Planning and managing your incubator/jam project

June 9, 2013

This article was originally posted to aid Junicorn participants in the weeks leading up to July 2013’s long program, but is applicable to any game project with extremely tight deadlines!

Game Jam +

Junicorn is a lot like a game jam: Your goal is to create a small, complete game (or “sketch”) in a short period of time. However, unlike most jam participants, you likely have not made a game before. In addition to the challenge of the time constraint, you are learning new technical, creative, and process management skills.

It’s a lot to cram into a month, but completely possible with a little planning, and constant evaluation of your goals and progress.

Because your timeline is so compressed, the key is to create something small and polished—however you define that for yourself!

So as you start to move into production this week, be sure to manage your own expectations—there will be bugs. It won’t be perfect. But you will have a little game by the end!

Pre-Production

This is what you’re going to do for the next few days to prepare yourself to start actually working on your game. Even if you’ve already started digging in, 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 and game projects. Graph paper works really well for grid-based games. But how you sketch is up to you! You can draw on paper or:

  • Sketch on a white board — lots of space, easy to erase (there’s a big one upstairs at Bento Miso!)
  • Outline the flow and major scenes (OmniOutliner is great but any text editor will do)
  • Create a visual flow diagram (OmniGraffle, Balsamiq, MindMeister)

Different ways to sketch out your game.

However you do it, 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—the full scope—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.

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.

Also be sure to draw and note everything the player interacts with. Unless your game is very experiential and reliant on atmospheric elements rather than traditional gameplay mechanics, background and purely aesthetic elements can be left to the end. Use quick representative graphics and notes as placeholders while you get things working.

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, interactive narrative.

Understanding the primary mechanics and conceits of 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. It might look daunting, but lot of what you come up with might turn out to be unnecessary (you also might miss a few things, but it’s okay to figure that out later!)

  • Art/Design Assets
    • Character art/sprites
    • Background art
    • Tile set or “furniture”
    • Title/Win/Game Over screen design
    • Fonts
    • Indicators (lives, health, score, progress, etc.)
  • Music and Sound
    • Background music
    • Sound effects
    • Voice acting
  • Design
    • Level design
    • Screen layout
    • Instructions/tutorial
    • Narrative and text
  • Functionality
    Understand your dream scope so you can pare down to the core game elements.
    • Character movement
    • Character actions (throwing, jumping, talking)
    • Score counting/score display
    • Level/screen transitions
    • Item collection
    • Option selection
    • 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 an example “big list” and some supporting notes for creating assets:

An asset list in progress.

Research

If you haven’t already, do some broad research about the central theme of your game. Know what media exists—books, movies, podcasts, articles, historical anecdotes, etc.—that give you an overview of your subject matter.

Next, conduct some targeted research, and compile a “swipe file.” This can be a physical folder, Tumblr, Pinterest, or folders on your hard drive—whatever works best for you. It could be images torn out from magazines, screenshots from other games, scenes from movies, typefaces, music, colours, stories, and images from a Google search. (For more about observation and research, check out slides Rachel Kahn’s Learning Creativity workshop)

Once you’ve compiled your references, write a short paragraph about how your world works. This is your Narrative, and brings together the context, structure, and surface details about your game as a simplified conceptual framework that you can reference while you work.

Work Efficiently

Remember the two tips your teacher gave you when you sat down with those awful bubble-filled forms with your No. 2 pencil? They’re perfectly applicable here.

  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—or more time-intensive but fun—things!
  2. Stuck? MOVE ON! With two weekly 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 Junicorn is to provide a focused group environment for as much continuous support, feedback, and collaboration as you need. You don’t have to work in isolation if you don’t want to—everyone wants to see you finish your game.

Production

We won’t give you any specific details on how to manage your project over the next four weeks. You probably have tools and processes you use in your work—exploit the systems that work for you!

However, we will give you a way to frame the work you are doing.

Things that will keep you focused:

Choose the tool that feels best

  • Focus on making a game, not mastering a language or tool!
  • Don’t switch tools midstream unless you REALLY must.
  • Don’t spend too much time pondering your game engine. Select one that is suited for your genre—you’ll get the help you need.

Remind yourself of your goals every day

  • Don’t get hung up on details (it’s easy to sink a lot of time into the “fun stuff” but refinement needs to come at the end).
  • 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!
  • Write down your goal and stick it on your monitor or fridge. Set up a recurring reminder in your calendar. This is your mantra. You’re allowed to stray, but you should know that’s what’s happening!

Finish this co-op tandem bicycle-racing civic-engagement game by July 10.

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 cohort—and the DMG community—is here to support you and help you realize your goal, whatever that might be.