Have you ever heard about a game jam or a game hackathon? Game jams are hackathons for games where participation needs to create a game on a given theme in just one or in some cases, a couple of days. In that small amount of time participants need to go through the process of brainstorming, designing and developing the game. You might wonder, how could they pull it off? Is creating games that easy?
In some jams, most of the participants are actually students, teenagers who aren’t from the game industry, but I’m certain that most of them want to be. People gather at game jams mostly for fun and for meeting up with many people, it’s a great opportunity to learn something new, the only thing you can lose is time. However, creating games is not an easy task at all, not many of these participants create a complete game with “a head and a tail”. If you think that creating a game is easy, you are wrong. To be able to create a good game within that small amount of time requires certain skills and knowledge. You might be asking yourself now, what could those participants and developers do if they’re given more time? Let me clarify that. There is actually something harder than creating a game jam game, that is creating a non game jam game.
More about games
Before I go into details on topic about game jam and non game jam games, let’s remind us why people play games at all. There are so many types of games, from action games, over puzzle games to strategy games. They all have their fans and players. We all love games, even those who say otherwise.
Well, you probably know the answer, we play games because they’re fun. We can say that playing games offers the excitement of competition and a clear promise of rewards for our accomplishments. It’s often a world where we can escape. So how should we create a fun game?
To create a game we need to understand the common parts of a game. One of the first things we notice in games is that we seek to achieve a goal. If you played Super Mario you should know that you actually play to save the princess. To achieve that goal we are playing by given rules that define bounds and in the end gameplay of the game. All that time, while we play, the game needs to feed players with constant feedback how they are progressing. Otherwise, we would find ourselves lost in the game and probably quit. Developers need to be very careful to give players a good experience without frustrations, that’s exactly the field of user experience, often a result of many design choices.
My first game jam
My first encounter with a game jam happened when I was a student. Me and my friends were students motivated to create something that should be fun. The game jam was our opportunity to create something together. Since we knew each other, it was easy to split that work into multiple parts. We had the knowledge, two of us knew how to develop a game using Unity, another one knew how to create 3D models, and the fourth guy was good at creating 2D art. However, sometimes the problem isn’t how skilled you are in some tools, the problem is how to combine all our knowledge to get maximum output from it.
After we were given a theme, we started brainstorming many ideas. In the end, we decided on one idea that we all agreed upon. We defined what features should game have, how should player look like, what enemies we should have, all in just a few hours. What we didn’t count on, after developing and being awake for too many hours, that we’ll start to make more and more mistakes. We wanted to add many cool features, but after we started encountering bugs, everything just looked messy. At least from a programmer’s perspective. We were forced to cut off some features in order to make the core gameplay functional and fun.
It’s also worth to mention that we didn’t have proper organization, most of the time in the last half of the last day, the fight was in the hands of programmers. So artists didn’t have an actual job after they finished the models and UI elements. However, in the end of this game jam, we presented a working game. Kids just loved playing it, so we were satisfied.
What we learned from game jam
Our next big journey was Nordeus game hackathon. We had in mind what we learned from previous game jam, and applied for it. So after we were given the theme “hack ’n’ slash”, we started brainstorming, what kind of game we would like to create. We did not hurry in this phase, we knew if we failed here, it would be almost meaningless. So, in the end, we agreed upon the idea of a 2D top-down fighting game with a Chinese theme. To us, it was very important that we all like the idea, otherwise, it wouldn’t be fun to create.
The key in creating a game jam game is to think small and keep it simple. One of the easier ways is to find a great and fun mechanic. Start from there and expand. Multiple different game mechanics and systems will mostly lead you too messy coding, at least it will look like that after being awake for 20 hours. Moreover, if you really want to have complicated mechanics, you need to have the player in mind, would they know how to play, would you have a proper introduction to it, would it be fun? So this is an idea what we had, and we did things a little differently than before.
How we made it
Thanks to my college, we split our game into multiple features and tasks. We added those tasks in one of three groups, ordered by priority. The first group contained minimum required set of features and tasks that we need to finish in the order for the game to work like we planned. The second group was additional features that we would consider only after we finish everything for the first group. In this group were features like visual effects, additional feedback for players, a tutorial, additional enemies and so on. There were also features like co-op with gamepad support, which was of course, at the end of the list. The third group was features and tasks that are finished. You might think that the third group is unnecessary, but when we saw how one group is getting bigger, we felt much better making progress in development which also lead us to more motivation.
Those features were also ordered and planned in a way that everyone has always something to do. In case our artists had additional graphics to create related with new enemies, UI and different props in game. So, in the end, we were pretty efficient. However, just like always, there are always bugs, especially in the middle of the night. We had one bigger blow related with the enemies AI. We decided to use a plugin for Behavior Trees in the order to more easily create different AI behavior. After setting enemies using that plugin, we found a critical bug that disabled us from using that plugin, so after all those wasted hours we were forced to redo it in some other way. Thanks to that, we weren’t able to create additional enemies.
We ended the hackathon with half of the planned additional features. We achieved the feel we wanted in a game, and players loved it.
Non-game jam game development
If you read the previous parts carefully you should know what troubles participants have on game jams. But even with those troubles, game jams are fun. Either you apply only to create something with your buddies, or you want to try yourself in game development and expand your network. On the other hand, creating a full-fledged game require all of this stuff but on a much higher scale. The only difference is that you don’t have a 24-hour deadline.
Moreover, if that game is crucial for you or your company to survive, you need to be very careful. I mean, not only with the game development process but with marketing also. Even if the game is great but no one actually heard about it, you will be left with empty hands. If you don’t know how to start with marketing, you can check our shared knowledge about it here: Find Your Buyer Personas Like A Pro.