Game jams focus on a time-limited challenge, so it’s important to make the most out of that time. Whether the jam is a month, a week, or a weekend away, you can always take steps to prepare for a jam and save a bit of hassle during the event.
Each jam has its own rules regarding preparation. Most fall under one of three categories:
- Strict: Nothing outside the jam time limit – not even general-purpose code. These jams are “challenges” to create everything from “scratch” within the given time period.
- General Purpose: Usually allow general-purpose code written before the jam and/or freely available (creative commons etc.) assets from the internet.
- Lax: Do whatever you like. Revise a past project, continue an ongoing project, or create something new.
Check the rules page for the jam you’re entering. Those rules override any suggestions here.
Preparing the Build System and General Assets
The most critical parts of a jam are the start and finish. At the beginning – when the jam starts, when you’ve woken up within the time frame, or when you finally have time after work/school/etc. to start developing your game – it’s important to just go. Equally, when the jam deadline approaches, it’s important to just ship (release) the game.
(1) Check your tools and development workflow before the jam begins.
Games are rarely made in a single piece of software. Some exceptions include PICO-8 or RPG/Game Maker (with only internal tools), but even in these cases, you may want to check your design workflow with other programs.
Have your tools ready for:
- Design (and documentation for the design)
- Development (the core system/engine)
- Programming (your IDE / code editor)
- Music and sound (DAW or other tool)
- Art (pixel editor, modeling tool, texture creator, etc.)
Check each piece individually. Make sure each piece of software is up to date if you want to use the cutting edge, and make sure you can export the files you need from the software. Then – and this is the most important piece – make sure all the software works together.
If you have time, build a game with your jam tools. This can be very simple: images moving around the screen with basic input, graphics, and audio. The smallest possible “game” can prove all the tools work together. The few hours you spend on this will help rout out any potential problems, which you can fix now rather than during the jam. That way, you can spend the entire jam time working on the game, not the tools.
(2) Make sure you can build and upload your game.
The end of a jam is the worst time to realize you can’t (or don’t know how to) build or release the game. Avoid this by testing the process beforehand. As with the tools, you can fix problems now instead of during the jam.
Check the jam page to see where you need to upload. If necessary, make sure your account is set up and ready for a new game project. Add information to your profile page, including a bio and links to other social media. That way, if people like your game, they can learn about you as a person and see other things you create, both now and in the future.
If you created a test game in the previous step, make a page for it and upload builds. Ask friends or family to test the downloads and run the game on their own machine. This will verify these final steps work, giving you peace of mind when you release at the end of the jam.
To save even more time, create a game page for your entry before the jam starts. Name it after the jam and leave the rest blank, so at the end all you need to do is upload the game and pretty up the page.
(3) Prepare general-purpose code and gather freely available assets (if the jam allows them).
If the jam has “General Purpose” or “Lax” rules, you can start working on general-purpose code before the jam begins. This gives you a lot more time to write, test, and revise the code before the event begins.
Double-check the jam rules for their definition of “general purpose.” This usually means anything that can be qualified as “engine code” as opposed to “game code.” In other words, work on systems but not on an actual game.
Most jams have a theme that isn’t announced until the start, but you can usually decide ahead of time what genre you want to create. Adventure, platformer, RPG, visual novel, RTS, and many other genres have several general systems you can construct without creating a specific game.
You can also hunt the internet for plugins and code assets that apply to your general vision, or even more general-purpose systems such as menus, message boxes, visual effects, audio management, and more.
Some jams (such as the 8 Bits to Infinity jams) allow the use of pre-made assets freely available from the internet. You don’t know the theme or what game you’re making yet, but you can gather a list of places hosting free assets. A good place to start is the asset list on this website.
Mental and Physical Preparation
Beyond getting technical pieces ready, you also have some “real life” preparation to do before the game jam begins. As suggested in our previous article on what game jams are, the more “normal” your jamming days are – the more similar to your everyday life – the smoother things will go.
(1) Prepare – or at least plan – meals ahead of time.
Cooking can be tons of fun. It’s a creative rush to put ingredients together and find a delectable new combination. But cooking takes a lot of time, with preparation, active cooking, eating, and cleaning up. During a game jam, it’s great to cut out all but one of these steps: eating.
On the theme of staying “normal,” it’s important to avoid a radical change in diet during a jam. Shifting from a balanced diet to a steady intake of pizza and snacks might save you time, but that time save can’t make up for the resulting sluggishness.
If you’re used to having full, balanced meals, try to prepare them ahead of time, or at the very least have everything on hand ready to put together as quickly as possible. You can save a lot of time and effort this way.
(2) Sleep or rest before the jam begins.
A tired dev is an ineffective dev. If you go into the jam lacking rest, you’ll never catch up. Along the theme of keeping things “normal,” it’s also important you don’t oversleep in a misguided attempt to extend your waking hours during the jam. That’s not how it works.
(3) As much as possible, remove any potential distractions or outside responsibilities that could interfere with the jam.
Catch up on your emails. Meet deadlines early, if possible. Hide your phone to avoid distraction. Tell the world you’re doing the jam so they won’t bug you about the latest news and memes (and for additional reasons, as we’ll see next).
Few people have the freedom to block out an entire weekend, let alone an entire week, for a game jam. But most can take steps to maximize the time available for jamming. So, do that.
(4) Let everyone know what you’re doing.
Tell your family, friends, neighbors, random strangers on the street… Actually, no, that could be weird. But tell everyone you know.
This serves two purposes. First, this puts healthy pressure on you to follow through with the game jam. You don’t want to disappoint your friends and family, right?
Second, people will (should) be more understanding if you’re slower to respond to texts or emails, or if you don’t hang around for lengthy social engagements. This can save not only time but also reputation, for whatever that’s worth.
Now that you’re prepared for the jam, do more than sit back and watch the timer count down. Get involved! Usually, a jam community has a Discord server, a forum, or some other way to communicate. Join the conversations. Offer your experience and advice, hear from others, and maybe brainstorm some ideas.
In our next article, we’ll look at techniques to generate ideas once the theme is announced and the jam has properly begun.