhere it has to be in a specific format that is compatible. In our case, we often have to build multiple times as we find that there are some issues. Give yourself some breathing room.
Make sure you give yourself time to upload the game to a platform such as itch.io. This is a common one for Ludum Dare. You may even consider doing this before the game jam if you have never done it before. In my first experience, I realized that how I had built my UI totally broke the game. I was forced to go back and make some revisions. The good news is that I had time. The bad news is that I would have built it entirely differently knowing that I had a small window size to work in.
Lastly, make sure you submit information about your game. You want others to be able to look at it. Put someone on the task of writing details about your game, including controls if it’s not built into the UI explaining it (it should be, by the way).
12. Post-Game Jam
Usually everyone is extremely tired at this point. It’s been a long 48 or 72 hours! At the same time, this is the part that I enjoy the most. You get an opportunity to see what others have built. If you are in Global Game Jam, some places have people showcase their game. It’s a pretty cool experience, but sometimes people are falling asleep.
In the case of Ludum Dare, I submitted my game and went to take a nap. I got up to see how others scored my game but also to play some others and provide feedback. It is always interesting to see peoples interpretations!
If (and when) any of these steps fail, realize you are doing it for fun!