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A FAQ Guide to Game Jams and Hacks

October 10, 2012

So I’ve been involved with a number of game jams/hacks now (Global Game Jam, Gamify Your PhD, Wellcome Explay Game Jam etc) and am finding that I really enjoy the format. When I first got involved, the idea of giving up my free time to make games was not an attractive prospect. I’d done far too many lates and weekends on game projects to see that as fun. But happily, I was wrong. It’s great fun. Freeing yourself from the more red-tape aspects of a game (important but boring) such as save systems and settings menus means you can just enjoy the creativity and ideas. I’m now a huge proponent of game jamming.

Bristol Wellcome/Explay Game Jam 2012

So what if you’ve never done it and are interested in taking part – here’s a brief FAQ I’ve compiled to help you find out more.

What is a games jam (or hack)?

A Game Jam is a method of rapid prototyping of a video game, going from concept to a working version in anything from a matter of hours to days. This is in contrast to the normal development cycle of a game which runs from weeks to years. Game Jams tend to run around a loose theme. In contrast to full game development, Game Jams tend to ignore many of the wrapper and longer-term functionality aspects of a game (option screen, save systems etc) in favour of a focus on gameplay.

Why are games jam’s so good for development?

Lots of reasons, but key ones are:

  • The mixing of so many people, skills and ideas results in a hybrid form of parallel competition and cooperation. Such methodologies result is a surprisingly low rate of redundancy of ideas, while producing multiple solutions to meet the brief (Kornish & Ulrich, 2010).
  • The focus is on the limitation of time but using older development techniques such as sprites on more powerful modern technology, can often produce creative results.
  • Game Jams are good melting pots for skills. They create a space where non-developers can get involved in the development process.
  • The low risk atmosphere created by the largely volunteer process, in contract to the growing size of mainstream development budgets creates a space where experienced and skilled developers can experiment freely further driving innovation.
  • Games are an inherently interactive medium and many ideas are only fully appreciable once playable. Game Jams result in a huge number of playable ideas, so if the aim was to search for one to take forward, this decision can be judged far more robustly with the playability to hand.

OK, I’m sold – where can I find a games jam?

Search for one online.  There are loads of such events.  See the Global Games Jam or this list of events.  There is no shortage of such events.  If you can’t find one near you – organise your own!

What do I need to know for a jam?

I asked fellow jammers about what they felt was important and this is what I kindly got back from Sam Phippen:

  • Work in a framework and language you know like the back of your hand. Debugging will be faster and your morale will stay high because you’ll be making progress.
  • If you’ve got a dedicated game designer, break your constants that effect gameplay (things like player jump height/gun fire speed) out into a text file ASAP, that way the designer can tweak them to their hearts content and build something that plays well quickly, it doesn’t matter if this doesn’t start complete, you should expect to add to it. Use a merge tool to pull the designer’s changes in with yours if they don’t speak revision control.
  • Use dropbox, most artists don’t understand svn/git and instead of spending the time teaching them, just use a tool they understand that you can easily sync with your revision control system.  Make it automatic sync art from Dropbox into your revision control, if you can do this then every time the artist wants to change the look of something it’ll automatically show up as changed in your RCS, which means you can integrate those changes more quickly. Postits, write down every single task that needs to be done on a post it, and grab one whilst your working on it, have a wall of tasks that you’ve done so you can see what’s done, what’s in progress and what’s left to be done. These stick quite well to the back of a laptop, which is great.
  • Don’t go overkill on the software architecture, you probably don’t need much more than a list of things to update every frame, a list of things to draw every frame and then special cases for any other weird behaviour. Think about your abstractions as you’re going, don’t spend too much time thinking beforehand.

So does that mean you have to be a tech-y person to take part?

Not at all.  Jams use game designers, artist, sound designers.  If you want to make games but never have, they are a good way to get some experience.  There are also street game jams and many jams also allow you create board or card games too.

Tools, Links & Resources:


& a list of game engines.

I will update this list more as I go along…

Games Jammers in Bristol get to work. (photo by Jon Cooper)

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