Why Game Jams Matter
I used to look at game jams and think: “Why would I want to put myself through that? Making a game in a day? A week? Whatever? Sounds exhausting.” I’ve changed my mind, and there are a few reasons. They allow you to gain experience and feel pressure in a unique setting, they demand creativity and problem-solving in a short amount of time, and they allow you to participate in one of the coolest communities on the planet.
Don’t know it? Learn it!
As a producer, I’ve seen amazing things happen on the teams I’ve led. Game jams offer the opportunity to learn new tools quickly. How? Well, when there’s no time to waste, human beings can pick things up really fast. I recently led a team through Epic Games’ Mega Jam. It’s about a week long, and they give you a theme and certain requirements you must meet. The team consisted of myself and four other developers. One of the engineers I worked with was brand new to Unreal Engine 4, the engine we were required to use. Since we were on such a tight schedule with a deadline approaching, he took major initiative and watched YouTube tutorials. LOTS of them. As a result of this, he had figured out blueprints and some of the other features unique to Unreal over the course of a day or two. His desire to learn helped him achieve great things, and I strongly believe the jam created that environment for him. Now he has valuable skills, and he made a game with them already!
My artists also sunk their teeth into new things. I had two tech artists on the team, both of which were enthusiastic about practicing skills they were eager to add to their portfolios. One jumped into shaders and textures, and also got involved with the level design. The other rapidly knocked out models for our character, enemies, and some environmental objects. Their passion helped create a healthy team dynamic as well, even over the course of a few days! Moral of the story is that pressure like this can be healthy for people. Team members can come out of these experiences with valuable skills, even when failures occur throughout the process.
Create. Problem-Solve. Rinse. Repeat:
Our jam started on a Thursday and went through until the following Thursday. The theme was “Settle the Score,” and we had to quickly come to a conclusion on our game idea. Not only that, we had to design a core game loop so we could start working on it! Using what we call the “design box” approach, we landed on a game idea and design - at least enough of one that we could start on and iterate upon. We start with a problem to solve, and address intended audience, aesthetic, and technology. The idea is that restrictions lead to success. And it worked for us! After a pivot, of course…
We originally decided on a multiplayer scenario between two players. And we got started. Three days in, however, our engineers learned that a networking feature would be too ambitious for the scope of the game jam. So we had to quickly problem-solve as a team, and revisit our creative process.
Within an hour, we had revamped our design to fit a single-player experience. We didn’t want to go single-player, but it’s what we had to do. Results were more important than our individual opinions or ideas. And what we created is actually pretty fun! We ended up with a core game loop that someone could start, finish, and restart. We also had to revisit the level design as a result of this so it fit a single-player experience. We survived, too! Everything was OK! The idea here is that the team needs to problem-solve both as a group and as individuals.
Game jams are a phenomenon, honestly. I’ve heard glory stories of devs creating a game on a train ride to GDC. Friendships develop, crazy ideas come to fruition, and people grow together rapidly. I think that’s more important than some may realize. In a way, game developers are part of a huge family. We all have similar struggles. It’s a fickle industry. It’s unstable. These events help us grow together, learn from each other, and even network! They’re not wasteful. On the contrary. Game jams are in fact game development! I’m convinced that more good than bad comes from a game jam, except maybe sleep deprivation and some frustration along the way. At least that’s my opinion. I’m glad I did this one. It feels good to get results in such a short amount of time. Why not give it a try, at least?
(below is the trailer for our game Sassy Fox. We were pretty proud of jamming this one.)
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I'm a games lover, designer, and producer; Beatles freak; fishing enthusiast; and music researcher. It's tough to have so many good things in life!