beanz Magazine

Get Yourself into a Jam

Menno Deen on Flickr

Thinking about participating in a Game Jam? Here's some helpful tips and tricks!

Do any of the following sound like you?

  • You like making video games
  • You’ve never made a video game but you really want to try
  • You really need something to do while you’re not in school and a lot of things are closed

If so, you might want to try participating in—or even running—a game jam.

What exactly is a game jam, though? The short answer is that it’s an event where, in a very short time span ranging from a day to a couple of weeks, people try to create a vaguely complete game from scratch.

The oldest, biggest game jam event is Ludum Dare (pronounced loo-dum dah-ray) which has been going for the better part of two decades.

Game jams are generally built around a theme or a particular set of required tools (like “you must use Python” or “you must use Unity”) for making the game. The easiest place to find jams to participate in is itch.io

Here you can find basically every kind of jam possible: almost any tool, any programming language, any theme you can think of.

Some jams might be judged but you can find a lot of them where the goal is simply to create something and have people play it, appreciate it, and give feedback.

In general, though, jams are for all experience levels and you’re allowed to jump in even if you don’t know what you’re doing. In fact, that’s how a lot of game devs take their first plunge into game making!

So let’s talk a little about expectations for being in a game jam:

First, the goal above all else is have fun. It’s really easy to get set on a “I want to make an amazing game that has three entire explorable planets, and a new game plus, and a co-op multiplayer, oh maybe it should be an MMO?” kind of plan and getting really disappointed when you can’t do it all. I’m not saying don’t have an ambitious plan! Far from it. Dream big but be prepared if it’s harder than you thought it’d be.

In fact, let’s talk about what to do if you’re working on a game and it’s way slower going than expected. In that case, think about how you can

  • cut features
  • add in art, sound effects, and music
  • end the game earlier but still give it some kind of ending, even if it’s a cliffhanger

You might think it sounds contradictory to say both cut features and add art & music, but I promise it makes sense. In a game jam you want to convey a vision, an experience that’s at least somewhat whole. Art and music can do wonders for making a game feel more complete. Someone playing your game can’t tell that there were a bunch of awesome things you didn’t have time to include. They can, however, see when there’s placeholder art and just silence. This is a mistake I’ve made when I’ve tried to participate in jams.

So what kinds of tools should you use for a game jam?

The easiest answer is “whichever you want”. If you have a favorite—Scratch, Game Maker, Unity, etc.—and you want to stick with something you know, then do that. If you want to learn something completely new and use the jam as an excuse, then do that.

If you’re not sure where to start, though, here’s my recommendations:

If you don’t know how to code at all

  • Scratch is ubiquitous, you can find tons of examples for it, and it’s pretty easy to pick up
  • Pygame Zero is a Python library that’s incredibly simple but still lets you learn the basics of Python
  • Twine lets you write interactive fiction easily, which gives you a chance to ramp up the amount of coding you do slowly to add features
  • Bitsy, an incredibly minimalistic game maker that only allows for very simple coding but can be used to make really rich tiny games

If you’ve programmed a little

  • TIC-80, because it’s an easy to use all-in-one game making system that lets you create your art, music, and game together all at the same time
  • Godot, a free competitor to Unity that’s good for both 2d and 3d games

Finally, let’s talk about running a jam. I’m writing this with the assumption you might not be able to meet in person with your friends and will need to do most of it online.

So, first, you’re going to need to agree upon rules:

  • how long is it going to be?
  • do you all have to use the same tools?
  • are you going to allow teams?
  • what’s the theme and how are you going to pick it? Random chance? Voting?

The important thing is to make sure everyone feels heard and excited and like they’ll get a chance to have fun.

Once you’ve figured out those logistical questions, the easiest way to make the jam is to make a private jam on itch.io.

You can set the data and duration of the jam, handle submissions, and even institute judging if you want it. When the jam is over, everyone can submit their work and play each other’s games!

This is, I think, one of the coolest parts of a game jam. You get to show off your work and see what everyone else did and just enjoy the thrill of having made something.

For extra fun, you could even have a designated person play through people’s projects live on Twitch or make a YouTube video giving the highlights.

Again, no matter what though, make it fun!

Learn More

Official guide to hosting a jam

https://itch.io/docs/creators/game-jams

Link to Bitsy

https://ledoux.itch.io/bitsy

Godot

https://godotengine.org/

TIC-80

https://tic.computer/

Twine: TIC-80 tutorials

https://twinery.org/

Twine introductory booklet

https://github.com/clarissalittler/interactive-fiction/blob/master/TwineZine/TwineZine.pdf

Pygame Zero

https://pygame-zero.readthedocs.io/en/stable/

What is a game jam

https://itch.io/jams

Get the most out of a game jam

https://gamedevelopment.tutsplus.com/articles/how-to-get-the-most-out-of-a-game-jam–gamedev-437

What is ludum dare

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludum_Dare

Kids’ game jams

http://kidsgamejam.org/en/

game jam tips, tools and resources

https://gamedevelopment.tutsplus.com/articles/16-tips-tools-and-resources-for-your-next-game-jam–gamedev-12084

How to game jam

https://opensource.com/article/17/12/how-to-gaming-jam-development

running a game jam

https://www.gameacademy.com/running-local-game-jam/

history of game jams

https://armorgamesstudios.com/news/the-history-of-game-jams/

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