Thursday, January 24, 2013

How to Kick Game Jam Buttocks!

Someone partaking in the #1GAMCrunch that I just followed on Twitter (@dreamwinterlab) wrote this article on Surviving a Game Jam. It gave me the idea to write up the lessons I've learned partaking in several as well!

Note that the jams I refer to in this post are all 48-72 hour competitions where a theme is given when the counter begins, and are done "alone" from home. I say "alone" because Angel still helps with coming up with ideas and stuff, but the development is completely done by me. Also note that I'm in the Eastern time zone in the US for times

Pre-Jam

Every jam I've ever taken part in began late at night. The #1GAMCrunch begins at 5pm, and Ludum Dares begin at 9pm (I think? Maybe 10, I forget). Because they begin so late at night, it's easy to think about waking up as late as possible in the day to get lots of work done right away, and I did try that in the past... But DON'T DO IT! Seriously! In most cases, the competition begins at the same time as it ends, so if it begins at 9pm on Friday, it ends at 9pm Sunday or Monday. If you wake up at 2pm and you normally don't, you're going to screw up your sleep pattern AND on the last day, you'll only have from about 2-9pm. In my experience, the last day is the most vital; it's when you wrap things up and fix the last few things that you can. I've never sat there in the last couple hours or so and said 'hey, I'm done, sweet!' It's always 'DOH! I still need to balance these levels out a bit, test some more, fix up some graphics...'

Finally, within the 24 hours or so before the jam, take some time off! Relax, watch some movies, play some video games... In fact, check out other game jam games that did well, play those! They're usually very short so you can play lots and see what they did, and they're usually very diverse in genre/graphics/gameplay, so it'll give your brain lots of ideas as well!

The Announcing of the Theme

So, the time has officially begin, the theme is announced. Wait, what's the theme again?? How the heck am I gonna make a game out of that? Oh I know, I'll make [whatever] with it, that'll be easy!

STOP! Before you run with that idea, how cliche is it? If you Google the basic concept, how many thousands of versions of that game will there be?

For me, pretty much EVERY theme announcement goes like this (seriously, like 75% of the time!):
  1. Wait, what? I'm never going to come up with something for that!
  2. Got it! I'll just make a 'catch the falling [whatever] as a [whatever]', that fits perfectly!
  3. No wait, I've already half-made three of those... How about I take this one awesome idea I've had for years and make a short demo of part of it, that'd fit!
  4. Nah, I don't want to half-make another game, I want a full game, and that game would take at least a few weeks to make!
  5. [after about an hour and a half of staring at a blank notebook] (said out loud so Angel hears it) "Geez, coming up with an idea for [theme] is tough!"
  6. Angel: Why not make a game like [whatever]. Me: [part] would take too long and I've never done it.
  7. About half an hour later, with discussion, a great concept is found!
What's the point? Talk to someone! Discussion with someone you can trust, who won't make you feel stupid and who likes games is the most important thing you can do to come up with an idea! I've never done it with someone online, but I'd imagine that would work just as well, perhaps a little slower since you can't sketch things out and just show it to them without scanning, and typing is usually slightly slower than verbal speech.

Making Your Game

Work work work! No breaks, no sleep, no TV, no cooking, no going anywhere; live on energy drinks, sugar cubes and whatever you can shove down your throat while still working with your other hand.

Sounds slightly extreme, but we've all been there... "Geez, there are only 36 hours left after sleeping and getting my idea, I have to make every second count". You're right, but not the way you think. Read the article I linked to at the beginning for much more detail on this, but my way is:

FOOD AND DRINK: Energy drink in the morning. I'm addicted to caffeine; soda will keep the headaches away, but energy drinks help me wake up a bit more (like coffee!). I ONLY drink the one, though... After that, it's alternating soda and water. Snacks are fine, but I don't eat any differently than a normal day. I still spend time eating dinner, I still get away from the laptop for a while to help make lunch and breakfast.

BREAKS: Take em! Some people say every hour, some say every couple hours, or every half hour... I take breaks when it makes sense to me: after finishing the menu, after completing something tricky, etc. Nothing throws me off more than working on the first 10 functions that make the basics of the game work, juggling variable names and all in a notepad file, then having to take a break in the middle of it.

SLEEP: DO IT! Seriously! I need lots of sleep to function properly myself... I can work all 48 hours of the competition if I really want to, but the last 28 hours or so are going to be garbage. When I'm awake and can focus, I do work about 10 times faster than when I'm sleepy, and it's much easier to create needless bugs when you're sleepy by misspelling something. MAKE SURE TO KEEP A NOTEBOOK, PEN AND LIGHT SOURCE NEAR YOU WHILE YOU SLEEP! Especially during a time like this, all sorts of awesomeness will come to you while you try to sleep, while you sleep and the minute you wake up. You really need to be able to write these down or you'll lose clarity of the idea, or the idea altogether! I suggest doing this every night, but particularly during a jam.

MAJOR BUGS: During every single jam, at one point I've run across some kind of major bug. It makes absolutely no sense that it exists and no matter what I do, it won't work properly. Just like any other bug, give it some time to try to fix it, but if you can't within, say, half an hour... Turn off the computer and walk away for a while. Take a shower, go for a walk, play a game, watch a TV show, whatever. I seriously had a bug during one game jam that I spent HOURS trying to fix late at night; I gave up, shut the laptop off and went to sleep. In the morning, when I woke up, the game worked fine. Computers can be really weird sometimes, and Flash is no exception :)

VERSION CONTROL: Regardless of what you use to make your game, once you have it functioning, save it as something different and leave it alone ("AwesomeGame-WORKS"). Once you add a feature and it works for sure, do it again ("AwesomeGame2-AddedLevel2"). Do this EVERY time, especially as time is running out; you never know when you'll add something that randomly breaks the whole game that can be fixed with a half hour of bug hunting, but you only have 20 mins left. Also, you never know when some sort of personal emergency will come up. Sure, you have plenty of time, but maybe some sort of emergency happens where you're gone for a while and now you're not sure if you can fix everything up to where the game is playable again.

Summary

There it is! That's how I kick some rear end, and I hope that it helps you do the same! Here's a quick summary:
  • Keep your current, consistent sleep pattern going; don't throw it way off just to have more hours awake at the beginning.
  • Take time off before the jam if you can, you're going to need it!
  • Talk to your equally-significant other, a friend or loved one about the theme. Bounce ideas back and forth, and don't go for something too cliche or too complex.
  • Eat and sleep like you normally would; a reward of some kind of special snack, drink, etc is fine, but don't live on sugar or caffeine the whole time!
  • Take breaks when they make sense to you, your body, mind and fingers will thank you!
  • Sleep! Keep a notebook and pen within easy reach for any thoughts.
  • Step away for a while if you get stuck, it's better than randomly messing with things til something works.
  • Save different versions of the game as you go, so that you don't accidentally break everything and have nothing to go back to late in the competition, or if some sort of emergency comes up.
And, above all, just have fun and be proud of yourself! Even if you end up in last place, even if your game isn't terribly fun, or is partially broken, or anything else... You made it through and you learned a LOT in a short period of time! Be proud of yourself for your accomplishments!

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