I Did Three Game Jams in Three Months- Here’s What I Learned!
I never really thought game jams were for me. First of all, as you’re perhaps aware, I’m a writer. (Surprise!) But more importantly, for the point I'm trying to make here, at least, I’m “only” a writer. Not a writer and programmer. Not a writer and visual artist. Not a writer and sound designer. (The list goes on.) For this reason, I didn’t feel like I had much to offer a jam team with "just" my writing skills. Despite being really interested in the concept and wishing I had what it took to join one, I kept my distance from jams until the amazing Tom Sharpe of Gossamer Games assured me that a particular game jam back in January would be the perfect first jam for me—and he was right!
But let’s back up for a second. What exactly is a game jam?
In a game jam, teams come together (sometimes pre-formed, sometimes formed at the onset of the jam) to create a game in a set amount of time. Generally all of the games will adhere to a theme that is revealed at the beginning of the jam. In the past, jams would frequently take place over the course of 24 to 72 hours, but in the evolving anti-crunch climate that more and more game devs are pushing for in the industry, so too have many game jams been extended, now sometimes lasting a week or longer. (Most jammers have full-time jobs to contend with while they participate, so the amount of work put into the game is often still expected to be around the same number of hours you'd be able to put into a shorter jam, you're just doing it on the evenings here and there rather than all together in one weekend.) The games that come out of jams are often only a few minutes long and pretty rough at submission time, but making a perfect game isn’t really the point.
So what is the point, exactly? Believe it or not, there are many, and creating often broken, short-play experiences with strangers has a lot more pluses than minuses to it in the end. If you're unfamiliar with the concept, not into jams at all, or on the fence about joining one, let me tell you what I’ve learned from doing them myself these last three months. You might be surprised!
10 Things I've Learned from My First Game Jams
1. You can work in a team of strangers—and have it go really well!
My first jam was a small, local affair with the Philly Game Mechanics. I think there were about 30 participants overall. As with all three jams I've done so far, it was run completely remotely, even with a group brainstorming phase and folks splitting off into teams. I didn't know anyone aside from some screen names I recognized in the PGM Discord server from time to time, and I was really nervous about finding folks to work with and fitting in, but before long, I and a team of strangers had a working concept and someone to fill every role we needed! From what I can tell, everyone who wanted to be on a team found themselves a project to work on, and each team managed to put something out at the end. Before this experience, I wouldn't have thought that was possible! Now I've seen it happen over and over again.
2. Upfront communication is key.
As I said before, what I have to offer my team is my writing, and I made that clear upfront. I wouldn't be able to code or make assets or anything fancy like that, but that worked just fine for my group. In fact, I had more to offer than I realized, as my ideas helped the team decide on gameplay mechanics and character styles as well.
In the end, everyone wants their team to succeed, so each person I worked with was similarly upfront about their abilities and limitations in their discipline as well as their time commitments, and it really helped our group create a project in the right scope for our team.
3. Jams are a great opportunity to learn.
I'd love to write for games professionally one day. I've taken classes, read books, and done my own exercises and expanded my own concepts, but collaborating with a real team was a learning experience I wouldn't have been able to otherwise replicate. I've loved the opportunity each jam has given me to work with a novel group of people and find new approaches to meet the goals we made together. Through these jams, I've been part of making wildly different games, and this not only taught me how to adapt my writing (both in style and tone) quickly for various projects, but the collaborative nature of the jam itself forced me to get better at communicating on Discord, using GitHub, and even doing some extremely minimal things in Unity. I know many of my teammates were similarly testing the waters with new software or approaches to their work that they wouldn't have felt comfortable trying in a more "serious" setting. Jams often give you the opportunity to branch out in a relatively safe environment.
4. Your portfolio benefits from game jams.
Speaking of wanting to work in the industry, obviously having some games—even short game jam games—on your portfolio is a great boon to your job hunt. Jams give you the opportunity to delve into different styles and genres with a quick turnaround. They also give you the opportunity to try things you're not sure you would like to devote yourself to long term, but now you've got the proof not only that you can see a project (or three) to the end, but that you are able to work on varied projects with multiple teams. I've already mentioned that the games I worked on were really different from each other. The first, organized by the Philly Game Mechanics as part of the Global Game Jam, was a puzzle platformer with a surprisingly sweet (and sad) storyline. The next was for the Game Jobs Live Spring 2022 Game Parade, and we developed a shooting game bookended with upbeat dialogue replete with puns. My third and final (so far) jam is once again with the Philly Game Mechanics, and my team has created an RPG-style game with a rich story told partially through interaction with NPCs. Adding these varied projects to my portfolio has really strengthened it overall and demonstrates in a very real way that my writing ability is broad and applicable to many different concepts and game styles. My friends who are programmers, sound designers, and artists feel their portfolios are getting similar benefits from their jam participation.
5. Jams helps you show off all those “soft skills” of yours to possible employers.
Speaking of portfolios and jobs, let's talk about how game jams can help represent the best side of you to recruiters. Picking someone at random, let's say you're, oh, me for instance. That means you're trying to enter into an industry that you have not worked in before. Sure, you have the skills you need to do the work, but not a demonstration of their application in this capacity. But now that you've done a game jam (or three!), you can prove that you're a team player, that you can work as part of a remote team successfully, that you're adaptable, can keep a schedule and meet deadlines, are able to work under pressure, etc. etc. and the list goes on. If you don't yet have a paying industry job to prove your skills to recruiters (and even if you do), jams can really help you represent yourself and your abilities well.
7. Jams can give you the opportunity expand your role and to try new ones.
In a game writing class I took recently, the professor warned that writers low on the totem pole often get assigned work within very strict parameters—meaning there's not a lot of opportunity to flex your creative muscles outside of the narrow scope you've been assigned to. Doing jams, however, has given me the opportunity to develop a concept with my team from the very beginning brainstorms to the exciting final product. It's been so rewarding to take that initial seed and alter and adapt it as our game develops and to work closely with my team to support the gameplay with narrative in the way that works best for our project. In jams, I have more freedom and control over the story than I would starting out at basically any larger studio, and it has really been an excellent learning experience. I also make a point to keep up with all the channels on our game jam team servers, so I get a really interesting view of each part of the development process in a way I never have before, and all of this together will, I hope, help prepare me for any "real" work I get in the industry soon.
In addition to the wider range of writing duties game jamming has afforded me, working on these projects has also given me the opportunity to branch out a bit to fill other roles on the team. One of the games I helped make is being adapted into a full-length release. As we work on that and prepare a demo to hopefully show at a convention later this summer, I have been doing more than just work on the storyline. I made a server for us to work in (which also lets me play with channels, bots, and other fun community management things), and I now do things like organizing our meetings, keeping us on track as far as timelines and availability, and drafting clear documents that outline the goals and scope of our project (all of which feels a bit like working as a project lead—small project though it is). I even got to help design some levels, and of course I have worked with my team to continue developing and altering the narrative throughout the further development of our game. I likely wouldn't have had the opportunity to wear (or even try on) these other hats if not for participating in that game jam and being part of this project, and I'm really enjoying the opportunity to try new things it has afforded me.
8. Jams teach the importance of understanding scope and setting realistic goals.
When it comes to game jams, you generally need to get your ideas out there... and then pare them down a bit. (Then perhaps cut them in half and pare them down again. Seriously!) We're all creators, and we all have big ideas, but those big ideas are generally not feasible in the time you have for a jam. Finding that balance between impressive and doable, however, is all part of the fun! It's usually better to have a simpler game that runs more or less smoothly than it is to have a grand concept with an incredibly broken execution. This is a lesson I think extends to every project, even outside of jams: understand what is actually achievable with your time and resources, and work within that to make the best product you can. My approach lately has been to generally aim low and be excited for the opportunity to expand if I get it, rather than aiming high and struggling to keep up or, even worse, spending time on things that end up having to be abandoned and/or getting cut later.
9. Jams can help you understand the biz... at least a little bit.
I mentioned that I took a game writing class recently. In it, we learned about the parameters game writers usually have to work within, such as writing for the pre-existing mechanics of a game, doing stuff that doesn't seem as creative (but is actually incredibly important), like writing barks, etc. At the end of class, the teacher asked people to honestly answer if, after taking the class and learning more about the game writing role, they still really wanted to write for games. When most of my classmates said no, I was shocked. The challenge, the frequent need to adapt, the struggle to get inventive over things like game mechanics and make them a living part of the story you aim to tell—all of that is such a thrill to me. (A frustration at times too, of course, but definitely something that excites me!) Working in game jams has only solidified that feeling for me. However, if I was one of the other people in my class, jams might have also helped me understand what I don't want to be doing, and that's ok too! Working on a game jam isn't exactly like working for a real game company, of course, but it can give you some insight into the cool stuff and the bad stuff, the struggles and the snags, and the frustrations and successes you're likely to encounter as a game dev, and you can feel out in real time and in a real way if this is something you would actually want to do long term. I know my answer, of course, and game jams have only made my feelings stronger. (You can read all my thoughts on working in the games industry here.)
10. You can make great connections.
Finally, people say over and over that breaking into the industry is all about networking, and what better way to make connections than to work on a team with people who have similar interests? Before 2020, a lot of getting to know folks in the industry was done face-to-face, but today, a lot more is happening behind computer screens, which is both frustrating and makes for interesting opportunities. I have now worked on teams with people in India, England, and Singapore, as well as tons of folks right here in my own city, and while it may have been easier to strike up a conversation with another dev by the bar at a game event in the past, sticking to local, in-person hobnobbing would have meant that I missed out on being a part of such diverse teams and wouldn't have met some of the incredibly talented people I've had the privilege to work with this year. After taking a risk and teaming up with those complete strangers in my first game jam, I can now safely say that I have several friends with great skills and bright futures in the industry. We've continued to work together and support each other as well as introduce each other to more devs near and far. It's really been a fantastic experience.
If a jam still doesn't appeal to you because you're not sure working on a small project is really worth it, then keep in mind that a game jam's end doesn't have to mean the end of your game. I mentioned before that one of my jam teams is expanding our game to make it full length, but we are far from the first to do something like that. Games that range from silly to serious and everything in between have been born in jams and developed further into full releases. Some favorites of mine are Don't Starve, Goat Simulator, Inscryption, and Superhot.
In the end, if you have any interest in working in games—or you just like to do it for fun—I can't recommend joining game jams enough. The connections you make, the challenges you face, and the successes you achieve are beyond worth it, and you can be anyone—even a writer!—and have something to contribute. I'm proof of that.
If you're not sure where to find jams, you can start over at the jam page on Itch.io. I also recommend joining the Discord server of your local IGDA or any other game dev organizations you're interested in.
If you want to see the games I helped make in the jams, they're over at my portfolio.
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