For game designers just starting out, a common piece of advice is to participate in game jams. Game jams give developers of all disciplines practice in several things that are crucial to the game creation process. In the short time frame, you’re forced to make quick design decisions, make proofs of concept or paper prototypes, and make rapid iterations on your final game. It’s also a boot camp in working with teammates.
But there is a downside to game jams, which I want to cover in this blog post. No-one tells you at the outset the reasons why game jams can really suck, and why you might be better off putting your energy into actually creating a great game, on your own time.
After my second Global Game Jam this past weekend, I was unsurprisingly worn out, but also pretty unenthused by the whole process. My recommendations to new game designers are, therefore, slightly off-piste.
Game Jam Tips for New Game Designers
- Game jam once if it appeals to you, but don’t feel like you have to game jam to be a good designer
- Take the best parts of the game jam process and try to replicate it in a lower pressure environment
- Don’t feel bad if the game jam process isn’t right for you, or if you get very little out of it
Most of all, I would take the pressure off yourself by not expecting to make a great game at a game jam. While I have worked on a game that started out as a game jam idea, these sort of game jam successes are few and far between compared to the number of flops. The important part is learning from the process and applying those lessons to your regular game development work.
This blog post draws on my experiences having completed two Global Game Jams, which challenge developers to make a game based on a theme in 48 hours. I’ll go through specific lessons from my game jam experiences and how they show the disadvantages of the game jam structure in creating games.
Global Game Jam 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:
1. 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. An example: 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.
2. One programmer is too few.
We drove our programmer 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, who were scrambling on doing the rest of the game, were not able to help most of the time. This made for 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. There are more important things.
3. 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. 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.
4. Game designers need to playtest and get feedback.
When the feedback is “wow, this game sucks,” you’ve kind of committed to it already. In a game jam, you don’t have time 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.
5. 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, humans are so attracted by classically “beautiful” things that a game that is gorgeous and less fun will stick in the mind of the players and judges more.
6. 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.
7. Game jam games typically suck.
At first, I went into game jams hoping to make something good or something I could be proud of. 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 making something cool or interesting, your game will suck so you might as well accept that at the outset.
Global Game Jam 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.
What I learned at my second game jam reinforced the idea that game jams are terrible:
1. 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. It appeared that 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.
2. 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 them, so it’s better to keep it small and seriously scope down. Like, to one interaction, maximum.
3. 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.
4. 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. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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. Testing on a paper prototype to see whether your game is fun is not a good representation of what your game actually will be.
7. 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.
Game Jams are Not For Everyone, and They May Not Even be Helpful for Most Game Designers
Most of all, 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 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. You also end up with a bunch of wasted time you will never get back, and a stack of unfinished things you should have accomplished in that time.
If you’re a game designer who is devoted to their craft, you will learn concepts like rapid prototyping and teamwork anyway, at your own pace, in a way that’s good for you. You’ll even have time to perform important tasks like playtesting and using source control. You’ll get better art and code quality. You may even get a product that you’re proud (or even willing) to show others afterwards. Game jams are not for everyone, and they might even be harmful to game designers and the creative process.
So, don’t game jam. You’ll learn nothing you don’t already know.