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Getting ready for Game Jam Weekend, part 2

Take inventory

Ahead of the weekend, it’s good to take a personal inventory. Conceptually, I like to break this into three main areas: Skills, Tools, and Supplies.

Skills

Skills are your personal abilities, your strengths that you will bring to the project. Are you a good designer of rules and systems? A good programmer? Visual artist? Audio designer? If you don’t really know what your strengths are, it’s time to reflect on what your capabilities are, and think about how they might be applied to the project. Even if you think you know what you’re good at, or what you’re going to be doing, it’s good to review everything you know how to do, just in case you might have overlooked something or taken it for granted.

Really, just about any skill can be useful in game development. It’s not just design, programming, art, audio, and project management. Things like math, physics, psychology, humor, and acting are all important skills that have obvious application to different parts of game development. Be open minded and creative, and ask your friends what they think you’re good at or what your strengths are. You might be surprised by what they see, that you wouldn’t have thought of.

Tools

What are you working with? If it’s equipment, get it all together before jam weekend and make sure it’s in good working order, that any cables or accessories that you need are not lost, and so on. Musical instruments, microphones, game controllers, and any other hardware that you can think of should be on a list, and packed up ahead of the Jam weekened. Do you need batteries? Are they charged? Do you have enough of them?

If it’s software, check for updates and make sure it’s installed and launches, that the license is activated, and so on.

Are there other things you can set up ahead of time, like your version control repository, project website, mailing lists, etc? Get it together ahead of time.

Supplies

Supplies are things that you’re going to need for the weekend that are consumable. Things like food, sleeping bag/blanket and pillow, toilet paper, etc. Or things like paper, pens/pencils/markers, and post-it notes. Or game pieces like dice, pawns, cards, and so on.

Make a list, and get everything together ahead of time. If you’re running around last minute, you’re going to forget something, and at the very least you’ll be more stressed out than you would be otherwise. Preparing everything ahead of time means you can relax, clear your mind, and focus on having a productive weekend.

Set goals

Although I said in my previous article that you should approach your physioligical preparation for Jam Weekend like you’re gearing up for an intense athletic competition, a Game Jam really isn’t a competition. The experience is what matters, not just the outcome. Failing is fine! It’s only a weekend, and part of the reason it’s only a weekend is to set the stakes low enough to allow you to take risks. So take them! Do something that might not work, or that you’re not good at, or that you haven’t tried before.

My first Global Game Jam, I wanted to simply complete a project in a weekend that was playable. I didn’t care how good or bad it was, although obviously I wanted to put my best effort into the project, and did. But my main goal was to have something to show for the weekend that I could call “finished” and show to others. That was a fine goal to have.

But there are other goals that you could have. And it’s entirely up to you what those are. Just think about them, and let them guide you. Your goal could be to work with or learn about a specific tool or technique that you have never used before. Or you could make your goal be to make the best game you know how to make, and so focus on execution rather than learning or experimentation, sticking with what you know and what you do well, and simply be as productive at what you’re already good at as you possibly can.

Your goal could be to focus on team work and collaboration, or on being a good project planner/coordinator. Or your goal could be to have a good time, or to ensure that someone else has a good time with their first jam experience, by creating a positive atmosphere and giving encouragement. Maybe your goal is just to find out whether this is something you can really do.

There are many, many dimensions to a game jam, and you can set goals respective to any of them. It doesn’t matter what your goals are, it matters that you have them.

Teaming

I see basically three approaches to participating on a project: solo, on a team, or as a freelancer.

Solo developers, do everything for their project themselves. This works well if you’re well rounded enough in your skills inventory to handle everything yourself. But most people are strongest in one or two skill areas, and are weaker or nonexistent in other areas. It can be limiting to work alone, or it can be liberating. But it all falls to you.

A Freelancer is a jammer who focuses on a particular skill, and provides services to as many teams as need it. This often works well for musicians or artists. Rather than remaining a dedicated resource for a single team, they will work on several projects. This keeps them busier than they might otherwise be. Oftentimes the artists are idle in the early stages of a project, prior to the game design being at a point where it’s ready for the artists to start working on things. And often they can finish the assets for a game quickly, and then have little else to do, and so are able to provide assistance to other projects.

Teams are when a group of people work together on a project. If you’re teaming, either you’re aware ahead of time who you plan to work with, or you’re not.

If you know your team members ahead of time, that’s great, because you can plan and coordinate and prepare ahead of the jam. Just knowing what your capabilities and skill levels are helps, but it’s also good to know what your goals and tastes are. Get together and go over your skill and tool inventories and figure out what your team’s strengths, weaknesses, goals, and interests are.

Get an idea of what role each team member will play, and then each team member can focus their preparation more narrowly in support of that role. If you have more than one programmer, make sure they’re on the same version of the tools that you’re using, and that you all have access to the version control repository that you’re using. Pre-jam is a great time to do stuff like set up your web site, your version control repository, Trello boards, Slack channels, and so on. Make sure that everyone on the team has access to any common tools that they will need to function on the team, and that they have at least some familiarity with them.

If you don’t know who you’ll be working with, and just go into the weekend intending to work with whomever has an interesting project and needs help, you can still prepare by getting to know the people who’re going to be at your jam site ahead of time. Make friends, and see who you might feel like you can work well with.

You can also prepare inwardly, too, and work on your presentation skills, and social skills. Practice pitching ideas, focusing on being brief, interesting, and persuasive. It can be hard to articulate ideas and explain them to other people, but practicing doing that can help.

A good exercise is to think of a game that is familiar to you and that you like, and describe it in less than a minute to someone who has never seen the game before in a way that would give them an understanding of the game and make them want to play it. Or focus on one aspect of a game and explain why it is successful at what it does. Being able to clearly describe a thing that does not yet exist is a critical skill in the early stages of developing a game. If you can do this clearly, succinctly, and compellingly, it’s more likely that you’ll be able to get others on board and aligned with your ideas.

It’s equally important to be good at listening to the good ideas of others, and to be able to negotiate compromises. Think about what it means to be a good listener, a good mediator, and a good conflict resolver and problem solver.

Another critical skill for teaming is managing the team and the project. How do you keep everyone on track, keep tabs on what each member is working on, and ensure that what they’re working on will integrate with the other pieces the team is working on? Communications should be ongoing throughout the weekend, with frequent check-ins to report status, verify that everyone understands what is needed and who’s responsible for it. How do you like to hear feedback? How can you help someone to understand what you’re telling them when they’re not clear?

In short, think about all the interpersonal dynamics of working with others, and ask yourself what kind of person would you want to work with. Remember that when you’re working with your team, and be that person! Thinking about it ahead of time will help you hit the mark, and avoid getting caught up in being short sighted in the moment.

Getting ready for Game Jam Weekend, part 1

Global Game Jam 2017 is coming up soon. I’ve been talking with my fellow game developer friends about how to prepare. It seems like a good topic for a blog post or two.

Preparing mind and body for the game jam

In this article, we’ll cover the mental and physical preparation you should think about doing ahead of time, and during the weekend, to maximize your performance and your potential.

Approach Jam Weekend like you’re getting ready for a major athletic competition.

(Normally this means a season’s worth of training on specific skills and physical conditioning, but we only have a few days, so I’m going to skip that part of it. It is what it is.)

A game jam is more a mental activity than a physical one, but the same ideas apply. Just as you would prepare for a chess or poker tournament, or a triathlon or ultra-marathon, you should strive to enter Jam Weekend at your peak. That means healthy, well rested, energized, and in top condition.

Be well rested and well nourished. Jamming for a whole weekend is seriously taxing on the mind, and the brain needs energy and rest, just as the body does.

Sleep

DO count on getting good sleep during the weekend.

Some people will stay up all weekend, but I don’t recommend it. You’re more productive when you’ve gotten adequate rest. If you can’t sleep well at the Jam site, and it’s pretty unlikely — there’s a lot of noise and chaos and activity going on at all hours — I recommend going somewhere you can get good sleep when it’s time, and if that means off-site, then so be it.

“Crunch time” is a common anti-pattern in software and game development, and is almost always unnecessary and detrimental in the long run. In the short run, people can and do get away with it — mostly when they’re young enough that their bodies and minds are able to withstand such stresses and recover from them.

Because it’s only 48 hours, a lot of people treat Jam weekends like they’re crunch time, and will stay up 36 or even 48 hours. I did that during my first Global Game Jam (in 2011) and learned from it that I wasn’t a 20-something college undergraduate who could pull consecutive all-nighters anymore.

My brain was determined to complete a project by deadline, and due to buggy beta software corrupting my project files, I ended up having to start over twice, redoing my entire project, which really sucked, and meant I basically had no choice but to stay up all weekend or else drop out, and I elected to stick it through to the end.

I finished my project, but my mind was not working anywhere near optimally during the last 12 hours or so, and at times I could’t keep a train of thought going. I’d stare at the keyboard trying to remember what I was trying to do, and what the next step was. If I’d just taken a couple hours for a power nap, I probably would have been better off, made fewer mistakes, and gotten more done. Although my project compiled and ran, I discovered that it was buggy and unwinnable, and had to fix it after deadline. Every project is likely to be buggy, of course, but working under extreme sleep deprivation is only going to make that worse.

Still, some people do seem to thrive on short term sleep deprivation, and become more creative, more focused, or just more crazy, and if that’s you, and you know what you’re capable of, do what works for you.

Nutrition

Eat good food beforehand, and bring or order good food for the weekend.

At my local Global Game Jam site, there will be food provided, and probably they’ll take orders for delivery from somewhere, but a lot of it is junk food or comfort food, and not necessarily what’s best for being well nourished. So consider doing better by yourself.

Preparing a healthy balanced meal is a lot better than eating convenient junk food and caffeine. I wouldn’t dream of specifying a recommended diet, but if you don’t know what’s healthy, look at physical trainers and what they recommend for athletes. A lot of starchy food like pasta or potatoes can be good for storing energy. Fresh vegetables and good lean protein is also an excellent choice.

You don’t want to spend a lot of time on prep and cleanup during the jam, so if you don’t have non-jammers supporting you with food service, then either order out for yourself, or prepare meals to bring that you can reheat easily.

No outside distractions

It goes without saying, perhaps, but try to have your outside life well in order so that it doesn’t intrude on your weekend. Anything can happen of course and if you have to bow out due to some family emergency or something, well, you do what you have to do. Always have your priorities in order, and follow them. If something comes up, hey, that’s life. But plan ahead, and do what’s necessary to keep your plate clear so you can focus on the one thing, and keep yourself free of distractions and other responsibilities as much as possible.

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