Eimear Studios Game Jam Guide

Game Jam Guide: How to Succeed at a Game Jam

A game jam guide is an essential tool to surviving a game jam. But wait, what is a game jam?

Game Jams are a great place for game developers to try new techniques, update new developer skills, or just experiment with a unique video game asset. Typically, a game jam has a start and end date of a few days. Whether it’s digital or in person, you have a limited amount of time to develop an alpha build of a game. Most game jams are about 72 hours, or 3 days so that they can be held over a weekend. This allows people with jobs and school to be able to participate.

Once the jam is over, you get to present your project to the other game jammers. It’s a lot of fun to attend a jam. You get to meet new people, hang out and talk dev to like-minded individuals, and hopefully, learn something new about game development. However, 72 hours is not a lot of time to take an idea and make it into a functional game.

Before you start the game jam, getting a game jam guide together is super helpful to keep you and your team on track and ready to present at the end.

Game Jam Guide Key Points

key points game jam guide

Truly, a game jam is just a super-fast version of a traditional game development cycle. However, the limited time restraints can be overwhelming. So, here are the key points, with descriptions below.

  • Daily Schedule
  • Pre-Production
  • Prototyping Your Game
  • Alpha Phase
  • Beta Phase
  • Polish and QA
  • Publish and Present

Daily Schedule

game jam schedule

Keeping a schedule is important. You want to be able to set a time for when you should have portions of your game completed. These benchmarks will help you and your team stay on track. Here is an example of a schedule for a 72-hour game jam.

  • Day 1
    • 6 pm – 7 pm registration/check-in and dinner
    • 7 pm – 7:30 pm keynote/opening speech about the jam
    • 7:30 pm start jamming!
      • Pre-Production
      • Prototype
    • it is suggested to get at least 6 hours of sleep
  • Day 2
    • 6 am – 1 pm Finish Prototype
    • 8:30 am – 9:30 am breakfast
    • 12 pm – 1 pm lunch
    • 1 pm – 7 pm Alpha
    • 1 pm – 2 pm team pics
      • some in-person jams like to have pics of each team
    • 2 pm available tester
      • many game jams will provide people to help you test your game out
    • 6 pm – 7 pm dinner
    • 7 pm Beta
    • the suggested 6 hours of sleep
  • Day 3
    • 6 am – 10 am Finish Beta
    • 8:30 am – 9:30 am breakfast
    • 10 am – 2 pm Polish & Final QA
    • 12 pm – 1 pm lunch
    • 2 pm – 3 pm submit your games
      • this is where you will publish your game and upload the playable copy to the game jam’s server space
    • 3 pm – 5 pm present games
      • the game presentation is typically for in-person game jams
      • some online game jams will present using Zoom or other presentation services
    • 4 pm – 5 pm wrap up
      • this is where you say goodbye and hope you’ve made some new friends and networks

Pre-Production

game pre-production

  • Pipeline
  • Concept Brainstorm
  • Pick a Concept

Pipeline

The game development pipeline is where you and your team will discuss your goals for the game. Figure out what type of mechanic you would like to implement for the player to use in your game, and give yourself a few restrictions. Global Game Jam always sets a list of these to help jammers with this process. Many game jams will also have a theme for the jam, such as ‘end of the world’ or ‘trapped’.

Check out Global Game Jam’s lists and themes from their game jams!

Concept Brainstorm

Once you and your team have made a list of things you’d like to include in your game, minimize it and narrow it down. Focus on what your goal is for creating this game. Remember, you have a minimum time to accomplish your goals, so to go too big.

Pick a Concept

You should now have an idea of what you want your game to be. You and your team should be able to start getting some concepts drawn out for the puzzle, mechanic, or code you’re focusing on for this jam.

Prototyping Your Game

game prototype

  • Find the Fun
  • Fail Faster
  • Get to First Playable Build

Find the Fun

So, what’s a game if it isn’t fun? As you are implementing your code and playtesting the mechanic, remember that you aren’t just trying to make it work. A game also needs to be fun.

The ‘fun factor’ is what motivates people to play your game. Why is your game fun? Is it the interactive mechanic of using a dance pad to control the player? Or maybe the art style or story is grabbing the player’s attention. Whatever your ‘fun factor’ is, remember to focus on it.

Fail Faster

Remember, this game jam is for fun and to meet new people. You are likely trying out something you’ve never done before, or expanding on your current skills. You are going to fail.

But failure isn’t bad. When you fail at something, it means you have developed a point from which you can learn and not make that mistake again.

Remember when you were a kid and your mom told you not to touch the stove? We know you touch it, and you burned your hand. We are willing to bet you learned not to touch that stove again. So, fail gracefully, learn, and move on.

Get to First Playable Build

By the end of this phase, you should have something playable. Whether you are controlling blocks and rotating them to fit into other blocks, or your character needs to wander around a field to find some flowers, make sure you have something playable.

It’s not finished yet, but this benchmark will keep you motivated.

Alpha Phase

alpha beta game dev

At this point, you may be updating your game and maybe you have time to add a second enemy to the level. You should also be at a point where you can create a playable build for people to test and find bugs. Let people outside of your team play it. Maybe they will find some issue that you missed!

Beta Phase

  • Feature Complete
  • Content Complete

Feature Complete

Your feature is the goal of your game. Have you achieved that goal? Great. Get some more QA testing going and improve on your feature.

Content Complete

Content is the stuff in your game. Are your characters all in the game? Do you have all the flowers, trees, trash cans, and buildings? Great. QA tests the collisions to make sure they are responding properly. Double-check that your character sprite is animating smoothly and properly.

Polish and QA

polish and qa

  • Playtest
  • Fix Bugs
  • Cut Unfinished Features
  • Add Tutorial Where Needed
  • Integrate Final Assets

Playtest

Play your game. But don’t just play your game. Let the time run out at your level to make sure the KO process works properly. Walk into walls on purpose. Try to go backward in the game to see if the enemies are spawning or not spawning as they should. Check your game for bugs. People will find them.

Fix Bugs

Found some bugs? Fix them. Fix the easy ones, if necessary, first. Anything that is a functional bug should be a higher priority than an art bug.

Cut Unfinished Features

Did you try to implement a boss scene but didn’t get it finished? Cut it. The unfinished puzzle that now seems out of place? Cut it. Present your best work for your final.

Add Tutorial Where Needed

Finished your final build and have a few extra minutes? Great! Maybe create a controller pop-up to show the player how to control your character.

Integrate Final Assets

At this point, your game should be close to ready for presentations. Maybe you have one more animation frame to complete, or the color in the game should be adjusted so that it stands out better during gameplay. Get it done if you can.

Publish and Present

Great work! You’re now ready to publish your game to the server and present your game. Each game jam will be a little different in how presentations are presented, but generally, you will play your game and show off the feature to all the other jammers. Everyone will clap and enjoy and now you have some new friends! Woot!

Want a Game Jam Guide PDF to take with you? Subscribe to our newsletter for a copy!

Extra Tips for Game Jam Guide

  • Audio is Important
  • Use Style and Charm
  • Sleep is for the Strong!
  • Code Smart
  • Playtest Early and Often
  • Feature Creep
  • Brainstorming Prototype Tools
  • Infinite Brainstorming
  • Beware of the Rabbit Hole
  • Innovate on 1 Thing
  • Embrace Constraints
  • Come Prepared!

Audio is Important

Audio can be a very important feature for video games. Whether you want it to be memorable (we all know the MarioBros. World 1 Level 1 song) or maybe it is used to alert the player of danger (Metal Gear). Here are a few ideas to use audio with:

  • Let the player know an enemy is near.
  • Play a KO noise.
  • Let the player know a power-up is active, like invincibility.
  • Background and scene music is always nice to set an emotion for the level.

Use Style and Charm

Style and charm are used in most indie games. Super Meat Boy has the quirky hero and is saving his girlfriend while World of Goo uses simple shapes to basically play a physics version of connecting the dots. Here are some ideas to help you get your mojo going.

  • Create some crayon sketch graphics for a kid’s game.
  • Instead of realism, try some Van Gogh art style.
  • Make your game black and white for a dramatic feel.
  • Use ASCII for art assets.

Sleep is for the Strong!

Ever pulled a straight 72 hours with no sleep? You feel woozy and your thoughts are slow. Just because you’re awake, doesn’t mean you’re getting things done faster.

  • Your brain needs rest in order to function properly.
  • Lack of sleep will slow you down.
  • Bring a pillow, sleeping bag, air mattress, or whatever else will help you get some rest.
  • Eimear Studios suggests at least 5 – 6 hours of sleep each night, during the game jam.

Code Smart

Coding smart doesn’t mean you need to know everything before you code. It means knowing how to manage your time while you are coding.

  • Keep your teams’ and your priorities up to date with Trello or Google Docs.
  • Code the simple stuff first. Simple means, the stuff you know. Try the new stuff, last.
  • If something takes too long, cut it or try a new approach.

Playtest Early and Often

Make sure to check that your game is functioning how it is supposed to, as you go along. You don’t want to be at the final hour of production and find out that your game isn’t working and has several issues that need fixing.

  • Find bugs and fix them as you go.
  • Make sure to keep the fun factor.
  • Make sure mechanics are working how you intend them to.

Feature Creep

Making a game is exciting, and sometimes you will want to do more than you can actually handle. Keep these in mind while you work:

  • Can it be done quick and dirty?
  • Is it core to your game?
  • If yes, do it, maybe.
  • If no, cut it.

Brainstorming Prototype Tools

Brainstorming can be easily narrowed down if you can take it from your brain and see it. Visualizing what you are trying to do can also help guide your team to understand what you are thinking. Here are a few ideas for tools for you:

  • Pen and paper
  • Hierarchy trees
  • Start simple! Some of the best games out there are based on simple concepts from game jams!

Infinite Brainstorming

Don’t get stuck on taking too much time coming up with ideas. Figure out what you and your team like, then narrow it down from there.

  • Don’t get too complicated
  • Keep it simple

Beware of the Rabbit Hole

Don’t spend hours trying to solve something. You don’t have hours to figure it out. Ask for help!

  • Stuck on something? There are plenty of people there to ask for help.
  • You can always do a Google search.
  • Don’t spend hours on something that should take you a few minutes. Time is of the essence.

Innovate on 1 Thing

Remember, you have a limited time to get your concept playable. Focus on one innovation. If it works out and you love it by the end of the jam, continue making the game and ad some new innovations.

  • Platform or console (Kinect, eye-tracker, latest console, classic console, etc)
  • Controller (Dance pad, eye-tracker, brainwaves, VR, etc)
  • Cool mechanic (follow-the-leader, puzzle system, turn-based real-time battle system, etc.)
  • SDK or Game Engine (Unity, Unreal Engine, GoDot, GameMaker, Lumberyard, etc.)

Embrace Constraints

Constraints are not there to hold you back. They are there to help you think of a new way to accomplish a goal. Take the Xbox Adaptive controller for handicapped players, for instance. It allows people who would not be able to hold a regular controller and play games, to give them ways to play games and not feel left out.

  • Constraints help your brain think of new ideas to solve a problem
  • Constraints can be a theme, an input device, the player audience, tools you use, purpose, time-based, and more.

Come Prepared!

This is probably the most important tip for game jamming. You don’t want to start the jam, then realize you have a 3 hour Windows update or your game engine is out of date, or you left your game controller at home!

  • Make sure you have the hardware you need, including how you intend others to play your game
  • Wacom Tablet, your computer, game controller, audio tools, etc.
  • Food and snacks if you need them
  • SDK, graphics software, etc. should all be up to date, or the version you plan to use before you start the game jam.

Attending Game Jams

There are lots of game jams for everyone to attend. For those of you gamedevs who can’t attend an in-person game jam, there are remote game jams, too! Check out some of Eimear Studios‘ favorite game jams below!

List of Popular Game Jams

Those are just Eimear Studios’ top-three game jams, however, there are tons of them going on all the time. Check out Indie Game Jams for a calendar of all the game jams you could ever want to attend!

Any more Tips for the Game Jam Guide?

We hope our game jam guide helps you out at your next game jam. Do you have a tip you think we should include? Tell us in the comments below!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *