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Hacking the Game Industry, Part III: Three Ways to Add Value to Hackathons

In this final post of a three-part series, Andrew Pedersen, Senior Vice President and Chief Studio Officer of GSN Games, explains how to add value to your company's internal hackathon process.

Now that we’re halfway through 2014, how are you tracking toward implementing a hackathon process? Perhaps you have made the case for running internal hackathons at your company, and maybe you’ve even had the chance to organize a hackathon. But where does one take the hackathon process from here? How can we hackathon organizers add even more value for our employees, our partners and the holy grail - our players?

How to add value to hackathons:

Iterate, iterate, iterate.

As the old cliche goes, “you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.” As game industry leaders, we often read or hold postmortems to learn what went well and what could have gone better through a game’s development process. Similarly, holding an event postmortem with stakeholders can shed light on what worked - and didn’t work - in your hackathon process. For example, while we have been holding hackathons semiannually for several years now, we iterated on the presentation process in our most recent event. This time, we asked participants to submit a 30-second video of their project presentation - an idea we borrowed from Netflix. The project videos helped make the final presentation meeting run smoothly and kept participants engaged in the presentations.

Another method of improving the hackathon process is to create and distribute a participant survey. In order to have buy-in and commitment from the organization, it is crucial to obtain feedback from those who are on the front lines. We’ve asked our participants about the pitch meeting, event length, awards process and more - the more data that you can gather, analyze and use to produce actionable results - the better.

I’ve also found that implementing a system to escalate hackathon projects into production creates new value for both participants and the company as a whole. At the conclusion of the hackathon, leaders can determine which projects have the potential to positively impact the business and allocate resources to develop the project into a prototype. At GSN Games, we integrate the prototypes into our existing production greenlight process, equally weighing the hackathon-projects-turned-prototypes and projects that stem from regular business operations.

Create avenues to test projects with real players.

We wouldn’t be where we are without our players, so involving players in future-project planning is an optimal next step. We’ve invited players to get involved in the hackathon process as guest judges, play testers and simply as real people for hackers to design their projects for. It’s a win-win - employees draw project inspiration from the personalities and insights of real players, and players enjoy the unique experience of consulting for their favorite game company and having their voices heard.

Additional qualitative and quantitative methods can be implemented to involve players in hackathon project tests. Community forums or focus groups provide an outlet for players to share their open-ended feedback, whereas behavioral methods like cohort tests or beta app builds can offer large amounts of data from which to draw insight.

Internally promote the hackathon process and projects.

In order to obtain buy-in from event participants and key stakeholders, a certain level of shameless promotion is necessary. One way that we recognize the business value of hackathons is to award a project from the previous hackathon for its influence on the business since its launch. This demonstrates to employees that hackathon projects can escalate to full production, while simultaneously providing recognition and gratitude for those who use the hackathon to create valuable products. Earlier this year, we acknowledged a marketing-focused hackathon project that increased revenue by 25 percent, asserting the project’s business value and the impact that non-technical hacks can have, too. 

A simple method to promote the events is to internally broadcast when a new game or feature is the result of a hackathon project. Organizational communication channels such as a newsletter, intranet or an all-hands meeting allow leaders to showcase great work. I find that recognition is a powerful tool that increases participation in the event, builds a strong organization and ultimately, improves the player experience.


As this is the final piece of my three-part series on hackathons, I hope that you are able to take away some key learnings and apply the why, how, and what’s next to your own hackathon process. I’d like to hear your comments - what has been the most helpful advice for you? How do you plan to add value to your hackathon? 

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