8 min read

My First Game Jam

Last month, me and a few of my closest friends executed our first game jam. we are all industry hopefuls with no finished game titles to our name. Through the jam, we hoped to finish that elusive first project. Results inside:

Over the weekend I hosted my first game jam. Similar to musicians, the point of a game jam is to crank out a game during an impromptu session. I consider fitting 10 developers into my focus  Here are my thoughts on the outcome, and my plans for future jams.

The Background

The jam began as a conversation between myself and a former classmate. We were lamenting the fact that we had a team of talented workers, but were unable to complete a game project. We had tried to work together previously, but the demands of life always seemed to get in the way. I mentioned that we should do a game jam, similar to the global game jam or Ludum Dare. I was only half serious, but my friend took the ball and ran with it.  The next few weeks were a blur. We set up a Facebook Group, and began to reach out to friends that expressed an interest in making a game with us. We ended up with about 10 confirmations out of the 15 people that we invited. We gave ourselves the challenge to build  simple game over the course of 2 and a half days.  In retrospect, this was perfect amount of people. Each team member brought a different discipline to the group. I don’t think that my tiny apartment could fit another person/computer either.

The “Pre Jam”

Since our group had a history of false starts, I wanted to ensure that we would be successful.  One of our key stumbling blocks in the past had been the amount of time that we spent brainstorming. I knew that this would be a huge problem if we waited until ‘jam day’ to actually discuss the game idea. The other organizer and I solicited ideas from the group via Facebook and email. Once we settled on an idea, we assigned roles to each team member. As I understand it, most game jam work is not done until the day of  the event. With our group’s history, we didn’t want to leave anything to chance. In the weeks leading up to the jam we also called for artists to create concept art, and I worked with the other coder to start to prototype a few game ideas.  The main draw of the game was an alien UFO who was tasked with destroying buildings, Rampage style. Every decision was made with the goal of saving time.  We decided to create a 3d polygonal game with a 2D side perspective. The art style, 60′s sci-fi pulp allowed us to quickly create eye catching content. Although the game scope was seemingly ‘simple’ it was a struggle to fight against feature creep. I have mixed feelings about group brainstorming. I never want to stymie creativity, but at a certain point, the word ‘no’ has to be uttered. It was a challenge to remind the group that although the idea was ‘simple’ that we had more than enough material to create a fun game. Our group is comprised of ‘rookie’ developers. I wanted us to avoid the fatal mistake of biting off more than we could chew. We got way more work done in 36 hours than we’ve ever done as a group.

It’s Jam Time! 

When the game jam weekend finally hit, I still felt nervous. I had stocked my apartment with I couldn’t get over the fact that it was finally happening. Although we had worked together in the past, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was also worried about my tiny venue space. As an aside, if you are planning on hosting a game jam, make sure that you have enough space, internet bandwidth and electricity. Luckily, I had just enough space and electricity to support 10 developers. The attitude of everyone involved was great. “I can’t believe we haven’t done this sooner” is a sentiment to seemed to be shared by everyone involved. The pre-jam planning really payed off. We did have a few issues with game design/art direction, but being in the same physical space allowed us to quickly resolve them. We also had ‘leads’ that were assigned to different aspects of the game. The art lead was in charge of assigning tasks and quality control for content. The programming lead was the sole keeper of the game build. My only regret is that we didn’t establish a key decision maker for design. The notion that ‘everyone can design’ is a fallacy. In the future, we will need someone to separate brainstorm ideas, into actual tests. It also would have helped to have a game design document created. For my part, I was the pseudo lead/programmer/ house mother/host.  It felt great to make a decision, and see it implemented later. The challenge, however came when I had to complete my own work. It is tough to program when you need to organize a quick meeting to clarify a point on the game.

After a quick introductions we got to work. The first few hours were filled with progress. Every team member was rolling. There were a few communication issues, but they were usually solved with a quick visit to a team lead. By Noon of the second day, we had a UFO blowing up a building made up of placeholder art.  By dinner, our art teams had modeled a character, and a ship. We continued to roll. We stopped to eat dinner, and discussed which blogs we’d try to get coverage on. Beware, a cautionary tale is ahead.

The Devil Is in the Details

I knew that it was a bit dangerous to start thinking of next steps, but that didn’t stop us. Just like brainstorming, it can be a fun exercise in day dreaming. While we were busy planning glory for our modern Rampage clone, small problems started to appear. The main character took a bit longer to model. Buildings were done, but not textured. Texture and Skin layouts started to get bogged down. This was no one’s fault in particular, we just underestimated the amount of work that it would take to create this content. I shudder to think what roadblocks that we would have encountered if we attempted to do a full 3D game. The code was coming along fine, but then we started to run into small problems. We could not find a satisfying way to end a level, and close the game loop. The greasy pizza and wing dinner also started to kick in. The heavy food and lack of sleep ultimately killed us. After midnight on Saturday, we started to drop like flies. By 6AM everyone had taken a quick nap. When we attempt this again, I’ll enforce healthy snacks/sleep as a rule. Without those, we started to face a law of diminishing returns. At 12 noon on Sunday, we called the jam closed. Originally, we were scheduled until 5pm, but we would not have been able to produce a full game by then. We were exhausted, and did not allow nearly enough time for the content that we were creating.

Where Do We Go From Here?

While we did not achieve our original goal of  complete game, we did end up with a fun prototype. Organizing something on this scale was a great experience for me personally. I only wish that we could have gotten the great art work of the team in the game. We are in the works of planning a new game jam. The intent is to finish the prototype, and turn it into an actual game. The focus will be on art and game play. One of my college teachers advocated ’5 minutes of fun’ The second jam will focus on finding that. Our structure was great. Despite us having leads for each discipline, everyone could make suggestions. We will increase the documentation, if only for the sake of clarity. It’s great to be able to ask questions with a quick visit, but having a document would cut down on meetings. More importantly we’ll focus on the health of our team. Sleep and healthy foods will be mandatory. It sounds extreme, but I really don’t want to be derailed with another ‘grease gastro bomb’. I feel like my team and I grew. We have a bit of experience under our belt and are hungry for more.  We also discovered that we work well together. This experience gave us the confidence to soldier on. Stay tuned to this blog for more updates!

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