Coming Up With a Game in Global Game Jam

Coming up with a game idea in a short time might seem difficult at first. But believe it or not, it isn't: understanding the context of the situation, and letting your gut reaction go wild generates a whole slew of creative game ideas.

In Global Game Jam 2012, I came up with...12, no 13 different game ideas.

Yeah, I had a lot of ideas. But how? Coming up with a game idea in a short time might seem difficult at first. But believe it or not, it isn't: understanding the context of the situation, and letting your gut reaction go wild generates a whole slew of creative game ideas.

The Perspective
In Global Game Jam, you have to recognize the scope and effort your team can put in in 48 hours. That's a very short time with very little people. Even worse, you're dealing with a lot of competitors, so to get the attention of the crowd, you want your game to be easy and immediately accessible.

Therefore, your game must be simple, small, and short. It shouldn't take more than a minute to explain how to play the game. If you can finish the game within five minutes, you can present everything in a timely manner. And if it's small, that means less time necessary to play-test and squash bugs. Despite the general urgency budding game designers have to create an epic, a Wii Sports angle for Global Game Jam will garner more attention and more points.

The Idea
Now that we have the context out of the way, which ideas tend to succeed more at generating an actual game?

One word: gameplay. Yes, the sooner you establish how to play the game, the better. It's important to stress how much easier it is to come up with a gameplay first, then create a story and artworks for the game later, than it is the other way around.

As an example, here at the George Mason University this year, we were given an hour to come up and present a game idea.  There were many people who admitted that their ideas were merely gameplay looking for a game. You guys were doing it right. On the other hand, there was a team in Universities at Shady Grove last year who tried to come up with the story of the game first.  They struggled to write anything on paper for nearly 3 hours.  Clearly, they were doing it wrong.

Frequently, a team will change its mind about the artwork, the story, and even the end goal halfway through development. This is fine, and in fact, encouraged. You should keep an open mind about how you want to present your game. But you still want to retain the backbone of your game: the gameplay.

The Theme
When the theme is presented, I see many people attempt to analyze and evaluate what the heck the theme means.

Stop right there. You only have 48 hours. Don't waste the first hour determining what the heck the theme is, especially when your event coordinator is nice enough to reserve this brainstorming session for you.

Instead, let your guts handle this. Whatever your first impression was when you saw that theme, write it down. Or if you're talented enough, draw a picture. The latter is much more favorable.

Now look up. What's your second impression? Does it remind you of another game? Write it down.

Look again. Does it remind you of a song, a book, or a movie? Write it down.

Keep at this. It doesn't matter how much you dislike the idea; it matters that you have any. After all, you want to keep your games simple, small, and short. Your impulse reactions are good at that. Your logical mind, on the other hand, isn't. Don't worry about the details. Gameplay first; presentation later.

Putting it Into Practice
So what were the ideas that I came up with? What were my impulses?

This year's theme was an image of an Ouroboros.

Thanks to Harry Potter, I knew the image meant the cyclical nature of things, and my immediate reaction was, "Awesome! I can use that idea that was nagging in my mind during the hour-long drive to this college campus!" This eventually became our game, Susie's Summer Home.

OK, I admit, that was cheating. But I did have more.

Second, I notice the circular shape the snake was making. My mind went immediately to gears, and I wrote down, "something to do with gears."

Looked back up again. I noticed the head was at the bottom. It made the picture feel heavier at the bottom than at the top. I wrote down, "gears with gravity: the bottom of the gear is heavier than the top."

Up again. I see three colors in this photo. I wrote down, "graphics: white, gray, and black."

Rinse and repeat. Snake eating tail. I wrote, "make the snake eat its tail. P.S. yes, everyone else must have thought of this!" I can't emphasize enough to write down ideas, even if it isn't original or unique. Maybe everybody else thought it was so obvious, they dismissed the idea. Just as likely, maybe nobody thought of it. It doesn't hurt to take the risk

I'm on a roll here! Lets see...that circular negative space is interesting! I wrote, "level where the character navigates the white space. See: Echochrome."

And so on and so forth.

Last Words
That's how to do it, boys and girls! It doesn't matter too much whether the game idea applies strongly to the theme or not. After all, the people will be judging by the end product, not by how much it relates to the theme. Instead, it's most important to keep in mind that the game must be simple, small, and short. Also remember, that it's easier to build game off of gameplay than the story, artwork, music, or even presentation.

In both cases, your impulses are insanely good at those. Use it wisely!

Latest Jobs

IO Interactive

Hybrid (Malmö, Sweden)
Gameplay Director (Project Fantasy)

Arizona State University

Los Angeles, CA, USA
Assistant Professor of XR Technologies

IO Interactive

Hybrid (Copenhagen, Denmark)
Animation Tech Programmer

Purdue University

West Lafayette, IN, USA
Assistant Professor in Game Design and Development
More Jobs   


Explore the
Advertise with
Follow us

Game Developer Job Board

Game Developer


Explore the

Game Developer Job Board

Browse open positions across the game industry or recruit new talent for your studio

Advertise with

Game Developer

Engage game professionals and drive sales using an array of Game Developer media solutions to meet your objectives.

Learn More
Follow us


Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more