At this week's Montreal International Games Summit, BioWare Austin's Blake Rebouche delivered a passionate talk on how he believes internal game jams can keep studios agile and staffers creative and happy.
Prior to BioWare Austin, Rebouche worked at Junction Point as a designer on Epic Mickey
, and while neither studio has instituted a policy of internal game jams yet, Rebouche said his participation in external jams have convinced him that this is the way to go.
"I'm really here to make a simple proposition and not much more than that," he said.
In his view, game studios should be doing game jams during "soft periods" -- before holiday breaks, between projects, and the like. He believes these jams can increase creativity, team cohesiveness, and job satisfaction.
To help define the term "game jam" at his presentation, Rebouche showed Kyle Gabler's (World of Goo
) keynote from the 2009 Global Game Jam
"This is a very valuable team-based exercise," said Rebouche, and not just because it will help the team, but because it can also help the business.
Not only have some "titans of indie gaming" such as World of Goo
and Crayon Physics Deluxe
come out of game-jame-style rapid prototyping, but if you know you have a major project coming up, you should set a theme related to that project and jam on it, he said.
"Ideally a theme should be a leadership directive," said Rebouche. For example, "If you're working on a game that's about aliens coming to earth, you might want to work on a game on the theme of 'oppression,'" he said.
Rebouche also said game jams should also "encourage role-switching." In a major modern studio, "the disciplines get very separated, and they tend to lose sight of how hard people [in other disciplines] work, sometimes."
Switching roles "can teach you a lot about the complexities [others] deal with on a daily basis," he said. "If you can understand what stresses people are under in their daily lives, you can better understand who they are as a human being and how to work with them."
Of course, on major projects, developers are working on very small pieces of the overall game for many years in a row, and thus lose a sense of their place in the context of the project, particularly at lower levels.
"People tend to get bogged down on projects," Rebouche said. "You can lose the sense of what you're doing -- lose the love," he said.
Rebouche pointed out that Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers identifies three things people want from their jobs: "Autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward." These are hard to maintain on big projects for obvious reasons. Autonomy is taken by decisions made from above, complex tasks are simplified into small goals, and the connection between the effort made and the eventual reward of shipping a game down the road can be very abstracted.
On the other hand, periodic game jams give all of those back, by making all participants decision-makers giving the reward within 24 to 48 hours, and asking them to do a lot of work in a short time. What's more complex than developing a whole game -- even a simple one -- in such a short period?
Rebouche noted author Daniel Pink reached a similar conclusion in his book Drive: people seek autonomy, mastery, and purpose in life. "When was the last time anyone in your company talked about purpose, like the reason we make games?" Rebouche asked. "How about we make games more often? That's sort of the simple proposition I am making here. Let's make more games... something silly, stupid, fun that just might push us forward creatively."
Game jams still sounding peculiar? Think about this: large, successful companies have similar policies. Google, famously, has "20 percent time," in which engineers can work on personal projects for 20 percent of their time. One such project was Gmail.
The software company Atlassian (which makes bug tracker JIRA, among others) has something similar if shorter -- workers have one 24 hour period to work on whatever they want. Bug fixes, new features, and new software packages have been generated in this time -- things that never would have happened without this opportunity being presented.
In fact, said Rebouche, this is a "zero-risk proposition."
"Just do a 24-hour jam. Do this before a holiday. Christmas is coming up. How much work gets done on the Friday before Christmas break? Nothing gets done," he said.
"This is so much better than bowling, the normal team exercise everybody does," Rebouche continued. "How about you make a game, the thing you do every day, but you don't have to answer to anybody about it?"
An attendee from DS developer 1st Playable Productions noted that the company does game jams for upcoming projects in advance, and "everybody looks forward to it all year."