Game Jam 101 Lightning Talks

This Saturday, I’ll be at a Cleveland Game Devs meetup, where we will be giving lightning talks in preparation for the upcoming Global Game Jam happening later this month. I’ll be giving two talks, one on setting goals, and one on keeping the momentum. Following are my notes for the talks.

Game Jammer Goals

How to decide what to shoot for in your next weekend sprint.

A weekend is not a lot of time to make a game! To get the most out of your weekend, you need preparation and mental discipline. Having goals will help you focus and get the most out of your jam weekend.

So what should your goals be?

Have you made a game before, ever?


Your goal should be to make a game! Easy as that.

Really, though, it is best if you have at least some game making experience before you try to fly solo. Do look for a team to join, and see what you can offer them. Focus on delivering a skill from your repertoire of strengths, and integrating well with the team. If you can get anything back from the team, hopefully it will be insights into skill areas where you are lacking, techniques that you can apply in those areas, or exposure to new tools that you can start to learn.

Yes… but never in such a short time!

If you have never made a game in a weekend before, likewise your goal can be to complete a game. It can be done, as proven by thousands of people. Before jams became popular, most people thought it took months or years to complete a game project. We know now that this simply isn’t so, and the amount of work that can be accomplished in a weekend can be incredible. Still, like running a marathon, it’s hard to believe until you’ve done it yourself.

It feels really good to have this accomplishment under your belt, so if you haven’t completed a Game Jam, this should be the only goal for you.

Even if you don’t make it this time, but still want to keep trying, then focus on learning what you can from the experience. If you weren’t able to complete the game you wanted to make, why was that? Did you lose track of time? Did you plan for more than you could possibly deliver? Did you struggle to implement something that you felt you could do, due to inexperience or pressure? If you couldn’t figure something out in the weekend, don’t give up – keep working on it after the jam until you figure it out. That way, at the next jam, you won’t be stopped by that failure again.

Don’t be afraid to fail, but try to fail early, and always fail at something new.

Yes! I’m a Jam veteran!

Then you can make a few more choices… completing the game may not necessarily be the most important thing once you’ve proven that you can do it. Be willing to take greater risks.

Once you’ve proven to yourself that you can do it, if you enjoyed the experience enough to want to repeat it, you should keep going on to bigger and better things. Participate in as many Jams as you can find time for, and make it a goal to do more with each new game, always improving on your last effort.

Where should you focus your goals?

This is a personal choice, and it depends a lot on where you’re at, where you want to go, and what your strengths and weaknesses are. Here’s a few areas to consider.

Learning/Experimentation. It’s only a weekend. If you fail, it’s no big deal. You only lose a tiny amount of time, and you can learn so much. So take risks. Try something you haven’t done before. Make your focus learning and experimentation.

Be willing to accept a failed concept, incomplete game, or failure to complete a submission. Ideally, you still want to make a game so you can show off what you learned and receive feedback on it, but it’s less important to have a good game than it is to learn from the experiment. If you want to have the best chance of having a finished game by deadline, limit your experimentation to one thing only. For everything else, stick with what you know.

I don’t recommend picking up a new tool to experiment with. Rather, do something different using a tool you know well. To complete a game in a weekend, you just don’t have time to learn a brand new tool that you’ve never used before. Using new (to you) tools won’t get much you recognition, but new game design concepts often do, even if they are not successes.

Still, if you really want to try a new tool, it can give you a taste of the tool, enough to give you a sense of whether it’s something you want to devote time to mastering.

Ideas for domains to experiment/learn with:

  1. Graphics
  2. Sound effects
  3. Music
  4. Controls
  5. Game mechanics
  6. Genre
  7. Setting
  8. Mood
  9. Story
  10. AI
  11. Level design
  12. Randomness
  13. Procedurally generated content
  14. Physics
  15. Particle systems
  16. Network
  17. Multiplayer

Each of the above is still quite broad – don’t be afraid to get much more specific when coming up with your ideas for experimentation. But do decide on the specifics late – once the theme is announced, and you are starting to come up with concepts for your game is a good time to narrow down the specifics of how you will experiment with in a domain.

Teaming. Step up and be a leader. Try to organize a team.

Or just be on a team. A team needs more than just leaders.

The thing a team needs most is do-ers, without ego, who can communicate. Never forget this.

Leadership does not mean making decisions for the group; it means helping the group to come to agreements about the decisions it makes together.

Community. When I say “community,” primarily I’m thinking of all the participants in the jam who are not part of your immediate team. This could be other groups at your location, or they could be other groups anywhere in the world.

The jam is when everyone comes together to make something and show off and share with each other. This is the best time to make new friends (or grow existing friendships), and get to know the community. Play and review games made by other groups – make note of who created them, and follow their projects. Make it a point to get to know the people and learn about them. Follow them on twitter, visit their web site, and learn about their other projects. Who knows, they may live nearby! Drop them a line and let them know you like their work.

The essence to community is giving. The community is indifferent to most of its members, but it recognizes their greatest contributions. To stand out, give the most. Exchange your knowledge and skill – be willing to sacrifice a little dev accomplishment for a little knowledge spreading. Make a game so you can get feedback from the other jammers. Give feed back on the creations of others. Write tutorials. Build and share your own tools.

Winning. If you’re a true pro, and your team is functioning like a well-oiled machine, this is what you should go for. Make the best game you possibly can in the time allotted. Go for it, try to win! Learn how the event is judged, and try to do well in those areas where you feel strongest. Focus on your strengths, or if you’re working with a team, let each team member focus on their strengths, once all areas of project have coverage. Your experimentation should be minimal – stick with what you know you can do well, and know will work. It’s all about coming up with a good design quickly and executing.

Take a balanced approach. Try to do a little bit of everything. After all, it’s pretty hard to complete a game without doing a little bit of everything. But still put an emphasis on one area or another.

For me, I try to take a balanced approach. I stick with what I know well for about 70-80% of the project, but try to make learning something new an important goal on top of simply finishing a game. I don’t care about “winning” the jam, but I want to do better than my last jam. I also try to be involved in the community in order to get inspiration from what other developers are doing, and to build reputation as a designer/programmer.

Be Flexible. The weekend will surprise you. Be adaptable to the surprises, because they offer you opportunities. The best things about a weekend jam are the things that you couldn’t have predicted beforehand. Don’t set out on a mission to complete a rigid list of goals, but have a number of potential goals in mind, and be willing to drop one in favor of another if the right opportunity comes along. If you try something and see quickly that it’s not going to work, or that you wouldn’t be able to finish it by deadline, it’s OK to drop the idea and go with something else.

Weekend goals vs. Long term goals

A very good use of your time in a game jam will be to incorporate your longer term goals when choosing your goals for the weekend. Successful people tend to set long term goals and work toward them by taking many small steps.

Use the SMART criteria:

  • Specific: Don’t be vague. Focus on a specific goal. If it is too general, you will rationalize and bargain with yourself that the goal has been met, rather than focus and work harder to achieve the goal. You can still be flexible with your goals while being specific, but if the situation dictates changing goals, try to change from a specific goal to another specific goal.I want to complete a game in the next 48 hours is pretty specific already. If you can, though, go further – I want to complete a game that incorporates teleportation. Or, Complete a game that uses the mouse for controls. Or, Complete a game that causes fear by imparting a sense of helplessness and sudden, surprise danger. You get the idea.
  • Measurable: If you can’t measure it, then you don’t know how well you did. Pick things that you can measure. This gives you something to aim for, and lets you re-calibrate as needed.Game design is hard to measure. How do you quantify fun? Still, there are things that are quantifiable. My goal is to rate 256 games for the compo. Or My goal is to place in the top 25% of entrants in the category of [x]. Or Create sprite animations for 8 different poses in the next 2 hours.But don’t try to make your goals based on arbitrary numbers. Try to pick numbers that are meaningful. It’s better to have a smaller number of well-done features than a larger number of weak features. What’s better, a game with 10 boring levels, or 1 really great one?Often, the easiest way to measure may be simple binary: either you achieved it or you didn’t.
  • Achievable: Don’t set yourself up for failure by picking something that you can’t hope to accomplish. You should have an idea of what you’re capabilities are. It’s fine to challenge yourself, but don’t set the goals unrealistically high. If you don’t have any clue at all how you’ll achieve a goal, step back and set a more realistic goal that you can achieve, which gets you closer to achieving the too-hard goal.
  • Relevant: Don’t pursue extraneous goals. Focus on what is most relevant to your larger goals.In a weekend jam, there’s just not a lot of time to waste. Focus on the essential features of the game you want to make. Don’t waste time on extraneous things.
  • Time-Based: Give yourself a reasonable window of time to achieve the goal. Assess yourself at that time and decide what to do next. But also check yourself before then to see if you’re on track.During a Jam, time is constrained as it is. You know you have 48 or 72 hours to build a game. I encourage you to subdivide this time and assess periodically where the project is at, and decide whether to drop or modify features in order to make the submission deadline.


Game Jamming 365

How to keep the momentum

  1. Be obsessive. Think about game development all the time. According to the Bureau of Unverifiable Statistics, men think about sex on average every six seconds. As a game developer, you should think about game development even more than this.
  2. Be persistent. Don’t give up. If you can’t figure something out, show off what you have been able to figure out and ask people for help.
  3. Set small goals. Pick small projects. Do things that are within your capability to complete quickly. Do simple, mini projects that aren’t full-blown games, but are good development exercises, or that can be useful reusable components in a game.
  4. Make time. At a minimum, set aside one night a week to be your time to devote solely to your projects. Arrange your calendar so that you can do this. Work over this minimum any time you can.
  5. Fill every possible moment. When you get into your project, you won’t want to stop. Find ways to put time in on your project. Carry a notebook around with you to draw and write up your ideas. Write yourself notes whenever you have a few seconds – at the bus stop, on the train, waiting for an appointment, in the elevator.
  6. Get back on track. Life will always intrude and take you out of “the Zone.” When that happens, figure out how to get back on track as quickly as possible. Deal with the distraction effectively and efficiently, and go back to development. If it’s a true life priority that’s calling you, then give it the attention it deserves, and resume your game projects when you can.
  7. See the Game in everyday life. Look around you, everywhere there are systems that could be seen as games. Teach yourself to recognize these patterns and then apply them in your projects. Art imitates life. Make up games about brushing your teeth, or walking your dog.
  8. Take a break. When you get exhausted, when you get stuck, when you’re not feeling it, when you’re wanting inspiration. Step back and give yourself time to recharge. Work on something else. Just relax. Meditate or exercise. Watch a movie. Hug someone you like.
  9. Play. Play games. Follow your favorite developers’ new releases. Return to your old favorites. Visit them with a fresh eye, think about what makes them successful.
  10. Release. Put your work out there for people to see. Give them easy ways to provide feedback to you. Use achievement statistics to collect data on how players play your game. Analyze the data to figure out how to make better games.

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