The Global Game Jam, and why game developers should participate

By Chris Walden, Editor at Microsoft.

It has been almost two years since I graduated from Staffordshire University, having finally completed a Master’s degree in Video Game Design. During my time there, the uni became an official venue for the Global Game Jam, an event which throws you into small teams with the aim of making a video game in only 48 hours.

While commercial video games can take years to create, the jam challenges you to improve your skills, meet new people and make something weird and crazy. There is no judging, and it is fully expected that 50% 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.

Hoping that my knowledge of game design and technical skills hadn’t since left me, I decided to attend this year’s Global Game Jam. In some ways it was just to meet up with old classmates, but on the other hand, I was genuinely curious to know how I would fare by jumping straight back in. Game jams and hackathons are great for catering to most skill levels, so if you have a vague knowledge on a subject and want to learn more, there’s no better opportunity. Organisers will also try and construct balanced teams based on what skills you have, so stepping on toes is kept to an absolute minimum. However, this time I was joining a pre-made team of friends and fellow alumni, so I had to keep up appearances!

After a battle with trains, delays and forgotten railcards, the four members of our team were in Stafford and ready to get jamming. However, things were a little bit different to how they were back in 2010, when perhaps 50 of us were being organised into teams. This year, Staffordshire University was the biggest jam site in all of Europe, with almost 300 people registered to participate. That’s a lot of games! Following the tradition set by previous events, we crowded into lecture theatres to watch this years’ keynote, featuring short talks introductions and thoughts from Richard Lemarchand, Kaho Abe and Jenova Chen, three prominent figures in game design.

The brief moment when the organisers are revealing the theme for the jam is perhaps one of the most exciting points during the whole weekend. The theme is key to the jam itself, as each team will be building around their own interpretation of it. For example, the theme 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’. It would be impossible to list each and every way it was interpreted, but this is the beauty of the Global Game Jam theme. Keep to the theme, but also think outside the box.

The theme for 2014 was “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are”. It was noticeably more abstract than the themes that predate it, but it also meant that all of the games being made were noticeably different from each other. For those of us there to create something a little experimental, it was perfect. Once we’d wrapped our heads around it, at least.

With the keynote over, the jam begun. Before any work was started, the four of us in team Very Scary Scenario had to come up with an idea. With this project consuming our whole weekend, we were very cautious and made sure to consider all aspects of our plan, before we started making anything. What’s the story? What are the players doing? What’s the point? Our discussion lasted for a few hours before getting stuck in, but some teams were discussing longer than this. 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. We were more than happy with the final iteration of our idea (and believe me, we’d gone through many), so we were ready to begin.

It is here that your Game Jam experience will differ, 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, and should be done before you start thinking up ideas. Of course, you could just plan the game first, but it’s best not to waste time talking about making a 3D Unity game if your team doesn’t have a general idea of how to make something like that. However, always remember that this is also a learning experience, and people will try out new coding languages, engines and techniques just for the weekend. If you want to give something a go and have no experience, just let your team know and see how you fare. As the video above points out, it’s completely okay to fail.

After this initial planning period, it was time to get stuck into the development of the game itself. We had two people working on coding our own game engine, and two others working on the dialogue and paths for the game. Having made experimental 3D games in previous Game Jams, we decided to go down an alternate route and write a text adventure. Having a team of four worked well for us, as we could split the two coders up, having one continue coding while the other tested the latest build for bugs, and again with the writers, with one implementing the text into the engine while the other prepared a rough plan for the next section. We were also lucky to be working on a roundtable, meaning we were all face-to-face, discussing the game and able to share laptop screens if needed. Keep the location of your team in mind when you set up your workstations next year!

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 tested thoroughly by your own team, but sometimes you just need a fresh set of eyes see all of the problems. We let other jammers play our current builds at several points across the weekend, and while we’d fixed most of the bugs at this point, it proved helpful to see dummy runs from people who hadn’t worked on the game. As we were doing a text-based game, the text that players were inputting was invaluable. Making sure our game could recognise “I guess” as a valid alternative to “yes” seems like an obvious term to catch, but it’s just one of many additions that we made because of these testing sessions.

Something to remember when you’re reaching the final stretch of the weekend is that it still isn’t a competition. This may seem like a silly point to reiterate, but a lot of Game Jam venues like to have you make a short video of what you’ve made over the weekend, which is a way of showing off the cool things you’ve tried to get everyone’s’ creative juices back in action after the weekend slog. I reiterate this because after all of the junk food, caffeine and a lack of sleep, it may seem like a competitive element, so just have fun with it!

At the end of the weekend, when work on the game has stopped and you’ve uploaded everything to the Global Games Jam website, it’s time to rest. Relax a bit, and keep away from the game. Revisit it in a week or so, playing what you have of it and think about what exactly you want to change, where you’d have made different decisions etc. This is one of the best things that the Global Game Jam has to offer, because you can 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 will play it. Take all criticism on the chin and learn from it, you only had 48 hours to make your game, after all.

But what of our team? It seems our game went down well with the jammers at the event, and we even roped in some of our old lecturers to give it a go. Because of this, we also got an honorary mention from the university Twitter account, and while that doesn’t mean too much in the grand scheme of things, it does give us extra reach. We are also actively tracking how people play the game, keeping a record of the decisions so we can see what people are like, how many people play it seriously, and if people get bored and drop out before the end. It’s all useful feedback that we can use in the future. You can even give it a go yourself! It’ll take about 10 minutes to play until the end, and I think the tone of the game is a pretty accurate representation of feelings after a lack of sleep over the weekend.

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