Setting the stage…

How do you win game jams? Well, to find out we attended one last weekend. We duked it out at the CreateJam Fall 2020 game jam in a bet to see who would win the hearts of the people. Dennis, our lead programmer and his team vs. Jonas & Sune, our audio designer and game designer.

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Former champions vs. the dynamic duo

Now that the event is over, we were inspired to write a blog about the benefits of game jams – and how to win one.

  • Why are game jams great?
  • Who won Create Jam Fall 2020?
  • And why did they win?

Game jamming as an exercise

A game jam is an event, wherein participants have a short time, in this case 48 hours, to make a full game within a theme. After the time is up, a winner is declared. It’s kind of like a Hackathon, but for games.

Game jams are a great way to practice and experiment with game development, and socialize and network with other game developers. Just the act of working together with other people and getting things done are two of the best ways of learning and improving your craftsmanship.

Some of the most important lessons to learn from doing game jams are applicable to almost any project you set out to complete. And since most lessons are learned through failing, it means you can ‘fail’ effectively during game jams and save yourself from ‘failing’ in other areas. Like your job, where the cost of failing is higher. In game jams, you are expected to fail in some way or another.

We’d like to name a few ‘takeaways’ we’ve all learned from doing and arranging several game jams over the years:

Game jams are an exercise in scoping your project.

The most common mistake that teams make at the beginning of a jam is to think up a cool game idea and then add a bunch of mechanics or events that are simply too time-consuming or risky to make. While a brainstorm full of divergent and creative thinking is great and very valuable, you still need to focus in and converge on the most important element – importantly one that you can realistically execute on early!

Scoping properly and setting expectations is also vital for having a good time. Having too much on your plate as a programmer might mean the visual art, music or story elements don’t get implemented properly, meaning some teammembers’ hard work is ‘wasted’. Make sure everyone is on board with what is ‘need to have’ and what is ‘nice to have’ in the game.

At some point you’ll also learn that the games that win, are the ones that get polished. For some perspective, some veterans say you should have a prototype of your game the first day. Others say you ought to follow the 8/40 rule; spend 8 hours developing the game and 40 on polishing it. So make sure you give yourself time for that, instead of scrambling in panic to get the code working 5 minutes before the deadline.

We have also written about scoping here.

Game jams are an exercise in utilizing your competencies to their best potential.

Sometimes, your team consists of 4 programmers, other times it consists of a programmer, a musician, a 2D artist, and a writer. If you want to do more productive working than intensive researching, you should lean into your team’s competencies. In the case of Sune and Jonas’ team for this jam, they basically agreed to do a huge emphasis on the presentation of and mood in their game, instead of relying on complex coding. Play to your strengths!

Game jams are an exercise in prioritizing what best supports the intended experience.

First of all, it’s always a good idea to not just agree on what your team will make, but what experience it will create. It’s great that you want to build a platformer with quick-time events. But perhaps more importantly, should players feel scared, investigative, silly, or something else? Having a clear idea on your ‘creative vision’ for the game, allows you to prioritize on what to make to reach it – especially when things go bad, and you have to decide what has to be cut. Never be afraid to ‘kill your darlings’. Building towards a defined experience helps you know when you get there, and often makes for more impactful games.

Game jams are an exercise in struggling, but still having fun.

At the end of the day (or two in this case), sitting up all night fixing problems you never wanted to deal with, while being deprived of sleep and extremely stressed out due to the ever-encroaching deadline, is all in all a really good experience. Especially when it is shared with good friends . The weird jokes and memes aplenty will always remain on the official Create Jam Fall 2020 discord channel. Now an archive of the collective madness that occurred throughout the weekend.

And the winner is…

win game jams, Devblog 4: How to win game jams – a case study of Create Jam, Digital Devotion Games

At the Strike of MidKnight

The winners of this Create Jam by popular vote was a Tower Defense game, where a princess, who just wants to be left alone, has to fend off an army of courting knight-suitors until midnight.

Second place went to a game called ‘Moon Chaser’.

win game jams, Devblog 4: How to win game jams – a case study of Create Jam, Digital Devotion Games

Moon Chaser

In this game, you’re a wizard riding your trusty unicorn to the top of a mountain to collect the purest of midnight moonlight. The game is basically a hilarious mix of QWOP, Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy, & Robot Unicorn Attack.

But, Jonas and Sune did win third place with their game ‘Midnight Murders’, where you play as Cinderella in a western drama and every fairytale adversary is defeated with a quickdraw and corny one-liners – all while listening to a soundtrack in true Ennio Morricone-style.

win game jams, Devblog 4: How to win game jams – a case study of Create Jam, Digital Devotion Games

Midnight Murders

Though, when you look at Dennis’ game, ‘Mission: Strike at Midnight – A Fairytale in Space’, it’s also really impressive, even if it didn’t win the popular vote. An online multiplayer game, where people have to work together and coordinate the steering of a spaceship to avoid asteroids.

win game jams, Devblog 4: How to win game jams – a case study of Create Jam, Digital Devotion Games

Mission: Strike at Midnight – A Fairytale in Space

We can therefore say that Jonas and Sune won our little internal bet. But why did these three games win the popular vote?

What characterizes a winning game jam game?

So, how do you win game jams? From our experiences as game jam veterans and organizers, we believe the answer is threefold:

1. Aim for the judges

First of all, if you want to win game jams, you’ll have to make a game entry that can score high in whatever the judging criteria are – in this case, the games were judged on ‘Gameplay’ and ‘Creative take on the theme’. The absence of ‘quality’, ‘uniqueness’ or ‘narrative’ as a rating-parameter made it so games with more hands-on and immediate gameplay scored higher in the ‘Gameplay’ category, while games with more obvious and subversive ties to the themes of both ‘Fairytale’ and ‘At the strike of midnight’ scored higher in ‘Creative take on the theme’. For example, our game ‘Midnight Murders’ scored the highest in ‘Creative take on the theme’, since it was recognizable fairytale characters performing the ‘high noon’ western quickdraw, but during midnight (when the clock strikes twelve).

2. Make it approachable

Secondly, it’s a question of: how approachable is your game? When doing a popular vote like Create Jam does, you need to cater to your audience and what they value. In this case, all the votees are sleep-deprived game developers, who have just 3 hours to play all 14 games. It is logical then that the winning games are those that are easily understandable, don’t require too much investment, and can leave an impression on the player relatively quickly. In the case of ‘Grüel’, the game featured a lot of hard-to-read notes you had to read to find clues and no clear goal to complete. For ‘Top Gum’, the game was unique and understandable, but sadly its particular gameplay of trying to match a silhouette mustn’t have resonated with the crowd. Then look at the second place winner, ‘Moon Chaser’, which at first glance might not look like much, but it’s hilariously silly, easy to get into, and can be completed in a few minutes – all great for those sleep-deprived brains! Don’t sleep on simplicity if you want to win game jams.

3. Build an experience

Thirdly, go for the experience! As mentioned above about how game jams lets you exercise your game development skills, one of the most significant predictors of winning is making a game that is fun, impactful and polished. If your game lacks feedback or is a simple greyboxed level, then people won’t rate it highly. Rather, stay true to a simple, yet unique idea, polish it as much as possible, and deliver something that makes people talk – then you’re good to go.

In summary, impressive games with pretty graphics are nice, but to win game jams you have to build a unique, polished experience with both the judging criteria and the audience in mind. In that sense, game jams can also be a great exercise in targeting a specific audience with your game.

These insights are somewhat proven by the fact that the Youtuber ItsDair and his comrade Amdioz played through the games, ranking them as they completed them one-by-one (see the whole 3 hour stream here). They started out with the game entry ‘Grüel’, which secured itself a number one spot on their ranking podium from the get go, never losing its spot to any other game. The public stream could potentially influence other peoples’ rating and the game garnered a lot of praise in the Twitch chat – with all of its art assets handmade during the jam, with in-game cinematics and extensive storytelling – still, the game only got a 7th place. While impressive, it wasn’t approachable enough and required a lot of reading and aimless exploration. This sunk their gameplay rating. Simultaneously, people had a hard time connecting it to the theme. So that sunk their ‘Creative take on the theme’ rating.

win game jams, Devblog 4: How to win game jams – a case study of Create Jam, Digital Devotion Games

Grüel: Fallen City

This is equally true when you look at the absurd, yet polished game of ‘Top Gum‘, where japanese game show meets tooth fairies. Despite its originality, focus on a simple mechanic and level of quality, it didn’t reach higher than 6th place. Spandex tooth fairies escaping mouths sounds funny, but the gameplay wasn’t impactful enough for the participants of Create Jam, it would seem.

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TOP GUM

Thanks for reading!

Alas, in the end, every participant at Create Jam won. The goal is not to win per se, but to have fun and learn, while building something together.

We had a great time at Create Jam, as always. Thank you to the committee and their partners. See you again next time!

For those who want to know more, Create Jam is a danish jam organized by the Create Jam Committee in partnership with Interreg (Öresund-Kattegat-Skagerrak), GameHub Denmark, Aalborg University Game Hub & Business Aalborg. This years visiting guest speaker was Søren Lundgaard, CEO of Ghostship Games, makers of Deep Rock Galactic who did a really interesting talk on the games development.

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See you ’round the block!

Sune, Game Designer

win game jams, Devblog 4: How to win game jams – a case study of Create Jam, Digital Devotion Games

Jonas, Community Manager & Audio Designer

win game jams, Devblog 4: How to win game jams – a case study of Create Jam, Digital Devotion Games

Dennis, Lead Programmer & VFX Artist

win game jams, Devblog 4: How to win game jams – a case study of Create Jam, Digital Devotion Games