Managing Your Jam Experience

October 12, 2012

This article was originally posted to aid No Jam-ers in the weeks leading up to November 2012’s jam, but is applicable to any game project with extremely tight deadlines!

A Game in 10 Days

Just a reminder. That’s what you’re getting yourself into here.

No Jam is a mentor-accelerated game jam. You guys have the not-insignificant added challenge of never having made a game before—and an awesome turbo-boost in the form of experienced game designers and developers who’ll be with you every step of the way.

As with any project with a tight deadline, pre-production planning and constant vigilance toward your goal will determine your success. Because your timeline is so compressed, the key is finishing – however you define that for your project.

So as you start to move into production, be sure to manage your own expectations – there will be bugs. It won’t be perfect. But you will complete your game.

Pre-production

This is what you’re going to do between the first weekend of workshops and the jam weekend to prepare yourself to start actually working on your game. Even if you’ve already started working on your game idea, it’s helpful to take a step back and do these things.

Sketch + Scope

Start by drawing. I use a Moleskine storyboard notebook for Web projects and it works really well for planning games, no matter the genre or style. How you sketch is up to you! You can draw in a notebook or:

  • Draw on a white board (flowchart/storyboard hybrid)
  • Write out the flow and major scenes (text – I recommend also interspersing illustrations)
  • Create a flowchart diagram (Visio, OmniGraffle, Balsamiq)

Different ways to sketch out your game.

The purpose of sketching is to make your ideas more concrete. Before you can figure out what you need to do, precisely, you need to wrap your mind around the “big picture” of your game. It also helps you figure out what’s most important to you, so that when you inevitably need to cut something out, you know what you can sacrifice without compromising your vision.

Try to cover the whole game in your sketches – beginning, middle, and end. And challenge yourself to represent gameplay – not just individual elements.

In a group project, storyboarding on a white board is really useful. It gets everyone thinking about the scope of the game. Euphrates is a “screen at a time” type of game with looping events, but this can work for most styles. Even if your text-based game is non-spatial (that is, the primary way the player moves through the game is through time or a story rather than rooms), this exercise can help you map out your content requirements. Christine Love covered this in her workshop on storytelling in games on August 4.

Also be sure to draw and note every object the player interacts with. Background/atmospheric elements (anything non-essential to gameplay) can be left to the end. Your art can be “layered” on raw elements, so rough representations and placeholder images and text can be used while you are working on your mechanics.

Define your game

What kind of game is it? Can you name its genre (or invent/combine genres)? Try to describe your game in one sentence. For example:

Euphrates is a four-player cooperative, turn-based, graphic interactive narrative game.

Understanding the primary mechanics and conceits or your game up front gives you a language and framework to build upon, sets up the parameters for constructing your game world, and helps you figure out what kinds of assets you’ll need. This is not the story of your game, but an objective description (we can add in the fun bits later – you know, set in SPACE!)

  • Is it a puzzle game? You might only require simplistic art, so you might want to spend time refining your colour palette and shapes.
  • Adventure game? It might be heavy on the art and writing. (Or not!)
  • RPG? You’ll be using spreadsheets.
  • Platformer? Your theme/art will be important to set your game apart. Are you going to build in a unique mechanic or theme?

Make a big list of production tasks

It’s critical that you carefully define what you need. Dump it all out on paper – you won’t get everything, and a lot of what you come up with might turn out to be unnecessary.

  • Assets
    • Art
    • Music/sound
    • Player interface elements (menus, instructions, etc.)
    • Text (story, dialogs, alerts)
  • Functionality
    Understand your dream scope so you can pare down to the core game elements.
    • Figure out what you need to do – do you need/want to write any new code? Do you need to integrate elements from sample games? What don’t you know/understand?

Try not to sink too much time into creating assets before you’ve laid a solid foundation – this exercise is just to become aware of what you’re going to need to so you can block off your time accordingly.

Here’s our “big list” for Euphrates and some supporting notes for creating assets:

Our asset list, including everything we could think of for art, music, text.

Research

We figured out late that we hadn’t given our writer a good conceptual framework. A few lines about how your world works really helps! (Rachel touched on this in her workshop about learning creativity – this is how you figure out what fits and makes sense in your game world.) Don’t spend a lot of time on this – a few sentences is sufficient.

We also had a small list of references – this is the “broad research” Rachel talked about. It helped us set the tone when we dove into producing the assets we’d listed. Most of our theme and aesthetic inspirations were movies, but we also referenced games like The Yawgh and Nidhogg.

A game jam is like a standardized test

Remember the two tips your teacher gave you when you sat down with those awful bubble-filled forms with your No. 2 pencil?

  1. Start with the easy stuff. Checking a bunch of stuff off your list is satisfying, and leaves you with lots of time to focus on the harder things!
  2. Stuck? MOVE ON! With two weekly work sessions, and plenty of opportunities to get feedback and help from your mentors, there’s no reason to work yourself into frustration over, say, collision detection. The solution may be just around the corner, but it likely isn’t. So move on to something you can do and reach out for help.

The whole point of No Jam is to provide a focused group environment for as much continuous support, feedback, and collaboration as you need. It’s going to be intense, frustrating, and pretty darn exhilarating — we guarantee it.

Production – it’s jam time

You probably have tools and processes you use in your work or personal life, such as iPhone apps and paper systems – exploit the tools that work for you!

Things that will keep you focused:

  • Focus on making a game, not mastering Game Maker!
  • Don’t tear apart your game mid-jam – keep building!

Remind yourself of your goal constantly

  • Don’t get hung up on details (it’s easy to sink a lot of time into the “fun stuff” but refinement can come later – even after the jam. You’ll have three weeks to polish your work before the showcase in December, but you’ll be demoing a working prototype by Sunday night!
  • Allow yourself time to work on the parts you find most interesting, but block off your time so other aspects don’t suffer. You’ll be happier with the result, I promise!

Define success for yourself

Picture the game you want to finish. That’s what you’re doing. Don’t worry about anyone else – this is YOUR game. Your No Jam cohort – and the DMG community – is here to support you and help you realize your goal, whatever that might be.