Surviving a Game Jam

Original Author: Andrew Meade

So this being AltDevBlogADay, I’m sure that a lot of people reading this have done at least one game jam. I’m sure that a good deal of people also haven’t had the pleasure yet, so this little write up is for them. This isn’t really a full article, just a jot-down of some musings that are kind of rushed because I’m most busy when an article on it is most timely.

In a  few days, thousands of people around the globe will gather at pre-registered locations, and attempt to make a game with a specific theme within 48 hours at the 2013 Global Game Jam. Game Jams are an amazing place to have fun, make new connections, and learn new skills. And of course, there’s the ever-valuable fact that you walk into a place, and 48 hours later you (hopefully) have a functioning game with YOUR name on the credits. Boom. 48 Hours. Game. Done.

So what can you expect from a one of these events? Well every locale is different, but typically you all meet at the prescribed location at the prescribed time, watch a video, and then get pseudo-randomly assigned to teams (unless you come with your own team). Once the 48 hours is up, an expo is held where everyone shares their games and talks about the process. Once that’s over, some people will continue to punish their bodies by the intense imbibing of spirits. That least bit I can’t recommend, but I do it anyway.

Anyways, the goal is to have fun. The goal is also to make a game, and it sucks when a team just can’t get it together in time. Unfortunately this will happen to some teams, so I’m here to kind of help keep that from happening. So without further ado, here is a small list of thoughts and hard-learned lessons to help you out on your maiden voyage.

 

Nourishment

I’m not huge on caffeine, but here’s where you’re going to see cases of red bull and pots of coffee all over the place. I personally like to stay hydrated with tons of water, naked juice to boost my energy, and snacks high in fiber and vitamins. I’ll also go through about 6-7 red bulls. That’s just me. You can also get by fine on Bawls, tasty cakes, and bugles, but don’t blame me if you’re feeling gross and your body starts producing neon waste after the 24 hour mark. I also advise that the team at least once physically remove themselves from their chairs, and go for a walk to a nearby eatery. First off, breaking bread together is just great teaming. Second, everyone gets a much needed break and some decent hot food. If you aren’t jamming next to a place to eat, consider ordering delivery and eating in a location where you aren’t working. I go to the Game Jam in Orlando, so we have the luxury of comfortably being outside without bundling up. I know some of you may not be that lucky.

 

Hygiene

Shower before you go! You probably won’t for two days. Nobody wants you to stink.

 

Rest

Try to get some rest. Some people can power through for 48 hours and do fine. If you’re one of those people, then good for you. I can be, depending on my mood. I recommend getting some sleep around the 30 hour mark. Maybe 4 or 5 hours. I knew a guy that refused to sleep and around hour 40 started wandering around aimlessly before falling asleep in the cupboard. Fun times. If you don’t sleep, take a break. When I do a Game jam, I get up and go outside for ten minutes every hour. Keeps my mind sharp, keeps my limbs moving, and keeps my energy up.

 

What should I bring?

–          Your rig, obviously, with any spare stuff you can afford to lug. People are always forgetting cables, headphones, mouse pads – stupid little stuff.

–          Drinks and snacks for you, plus room for it to get mooched on. Don’t be the guy that brings nothing, but don’t be the guy that’s a tightwad with the snacks when the less prepared run out. You’re all in this together, after all.

–          Pillow, blanket, bedroll. You’ll likely be sleeping on the floor, so do what you can to make that a better experience for you.

–          Change of unmentionables, fresh t-shirt, overshirt, and maybe a sweatshirt or hoodie if you want.

–          Toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, meds, etc.

–          Your talent!

 

Jobs

Well programmer, artist, and audio engineer seem pretty self explanatory, but the designer is a little harder to define. As much as it pains me to say, a designer’s talents aren’t optimal for a game jam, but they can still be super useful. As a designer, I do design work, but I also step into a producer role, a runner role,  and an “oh my god we need three more artists and we have ten hours go find them” roll.

I wouldn’t advise for a team to take on more than one designer, unless you’re working in an engine like UDK or Unity, and all the programming is already done. Just remember designers, it’s not that we’re not useful, it’s that a Game jam isn’t a nurturing environment for us to really get going. Don’t believe me? That’s fine. Just do the game jam before you get on the comments section and call me an idiot.

 

Making the Game

You’ve got your team. You’ve got your red bull. The coordinator has announced the theme. Here’s some advice. Pick a simple game idea, with one simple mechanic, and get it working. Then figure out how to get your theme to work with that. At one GGJ we went through a list of simple games like pong, asteroids, and connect four. We ended up going with an on-rails platformer where the sole mechanic was jumping. To be fair, it was for the kinect, so you could maybe get a little more complex than that if you’re not putting together a kinect game in 48 hours.

Ideally you should have your game functional and running within a few hours, then spend the rest of the time making it your own and iterating. This is advice I was given for my first game jam by a very smart person. It is really a winning way to ensure you get a game done.

 

Well that’s it! If anyone out there has any more advice, add it in the comments! Good luck and happy jamming!