While commercial video games can take years to create, game jams challenge you to improve your skills, meet new people and make something weird and wonderful. There is (usually) no judging, and it is fully expected that a lot of the games will be completely unplayable, but that’s exactly the point. The aim of the event is to get like-minded people in a room together and create some interesting ideas, rather than attempting to make a blockbuster game in two days. It’s a great way for budding game designers to get some much needed experience in a busy working environment, whichever role they want to specialise in, as well as giving them contacts that may help their careers in the future.
Of course, getting developers into a room together hasn’t been much of an option for the past year and a half, but many jams and hackathons have adapted to an online model to account for this. While few will argue that this isn’t as fun as burning the midnight oil in a room with your friends, it is a good way to experience your first one, especially if you don’t have friends that can help. There’s little commitment if you can’t make it or don’t want to continue, and it’s just as valid a way to make new friends and create something interesting.
Game jams and hackathons are great at catering to most skill levels, so if you have a vague knowledge on a subject and want to learn more about game development, there’s no better opportunity. Organisers will typically try and construct balanced teams based on what skills you have, so stepping on toes is kept to an absolute minimum. However, some locations and events require and/or allow you to arrive in pre-constructed teams. If you need a team to join, don’t be afraid to reach out to other attendees.
The moment when the organisers are reveal the theme for the jam is perhaps one of the most exciting points during the whole weekend. The theme, to a large extent, dictates the jam itself, as each team will be building something based on their own interpretation of it. For example, a theme at the Global Game Jam a few years ago was “extinction”. Some people took this literally and made games about extinct species like dinosaurs and dodos, where others interpreted it as ‘protecting against extinction’, or ‘saving the world’. There are no incorrect interpretations either, and this is the beauty of game jams. Keep to the theme, but also think outside the box.
Before any work can start, the team has to come up with an idea. With the project lasting an entire weekend, you should be cautious and consider all aspects of what you’ll be building, before you start building it. What’s the story? What are the players doing? What’s the point? Discussions may even go on for a few hours before you get stuck in, but you must remember that it’s not a race, and that you do not need to have a finished product at the end of the weekend. Go through your options, make sure you’re on the right page, and shoot for a minimum viable product instead of shooting for a scope that’s impossible to squeeze into a weekend.
It is here that your jam experience will vary, depending on your team and skills. Work out what everyone is best at, as well as any other skills that they may have. This should give you an idea of how you want to approach the game, as you can work out what tools can be used and where to assign work. However, always remember that this is also a learning experience, and people will want to (and should) try out new coding languages, engines and techniques for the weekend. If you want to give something a go and have no experience, let your team know and give it a go. Even without prior experience there’s plenty to work on, and in the worst case scenario you’ll find areas to improve before the next jam.
You might not have a finished product by the weekend, but regardless you should make sure you get people to test what you have. Hopefully it’ll be played thoroughly by your own team, but sometimes you just need a fresh set of eyes see all of the problems. When I participate in a game jam, I typically let other jammers play our current builds at key points across the weekend. Bugs or not, the info you can get from someone that hasn’t actively worked on the game can be extremely valuable. What makes sense to you and your team may not be the case for someone with less information on the project.
At the end of the weekend, when work on the game has stopped and you’ve uploaded your work, it’s time to rest. Relax a bit, and keep away from the project. Revisit the most recent build in a week or so and think about what exactly you’d want to change and where you’d have made different decisions. This is a valuable part of the game jam process, because you will use these learnings in future projects and jams. It’s also valuable to hear feedback from others, so send your game to friends and family, as well as anyone on the Internet who is willing to take a look. Take all criticism on the chin and learn from it – you only had a weekend to make your game, after all.