Game development is time-consuming, complicated, and messy. The biggest titles involve large teams, gigantic budgets, and an inconceivable number of working hours. It’s an industry fueled by blood, sweat, and tears.
However, thousands of games are created every year by solo developers or small teams on zero budget over a weekend or week. Some of these become full-fledged commercial projects and find success in the market. You may have heard of some: Goat Simulator, Super Hot, Celeste, Hollow Knight, and Surgeon Simulator, to name a few.
How does this happen? Through game jams! These time-limited events challenge participants, whether solo or on a team, to create brand-new games with a theme and/or limitations. Some major global jams include Ludum Dare and Global Game Jam, but anyone can create and host their own jam on sites such as itch.io, where jams range from a dozen entrants to over a thousand.
Game jams encourage creative designs by utilizing a key part of game development: rapid prototyping. Sure, it may take years to create a game, but that core idea – what we call the core mechanic – can be developed in only a few hours.
They also promote community, encouragement, and creativity, and offer a place for new developers to practice game development without dedicating years to a single project. With a community focus, game jams are also a fantastic networking opportunity, allowing developers to meet and team up with fellow creatives.
Concerns and Misconceptions
Many people new to game jams (or to game development) find the idea overwhelming. There are many misconceptions surrounding the events. Let’s look at some of those.
(1) The goal of a game jam is to create a full game in the time limit.
On the contrary: Game jams are about creating a functional prototype. This could demonstrate a new core mechanic or a twist on an old favorite, or even provide a small experience with a targeted emotion or response. Somewhere, corners will be cut. The game might lack polish (in areas like graphics, control, and audio), last only a few minutes, or show only one side of a mechanic rife with possibilities.
Finished games require far more polish than a game jam time limitation will allow. Proper polish often requires outside perspectives, thorough testing, and a bit of reflection time from the creators, all of which add the need for more time.
(2) If my game jam prototype is bad, I wasted my entire weekend/week.
Game jams are a learning opportunity, not a test. Each time you participate in a jam, you learn more about yourself and about game development. Don’t try to “win” or make a “perfect” game. Instead, try to push and improve yourself as a game developer.
Failure is good. Learn from your mistakes and make the next one better. One of the best pieces of advice in game development is to fail faster, and game jams embrace this philosophy.
Not only that, but you’ll have something that you made at the end. Whether it’s the full game or simply pieces like music, art, sound, design, or ideas, you’ve brought a new thing into the world which you can share, shape, and drop into your portfolio. Game jams demonstrate your skills, and this can be vital to landing a job in the industry, especially on the indie side.
(3) Crunch is bad, so I shouldn’t participate in game jams.
This is an unfortunate misconception about game jams. Whether you’re making a game in two days or two years, it’s up to you (or the people in charge, if you’re on a team or part of a company) whether crunch is involved.
Crunch is when you push yourself extra hard by cutting out “down time” – time for sleep, food, relaxing, spending time with family and friends, etc. – to get work done more quickly. This is an awful practice. Sure, it’s important to dedicate as much time as you can to work, but these other parts of life are just as important, and the “recharge” they provide can improve your work.
The time limitation for a jam is not meant to encourage crunch mentality. Rather, it’s to keep the event on a small scale to learn about scoping and improve skills in a short period of time.
Shorter time periods are easier to scope. You can approximate how many hours you’re going to spend on code, art, and audio within a 48-hour period much better than over six months. It’s also easier to move from the small scale to the larger one, generalizing how much you get done in a (non-crunch) 48-hour period and applying it to a six-month period.
When participating in a game jam, no matter the length, take care of yourself. Eat and sleep as you normally would, and use the work hours you have available. There is no need to stay up for 48 hours straight of work, which will hurt the project more than help it. If the jam is a week long, either dedicate a few specific days to the jam, or block out a few hours every day – whatever allows you to work in relative comfort.
(4) A game jam is a waste of time that could be spent on a larger project.
Even if you are working on a larger project, the idea of prototyping – what game jams are all about – still applies. Before embarking on a game that will take six months or longer to develop, you want to make sure the basic idea is good, or at least workable. Prototyping is a great way to do this. Game jams offer an ideal environment for prototyping. You work along with others, meaning everyone can help each other, and in the end you get feedback, which is critical to determining if a prototype will work.
So yes, maybe your end goal is to work on a larger project, but a game jam can help push it along faster on a successful path.
(5) Game jams are hard.
Okay, that one’s accurate. But it’s not just game jams that are hard.
Game development in general is difficult. Many creative and technical skills come together to create a game. Even if you excel at design, programming, audio, and art, there is hard work in the amount of time required. Games are a complex creative product, often tracking back during development and heading in multiple directions at once.
Jams, however, provide an opportunity to practice the needed skills. These experiences can help narrow your focus. Perhaps you want to be involved in games, but only on audio, or art, or programming. The only way to know is by trying.
Even better, you can also practice “invisible” skills involved in game creation, such as scoping, testing, polishing, refinement, branding, publishing, marketing, giving/receiving feedback, and so on.
In our next article, we’ll take a look at how to prepare for a game jam. These tips will get you ready for the most effective use of time and effort during the experience.
Are you looking for a game jam to join? 8 Bits to Infinity hosts a jam every month! You can see our list of jams here. Everyone is welcome to participate, from new developers to seasoned industry pros.
We also have a community Discord server where you can talk to fellow developers and creatives. In addition to game jams, we provide regular challenges for music, art, and writing to sharpen our skills related to game development. You can see past challenges here.