I'm a total gamedev noob and my game won't be any good, should I join a gamejam?
As long as you go into the jam with the mindset of learning and creating anything then absolutely jump right in. There should be some caution taken if it will be likely to cause frustrations. There are a lot of developers who made their first ever game during a game jam and most jamming communities are very welcoming to new developers. It is advantageous to know the tools, but it is also possible to learn on the fly as well.
What if I can't come up with a unique or original game idea?
While there are points for originality I personally believe it sometimes overrated and this should not be a reason to worry. If ‘coming up’ with a unique idea is burning you out, just use one that excites you whether it is truly unique or not. Many people will use platformer mechanics, but each game is subtly different and yours will be too. Last week I made my first game in Unity and used an infinite runner like mechanic to explore the engine. A viewer of my streams made a game using the same infinite runner mechanic, but their game played very differently from mine.
It is important that an original idea does not become an excuse to stop you from having a good time.
With so few hours in a game jam, how do you plan your time to avoid waste?
First I don’t really plan anything during a game jam and just let things happen. That said I use chunks of time to keep things on track during the weekend. The first chunk actually starts before the jam ensuring groceries and other life chores won’t need attention or cause distractions. In a team event I also ensure the entire team knows the schedule and ideas. Once the jam starts a chunk of time lasting an hour or two is started that allows for designing the idea and “planning” how to tackle it.
Keep the plan minimal. Just answer the question “can I make this before the deadline?”. The next chunk of time is set to about 4 hours and used to get the game working. Gameplay, Win condition, lose condition etc. Just use blocks, shapes and colors and rough out the idea. I find even while aiming for 4 this often it stretches to 6 or 8 hours. Try keeping it short, it helps. After this chunk, the rest of the time is spent making it better. This final chunk doesn’t really have a plan, I just constantly ask myself “What does the game need to become better?”
Avoid adding features to make it better, just polish and tune the ones you have. Perhaps your camera is working, but feels a little rigid. Attaching it to the target with a spring/damper could make the game easier to view. Always look for the lowest effort and biggest value, then repeat.
In a team event a final block of time should be set aside before creating final builds to ensure that everything gets into the game. During this block new things shouldn’t be created. Other team-members could start testing to look for anything super game-breaking, or writing up the material for release.
Does it make sense to have a reflection after the jam?
Absolutely. Highly recommended for both solo and teams to reflect on what happened. Investigate both the game itself and the development processes. How could the team work together better? What processes and tools worked well? Find a few good things that you would like to repeat next time, and a few things that could be improved upon. What slowed down development? Write this information down. Reflecting like this allows learning from the experiences, I do it monthly in my adventure.
How can game jams benefit your larger projects?
While many jams wind up as small throw-away projects some communities like AlakaJam have an Unranked category that allows you to continue on a larger project. By focusing on a subset of the large project you can still jam with the community and give feedback. In multiple LudumDare events I’ve been able to make new tools for my game development framework, or even levels ongoing projects. Sometimes this takes a bit of effort and creativity to fit into the jam environment but it can work, even if a little logic needs to be recreated.
Where should someone who wants to participate in game jams start?
There are lots of jams available as you can see on indiegamejams.com or itch.io/jams and almost all communities are very welcoming to new participants. Some jams last 7 days or longer and others as short as an hour. As a new developer sometimes a jam provides a good motivation for learning, and other times it can be overwhelming. Depending on your personality you might want to practice before jumping to a jam, or maybe just dive right in.
The longer jams have a few benefits of allowing more time for learning and more time to create a more polished game. This tends to be a more relaxed experience, though can quickly fall into a procrastination trap for many. “I have 5 days, I’ll do that tomorrow”. The 48 hour or weekend jam is a pretty good sweet spot for avoiding that trap while still having enough time to get something done. As a new developer just know your skills will grow, and submit what you create - even when you wish it were better. Trust me, it is nice to look back on the progress later.
Can an incomplete game also be a game jam success?
Absolutely. Without a doubt. There are many ways to be successful with an incomplete or broken game from a jam. The most obvious being what can be learned from the experience. Take a bit of time to do a quick post-mortem review of the project and process you went through. This lets you consider what went right and what went wrong during the creation process, and allow you to make adjustments in future projects.
There is also value in having created SOMETHING. While games have become much more approachable for people to create, it still takes a lot. You should congratulate yourself no matter how far you got, trust me, my first attempts at an official game jam were really bad and I had already got a Bachelor’s degree in Game Design and Development, then worked in the game industry for over a year and a half before my first jam. It was rough, the first attempt my attempt to use “procedural” levels took too much time and my engine was filled with bugs, the second attempt I simply went far too big with scope and nobody understood how to play. These are barely things I would call a game today, but successful for learning and creating something.
How to not become discouraged by not producing the results you want?
Sometimes in the middle of the jam, after the “honeymoon” phase, about where the real work starts kicking in, an overwhelming sense of doom begins. “The game is not good enough” takes over and challenges you and the team. This feeling has been in every single jam I have participated in and while difficult to shake off it, gets easier with time.
It helps a great deal to understand you are making an entire game in a single weekend. Not an easy task. After commiting to your idea and starting the project, you often build internal hype for the game. Feelings are boosted by envisioning magic visuals and super fun gameplay… This is difficult to find with months of development so when your idea runs a little short it becomes easy to think about the ideas you didn’t choose. This tempts you into changing course, or worse quitting the jam.
One way I power through this is by doing my best to keep low expectations of a game created in a single weekend. Understand that the game will not match the vision, and power on without swapping to an earlier or different idea. Even Turbo Boom! which has been in development for 6 months, when I planned for 4, is not matching my vision quite as much as desired. This is just how creativity works sometimes.
Can you specialize in a role while participating alone in a game jam?
It is certainly easier to specialize while doing a team event as you can be the dedicated artist, or musician or programmer etc. In a solo jam you need to do everything or you will just have pretty art, good music or code. That said it is still possible to specialize while doing the general tasks. I have a background in programming and naturally feel most comfortable writing code. To practice the artist role I can give myself only 4 hours of programming and focus on art much more. This will allow me to spend the majority of the time practicing new skills and specializing in the artist role.
Can a gamejam affect me during my day-job aside from just plotting the next steps?
Aside from the mindset of plotting it is possible you wreck sleep schedules during a jam. For this reason and more, I highly recommend keeping your normal eating and sleeping habits. Do not try staying up really late, or eating food that you wouldn’t otherwise normally eat. Lack of sleep will affect your concentration and lead to very simple bugs being hard to track down. This can also plow into your day-job, though you know your body best; some people recover faster and others slower.
If you are unsure, it can be wise to plan and request a personal-day following the jam just to have some time to recover.
After doing a lot of game jams, how do you keep the motivation to continue?
This can actually get harder as you do a lot of jams and wish to focus on long-term or larger projects. One trick is to mix things up. If you usually work alone, try jumping into a team to learn more about that process. Try specializing in a role you are not great at, build new skills. Use your strongest skills to challenge yourself with other limitations; Can you make the game look good with only 4 random colors? Focus on programming a game using a different language and framework than you normally use.
For anyone creating their own engine or tools, a game jam provides an amazing opportunity to test under time pressure and slight stress which will show weak points in the design.
When do you start to organize a team?
The latest I start organizing a team is the final week before the jam, as in the next couple days. I like knowing who is on the team, what their roles will be and have plans of open communication no later than Wednesday before the jam. I’ve started organizing teams as early as a few weeks before an event. Waiting until the day of, or during the jam, is a very difficult time to find participants for your team, not impossible but difficult.
How do you come up with an idea as a team?
Seriously in all team collaboration projects, for a jam or just for fun, I will always get as many team members as possible to join the first session where the ideas are formed. This is crucial for giving ownership to everybody. Sure team members will come in with some ideas of their own, but as the group discusses these and other ideas in a brainstorm session they will spark more ideas and the group together will start working more on one idea than others. This is usually when I try suggesting to focus on that idea for the weekend.
What if the team can’t agree on any idea?
I have only once had a stalemate with a team finding an idea to work on. No ideas getting discussed was really jumping very high on the interest charts and conversations bounced around for nearly 90 minutes. To keep things moving, in this rare situation, I grabbed one of the most simple mechanics that had been mentioned during the planning session and focused the group on that. It actually wound up being a great game.
Can you take input from other team members regarding “your” idea, even if it changes the idea entirely?
This is definitely a personality thing and you need to be able to remain open minded and discard any preconceived ideas you might have going into a team event. As mentioned earlier it is best to come up with the idea together as a team. This requires some give and take, and that may require practice. When I first started collaborating for fun, in non-jam situations, I would allow others to take the driver seat and lead the project even if I had more experience. Even if I thought they were doing things “wrong” or “the hard way”. I would remain open to that path. Doing this allowed me to practice opening my mind, and sometimes the “wrong” or “hard way” may not be as bad as you think initially. Often, it is just different.
How do you handle a person in a team who delays the team efforts?
First and most importantly is to understand a game jam is not a job and it is done for fun. So when someone doesn’t show up, or they don’t deliver, or whatever issue it might be, address it with the understanding that this is all for fun. It certainly can put a damper on the team when a member doesn’t pull their weight, and yes it has happened to one degree or another in a few projects. This is bound to happen on group projects from time to time unless you know and trust each member very well, and even then it can still occur. Things happen.
Generally in a jam situation I tend to ignore problems unless it is upsetting the team dynamic. Usually these occur from lack of communication, or improper scheduling and tasking, and often dealing with it after the event is better than during. Just try communicating with that person to find any cause and notify the team if anything changes.
How can one avoid being the team nanny?
This might vary from person to person so do your best to be a team-leader you would like to have leading you. In a jam there isn’t much time to babysit the other team members. Go in blindly trusting that people will do what they say but also monitor if someone might be over promising. I think the key part here is remembering this is all for fun. If the project doesn’t come together as expected, it can still be a fun experience for everyone so try not to ruin it by pointing fingers and blaming others.
Would you deliberately take a team role to build skills?
Absolutely, although it is intimidating as you go in knowing this is a weak point. I have done it a few times, and seen others as well. There is always a lot to learn by doing so. However when using a team event to build skills you should be very clear with the team. It is important they have the correct expectations going in. Share a taste of your current art, or music skills and then do your best. I have found skill building in a team event has added more pressure and this can result in frustration when skills can’t match a vision. As long as expectations are set this shouldn’t be a problem for anyone.
How to handle errors or mistakes from other team members?
This depends a bit on the situation and how big the mistake might be. If you have a lot more experience than the other team member it might make sense to mention the mistake and offer ‘better’ methods. In general it is best to let others have their freedom to do their own thing, which includes making minor mistakes. Of course if they are asking for it, then give them help!
After an event you could reflect with the team, or specific developer to offer advice that might help in future projects. Just don’t be pushy as there are many ways to achieve the same things.
Is the communication overhead to coordinate with multiple people worth it for a game jam?
Perhaps depends greatly on you, your wants and the team in question. In all my experiences with team events most of the communication occurred before the game jam. Everyone knew their roles, and the general structure of the weekend, including methods of communication. The start of the event when the theme is announced has the highest communication load as the team collaborates to find the game idea.
After the idea is found, typically communication overhead is “I finished X” and “I got X into the game.” I have always used source control for code and assets during a jam which makes grabbing and sharing things easy, I also ‘deployed’ team builds for testing this way. In rare cases I have accepted things through email or other means to manually integrate into the game.