Jamming at your first Game Jam

Welcome to my first post in a series on game development. I have been building games and experience for many years now and felt it was time I threw my hat into the blogosphere, so to speak, to help anyone who might want to follow their passion in game design.

It really is quite simple

Who am I?

My name is Gerrit, I was born in South Africa and I love creating immersive worlds.

I have been lucky enough to see different parts of the world as my mom moved a lot for her job. I was always fascinated by the people I met in different countries and how the society they lived in changed how they treated each other. I love the stories people told me and from a young age, I started writing and sketching, almost always fantasy or science fiction. Moving around a lot (before the age of social media) meant I did not have that many close friends, so I had to find or make my own in the stories and later games, I created. I loved creating card and board games, obsessing over mechanics and the story behind the game. Often I would be working on multiple games and some started combining together to form more complete and complex games.

Later in my life, when things were not going too well, games helped me escape some sad times. I found peace and strength in the worlds other game designers created and when I finally managed to escape the hold depression had on me, I was inspired to start doing the same thing. This happened only a few years ago and I went back to University to complete an undergraduate degree in Design Innovation in the beautiful Wellington, New Zealand, and followed it up with a Masters in Design Innovation, focussing on Virtual Reality interaction.

Games and art have gotten me through good and bad times and now I want to give back to the world by helping others follow a similar passion.

I want to make games!

Great, you are ready, no matter your age or education level. Just get stuck in as the kiwis say.

When starting your journey into game development it can be extremely daunting. There are so many roles that you can fill and knowing what there is to choose from is the best start. You need a 2D or 3D designer and modeller, a story or concept writer, a sound person (or someone who can find you sounds and music), a coder, and someone who can put it all together, do bug-squashing and optimization. For more complex, and even some simple, games you will need a team of people for each of those stages. Don't get me wrong, there are people who attempt to do it all and spread themselves over all aspects of game design, much like myself as I just love learning new skills, but starting out, you want to figure out what area you are really passionate about. Game Jams are excellent for this.

But I am not ready, I don't have the skills yet!

That is perfectly fine, you don't have to be ready to enjoy a good jam.

Title screen image for my last game jam entry

I have been to many game jams now, both physical location ones and online (I will talk more about the difference later), so I will use my latest one as an example. I was recently part of a team of 4 at the Global Game Jam held in Wellington, New Zealand, and we managed to make a fun little arena game called "Mecha Mash-Up". Our team was comprised of me (role of 3D modeller and support), Pikalolz (2D and 3D design), BFrizzleFoShizzle (Coder), and Kilreth (Music). We actually had little stress during the event and managed to create a complete game by the end of the two days.

Wait... stress? Two Days to make a game??

Hang on, it's not as bad as it sounds...

So how a game jam works, for those who are unfamiliar with the concept, is that you have a group of people who all come together to form teams to make a game over a set time frame. This can vary from as little as 2 hours to a month, with the majority of them being over a 48-hour timeframe. A theme is usually announced at the start, sometimes with some constraints, and then people start making games. Some people come to the jam with a team all picked out, but many form teams at the start of the event and therefore it is a great way to meet new people and network. Now I know you might feel you do not have the skills to start a game jam, but I have been in teams where some members were Accountants or Marketing executives that have never touched a piece of digital editing software and thought a "for loop" is an off-brand sugary cereal. What they did bring is a passion to try and make a game and they tended to be the ones who came up with some of the wackiest and fun concepts or mechanics!

Mecha Mash-UP! Grab some parts, repair your mech and then shoot it out for last bot standing!

In our last game, Mecha Mash-Up, we had a team of seasoned jammers, so we managed to complete the game and it was playable. Sometimes you will not even get anything playable by the end of the jam time and that is perfectly fine. You can do a write up about what you wanted to achieve with some concept art and sound clips etc. These entries can do as well as fully fleshed out games as it is all about pushing yourself and coming up with ideas. For many people, it is in the fire of the forge of game jams that they find their area of passion!

I want to do this, but I want to be prepared!

That's the spirit! Here are some handy tips for jamming at your first site.

Most Game Jams do not allow partly built games to be used and any outside assets that you buy need to be clearly credited. I do suggest that you try and do everything yourself, but if you do not have a team member that can create certain assets, do not let that hold you back. Find stuff on the asset stores and credit them properly. No one will fault you for that, but it will be obvious if you come up with a fully working first-person shooter with a gripping story spanning over several episodes! Realistically you will create a few levels with a semi-working character controller and some guns and an AI that spends half the time trying to shoot you and the rest of the time attempting to navigate its way up the nearest wall.

However, it is good to have familiarity with the tools out there that will speed up any of the processes along the way. But before I talk to you about that, there is the issue of choosing a platform.

I have a fold-out table and chair ready to go!

Not quite what I meant, but I love the enthusiasm.

Some of you might already know what I mean, but choosing your platform has to do with what you want your game to play on. Mostly, people tend to use the Unity or Unreal game development engine as they can work with both 2D and 3D (as well as text-based), but there are plenty more to choose from. These will easily build your game for PC and MAC platforms (as well as mobile devices and even consoles). You tend to not be limited to your platform unless you are doing a specific jam such as the Bitsy Jam using the Bitsy engine. At most jams, you can even create a board game, a card game, or even a team-building game using only people as components of the game. Do not limit yourself! To begin with, use the engine (the thing you make the game with) that you are most familiar with, but be willing to learn new ones from your fellow team members if need be. It is a great place to learn new skills!

Sometimes, it is even better to try and use engines that are more suited to the theme of the jam as it can give you an edge in developing the mechanics you really want for that theme.

Got it, you mentioned some handy tips before?

For sure, here are some tips to make your first jam that much more enjoyable.

In order of what I feel is most important, consider the following when going to your first game jam.

Before the Jam

  • Building a team Unless you want to join a team there, which is a great experience as well, I recommend checking with your friends or joining the Discord (or other social channels) of that jam site to start up a team beforehand. It will allow you to figure out early on what skills are available in the team and will save you precious time at the start of the jam. It is also a great way to get pumped up for the event and share a little bit about yourself with like-minded people.

  • Organising your library of resources If you are like me, you have collected plenty of resources over the years for developing games. This can range from code snippets to specific mechanics, interesting sound clips, story ideas, to even a box of dice and counters. Getting this all together before the jam is a good idea so you do not have to go looking for it at home after the jam started. Almost all jams will allow you to bring these kinds of things to help you build your game, as long as they are not completed game segments that you Frankenstein'd to fit the theme. If you are completely new and do not have a library, think about what elements make a game and look for some good links to resources that are free out there. Definitely check out this document for some more resource ideas.

  • Get excited! You will be surrounded by people who really love making games, so really be yourself and let your freak flag fly. You will be embraced no matter how weird your ideas are that you bring to the table and every jam I have been to have included some of the most interesting people I have ever met. It is always so sobering to me to see people be comfortable in their own skin at these events, especially today when there is so much negativity still about individuality.

During the Jam

  • Choose your audience This is a very handy tip that will help you immediately be able to narrow your scope. Start by firmly deciding who you want to build the game for. This can be a specific age, gender, or gaming group. Some might think this is not necessary, but from experience, it helps you to focus your brainstorming session a lot more.

  • Narrow your scope Once you have decided on your audience and come up with a game concept with mechanics and story ideas etc. start narrowing down your scope immediately. Start with getting one thing working that is the core element of the game and then build on it once it works. A good rule to follow for your first few jams is "make the game easy to play, but hard to master".

  • Look after yourself and each other This is very often overlooked and really should not be! Get rest, eat well and drink plenty of water. You will be expending a lot of energy during the game jam, much in the form of stressing about things not working or getting excited about getting things right. I always get at least 5 hours of sleep every night and eat proper meals. It will allow you to think clearer and give you a break from the computer screen (or craft glue). This is essential for creativity, and as I said before, it does not matter if you do not finish everything you wanted. It matters that you enjoy the experience. Ending the jam hurting is not an enjoyable experience. Having been there, I know it is not worth it! Also, go home and shower at least once halfway through!

After the Jam

  • Play the games! Most game jams will have some time afterwards where people can go around and play each other's games and do a bit of networking. Use this time to really get to meet the other teams and share in their efforts. People tend to be very happy it is all over and eager to show what they have done as well as see what others have achieved. I remember one jam where I did not complete the game but had some cool cobbled together screenshots of what it should have been. The responses I got were very positive and people enjoyed me talking about that game as much as playing a completed one I made the next year. If you did look after yourself during the jam, this part is a lot more enjoyable too!

  • Network and share Keep in touch with people who's ideas you really loved or who loved yours and join them in future jams or work with them on building your game further (or theirs). Many game jam creations have gone on to be fully developed wonderful games, so do not miss this opportunity to network. Ask people how they achieved something in their game if you loved it so you can then go and learn it for yourself. Offer to teach others what you did if they are interested and share your knowledge. Sometimes this might even lead into interesting jobs.

  • Clean up the site Most sites where you will jam will be hosted by a local university or institute and to show your appreciation, please do stay behind and give them a hand cleaning up. It takes a lot to organise these events and they will appreciate it immensely.

I got this! But where do I go?

That's the spirit! There are plenty of places all around the world that host physical location jams yearly. Here in little New Zealand we have at least 4 happening every year. One of the big ones is Global Game Jam but has just recently passed. Check your local universities, tech schools or game design companies and they might be able to tell you of any physical location jams that are happening in your area. If you are feeling brave and would like to dive headfirst into a pool of constantly updating jams, head to this site, and you will be presented with a calendar of a large number of online jams currently being held and what is being planned so you can schedule a jam for you and your team.

I hope you have enjoyed reading my thoughts on how to approach your first jam. If you ever want to chat with me about game jams or want me to join your team, please do not hesitate to send me a message through the site at the bottom of my portfolio section. I am always happy to chat about anything design related. I will be writing a weekly blog about game development and things I am working on, so remember to subscribe to the mailing list or join the site to get updates.

Hope you all had a great weekend and chat more soon!

So what are you waiting for?

CliFi Productions

Passionate about Game Design, Fiction, and Science Communication