I completed my second Global Game Jam this past weekend and I am pretty worn out by it. Everyone advocates doing game jams because oh, it’s this great lesson in paper prototyping and rapid iterations and making quick design decisions, and I could probably write a blog post about that, but it seems repetitive and boring. The crux is, every game designer (even more so every person learning to be a game designer) has this rapid prototyping mindset so drilled into them that this is all stuff they already know.
Instead, I’m going to focus on the bad things about game jams and why both times, I’ve ended up feeling pretty unenthused about the whole process altogether. There are some realities we, as game designers, cannot overcome. This is why I think you should maybe game jam once (for life experience or something if you’re into that kind of stuff), and then probably never again.
Why Game Jams Suck
2015 – OBSTACLE ILLUSION
In last year’s game jam, Akshay, Julian and I made Obstacle Illusion, this psychedelic game that did not make a lot of sense to anyone. Here are some things that the game jam structure does not support:
- Game designers need constraints. The theme was terrible. “What do we do now?” applies to pretty much every single game you could ever create. If a game jam is going to give a theme, it should be to provide design constraints rather than leaving it too open. Diversifiers are meant to do that as well, but they don’t count for anything and typically are far-fetched and unreachable (make a live streamed game intended to be played concurrently by the masses on Twitch, who would do that in 48 hours?). We struggled more with not having a direction that we would have had we some direction on where not to go.
- One programmer is too few. We drove Akshay into the ground trying to make this game, and we were all on edge about it all weekend. Try as we might, Julian and I were not able to help most of the time, and this made very difficult living and working conditions for all of us. Ask yourself if making a game is worth all the tension between friends. Ask yourself if there’s ever a need to kill yourself over making a game. Come on. There are more important things.
- Game designers need to play their game as they are making it to make adjustments. This is very difficult in a game jam because the programmer has to code all the time and there is no time to make little iterations for fear of breaking the game completely. In a typical development cycle, you can get playable builds and provide feedback. In a game jam, you get pretty much nothing until the final game.
- Game designers need to playtest and get feedback. When the feedback is “wow, this game sucks,” you’ve kind of committed to it already and you’re not going to throw it out and start again like you could in a regular rapid prototyping cycle. The time you take to finish your crappy prototype is essentially wasted. All the playtesting that occurs during the game jam is too late for any significant changes to be made.
- Games need good art. If you’re on a team, like I usually am, with no formal artist, nothing else matters, because it just looks so bad compared to all the other games. Even if the mechanics are fabulous, we, as humans, are so trained to go towards what is classified as “beautiful” that a game that is gorgeous and less fun will stick in the mind of the players and judges more.
- Game sound does not matter. Again, without good art, nothing matters, but sound as usual takes it the hardest, especially in a crowded showcase room where nobody can hear anything. Our game made the mistake of relying on sound for several mechanics and this failed miserably.
- Game jam games typically suck. I said it. At first, I went into game jams hoping to make something good or something I could be proud of, but gradually, this hope deteriorated into “I just hope I’m able to survive the weekend without collapsing due to lack of sleep and then falling behind on my schoolwork for the rest of the semester.” Forget even making something cool or interesting, your game is going to suck so you might as well accept that at the beginning.
2016 – ALWAYS 3
This year, we made Always 3, a game about OCD, in a team of six. While this seems like a large team, two of us were out sick during it, and I was essentially useless, which brings me to my first point about how game jams are terrible:
- Game jams are great at making me feel inadequate. You already have to be awesome at what you’re doing to contribute, you can’t just help a little bit. As a programmer, I had some tasks to do, but I mostly didn’t want to get in the way of Eric and Akshay because they could do it so much faster and better. I was only slowing them down rather than helping. I felt awful and useless about this. I felt like there was no way I could contribute and that I was dead weight. Game jams are not a good place to learn anything about your craft.
- Three programmers is too many. Don’t even get me started about source control, splitting up tasks and trying to communicate with two other people. It takes more time to organise programming tasks than it does to execute on them, so it’s better to keep it small and seriously scope down. Like, to one interaction, maximum.
- Games need to be memorable over being actually good. Something Always 3 had that Obstacle Illusion did not have last year is that it had a shocking ending that made it memorable, because of how ridiculous it was. You want a reaction out of the players more than you want to make a good game. So, you are not making a good game, you are developing an attention grabber. This means that you can throw anything together regardless of whether it is innovative, if you just play your cards right and make it something people remember. Good characters? Good story arc? Forget it.
- Game jams make people desperate and dull their creativity. Seriously, the ideas that we wasted so much time talking about were more dumb than innovative. There is a fine line between the two, but it’s so easy to get carried away on something that is obviously awful and someone needs to have the perspective and courage to say so before the team goes in a direction that not everyone is comfortable with. The forty-eight hour time constraint also gets everyone so antsy that they limit their creative thoughts and ideas to what they think would be dumb or cool to pull off in that time.
- Game designers need game producers. The reality of production in a game jam is that there is none. This is a big problem because the game designers and developers just do whatever they feel like doing, in whatever order suits them. There is no unified vision, there is no prioritisation, there is no big picture thinking. No one is there making sure the team communicates and is on the same page. This is a large part of why the final games suck, because they are so scattered and disconnected.
- Paper prototypes are not an adequate representation of the product. In a game jam, we typically go from paper prototype to finished product. Game development is a process, which means there are many more steps in between, and testing on a paper prototype to see whether your game is fun is not a good representation of what your game actually will be.
- Game designers need to know who they are designing for. One of the things you have to consider as a game designer is your target audience. Typically, this involves lots of research before making the game. In a game jam, you don’t even know who the judges are until they show up at judging, so how can you ensure that you are making a good game that will be well received? Game jammers then default to making games for themselves, which is a bad move that never works.
Most importantly, game jams are terrible at taking care of yourself and your brain. Do you know what’s good for coming up with good ideas and solving problems, things essential for game development? Sleep, time and good food. None of which a game jam offers. Take into account that the team is delirious, sick and cranky for most of the time, multiplied by the number of teams, and you get crunch week at a big company, which everyone knows is just a bad environment.
I’m glad I’ve participated in game jams over the past year, but based on my feelings of inadequacy and plain exhaustion, I don’t think I will again. At least if you wait 48 hours in a concert line, you get to enjoy a concert after. In game jams, you work for 48 hours straight and come away with a crappy prototype you don’t want to show anyone, a bunch of wasted time you will never get back, and a stack of unfinished things you should have accomplished in that time.
So, don’t game jam. You’ll learn nothing you don’t already know. Go ahead, call me a cynic.