5 game jam tips for the ordinary human who wants to have fun

I have a lot of fun doing game jams.

Yet, I keep seeing people who seem to find them exhausting, depressing, overwhelming, dispiriting, or more – both during and after the jam – and I reckon there’s really no reason to.

There’s a lot of advice on jamming already out there – much of which I can’t deny is well reasoned and informed – but which I think focuses mainly on brutal austerity (mentally and in your process) which just doesn’t work for me. It also just doesn’t sound very fun.

So I want to compile my game jam tips; which I think are not only replicable but are also geared towards actually having a good time and trying to be happy with your work.

Wait up… why the hell should I listen to you?

A bold question friend, well I’ve got two answers for you

Number 1 – I am *not* some game-making/jamming superhuman. I’m not Managore (who I’m convinced met the devil at a crossroads at some point in the past), I’m not a professional, I’m self taught, and I’m not especially knowledgeable. My tips are not contingent on you being highly skilled, very experienced, time rich, or blessed with inspiration.

Number 2 – Despite being very a much hobbyist, I produce things that I’m proud of. Me and my collaborators jam without regret and ‘do well’* – and you can too!

(* ‘Do well’ being a very loose categorisation – i.e. a little press coverage, a call out by Mark Brown for his jam, good feedback from Ludem Dare entries).

So here are my tips – and if any of the below points contradict with your experience or your desire… ignore them. It’s just… like… my opinion, man.

1) Get excited (dream big, cut brutal)

The prevailing wisdom for working out what you are going to make in a jam is *generally* summed up as either – “take your idea, cut out everything extraneous and then halve the scope again” and/or “pick one mechanic and focus mercilessly on it”.

Sound advice isn’t it? Yeah… *but*… I find those instructions really hard to follow, and a bit uninspiring.

I don’t know about you, but I am yet to come up with the killer, inventive mechanic which is going to carry my jam game and set mouth’s agape at my genius (particularly when that clock is ticking and I’m acutely aware that I need to actually *do* something). And when I try and pare back my ideas to a perfectly formed and smooth idea skeleton before I’ve even started – they always seem to look a bit… boring?

What I usually end up doing (which I think is a heck of a lot more fun) is to actually try and imagine a big beautiful game in my head – then build outwards in concentric circles (or maybe a spiral?) using an iterative kind of loop.

This has the benefits of both making sure I’ve got a ‘shippable’ jam game of a certain quality, with a taste of all the parts of a final product (gameplay, structure, art, music, etc) and is a heck of a lot more fun when you can keep yourself excited about your project by dreaming about all the places you *could* take it..

Caveat: Do bear in mind that you still need an idea for a *game*. “I’m going to build this world with 23 unique races, each with their own culture and style of cheese-making” is not a game idea. You still need ‘game verbs’ in there somewhere “I’m going to make a game about rolling cheeses across a road (with 23 unique fromage-enthusiast societies)”.

And, when you are running out of time, know when to call it. Those animations you wanted to add? Not happening. That quick in-game tutorial? Nuh-uh, it’s a text screen now. Keep asking – “if there’s only one more thing I could do before we ship it, what do I do?” – then do that till you run out of time!

2) Set your own win condition (and be fair to yourself)

Some jam’s have judging, some don’t. Now, judging can be fun – and as people who make games, I think jammers are particularly susceptible to the siren song of a ‘high score’ (or “winning”).

But… not everyone can *win*, not everyone will *win*. So you need to set your own win condition, and know what you are actually competing for.

By all means keep trying to ‘make an ace jam game and win the plaudits of your peers’, but also consider having some specific, measurable and achievable ‘sub-goals’ for each jam.

So you can get an idea of what I mean (and also maybe see how they build on each other) here’s some examples (in a vague chronological order)…

  • Cleaunup of the Black Lagoon – Make a game that works. Include art, music, ending/title screen.
  • Chameleon Candidate – Make a game without a ‘player character’ (something you move around on screen).
  • Delta – Make something that looks good, make something with a coherent visual design, don’t worry about the length, worry less about the gameplay.
  • Gordon Freeman Rational Man – Get some press, use the talents of my collaborators (artist who is ace at cartoons, musician).

These were all picked for being ‘stretchy’ (i.e. I didn’t know exactly how I was going to pull it off) but also actually possible.

These gradually escalating (or broadening) goals can also be used as a ‘meta-progression’ between jams, tracking your personal development and encouraging you to explore ideas you otherwise wouldn’t. If you make games, you probably play them – so build up your own long term achievement list so you can look back and see how far you’ve come.

3) A bit of polish goes a long way…

Contradiction to conventional wisdom #2 from me here. *Generally* the advice here is to not worry if your prototype looks and sounds as rough as the proverbial bear’s arse – because your wicked fresh mechanic and lycra-tight gameplay will shine through.

Maybe you’re idea communicates itself so well, and is so compelling that you don’t need to gussy it up all nice. But I’ve yet to play the game that wouldn’t be elevated a bit by putting on it’s most elegant strides and getting a bit of a haircut.

It also gets the most out of using the ‘jam experience’ jam to explore the production of a full game in microcosm – going through planning, pre-production, production, polishing, testing and release in the course of a weekend (or less, or more).

But don’t start panicking if you aren’t an amazing artist! I shall now remind you of some dark arts that will elevate your game with minimal effort:

  • Sound effects are magic – Causing the air to be vibrated in a way that matches what is happening on the screen through the careful application of sound effects, is actually causing the player’s actions to have an impact on the physical world. Don’t miss the chance to do this. If you need help – Tomas Pettersson (DrPetter) has made it criminally easy.
  • Music is magic – Slightly more advanced but amazingly effective. Picking the right music can tell a player how they should be feeling without any other kind of indicators. In a jam, you’re not likely to want/need to compose a deep any multilayered symphony – think about your music on the level of emoji. My game is ‘happy/upbeat’, it is ‘intense’ – just give the player a bit of an indicator of the tone you’re trying to create.
  • Title Screens are magic – being chucked into a game face first is quite jarring, have a simple title screen, even just ‘press start’, and add a little bit of art or text – set the player up for what they might see when they hit the button to enter the game.
  • Ending screens are magic – This is especially true in game jams where you probably aren’t nicely rounding off your game with a proper denouement. So let the player know they are done – don’t be coy – otherwise, they are going to quit when they are bored – meaning they are bored when they finish – see how that might be an issue?
  • And for the love of all that is holy – make sure ‘esc’ quits you out of the game. If I have to launch the task manager to stop your game playing, that’s probably going to be the first thing on my mind when I leave your feedback, not something that’s a lot more constructive to help you learn.

4) Don’t put down your work! Not in your head, not in the description

Be kind to yourself – “critical”, yes, be constructive about what you could improve, but don’t put your game down – being cynical is not being sophisticated.

if you put “something bad that I made because I am terrible” in the description – I’m probably not going to bother playing it (although sometimes I will just so I can leave some feedback about something I liked because you can’t tell me what to think maaaaaaan) – but be aware it can take a lot of effort to play through a load of jam games, so please don’t kill my buzz before i’ve even had the chance to form my own opinion. Let me be the judge of whether it is good or not

And also (and this is a tip for life as well as jamming) if someone compliments you, or says ‘well done’ – accept the damn compliment. Don’t say “no, it’s rubbish” because what you are actually saying is ‘you don’t know anything and your opinion doesn’t matter’. Instead say ‘thanks, that means a lot’ maybe even thrown in a ‘I’m improving’ or ‘it’s fairly simple, but I think it has some good ideas’, this shows respect for the person who’s giving the compliment, and it’s just being a good human!

5) Shrug and move on

Whether you do ‘well’, or ‘badly’ (based on either metrics from the jam or your own opinion), it’s time to move on. Learn lessons, work out what you would have done differently, work out what you could do better next time, then move on. Don’t dwell on how you were wronged by those philistines who didn’t recognise the genius of your game. Instead, get excited about something new, stay excited, be kind to yourself, and have fun making games!

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