What is a Game Jam?

Hello! I’m Jack Z., an independent game developer in Atlanta. I visited Start Code as a guest speaker recently and showed the students the basics of Game Maker:Studio. I’ll also be running the upcoming Game Maker Lab. The class will cover the fundamentals of game programming and give students the chance to work on both game design and coding. During my visit I showed the students what I was working on at the time--a game I'd spent only a few days on called Key Geist. I mentioned that it was part of a “game jam” which sparked some interest among the crowd. 

So what is a game jam? It's an event best compared to its musical counterpart, a “jam session”. In both cases, jams serve as an opportunity for creators to get together and refine their skills, try something new, and bounce ideas off each other. In the end, it's not about the final product (which is usually something completely unique) but the experience and growth of the artists involved. Both developers and musicians can make their art at any time. They choose jams to make art with others like them and to share in the creative experience.

Most jams have a theme, which is a huge benefit to the design process. A theme helps points your thinking. It is a lot easier to “come up with a game idea about _____” instead of just “come up with a game idea."

If you are really passionate about game development and want to refine your craft, a game jam is perfect for you. Here are 6 tips I’ve learned from five years of jamming:

  • You don’t need a perfect idea. It may be fun to put your own twist on the theme or create a whole new genre, but you will most likely be spending way more time than you need just thinking if you try for "perfection." What’s important is that you make something that you want to make. Don’t worry about it so much.
     
  • Scope low--and I mean really low. “Scope” refers to the size  of your project. Most games take thousands of man-hours to realize. You have much, much, less time. Game development always takes longer than you think. What you are aiming to make here is an amuse-bouche of a game--a taste. You want to make something only big enough to get your idea across. When you come up with an idea, it is probably in your best interest to try to cut its complexity in half. You can always add more to it later. Think: “what's the most important or interesting mechanic?”
     
  • Focus on gameplay first. It may be tempting to start out writing a story, drawing some art, or making levels for your game, but since this is a game jam (and the clock is ticking), you should prioritize on the things you have to do to make it function first. Even if you are making something simple like a choose-your-own-adventure story, the “adventure-choosing” program needs to work!
     
  • Have gameplay done at least halfway through the jam. This again comes down to “scope low." You may be faced with consequences of over-scoping and its important to deal with them quickly. If you aren’t happy with your gameplay’s current state halfway through the jam, then you need to start making changes. What kind of changes? Cut features. Rework mechanics. If it’s beyond saving, you may even need to start over. Which brings us to my next tip...
     
  • Don’t be afraid of failure. By participating in a game jam you are practicing game development. By practicing, you are becoming a better game developer. That’s your true prize. Even if you are unhappy with what you’ve made or how you made it, you’ve learned a lesson on what not to do, and hopefully how to avoid it next time.
     
  • Sleep. This one may be a bit more personal. You may be under a time limit and you may feel the pressure to stay up and work as hard as you can, but there comes a point where your quality of work plummets while exhausted. Take a nap, for goodness sakes! Even just an hour can work wonders that no coffee or energy drink can equal.


I hope that sells you on game jams. Game jams are both a great design exercise as well as a fun event with other developers. If you are interested in participating, a great place to start is Ludum Dare, or Global game jam. There are lots of other smaller jams. If you have a favorite type of game, there is probably a jam based around it. Making fun things should be fun itself!