How Game Jams Quickly Level Up Your Game Dev
Three weeks of game jams taught me more about game development than a year of tutorials
About a year ago I set about self-teaching myself game development. I’m an active relaxer and was looking for something that combined my desire to do digital art, code, and writing all in one package.
I did the usual steps: downloaded Unity, joined forums and Discords, watched countless Code Monkey, Brackeys, and Game Maker’s Toolkit videos, and even bought a Udemy course or two.
But progress was slow because GameDev is extremely hard - and, like anything in the digital realm - you are also learning how the software wants to work. Its conceptual overload and the early days can feel like you are just blindly mimicking what others have done without actually understanding what you are doing.
Needless to say I found it difficult. And, despite working in IT professionally, I’d always struggled with ‘real’ coding languages (my experience was in CSS, SQL, and a bit of python) and was really starting to feel disempowered by the monumental learning curve in front of me. Weeks and months passed of varying input levels, and I fell into a loop of coming up with a bright idea, starting a new project, giving it a go, hitting a wall, realising I’d attempted something too advanced for my ability and then giving up, only to repeat this cycle in a week or two.
Enter the game jam
Fast forward to last month, where I was frustrated by my lack of progress and decided to finally listen to core piece of advice the internet kept throwing at me: game jams.
I had actually attempted a game jam about a year ago, but I was far too inexperienced and I had run out of time and steam, but this time would be different. I jumped onto Itch.io and browsed through the upcoming game jams that had a decent time period (some jams go for a day or two), and signed up to one.
That am specifically was the DOS Games Jam 2022, that started August 1st. The goal being to create a game that inspired by the DOS era. So, like I do with any artistic endeavour of mine, I headed to Google and Pinterest to get inspired.
For about 80% of the jam, I did what I had been doing before: getting inspired by a concept, giving it a go, realising the job was too complex for the available time and shelving the idea. However, this time I was committed to delivering something during a game jam and so I used the timeline and my lack of ability to reduce the scope to something practical. About six more concepts later (and with only about two weeks remaining) I landed on an extremely reductive game concept that I knew I could do, theme it to feel DOS-like, and make the deadline.
So I sweated for two weeks: building, coding, scrapping, prototyping, and more importantly, learning.
Having a real world goal, timeline, and constraints allowed my learning journey accelerate. And boy-oh-boy did I learn a lot through failing fast (even right up to the 9th hour where the deadline was closing in and, for some reason, the game didn't work properly after building), I learned lessons that I'll take forward with me into the future.
In the end I delivered Courier Quest, a side scrolling spaceship meets Flappy Bird game where your goal is to travel through hyperspace as fast as you can, by deliberately hitting speed boosts along the way. Though the game is buggy, incomplete, and has been played by next to no-one I don’t personally know, I'm over the moon that I delivered something, and with that burst of motivation in my system I turned my eyes to another game jam.
When I had joined the DOS Game Jam, I had also joined the Cozy Autumn Game Jam that was set to start after the DOS Game Jam (which, at the time, sounded like a smart thing to do.
Unfortunately, the DOS Game Jam got extended by two weeks and by the time I finished the DOS Jam I had only a week left on the Cozy Jam.
With that in mind, I deliberately held fire and told myuself that I would only attempt the Cozy Jam if I could come up with a solid, simple enough idea that I could smash out in a week.
Fast forward a day later to me in the shower experiencing the shower thought I needed: the right idea executable in the right time…well, mostly. My Cozy Autumn idea was an Owl who runs a coffee shop out of a tree stump; the game is a café commerce sim.
Now, you might be thinking: hold on Alex, it took you weeks to make a Flappy Bird clone, and you want to make a café sim in five days?!
Yes, because I knew I could do it. Having released a game, the process of finalising a game had been demystified; I had the experience of what it takes to deliver a game end to end, which gave me a better way of measuring the likelihood of success. But, like anything, all estimations are at least 30% off the mark - and given the week was filled with my actual day job and other life admin - so it felt like a sprint.
Cozy Game Jam sprint
Fast forward to me at 2am Thursday morning frantically finishing my game because I would have no time before the Friday 3pm due date to do any other work. It launched missing features, music, animations, and many other ideas I had had because things in game dev always take longer than initially expected.
But like the first game, I’m nowhere near sad or unimpressed with my efforts. I’m over the moon. I breezed through challenges that had been very difficult during the first game. I learned new stuff faster because I was more familiar with the basics and my coding - the thing I was most insecure about - was vastly better this time around. I feel like the game I delivered in five days was four to five times better than the game that had taken me weeks to deliver in the prior game jam.
Better yet, this new game was being played by people who weren't my loved ones, and they were leaving comments with awesome feedback. Words cannot describe how good that makes me feel.
If you're looking to get into game dev as a hobby - or a profession - I honestly recommend game jams as a great way to force you to practice small, practice fast, and grow organically. Feel free to check out the two games I made; they can be played in any desktop web browser, and I've even backed up the code to GitHub so you can see what went into making them.
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