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Game Jam Reflections and Practical Advice

Dustin Triplett, founder of Dirty Joystick Games, salvages inspirational life lessons from the smoldering wreckage of a failed game jam.

Dirty Joystick Games

My name is Dustin Triplett and I’m the founder of Dirty Joystick Games, an independent game development company based in St. Louis, MO. I have any extensive background in video game journalism, but as the years went on I couldn’t help but want to do more than just write about video games – I wanted to create them. My first game began development in 2015 during the week-long Text Jam, which was a game jam that revolved entirely around text-based gameplay. Through Text Jam 2015, I developed AssCata short choose-your-own-adventure game in which you take on the role of a cat, who just happens to be an asshole like every other cat in my life. It’s nothing spectacular; just a text game built in HTML5, but I’m proud to have developed something I likely wouldn’t have otherwise.

After Text Jam 2015, I kept my eye on game jams as they popped up on my radar. I even went as far as to make the an indie game jam website my default homepage. Jams came and went, but I had a hard time finding one that would hold my interest until I stumbled upon the Big Awful.

May 1, 2016 marked the start of the Big Awful Jam 2016 (the jam formerly known as the Something Awful Game Dev Challenge). Like most game jams, this month-long jam was created as an excuse to get potential (and slacking) developers off of their asses and into the fray of game design. To prevent developers from getting a head start, the Big Awful revealed the theme to participants on the day of the jam. This year the theme was “Games for Grandpa”. Beyond those three words, the jam's expectations were vague and open to interpretation.

I consider the Big Awful to be my first “proper” game jam since my prior experience consisted mainly of writing a story into HTML through use of Twine. I spent a good chunk of the past month developing several game prototypes – all of which were never finished or submitted. My inability to submit earned Dirty Joystick Games a place on the Big Awful’s “Wall of Shame”, which serves as a portfolio of our collective incompetence. Strangely, I’m alright with the punishment – especially after seeing just how many developers are failures like me. The moment I realized I wasn’t alone, I started to see the value in the overall experience and life lessons this humble game jam taught me. 

The first prototype I dreamed up and worked on was called “Parkour Grandpa”. Inspired by the parkour scene on The Office, Parkour Grandpa was meant to be comparable to Goat Simulator in terms of silliness and fun. Parkour Grandpa’s eventual demise was because of my over-ambitious standards getting the best of me. I found myself hung-up on developing a Mirror’s Edge level of precision when it came to the parkour mechanics. It was also the first fully-3D game I developed from scratch in C# using Unity3D, which made progress much slower than I’m used to when prototyping. I couldn’t stand having to rely on placeholder models, so I tried to wrap my mind around 3D modeling in Blender. In retrospect, that’s something I should have done before the jam began. By the time I finally got the parkour mechanics to the point considered acceptable for Steam Greenlight (read: garbage), I found myself struggling to implement a ragdoll engine that worked in harmony with my parkour engine. Nothing worked as intended and I wasted hours and days on the most mundane tasks, such as nudging box colliders ever so slightly to remove an ugly clipping issue.

Before I knew it, half of the month was over and I had next to nothing to show for it. There were unavoidable occurrences that resulted in my body physically stepping away from the computer for hours and even days at a time. When I did find the time to develop, I always greeted to the bug-ridden state I left the game in. At that point, I couldn’t begin to figure out where to start since some of the problems and potential solutions were long forgotten and my previously beneficial notes started to read like gibberish. Simply put, I bit off more than I could chew and as a result I lost my mojo and interest. Shortly thereafter, the passion project became a stressful endeavor I wish I never took on in the first place.

Despite finding myself amid a constant dread, I didn’t want to end the game jam empty handed. Accordingly, I scraped Parkour Grandpa and started developing “Get Off My Lawn” (GOML), a bullet-hell-esque top-down pixel art shooter that was well within my comfort zone. The game is essentially a “horde mode” featuring a crazy old man defending his lawn by throwing boots at children trying to egg his house and stomp his petunias. I reinvented GOML at least three times before finally throwing in the towel. All the time I spent on Parkour Grandpa made me question if I was going down the right path. I kept trying to implement parkour mechanics into the game, but they didn’t translate well. When I hit a roadblock, I destroyed and rebuilt the game from scratch.

In the final days of the Big Awful, I truly saw and felt the neglect it was bringing to my personal life. I became irritable (more so than usual) and snapped at loved ones over the most minuscule offenses. After all, the clock was ticking and I would be ousted as a failure if I didn’t finish what I started – so how dare anyone speak to me during my 30 days in purgatory! I couldn’t allow myself to put more strain on those I care about or my rapidly deteriorating mental state. Instead, I turned off the computer, packed my bag, and enjoyed a wonderful weekend getaway with my girlfriend and friends. Being away from development hell was exactly what I needed to get out of my funk.   

Upon returning home from my little trip, I received a Twitter notification informing me that the Big Awful Jam had been extended by 24 hours due to some server issue. I could have praised the powers at be and used the extra time to polish and submit a prototype…but I didn’t. Instead, I found peace with not submitting anything and saw my place on the Wall of Shame as a badge of honor. I had developed more in one month than most do in a lifetime. Sure, my game isn’t finished, but it doesn’t have to be. What actually matters are the life experiences the game jam brought to my life. I still plan on seeing both game concepts through, eventually, but now with a level of precision that can’t be acheived through a timed game jam.

If you’re planning on participating in a game jam in the future, here is some practical advice I would like to pass on to you:

Put the I in Team: From as far back as I can remember, the phrase “there is no ‘I’ in team” has been used as motivation for working together as a team. While it’s grammatically correct, the phrase itself doesn’t always hold true. However, as George Carlin put it, “there is an ‘I’ in independence, individuality, and integrity.” When deadlines start to approach and you still haven’t received the assets you needed designed a week ago or the code you needed fixed overnight, you will quickly realize that you can only rely on yourself. In all aspects of the game industry, you have to be willing to go beyond your original role to get the job done. It’s not fair. It’s the life we chose.

Never Stop Learning: My biggest pet peeve is when someone claims they don’t know how to do something before giving up on it. If you don’t actually know how to approach a problem, keep in mind that neither would most other developers if they were in your shoes. They might have a general idea of how to go about implementing a fix, but most solutions come from trial and error and good ol’ fashioned research. We live in the world of the Internet where it has never been easier to learn new skills. If you can’t find a solution via Google, YouTube, or Stack Overflow – there’s a very good chance you’re thinking outside the collective box and have an idea worth seeing through. Study up!

Don’t be Afraid to Step Away: If you truly care about the project, it will be there when you return. Don’t use a game jam’s time limit as an excuse to neglect your personal relationships. If you ruin your relationships, who are you going to show your game off to first? Random people on the Internet? While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that, you are robbing yourself of the immense feeling of self-worth when your friends light up with excitement after experiencing your creation for the first time. Stepping away from the game can result in the perfect palate cleanser, allowing you to attack your problems from a new perspective when you return. However, time can be a double edged sword...

Don’t Take your Time for Granted: There is an hourglass that coincides with every aspect of our lives – and each are ticking at different intervals. One day all of those hourglasses will run out. When that day comes, you’ll have to ask yourself if the time you spent with developing games was worth the neglect you brought to the other items of importance in your life. If you feel depressed because you don’t consider anything you’ve done to be good enough, chances are you wasted your time. Your game – be it a Pac-man clone or the next Fallout – has every opportunity to be your legacy. You just need to care enough to see it through.

Love Yourself: Since you aren’t getting paid to participate in a game jam, you have zero obligations tying you to it. If you truly care about your project you will finish it at some point, so it doesn’t have to be completed during the jam itself. The entire point of a game jam is to set the wheels in motion, to pave the path of develop toward something you wouldn’t have considered creating otherwise. If you build something you are proud of, polish it up and show it to the world when it's ready. All the anxiety, depression, and self-hate that comes with failing to deliver your best during a jam simply isn’t worth its weight in syntax errors. Staying positive and embracing the picture beyond the jam will set you right. You’re making something out of nothing. Your lines of code are bringing worlds to life. You’re a video game developer. What’s not to love?

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