Game Jams 101

Earlier this year a peer and great friend of mine, Joshua Landman, wrote an awesome blog post on passion projects. I absolutely agree with him in that working on projects outside of class-assigned work is incredibly important as a games student. Not only do personal projects look great to employers, they also provide the opportunity to experiment and develop your skills. But, taking on a long-term passion project is daunting, and there’s many barriers to starting. What do I want to make? Where can I find a team? What skills can I bring to the team? Game jams provide the answer to all of the above.

What is a game jam?

If a long-term passion project is a marathon, game jams are the 100m dash. Game jams are events in which game designers, developers, musicians, and artists work together or alone to develop a game based on a theme in a short span of time. The game jam ecosystem is incredibly diverse, but most jams follow this rough format:

  1. Participants get together either in person or online (depending on the jam), and spend some time getting to know each other.
  2. At a pre-announced time, a theme for the game jam is announced. Games made for the jam should revolve around the theme in some way. Upon announcement of the theme, the jam officially begins.
  3. Participants break out into teams and begin brainstorming ideas. Sometimes participants come in pre-formed teams, or prefer to work alone. However, larger in-person game jams, like Global Game Jam, encourage collaboration and making new friends at the jam.
  4. Participants begin to work on their games. During the brainstorming phase, teams generally work out the strengths and weaknesses of each member, and tailor their roles to match.
  5. The length of a game jam can vary greatly, with some as short as 1 hour, and some as long as a month or more. But generally, jams run the duration of a weekend. As the jam’s deadline draws nearer, teams begin to wrap up their games, and submit them to the jam’s website.
  6. If the jam took place in-person, there will generally be time for teams to show off their game, and get feedback from the rest of the participants. If the jam took place online, there will often be some way for participants to rate and provide feedback on other games. Participants take time playing other games from the jam and provide feedback on them.

Why would anyone want to put themselves through that?

Game jams are generally fast, and pretty high-octane. But, they’re also incredibly fun, great for levelling up your skills, and provide invaluable networking opportunities. The limited time-frame forces participants to work quickly, solve problems quickly, and think outside the box. It’s great having a week to muse over that bug in your game you just can’t quite fix. But, when you’ve got 10 hours to the deadline and you just can’t figure it out, you and your team might have to come up with a creative way to integrate the issue into your game. “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!” is a common expression heard at jam sites.

Jams are also low risk. Participants are able (and encouraged) to break the mold and experiment in terms of design. If your project goes sour, you’ve really only lost a weekend, and you’ve probably at least learned a whole lot of what not to do. Due to this low risk factor, participants may also choose to try something new, like a new game engine, or a whole new specialty, like taking a sound/music role for the first time. Again, if your game doesn’t succeed, you’ve still succeeded in learning more than you can in a weekend anywhere else.

If your game does go well (and it will!), you’ll have a really cool prototype of a design to start with when you start that long-term passion project! Plus, you’ll already have a team that’s just as engaged with and in love with the project as you are. Many incredibly successful commercial games have come out of game jams. Surgeon Simulator, and Johann Sebastian Joust, are just two examples out of hundreds.

Finally, the connections you make at jams will follow you throughout the industry for life. At Global Game Jam, I jammed with somone who ended up a peer and great friend of mine in RIT’s game design program. This year at GDC, I was able to meet up with former teammates, as well as community members of various online game jams who recognized each other by their projects. These meetups opened opportunities for further networking opportunities, and made a massive conference like GDC feel a little smaller and more welcoming.

How do I get involved?

There are many game jams going on all the time. For online jams, the only barrier to entry is signing up on the jam’s website.Ludum Dare is by far the largest online game jam, with thousands of individual developers and teams participating every few months (that’s right, Ludum Dare is a quarterly event)! Websites like itch.io, Game Jolt and Indie Game Jams also provide great aggregation of many of the jams going on at any time.

In-person jams are a little less frequent (although many online jams may have physical meetups during the jam). The largest in-person jam by far is Global Game Jam, which runs yearly in January. This event takes place in physical meetup locations across the world, with all teams working on projects focused around the same theme in the same weekend. Check the GGJ site for a site near you!

The only way to get involved is to get started! So, go register for a jam that sounds appealing to you, clear your weekend, and put together a rad development playlist. Happy jamming!


Note: This is a lightly edited duplicate of a blog post I wrote for the RIT Interactive Games and Media student blog. If you’d like to read the original, you can find it here.