What I love and hate about game jams

This weekend was the weekend of Global Game Jam 2015. All over the planet, more than 10,000 participants got to try their hand at making a game in 48 hours, on the theme “What do we do now?”

I thought about the theme, and tried to imagine a situation that would lead someone to say, “What do we do now?” and the first think that came to mind was being stranded. Quickly, I envisioned a space ship that encounters a systems failure while in transit, and becomes disabled in deep space, with the crew left to figure out what to do to get things back working again.

Mechanically, the game was to be a top-down, tile-based map of the ship, with various sections and you would have to use the different crew members to deal with a series of problems. It would be like solving a puzzle in a Rube Goldberg fashion, where the easy, obvious solution was denied or prevented because of some other problem that you would need to fix first. Failure would not kill you or make things worse, just prevent you from being able to make progress until you got it right.

It was a project more ambitious than I could normally tackle in 48 hrs, and so I needed a good team to work with in order to have a chance of pulling it off.

It didn’t come together, though, and I realized around 5pm Saturday that it wasn’t going to happen, and shut the project down.

Which is OK. I’m totally OK with that. Failure doesn’t upset me like it used to when I was a kid. In life, you try things, you fail a lot of the time, and if you’re good, you learn from the failures and figure out a better way to try again.

My track record in game jams hasn’t been so great. 8 completed games out of 13 events. Every completion is an accomplishment, whatever your skill level, but so far I have yet to feel like I delivered everything I hoped the game could be in the time allotted. I’m still hungry to feel that amazing feeling that I built something complete, and hit all the goals I had from the onset, rather than limped across the finish line with compromises that leave the game feeling incomplete and below my own standards of quality.

  • GGJ2012 – ASCIIboros. First jam! Finished a game, my first completed game project that wasn’t a homework assignment, despite lots of problems with the GM:HTML5 beta crashing and corrupting my project TWICE, forcing me to start over from scratch. Felt triumphant, drained, frustrated.
  • LD23Bactarium – Completed. Experimented with random number functions, mouse controls, and controlling a swarm of objects indirectly
  • LD24Karyote – Completed. Experimented with particles, dynamic sprite generation, drawing surfaces, and created a movement engine where the player remains stationary and the entire room moves around you.
  • LD25Bad Puppy – Completed. Further experimentation with dynamic sprite generation.
  • GGJ2013 – unable to participate due to illness
  • LD26The Only Winning Move is Not To Play – “Completed” but the entry was a protest/joke entry borne out of frustration with theme paralysis.
  • LD27 – did not participate; theme paralysis
  • LD28 – did not complete; struggled with building a 2d platform engine that worked, with enough time to design levels, graphics, etc.
  • GGJ2014Mirrorim – partially completed a game, but the entry was weakened by major interruptions Saturday at our site which coincidentally happened to be hosting a large fundraising party that night, and difficulty working with a large team that really needed a project coordinator.
  • LD29Alamogordo – Gave up due to theme paralaysis, but then came back and built a game in 10 hours that, while not much of a challenge to play, was at least solidly built.
  • LD30 – Tried to build a 2D platformer using an engine built by someone else, but due to unfamiliarity with it, was unable to overcome the challenges needed to complete my game.
  • LD31Color is Everything – Completed! Game wasn’t amazing or anything, but it felt good to take something on and finish it.
  • GGJ2015 – dropped out.

Don’t worry, or feel bad. I am undaunted.

Rather than talk about my personal shortcomings and problems the team had in coming together, I thought I’d talk more generally about game jams and what I like about them and what I hate about them.

What I love about Game Jams

Community Energy

I love everyone getting together and working on their projects. I love meeting people who share my interest and passion for game design. I love being inspired by the brilliance of others. I love knowing that there are people out there who have the same drive, dreams, distractions that I have. I love knowing that I’m not struggling alone, that I have colleagues and the encouragement and inspiration that I get from them. It makes a huge difference to me, and keeps me going when my own inner voice is shouting at me that I should just give up, that I’m no good, that I’ll never be as good as I need to be.

Small scope, short sprints

When you’re small and don’t have a lot of time, you can’t do much. Jams prove that being small does not preclude being mighty. Amazing things can be built in 24, 48, or 72 hours. Until I’d seen it done over and over again, I wondered how that was even possible. Knowing that it was possible, and knowing that I have done it myself, is fantastically empowering.

What I hate about game jams

They encourage terrible work habits

Cramming for exams, pulling all-nighters, and generally being an insomniac wired on caffeine and other stimulants was fun and felt essential to my 20’s. I’m long past that decade, and have grown to appreciate working smarter. I can still work long days, but 16-20 hours two days in a row just doesn’t work as well as working at a more sustainable pace.

Rather than jamming a few times a year, I want to jam all year. To do that, I have to manage my life and keep myself at a steady level of performance. I still plan to participate in events like LD and GGJ, but by working consistently all year round, I will build myself up to where I’m capable of doing the types of things in a weekend that I see top indie devs who I admire doing. The marathon isn’t the workout. To do run a marathon competitively, you have to run every day. To run every day, you have to do all the things you need to do to keep in good health and peak physical fitness.

Ad hoc teaming

A game jam is a lot like a marathon. It’s an achievement to complete one, regardless of how well you did. And people of all levels of ability participate together. In a marathon, there’s a huge crowd at the start, and it thins out during the race, and the top runners finish quickly while everyone else who finishes just tries to better their personal best time, or just feels happy to be there. Some people are amazing not because of their times, but because of some personal limitation that they had to overcome.

Now imagine if marathons were a team sport, and that you didn’t know who was going to be on your team until after the starting gun. And there’s no effort made at pairing teammates by their performance level. That’s how the Cleveland site has been running its GGJ site the last few years. Some people do plan to work together in advance, and that’s smart. That’s what everyone should do. To perform in a weekend, you have to be prepared. Expecting to pick up a team like it’s sandlot baseball doesn’t work so well. Teams need to figure out how to work together effectively, and 48 hours isn’t enough time to allow that.

For my first GGJ, I ended up in a team of leftovers who couldn’t find a team to work with, and none of us even worked with the same tools. I ended up dropping out of the team and working solo. For the next GGJ, I ended up with a team, but the people who gravitated to me weren’t well suited to the project, and there were too many of them for me to effectively manage them — I felt like I was building a game solo while simultaneously trying to manage 5 other people who I couldn’t figure out how to utilize effectively in the project. This time, again, I had a few people who were interested in the idea I had pitched, but couldn’t get us to work together effectively. There’s no one to blame, it’s just ridiculous to expect people to be able to meet each other and then five minutes later crank heavily for 48 hours and have it all come together beautifully. Relationships and teams need to be built well ahead of time.

That feeling that no one I know actually played my game

Despite the support that I get from the community, somehow I don’t feel like all that many people actually try out my games. It’s disappointing when you build something and people are generally patting you on the back for doing it, but then when you asked them if they’ve played it, they haven’t actually played it. Now, I’m not saying that no one ever plays my games — they do, and have. But it’s still disappointing not to have a great reach. I can’t blame people for not having time, or not having the right platform to play the game on (although, all of my games run on Windows and/or HTML5, so how hard is that?) or for just not being interested in playing games which I myself am somewhat embarrassed by… but I still wish more people would actually play them and tell me how shitty they are, and what I could do to make a game that doesn’t suck.


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  1. I see some fair critique here, but some things I would take issue with.

    I entirely disagree that game jams encourage bad work habits. If anything, if your completion rate is 8/13 games and you regularly do extreme crunch on jams and come away feeling more exhausted than happy, I’d say that game jams are actively punishing you for bad work habits! Try jamming with taking a five-minute stand-up-and-stretch break every hour, a 30-60 minute break for each of 3 meals per day, keep a bottle of water at your desk for regular hydration, eat food that’s healthful, and get a full night’s sleep each night, and see if both the quality of the games and your overall feeling on Sunday increase considerably.

    For the ad-hoc teams, I think a lot depends on what you want to get out of the jam; there are tradeoffs. I run jams with lots of students, and for them I *strongly* recommend they work in random groups, to get them used to the idea that in the Real World you usually don’t get to choose your co-workers when you get hired at a company (also, students are generally friends with others who have the same skill set as them, which means a “friends only” team will often be short in one or more critical skills). Also, jams are a wonderful place to meet new people and network (I know a few industry people who attend jams as a way of scouting, because you get MUCH more info about what someone is like to work with if you’ve seen them jam than you will at an interview) so there are some professional opportunities that are missed if you stay in your own bubble. However, people will often enjoy working with friends (especially if they’ve never had the opportunity to actually build something with those friends before), and if you already have experience working on a team with some people then working on a team with them during a jam means you don’t have to worry about negotiating a new set of interpersonal dynamics, so that does save time.

    As for the sense that no one plays your game, that is true (moreso during GGJ than any other jam, due to the massive volume of games produced worldwide). That said, in my personal experience, most of the time that’s a good thing! My game jam games usually suck, so I’d rather bury them than have them get publicized ;). And in the ultra-rare event that someone comes up with a game that is well and truly special and deserves to get shared, those do tend to find their way to bubble up to the surface. In GGJ we ask each site coordinator to pass along any truly amazing games they saw, for promotion purposes, but even without that, teams that work on a great game will KNOW they’ve got something special and that energy of pride will tend to spur them to keep working on the game, polish it and complete it, and release it – plenty of GGJ games that have gone on through a later version to see sales on the App Store, Steam Greenlight, or getting awards at IGF or IndieCade. It’s rare, but does happen (but realistically, it’s rare because game development is hard and game development compressed to a weekend SHOULD be absolutely impossible, what do we expect?).

    Ultimately, it’s a great way to hone your skills regardless, so if you come away having learned something that you can apply on another project that ISN’T some throwaway weekend prototype, I would call that a win.


    1. It might be more fair to say that the format of the jam does nothing to encourage good work habits :) And obviously, I can’t speak for everyone’s experience or every site.

      I think that people who already know how to dev and project manage likely do employ their already-honed good work habits, and the results speak for themselves. When I see a game that makes me ask “How did you make all that in 48hrs?” chances are it’s because the jammer knows how to work. But even then, the truly great games that I’ve seen made and talked to the creator, they do not sleep much and are pretty exhausted by the end of the jam.

      For everyone else, it’s just the game dev equivalent of button mashing your way through Tekken. It’s possible to beat the game by button mashing, but you don’t really master the game by doing so. Do novice jammers jamming for the first time learn how to work? I suppose some of us do. But we figure it out; it’s not like the format of the jam is conducive to discovering it; it’s more that if you keep doing it and want to do better, you figure it out.

      I agree that jams are a great place to meet new people; I don’t agree that they’re necessarily great for meeting new people and then collaborating with them. I’ve met a lot of great people and made loads of friends and contacts, but no one who I have been able to work successfully with (so far).

      Trying to work a team with random people in a school setting maybe works better because presumably these people are in the same classes with each other, and even if they’re not friends yet, at least they have some experience in common, and use common toosets so they can actually work together. Being the one guy who doesn’t use Unity makes it hard for me to collaborate with anyone, and the last two years while i have had people who approached me interested in collaborating on the idea I pitched, none have had any GameMaker experience, leaving it to me to be the designer/programmer/project manager while the rest of the team try to provide me with assets (but struggle with that because they don’t understand GM’s limitations and requirements).

      I’m definitely not coming out against jams — I love them overall and plan to continue doing them. I just need to figure out ways to do it in a way that is more successful and satisfying.


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