For the last ten years my brother and a group of our college friends have been participating in our local 48 hour film festival. Which means that for the last 10 years I have been wanting to do something super creative and awesome in only 48 hours. But I had struggled to find my niche, until now!
While participating in the Indie Game Academy Level 2 Workshop this fall I learned of these magical events called “Game Jams.” Game Jams are competitions in which participants work in teams to create a game in a designated amount of time. At the start of the competition participants are given a theme and then must work with their team to create a game from scratch. The moment I heard about them, I knew that this was the creative outlet I had been looking for! Keep reading to hear about the highlights of my experience as a first time jammer and why joining a Game Jam will help you level up as a game designer.
Building a team
The thing I was the most worried about when I decided I would join the IGA Jelly Jam was creating a team. I only started learning about game design about four months ago, so I knew I would need to lean heavily on my team if I wanted to participate with any hope of completing a game in the given time. Luckily a fellow member of my IGA Level 2 cohort was super excited to form a team with me and with their connections we ended up with a novice but mighty team. We set up a discord and got to know each other in the week leading up to the Jam and set times we could all meet for live discussions during the Jam.
Friday Night: Jam Launch and Theme Announcement
Designing the Game
We met for our first live meeting as a team just as the theme was announced so we could be excited together! This was a really fun time and hearing the theme together for the first time was helpful in building comradery.
As soon as we received the theme: “sun up to sun down” with a bonus theme of “just a little bit of magic” we utilized Miro to brainstormed ideas as a group.
After a productive brainstorming session, everyone was onboard with a theme of burnout with the idea that we should use day and night as a metaphor for conscious and unconscious mind. Before ending our Friday night session, we decided to split the weekend into sprints so we set goals for the first one and then the artist and programmers called it a night and the Narrative Design Team got to work.
The two of us on the Narrative Design Team spent about five hours hashing out ideas and scoping things down to something that seemed manageable.
The Game Design Document
While working with the other Narrative Designer, I realized why Game Design Documents (link to post about the GDD if there is one) are so valuable to Game Design. Basically the Game Design Document is what keeps everyone on the same page about everything during the development process and gives you the information you need to explain, or pitch your game to others. I had been skeptical about a game design document being necessary for a project with such a short turnaround time, but as I thought about how we were going to explain the ideas the Narrative Design team had come up with I realized it would really make things easier to just create a GDD. This would allow our team to have a common written foundation to review before we started our second sprint meeting, and would also help keep our ideas aligned during development, not to mention it seemed like a great opportunity to practice a really important skill.
As predicted the Game Design Document was vital in setting the stage for success with our first team meeting on Saturday. After we met to discuss the design plans it was a huge workday for the programmers, level designers, and artists. They worked so hard getting assets ready and working out exactly how to technically bring the narrative vision to life.
Sunday morning we realized exactly how much work we really had left to do to get the game to a playable state. Everyone worked over time and then some to get all the pieces completed! Late Sunday evening, we realized there were some issues that wouldn’t be able to be resolved before submission so we ended up cutting some planned aspects of the game, and reworking others.
The wee hours of Monday
In true game-jam-fashion, much of the team was up from sundown to sunup battling GitHub frustration, bugs, and the unknown.
At last, in the early hour of Monday morning, after a few more bugs and some compiling and building errors, the game was player ready and successfully submitted! This was a huge win for our little team as most of us were first time jammers, and most of those who jammed before had never finished a game before the deadline. Our game still has some bugs (like having to play in full screen), and quite a few things we want to add and update to really bring our dream to fruition. But it is beautiful and playable as is! Definitely worthy of celebration!
This game jam was a huge personal win for me, my first game jam, my first collaborative game project, and my first time really collaborating on a complex project virtually. I learned so much I could probably make a more detailed post about my takeaways. But here are the 5 big ones!
Visuals are Vital
As someone with some degree of aphantasia, I often underestimate the need for visual models. However, while jamming I learned that they are essential. Many people are visual learners, especially artists, so even super rough and ugly skechers go a long way to explaining ideas of all kinds. Images, no matter how basic, also take less time to read and understand and are thus more efficient. In future jams I will take more time to wireframe and storyboard to help make ideas clearer for the team.
There was a good chunk of time on Saturday when I felt pretty worthless to our team. The programmers were programming, the level designer was designing, and the artists were drawing. I had some suspicions about what I could do, but I worried I might overstep someone else’s role. In hindsight, this is the time that I should have taken to crank out some storyboards, wire frames, and start thinking about sound effects and music which would have put us in a better position time wise on Sunday. Next time I will be prepared!
“Whether you think you can or you can’t, your right.”
This quote from Henry Ford was a favorite of my high school band director and pops into my brain from time to time when I face a challenging situation. During the last sprint of the jam, I realized I was waiting for someone else to create a couple scenes so I could add music and effects. After waiting a bit, I realized I could do it myself and just use place holders for the images that were needed. At first I worried about taking the initiative, would someone think I was stepping on their toes? But after further consideration, I realized that rather than stepping on someone else’s toes I might actually be taking a weight off their shoulders. This reframing also empowered me to take on a few other small projects I knew I could handle.
The value of experience
I am an experiential learner so the game jam was a really great opportunity for me to understand how game design and development projects really play out. It also allowed me to see how different roles interact and overlap. Having worked on my own game during IGA Levels courses I knew how games come to be, and having managed projects and productions before I had some basic understandings of how to manage them, but seeing a team bring a game together really helped me understand the specifics and flows of game design and what each role needs to be able to do their part. I was so lucky to have such an amazing first game jam team that really allowed me to see the big picture.
Trust the artists.
I am not going to lie, I was not at all sold on the color palettes the artists presented for our game. But, the rest of the team was so excited so I went with it. I am so glad I did! The game came out beautifully and the colors took me back to my childhood and the joyful land of 1990s Polly Pocket. So my takeaway is, trust the artists, they know what they are doing!
That’s a wrap!
As you can see, game jams are amazing, practical, and fun! If you are an aspiring Game Designer, do wait to join a jam, hop on over to Itch and find one and start jamming!