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  • What I Learned From Doing A Game Jam Every Month For A Year

    [03.30.21]
    - Theo Clarke
  • In late 2017, I graduated with an MA in Games Design and started working in QA at a small mobile developer based in Northern England. 2019 was only my 2nd full year working in the games industry, and as a relatively-recent graduate and entrant to the industry, I felt I had settled in pretty well as 2020 approached... but I was still gripped by a desire to challenge myself to learn and absorb as much as I could about game development.

    While working full-time as a newbie in the industry, pursuing large-scale personal projects in my spare time was proving difficult. However, I had been able to enter a handful of game jams and had found them to be both enjoyable and educational, while also being manageable in terms of my limited time and energy. And so, I decided I would challenge myself to complete at least 1 game jam per month, every month, for the whole of 2020...

    This post is a detailed retrospective on my 1-jam-per-month challenge. I will describe some of the lessons I learned and how you can apply it to your own jamming and broader game development. I used two game engines to make my games: Construct (a 2D HTML-based engine) and Unreal Engine 4 (an industry-standard 3D engine), both of which use visual scripting. All of my games are playable either on PC or in a web browser, with many of them being playable on mobile devices too. I have interspersed this post with screenshots of my games, and you can see more images and information and play my games on my itch.io profile.

    I hope this post will enable me to make better sense of what I learned, while also helping current jammers get more from their jams, and encourage those who have not entered a game jam to give it a try. Without further ado, here is what I learned from doing one game jam every month for a year...

    Time constraints are a powerful motivator...

    One of the defining features of game jams is, of course, that they are time-limited. The jams I entered in 2020 ranged from as short as 3 hours to as long as 14 days. The benefit of having a deadline to work towards became very apparent to me as the year progressed.

    With an open-ended project, its very easy to procrastinate or allow the project to stagnate. With a game jam, you are given a set time and a concrete goal to work towards. Keeping this in mind naturally motivates one to keep things moving, plan out your time and ensure tasks are getting completed at a decent rate. My game Polar Night (pictured below, created in Construct engine in 4 hours for Trijam #60 in March) was surely one of the less polished games I created. I could have spent much more time improving and tinkering, but I wrapped it up, learned from it, and moved on.

    Polar Night, created in Construct engine in 4 hours for Trijam #60 in March

    Time-limiting your projects can also help to keep scope-creep at bay and stop the project from becoming endless. For developers who normally struggle with this in their projects, the time-limited nature of game jams can be very helpful. This can also be applied to game development at large; try setting yourself concrete deadlines, even when not game jamming, and see if this helps you get things done more quickly and effectively and learn how and when to wrap a project up.

    Doing lots of small projects can be more worthwhile than one big one...

    As I mentioned previously, 2019 was only my 2nd full year of working full-time in the games industry. As such, after spending my days settling in and learning the ways of the industry, I had found it difficult to motivate myself or find time to pursue large-scale drawn-out personal projects in the evenings and weekends. Many game developers will encounter this dilemma at some point. In my experience, the perfect solution to this is to do small and short projects - such as game jams.

    Clearing your diary for a weekend for a 48 hour game jam can be a lot easier than finding the same amount of hours throughout a week or month to complete a larger-scale project. By entering game jams, you may also find yourself pursuing much more varied projects than if you only did 1 project. Jams generally have a theme and sometimes have other additional challenges or constraints within them, which can really force you to think outside the box. You may learn more diverse skills, explore more interesting topics and stimulate and exercise your creativity better through game jams and other small-scale projects than one large one.

    The Potion Commotion, created in Construct in 48 hours for Spooky 2D Jam 2020 in October

    Your perception of your own skill-set might not be correct...

    I went into this challenge with a certain perception of my own skill-set, which I gradually came to realise was not completely accurate. I believed that my greatest strengths laid in idea generation, designing fun and engaging gameplay and creating 3D art, with my weaker skills being 2D art and implementing gameplay through visual scripting.

    I expected these strengths and weaknesses to show through in the games I made, but I soon realised my own understanding of my skill-set was not entirely accurate. The only area where my skills did live up to my own expectations was my 3D art; I created some 3D art that I was very proud of, such as these assets I made for the game Handy Jobs (pictured below, made in Unreal Engine in 48 hours for Global Game Jam 2020 in January). However, I sometimes struggled in the early idea-generation stages; I compared my own game design to that of other jam entries and realised my own gameplay was often less enjoyable; I compared my game concepts to other games and found my own concepts lacking. In short, certain elements of my games were not standing out as I expected they would, as I had overestimated my skills in these areas.

    3D assets I created for Handy Jobs, made in Unreal Engine in 48 hours for Global Game Jam 2020 in January

    Conversely, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself exceeding my expectations in other areas, such as 2D art and gameplay implementation. I found myself creating 2D art quicker and better than I thought I could, and I was implementing gameplay and solving bugs with surprising ease. I was particularly happy with the quality and quantity of 2D art that I made for my game Deck 'Em (pictured below, created in Construct engine in 48 hours for Chip 'N' Jam in May).

    Deck 'Em, created in Construct engine in 48 hours for Chip 'N' Jam in May

    I also impressed myself with the quality of gameplay that I created for my game Ice Man's Journey (pictured below, created in Unreal Engine in 5 days for the 2020 Unreal Spring Jam in June). I now have a better estimation of my own skills, which will allow me to use my skills better and prioritise what to work on. I encourage other game developers to challenge themselves often, through game jams or other projects, so they know where their own strengths and weaknesses lie.

    Ice Man's Journey, created in Unreal Engine in 5 days for the 2020 Unreal Spring Jam in June

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