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Jamming with Purpose

Game jams allow us to demonstrate our development skills to fellow developers by actually creating games. Can't game companies regularly use this same tool to analyze new talent by having aspiring developers work directly with the existing team?

Douglas Lynn, Blogger

April 21, 2012

7 Min Read

Applying for jobs in game development can be an exhausting and massively frustrating experience.  To be considered a viable candidate for any position, you need to keep building your skill set, work on using your existing skills to build a portfolio, and all the while, find the time to support yourself in the absence of game-related employment.  As most career advisors will tell you, however, perhaps the most important thing to do when job hunting is to go out into the world and network.  As it’s said, it’s sometimes less about what you know than it is about who you know.

As it stands right now, there are a number of great ways to go about networking with fellow game developers.  The big conferences allow the opportunity to meet and talk shop face-to-face.  Groups like the IGDA allow members to work together to solve problems and explore new possibilities for the industry on a regular basis.  Perhaps one of the most useful tools for meeting other developers, however, is the humble and always-exciting game jam.

Game jams are a great way to meet and work with fellow game developers.  For a few days, people can see what they can do when they join forces within a tightly-constrained atmosphere.  The chief reason game jams serve as a great networking tool is simply that they allow people to make games.  A jam isn’t just a discussion about everyone’s latest projects or backgrounds, but a direct vision into the participants’ development philosophies and skills.

The interesting thing about jams, which is perhaps due to their heavy time constraints, is that they almost always seem to be very informal events.  This is a good thing.  Jams are generally seen as a good way to relax (if “relax” is the right word) and give everyone’s creative skills a quick boost.  When it’s all over, people go their separate ways with a hearty, “Well done, and good luck.  It was nice working with you.”  Some maintain contact, while some fall off the radar.  Again, this laid-back atmosphere is a nice feature.

However, I feel a good opportunity is often overlooked in the realm of the game jam.  A jam has the ability to fulfill a more formal, professional purpose.  What I’d like to see more of (and indeed, I’m not sure if anyone does this at all) is the use of game jams as recruitment tools for game companies.

The Existing Process

A company looking to bring on new employees can examine the skill sets of their applicants all they want.  The hiring process tends to follow a similar pattern from studio to studio.  Job hunters submit their applications, typically with a cover letter and résumé.  Some force, usually an HR associate or a set of computer algorithms, searches through those initial applications for keywords and presentation.  Those candidates fitting the bill are sent along to the appropriate department leads, examined in greater detail, and contacted.  Through a few stages of interviews, employers learn about the candidates, get a sense of how they operate, and whittle down the list further.  In the later stages of the interview process, some present basic tasks for applicants to complete, thus providing a better glimpse into what each candidate may offer the company.

In the end, what’s the main purpose of all of this?  Companies want to get a clear idea of which candidates are the best fit for the job.  How do these people work?  Does their work style fit in with our needs?  What are they capable of?  What might we expect when we set these people to work on a game project?  Essentially, the entire application process is about the company determining whether or not you’ll be able to make games with them.

As far as I see it, there’s a much better way to accomplish this task than simply  through this traditional “apply-interview-analyze” process.  Frankly, if I wanted to see if potential employees were capable of making games with the team, I’d have them do exactly that – make games with the team.

The value of game jams has been under a bit of examination lately.  They’ve always served a purpose in the form of providing a challenge and allowing jammers to network on a basic level, but companies are starting to see a more practical application for game jams, as well.  Intra-office game jams are used to loosen up employees, generate some quick new ideas, and re-spark a creative drive.  They get team members working together in some new ways, giving a new life to projects that can drag on for years.  (One of my college friends, Auston Montville of Tagged, Inc., gave a useful talk on the subject at GDC 2012.)

Studio-run jams generally seem to be limited to existing studio employees.  There’s nothing wrong with this, but I feel a great networking opportunity is being overlooked in such a private session.  I’d like to see a greater effort for game studios to host public jams that can connect professional game developers to, shall we say, “outsiders”.

Two Approaches

There are several ways in which I can see studios approaching a more open sort of game jam.  In my most ideal vision, a studio would arrange a jam open to anyone who takes the time to register (taking into account capacity limitations).  Registrants are placed into mixed teams with employees.  For a couple of days, the various teams work to complete their projects, just as they would in any other game jam.  This not only gives amateurs and newcomers valuable hands-on experience with game professionals (not to mention valuable professional contacts), but it also provides the studio with a glimpse at the newcomers – their work style, their character, and their potential.  If nothing else, the outside participants meet another group of people – a very useful group, mind you – who can attest to the quality of their work.

What I like about this approach is that it takes place with no real obligation on either side.  Employees can intermingle with non-employees with no real expectation.  All everyone is here to do is meet a few new people and make a game.  No strings attached.

Perhaps a more purposeful and targeted approach to such a jam, though, would be in the form of a job interview.  Such an event would still be specific to the company, just as the intra-office model, but instead of utilizing only employees, the jam would invite along job candidates.  This wouldn’t necessarily include everyone who applied for a job.  More likely, it would include only callbacks, essentially taking the place of an interview.  Just as with the jam above, applicants are grouped together with employees for a quick couple of days of game development.  Not only do employers get a good look at how their potential employees operate in a high-pressure development scenario, but candidates get to compete with each other in a professional and fun environment, rather than simply waiting and hoping for the best.  Even those who don’t come out of the process with jobs have been through a full development cycle (albeit compressed) with industry professionals.  As an added bonus, people on both sides may come out of the experience with new ideas for current or future projects.

Final Thoughts

These scenarios wouldn’t always be viable options, of course.  They would be at their most useful at the beginning of a development cycle when large numbers of new hires are taken on at once and employees aren’t yet locked into a firm development schedule.  However, studios that make occasional jams a part of their regular operation have numerous opportunities to expand those jams to a more public arena, as well.

I’m also not suggesting that game jams should completely replace the traditional application process.  A professional interview and personal presentation are both still important parts of determining a person’s viability as an employee.  But jams offer us the opportunity to interact in a unique way, and it’s a style of interaction that says a lot about how we go about our work.

Perhaps these are just the words of someone frustrated with the traditional job application or traditional networking practices.  Whatever the case may be, though, I do sincerely believe public company-sponsored game jams have a future.  I’m not sure they’ll actually catch on, but I believe they have considerable practical applications.  There are elements of this process at play in many places, but not quite on the level I’d like to see.  The idea of encouraging professional game developers to work with newcomers in a short, energetic development process holds a great deal of potential for all parties involved.

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