An Indie Developer's Rantings

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Preparing for The Global Game Jam

The Global Game Jam is a wonderful thing. It is an event where game developers the world over come together over the course of a weekend and jam out games based on a challenge. Last year's challenge was "Extinction," which led to some very wacky projects, some very serious projects, and stuff in between. Next year, it takes place between January 27 and 29 (make sure to register), but as is tradition we do not yet know the challenge.

Even so, now that we are only 2 months away from the GGJ, now is a good time to start getting ready. While I admit I have only participated in 2/3 Global Game Jam's (I missed 2010's due to flu), here are my Top 10 Tips that I think will be handy to anyone thinking of participating, veteran or not (because people LOVE Top 10 lists).

1. Don't Shoot for the Stars

You are not here to make Skyrim. You're not even here to make Desktop Dungeons. You're here to make the first floor of The Binding of Isaac at best. All game jams are for making prototypes. Do not set out with the goal of making a final product. If you like your project and your team, nothing is stopping you from continuing development afterward, or even setting up a Kickstarter to help fund it. The Global Game Jam makes no claims on copyright or IP ownership of your projects as they stand at the end of the jam. This is awesome, and if you love your team and your project, KEEP GOING WITH IT! Just don't try to make it giant in the course of a weekend. Shoot for 3-5 minutes of playtime, enough for you to grab some footage in FRAPS to make a trailer.

Time's a-wastin'!
2. The One Hour Rule
The biggest trap any team can fall into at any Game Jam is to spend more than an hour coming up with what game to make. Keep in mind, you have 48 hours to make a game, and your space may not be open for more than 8-10 hours a day. This means you will most likely not be working on the game for the entire weekend (unless your team's like "Let's all go to Steve's place and keep working!") and you must use your time as efficiently as possible. The best way to do this is to get right to work and iterate your project as you go along, adapt it to what you are and are not able to achieve. Therefore, I like to spend no more than the first hour after the keynote coming up with the game's concept. Last year I worked out my friend Sam's apartment (which coincidentally at the time we referred to as our company's "Office") and so we were able to concept our game over a couple beers, laughter, our own white board, and general goofiness (the result of which can be played here). By the end of the jam we had actually made a complete game. Yes it is short, but it works, and that is a lot more than can be said about a lot of projects. Which brings me to my next point:

3. Be Prepared to Fail

Two days is a really short amount of time to make a game, and you can't always predict what will happen. Maybe your concept was too big for you to achieve, maybe nobody on your team actually showed up after the first day, or maybe, just maybe, your final product sucks. It's okay, they can't all be Gnilley. Failure is a part of life, and it is something you have to accept as a part of any Game Jam. When you do fail (and you will) take note of why you failed and use that as a lesson for your future as a game developer.

Remember this thing? Remember how they said this was what was making America fat? Yeah, that's a lie. We were all skinny when we were following it. Just sayin'.
4. Eat

Caffeine on an empty stomach is useless. If your project has a producer, make sure to send them out to get food for the team. DO NOT make them pay for it themselves. When you have no funding, you go Dutch. Make sure there is a good mix of food with enough real nutrients to keep your team going. Calories and sugar are nice and all, but what you really want is Vitamins, Protein, and good Carbohydrates; in other words REAL FOOD! My first Global Game Jam, we subsisted on nothing but Krispy Kreme donuts. We all felt sick, our productivity declined, we got into fights... it was a nightmare. At last year's Global Game Jam, we ordered Chinese. Our productivity was 10x better because we were able to think straight. Some other food choices I would highly recommend for game jamming are pizza (obviously), hoagies (or submarine sandwiches, depending on your colloquialisms), salads, burgers, cereal... whatever keeps you going.

Two Homers in one blog post? Why not!
5. Sleep

You may be tempted to pull all-nighters for the entire weekend. However, if you schedule your project's development properly, you won't have to. A good night's sleep, even if it's 5 hours instead of 8, will do wonders for your productivity. Before you know it, your game will not only be done but it will look sharp too. You may even have time for polish! So get some sleep every night of the jam, in a BED, not at your desk.

6. Bathe

For the love of Jehova, you're going 48 hours working in close quarters with up to 20 other people. They WILL be able to smell you. Do them a favor and don't stink.

Please be more up to date than this.
7. Bring Your Own Laptop
The space at which you will be working for the GGJ working will probably be a school and yes they probably will have some server space reserved for you. This does not mean, however, that they will have all the software you are accustomed to using. For instance, I recently started using Silo3D as my main 3D modeling toolset, and to be fair it is not as mainstream as Max, Maya, or even Blender. If you are a programmer accustomed to an engine other than Flash or Unreal 2.x (3+ if you're lucky) then there is no guarantee the school at which you are working will have what you know (though luckily the tendency for schools to have Unity installed has greatly increased since I was in college). Save yourself the risk and the downtime by bringing your own equipment. You should be able to request access to your host-site's GGJ server space.

As they say, knowing is half the battle.

8. Work With What You Know
The Global Game Jam is a learning experience, but it is not the time for you to claim you are a programmer and then start learning C++. At the start of the Jam, you will have a chance to tell everyone at your location what your skills are. Be honest, and find a team that needs your unique skillset. If you are an artist, tell everyone whether you work in 2D, 3D, characters, props, environments, etc. If you are a programmer, tell everyone what languages you know and with what engines you are familiar. If you work in sound, tell everyone if you focus on music or effects, if you brought your own equipment (including instruments), and what audio programs you use.

Great work, team!
9. Make Games People Can Play
(This one's going to be controversial, mainly because there are way too many different programming languages, but what I want you to take away from this is keep what you do as simple as possible for the user.) I have seen many, many projects fall into this trap. Even though we live in the era of pluginless, all-inclusive HTML5, many developers at Game Jams get it through their skulls that it would be a good idea to require users to install alien frameworks to have their games run. This goes for pretty much anything beyond Flash, Unity Web Player (its inclusion with Google Chrome makes it an exception), DirectX, Java, and possibly a few others. Making users install things like iPhone or Android emulators because you couldn't build the whole app, various PDK's, or Kinect Hacks is probably a bad idea. Even Silverlight falls under this "avoid" category. Do not scare away your players by requiring them to download all sorts of frameworks just to have your game run. You will be competing with thousands of other games, and if you intimidate a user from playing yours immediately, they'll move onto the next one.

Too cute to resist!
10. Have Fun!
Games are fun and making games is fun. Do not waste time arguing with your team. If no one can come to an agreement on a feature, either try both or try neither. In the end you will have a stronger game if you work in a team that cooperates. Keep yourselves fed, get some sleep, take a shower, don't frustrate yourself or your playerbase, don't argue, be ready to fail, hope to succeed, bring your own equipment, and be honest with yourself and your teammates. In the end, you will have a much more positive experience for remaining positive during the weekend.

If you haven't registered for the Global Game Jam yet, you can do so here. If your local site is booked up, send someone from it an email to see if they can squeeze you in or if you can at least have access to the keynote, challenge info, and any upload info you may need so you can host your game at the end. You can also be generous and open your own jamming site for people to work, but contact the GGJ organizers to find out how you can do this (I don't think the requirements are steep, you certainly don't owe them money for doing so, but there are a few guidelines).

Can't wait to see what you all come up with! See you in January.


  1. > Unity Web Player (its inclusion with Google Chrome makes it an exception)

    Unless something crazy happened while I wasn't looking, Unity Web Player isn't included with Chrome (or any major browser).

  2. Well it's not that it's included so much as that it runs server-side, so you technically don't have to install it, which takes much tedium away on the end of the user. Guess I should have clarified that more, but I wanted to keep the post as simple as possible and not go too deeply into technical details.