Game jams can be an excellent means of pushing developers to see what they can create on a short time limit.
They encourage creativity, ruthless cutting, time budgeting, and getting completed works out there in the wild, often with some incredible results.
The DreamHack Dallas Jam (March 29-Apr 6, 2019), a collaboration with Game Jolt, gives developers a week to create something out of a surprise theme, pushing them to see what they can come up, and how they can make it work. Last year, ten developers were awarded with a place to show their games at DreamHack Austin at the Game Jolt booth, letting them show off their incredible talent at the convention.
We spoke to a handful of last year’s winners, as well as the team at Game Jolt, to talk about the experience, and how they feel it can help developers grow and teach them a bit about their own abilities.
A great experience
Jams, while sounding stressful on paper (making a game in a few days is YIKES), and also stressful to do, can be a great source of fun, creative output, and in learning about your skills as a developer and helping them grow.
“Jams often have tight constraints that help you grow professionally! You learn how to focus and distill your ideas to their purest form (what actually makes a good game?). You get to actually put a product out there, which is something many developers and artists in the field can struggle with due to burning out on their longer projects. You get to learn how to work in a team, and how to deal with deadlines. A great game jam bonds people together and helps them grow individually as well!” says Yariv Livay of Game Jolt.
Daniel88881, developer of Finite Space (a game of fighting through the randomly-generated floors of an alien ship), looked at it as a chance to see how their skills as a developer had grown over time. “I had a good experience with the jam. It gave me something to think about at school and work on at home. I especially wanted to participate in this jam since I participated in the previous 2017 jam and wanted to see if I had improved.”
“I participated in the 2017 jam since I was also interested in Ludum Dare, and that jam provided a similar experience. Although I am not the proudest of the end result, I felt that it was a huge step up from my 2017 DreamHack Jam entry,” they continue.
DreamingFox Productions, creator of Novallusion (a puzzle game about a woman making a daring trip to space with her dream), found the jam sparked a certain creativity within them from the moment they heard about it. “So far, it’s my only jam that I’ve participated in, but I can say it was a worthy experience.”
“I got an e-mail from Game Jolt advertising the contest. The name “DreamHack” just spoke to me. Dreams have been very personal to me. At first, I wasn’t so sure, though, since I was already knee-deep in my own game projects. So, I decided to wait till the theme would be announced to make my decision on whether I would really want to do this. When the theme was announced it again spoke to me: “Space”. An hour later, I had the two most important characters figured out and the basic story concept,” they continue.
Jamming can also a source of fun and enjoyment as you put your skills to work. “I worked with Jake Larson and Danielle Tyler on this entry, and we had a blast,” says Ian Snyder, part of the team behind Abyss (a game where you explore the depths of unknown space as you flee a blighted Earth), one of the winners of the 2018 DreamHack Austin Jam.
“I suggested that we do it for fun, and I thought it would be cool for the game to be showcased at the DreamHack Austin event, but I didn’t actually expect to place! Jake and Danielle were able to travel down to Austin from Omaha, Nebraska to see the games exhibited,” they continue.
Also, jams can be vital to breaking down global barriers, allowing developers from all over the world to participate. “Jams are a great way for people to try out and learn new languages, engines, and technical concepts that are different from the game they may currently be working on. While there are many benefits for physical game jams that bring local communities together, digital game jams unite folks from all over the world to collaborate and can aid in breaking down logistical, cultural and language barriers,” says Yaprak DeCarmine of Game Jolt.
“I love seeing teams form online with people from all corners of the world and time zones that are still able to work together and submit an entry. Unipocalypse from our DreamHack Denver game jam is a perfect example where folks were scattered all over the world and created such a fun game together. I also love watching people livestream their process on Game Jolt,” they continue.
A creative inspiration, a chance to test your skills, and the desire to just enjoy seeing your own creativity. Jamming can be many things to many developers, but it can all help you put your skills to work, and show you skills you might not have know that you had.
What you can get out of jams
Game jams can bring out many things from the developers who participate, with each of the developers interviewed expressing many positive outcomes from working under that time limit and theme.
When you don’t have time to dawdle, you quickly discover just how you can adapt skills and tools to what you need. “Making a game under the constraints of a jam brings out the best in creativity. I’ve been participating in game jams for years now!” says Snyder.
The jam also gives you an excuse to throw yourself into learning new things, adding onto your skillset with some surprise curve balls (and help you get better at cutting or altering your original design to better suit your abilities.
“This was the first game that I entered into any competition. There were a few challenges. One of the puzzles I was working on was very difficult to make work, and finally, I had to modify my original concept to make sure it worked. I am self-taught in game development, and this was a great opportunity to learn more. I was able to keep working on the project, and felt like I was working a job that I could focus on,” says DreamingFox.
You may also discover that your peers at the jam can offer a ton of great experience to draw upon, helping you realize you’re not all alone out in the world of game development. It’s easy to get caught up in your own head in the often-solitary work of game development, but a jam can encourage you to speak to your development peers. Or be inspired by their works.
“I feel that game jams provide a unique experience that can’t be had anywhere else. Additionally, I get the most feedback and constructive criticism from fellow developers after a jam, allowing me to improve on future projects. Looking at the games that others have made within the same time constraints, facing the same restrictions, also really inspires me to work harder to try and reach their level and quality of work,” says Danny88881. “I enjoy jams because they are a challenge, they force you to use your time wisely, balancing each aspect of the end product: graphics, music, and gameplay. The experience as a whole, I feel, helps me improve.”
It doesn’t hurt that the experience can be quite fun in and of itself. “Finding someone to collaborate with and frantically trying to put together a shared vision is always a really fun experience, especially if you’re able to physically meet around a table laden with pizza and soft drinks!” says Livay.
“Jams are very positive group activities. It’s very motivating taking on a challenge knowing there are many other people out there doing the same! The competition is always friendly and encouraging, and very often, jams force you to be creative and step out of your comfort zone. Even after doing 100 game jams, you will always learn something new doing one. Jams are also very accessible; you may be working 5-6 days a week, 10 hours a day, and can still indulge in your gamedev hobby on a weekend jam,” says Livay.
Dealing with constraints
While there can be many benefits of a jam, you still need to deal with the challenges that arise from the time limits. You need to take care of yourself throughout this exhausting work, and each developer offered a bit of advice on how to do so.
For Snyder, it was important to keep the project from becoming overly stressful in your mind. It is good to be able to finish a project in a jam, but above all, it isn’t worth your health (and rested minds do better work).
“I actually make sure not to stress out and overwork. Sometimes, I’ll do a jam and just spend a few hours making something simple, but I always try to complete something, somehow! I usually end up pushing through the final hours like a maniac, though >:D Working together with Jake and Danielle made it a lot less stressful; I was able to focus on coding and design while they worked on the art and music.”
DreamingFox found that scheduling time was helpful to keep the stress and pressure from becoming unmanageable. “My mom was at a retreat, so I had alone time at the house to work on it. Also, I set aside the other game I was working on to complete this one. I worked on it from 10am – 6 pm, stopped to have dinner, then continued working 7pm-10pm each day for about 10 days straight. It gave me a great sense of accomplishment getting the game finished.”
For Danny88881 stresses that knowing when to cut things is key in a jam, helping keep the project from getting out of control and making the most of your time without sacrificing your health and sleep (much). “I usually have a general idea of what I want the game to be like when I start the jam, but as time goes on, I make cuts to the gameplay and mechanics in order to perfect the more crucial aspects of the game.”
It’s also important to take breaks, resting the mind and allowing it the time to, strangely enough, look at the game from new angles. “Not every hour of the jam period needs to be spent on developing the game. I find that taking breaks helps to clear the mind and refocus on making the game. Since time is a resource, it is inevitable that some sleeping time must be sacrificed, but I find it that I enjoy sleeping the best after submitting my game on the last day of the jam,” Danny88881 continues.
The time limit can be a great motivator to push you to new heights of creativity and skill application, but be sure to take care of your health as you do so. These tips can help you keep that in mind, and also help you make the most out of your jam work, building onto those skills and creating unique, interesting games for players to enjoy.
And you never know when your jam idea might become your next great project.
If this is sounding like a fun learning experience, then the DreamHack Dallas jam (it’s moved from Austin, but is still in Texas), which is starting this Friday, might be for you! With five winning spots earning places to show off their game on the show floor at DreamHack Dallas, and first place winning $1000, it offers some exciting possibilities for developers looking to test their skills.
“DreamHack is a great jump start if you’re looking for a break into gamedev,” says Livay. “Winning entries are showcased in our booths at big conventions. This is a great chance to gather professional feedback, get critical exposure needed to get the ball rolling, and often interact with a part of game development indies rarely get to interact with – publishers and media! Overall DH is a great learning experience an aspiring game dev should not miss out on.”
“DreamHack Game Jams provide a unique opportunity to have your work shown to a real audience of players and developers outside of the normal game jam community,” says Nathan Auckett of Game Jolt. “You get all the normal perks of a game jam, like the chance to try out new ideas and techniques, working with new people and finishing a small game. But, in addition to that, if you make it into the top 5 and can make your way to the event, then you can experience what it’s like to expo your game, in person, to various people outside of the game jamming community. Plus if you get first place, the prize money could help go towards your current or next project. You get the opportunity to make, learn and grow; and entry is free!”
A week to make a game. A week to make a game that you can show at a convention. A week to win $1000. Sound fun?
Dive headfirst into the exhibiting experience by joining the Indie Playground at DreamHack Dallas this June. Selected games will receive a free booth in the Expo at a festival that encompasses everything gamer life from esports, to indie games, to midnight horror films.