Friday, 4 October 2013

The Importance of Game Jams

On Wednesday morning, I presented a 20 minute session to a room of fellow students on the importance of Game Jam events and why more people should in fact be doing them.

For all those who missed my presentation session I will be briefly going over what I talked about in this post:
Why are they important?

Learning: You'll be surprised at how much you can learn in a short time frame, in fact I have probably learnt more about making games in 48 hours than I have when working on a game for a couple of months. This might have something to do with the short time frame or condensed hours all merged into one blurry sleepy experience. I see every game as a stepping stone to the next game. You'll learn something new after each and every game jam and with that is one step close to potentially making some thing that people will enjoy.

Passion: Telling employers at an interview that you've participated in a game jam is always a bonus. It tells them that you're clearly passionate, that you're willing to make games in your spare time and that you've done more than what was asked of you for your university modules. If you like the idea of working for a company or games studio then there's nothing that shows your passion for making games better than game jams. It gets your face out in the world and gives you something to talk about. The more events you attend, developing games will become natural to you. For me, my passion for making games grew the more game jams I entered. It's given me experience and knowledge that justifies my passion when talking to other developers.

Networking: Jams for me are the best place to build up my networks, not only with people who work in industry but with other students to share/compare projects or even to find someone to work with. It is the ultimate place to get your work seen by industry folk, often companies sponsor game jams and give prizes out to promote their company, they often come to these events looking for talent and people to hire. If you're good enough and you're passionate you might even end up with an interview or even work. If not, they will be more than happy to look at your portfolio or CV and give advice from experience. Bottom line is, if you're looking for work in the games industry game jams are possibly the best way of finding it.

Industry encourages it: If you want to prepare yourself for the games industry with pressure filled deadlines and crunch times, then games jams are good practice for giving a taste for how the industry runs. Also certain companies even hold in house game jam events to their staff when pitching or coming up with a new game idea to develop.

Communication: It's so important to talk about you games, and to learn how to communicate your ideas. Game jams are a good work out for your game design brain. Making games uses your whole brain, chances are you're lacking in some area, so working and communicating ideas with others is important.

Advice & Tips

Aim Low: All of these tips are mainly aimed at first timers or those who are new to game development, so they go with out saying. There's nothing wrong with aiming low, in fact I think there's no such thing as aiming too low because you can always add little details and tweak gameplay afterwards. The best games I have made at jams have usually been the most simplistic idea, it gives you room to really polish what you have. It's also important to remember that you're not a big company with thousands of people and you may only have 48 hours! So it is crucial that you work with your limitations. Limitations are great, they can sometimes make for more unique or interesting ideas or mechanics and there's nothing wrong with that, less is more!

Priorities: This is SO important! Try to get something playable or the core mechanic of your game idea coded in FIRST. The sooner you have something playable, the sooner you can begin getting people to play test your game and then the sooner you do that you can iterate and make tweaks. Don't worry about the credits, the main menu, or pre-loader, these aren't relevant to the game experience, you can always add these things when the jam is over.

I've known people to build 'game templates' prior to jams which include a preloader, main menu including buttons with sound options in and a game screen all blank and with placeholder art. There's nothing wrong with doing this if you already know how to add these things into a game why waste time adding them in at the last minute for a game jam. Prioritizing what is the most important thing to work on at the time is cruicial for a successful jam game. it is always a difficult one and I still get it wrong from time to time. I've wasted time doing custom character outfit menus and selection screens at jams where I should have been designing unique mechanics for more variations of enemy unit types to mix up gameplay and add variety to the overall player experience, it always shows in the game when priorities have been ordered wrongly.

Will players 'get it'? Once you have your game functioning a little, with perhaps some basic controls or mechanisms. It is best from relatively early on to close your game, re open(compile), step back and pretend you're a completely new player who has never seen this game before. Consider what they would do. Where are their eyes drawn to on the screen? Think about the controls of your game, what inputs need to be made? Could you change your controls to make it easier? Are the controls too complicated or difficult for players?

Think about how you can teach players how to play your game. Interactive tutorials are more enjoyable and sophisticated way to teach players but longer to implement as opposed to help pages. If you use any text, think about where it's placed, consider typography. Remember, less is more. What would work well in your game?  Make the first level near impossible to die, teach players by slowly introducing mechanics, ramp up the difficulty. Try to get a good balance between easy and difficult, you as a designer will be naturally good at your game because you made it, make sure you account for this when designing the first level.

Postmortem your work: After every game jam you do, try to postmortem your work. When you're physically writing something down it helps you to further understand the process. Talk about what's good and bad about your game, consider what players like and didn't like about your game. Think about how you could improve it or what you'd do differently next time from a design perspective only. Try to avoid talking saying things like 'I wish I didn't drink so much on the first night of the jam', think about the game and the direction you could take it.

Feedback: Feedback is a natural part of making games and it's crucial if you care about making something which can be enjoyed by a lot of people. Of course, not everyone is going to like what you do and sometimes people may actually be offended which isn't a bad thing. I think if you can trigger a passionate negative response from someone then you have the potential to trigger a passionate positive response from someone. It's always good to ask people questions when reading feedback. It's good to be humble about your work and really look at it for what it is, be open to suggestions there are many ways of approaching game design and the way that you may have approached it might not be the best. Ask people what they like/didn't like and why.

Competitions & Upcoming Events

- Global Games Jam
- Ludum Dare
- Indie Speed Run
- Game Hack
- The Walking Dead Games Jam
- TIGjam

A lot of people ask me how do you find these programmers to work with (I'm an Artist/Designer) for all these different game jams. The answer is, just go to these events and you will meet programmers or artists or designers who are looking for someone to team up with.
You can download the PowerPoint presentation of the session here: link

Thanks for reading, hopefully someone will get something useful out of this post.

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