Consume game jams with moderation
Game jams have become increasingly popular within the last few years. I remember I used to search the web for game jams before deciding to make a game. Now I there are constantly a dozen of gamejams to choose from. My one stop shop for gamejams is http://www.indiegamejams.com/, and it’s littered with gamejams from anywhere, of any flavor.
I don’t want to say that there’s anything wrong with that. I actually enjoy doing gamejams, and plan to host my own #awesomemusicjam in December. But now that gamejams have become so abundant, there’s one thing every game developer needs to watch out for: Gamejam addiction.
What’s a gamejam?
Let’s step back for a minute to explain what a gamejam is. A gamejam is an event organized for let’s say a couple days, or a couple weeks, during which a developer has to produce a finish a game and submit it. Usually, gamejams are hosted on http://www.gamejolt.com or http://itch.io. Most of the time there’s no prize for having the best game, so you just do it for your fun and for your own learning experience.
The rise of gamejams
Within the last few years, there’s been an abundance of gamejams. Why is that? Well frankly, I don’t know. But let’s say you had the chance to pick your favorite topic, (let’s say My Little Pony), and you just had a bunch of developers break their sweat and create a bunch of games surrounding your favorite topic, and you could host that gamejam for free (gamejolt alows it)… Well that’s kind of awesome, so why not? Of course not all gamejams have a lot of participations, but even if you could just get as little as 10 different games for free about ponies, wouldn’t it be nice?
I’m sure that’s not really the only reason gamejams have become so popular, but a big factor is the fact that it’s easy to create and the result is sometimes pretty amazing.
The drive for game developers
But why are game developers so addicted to gamejams (maybe I only speak for myself… nah, probably not). I can think of one very good reason: Gamejams get more publicity. Often times, YouTubers will pick a gamejam and play all the games in a Jam. A particular one who’s doing a very good job at it is Jupiter Hadley.
So that’s why gamejams are very attractive to game developers. They can spend an hour or two to make a game for a crappy jam (yes, there is a jam called “Crappy Jam”), and the game will still get some publicity. I know, you can’t get much done in two hours, but for developers just like artists, it’s enough to pass a message or an idea… or really to just make something stupid and have fun watching somebody play it.
Is it bad?
No, not at all! Quite the contrary. Gamejams have encouraged game developers get out of procrastination, and just free themselves from the vicious cycle of perfectionism. They finally got things done. I speak about myself, but I’m sure lots of game devs have experienced this: We work on a game, we have a huge ambition, and the game drags on forever and never get done, then we move on to the next idea hoping it’ll be even better.
Gamejams have a deadline and lower expectations, due to the time constraint. Having 2-3 days to make a game is a bit of an excuse for not having sound, or great graphics, or even any story. Noone can really blame a game dev for not making a masterpiece within such short period of time.
Then what’s the problem?
Like any good thing like beer or pizza, having too much of one thing can be a bad thing. While trying to join as many gamejams as I possibly could, I found myself spending too much energy on making game. It almost felt like work! Sometimes, I would spend a bit of time trying to catch a jam, then I would be disappointed for missing the deadline, but it’s ok, another jam would come up and it would be even more interesting. I was addicted to making small quick games, and it was fun! I know there are much worst things to be addicted to in life, so I’m glad at least I have a productive addiction.
However, for game developers, making small little games really lowers the overall quality of your games. When you’re bound to a small timeframe, you’re very likely to skip the last step of the game creation process:
2. Main development
That 4th step is actually crucial, but I found myself constantly skipping that stage for gamejams, because the goal of most gamejam is simple: Complete a game within the timeframe. In order to reach the stage of perfection, you need to have the game already completed. You pretty much need to consider the game done, and ready to be released. Let’s say you reach that completion stage, but you artificially give yourself a week before releasing the game. Within that week of not doing anything about the game, you will find small ideas and details to add to the game in order to take it a bit above average. For example:
– Adding an intro
– Providing a pause button, a mute button
– Diversifying the color of enemies
– Adding mini-games
– Animating the story rather than just putting it in writing
– Small sound effects or voice overs?
– Adding facial expressions to the characters
Of course, I could go on forever about features to add, and that’s not a good thing either. But by adding small bits of details, things that aren’t so hard to do, you can bring a bit of identity to your game and make it memorable. The world is full of averages. It’s not a negative statement, it’s actually true by definition. So taking your work above average puts it out of the crowd and makes it noticeable.
How to break free from addiction?
One simple solution is to team up. On one of the game I was planning to release, I decided to sort of “team up” with my friend Sophie. She acts as a QA / Art specialist, basically providing me feedbacks about the game and advices on the art. One of Sophie’s important role, is that she decides if the game is ready for release. So far, this has been driving me nuts. I’m a very impatient hamster, but Sophie always finds something to improve about the game before releasing it. Yet, the result is actually really positive. I’m starting to recognize that my game is improving drastically in terms of quality. I spend a lot less time working on the game and yet I enjoy doing it a lot more. As it turns out, slowly adding small details to a complete game is a lot more enjoyable than the process of making a complete game out of nothing. I stopped carrying so much about gamejams. From time to time, I still look for a few ones to join and don’t stress out about missing some interesting ones.
One thing to keep in mind about the publicity from gamejam: it’s the jam that is generating the attention, not your game. If you have a game that is well polished and shows a lot of efforts, it has the potential to generate its own publicity by word of mouth, which is a lot more rewarding than getting the attention just because the game is part of a jam. Also, when you recognize that your game is popular enough on its own, you can consider monetizing and using money to market it. You probably wouldn’t do that for game produced for a jam.
So bye bye gamejams?
I don’t advise to give up gamejams altogether, but rather to be more selective. There are some gamejams that do get a lot of attentions like Ludum Dare. The Ludum Dare experience involves thousands of people all over the world, and sometimes you even get the chance to work with others on location. One upcoming gamejam to look forward to is Indies vs PewDiePie. The reason this kind of gamejam is interesting is because PewDiePie is a famous YouTuber who does generate a lot of attention. If you had an excellent idea in mind, it might be your chance to be recognized. Now on the other hand, let’s say Jacklehamster loves Banana so he hosts a “Banana game jam”, where you had to make a game about “banana”. This is definitely a gamejam you can skip, unless you have an undying love of banana and you’ve always wanted to express your love by making the ultimate game of bananas… then it’s ok. You’d probably be the only entry in the jam. Otherwise, please just skip it. Now if I were to offer a lifetime daily supply of bananas to the winner of the gamejam, that’s a different story, one that is not likely to ever be true…
… although I might actually create a “Banana game jam” just to see how many people don’t read my post and still participate to every silly gamejams out there like I used to do.
Be selective about gamejams, and spend time polishing your games when you can. Quality does trump quantity.