With the 2014 Global Game Jam fast approaching I have been asked a few times by new participants what they should take with them, and how they should prepare. Wikipedia defines a game jam as “a gathering of game developers for the purpose of planning, designing, and creating one or more games within a short span of time“, they are a wonderful experience for anyone interested in game development. They are often suited to any level of experience, as participants can form themselves into teams with total strangers of compatible skill-sets. Often people will volunteer to take a role that they know little about, experiencing a new side of the development process or polishing rarely used skills.
The Global Game Jam is a yearly event, taking place simultaneously around the world with a single theme given out to all participants. The event itself lasts for 48 hours, a very long time to be awake and developing, but a very short time to put a project together with a team of people you may have never met before! This makes it quite an exciting challenge that deserves at least a little preparation and planning! To that end I’m going to give you a few ideas and tips from my own experience. Ultimately a game jam is about being yourself, creating something, and having fun. There is no right and wrong, and it’s not a competition! Your experiences will vary, and my suggestions are only a rough guide. (Please note that none of the links in this post are affiliate links!)
48 hours is a long time to work, and it’s important to look after yourself. If you’re fortunate enough to live near your venue you may be able to head home to sleep, shower, etc. But if not it’s important that you take some personal supplies.
Water – It’s tempting to tear your way through coffee, energy drinks and sodas, but take care to hydrate yourself properly. Your venue should provide access to water, but it’s worth taking a bottle or refillable container. I use a wide-mouth Klean Kanteen, but any would do the job perfectly well!
Deoderant/Wash bag – Last year the average number of participants at a GGJ location was 44. After a day or so of hardcore games development the average person gets a little bit stinky. None of us are perfect, take some deoderant, shower if you can! Some locations have access to showers – check in advance, and take a washbag if you can.
Sleeping bag – Chances are you’ll be sleeping on a floor, sofa, or something similar. Do yourself a favour and take a sleeping bag. If you can take a pillow as well then do so. You’ll thank yourself if you can get some solid sleep, and your team will thank you for not being grumpy or inattentive. As well as a sleeping bag I also bring a compressible camping pillow, which helps avoid neck pain when sleeping on the floor!
Comfortable clothes – An easy suggestion, you should be as comfortable and warm as possible. Here in Scotland a hoodie is almost essential for the cold nights, but Game Jams tend towards being overly hot thanks to the number of people and computers. Having a change of clothes is a good idea too! You will have no control over your locations air conditioning (assuming they have any).
Food – Some locations provide food for participants, others are positioned near shops/cafes etc. But it’s always worth bringing some food for yourself. Jamming is great fun, but eating is important! Sharing food is also a great way to bond with your team.
Pens/pencils and paper – Widely overlooked in this day and age, but a pencil and paper is a fantastic way to express yourself while in the planning and design stage of a game jam. You don’t have time to build mock-ups or proof of concepts, you need to sell your teammates on your ideas and get them on the same level (or allow your team mates to do the same for you). You probably won’t have access to a whiteboard! I personally like Rodia dotpad notebooks since their dotted grids make it easy to plan levels, or draw diagrams if you’re not too arty, but standard gridded notebooks work well too. A good sketching pencil is very useful, even if you’re not artistic. I use this Koh-I-Noor clutch pencil because the thick lead makes it a bit easier for rough sketching, and the built in sharpener is always handy. I personally like to take notes and create to-do lists. I use moleskine notebooks and v-ball classic (0.5) pens because the ink dries fast enough on that thickness of paper not to cause me a problem – I am a left-hander with awful handwriting! Pick something that works for you, even if it’s just a stack of blank paper!
The heavy stuff, the stuff you’ll kick yourself if you forget because there’s no way to download it later. Some of us think that there’s no such thing as being too prepared, and while that’s probably not actually true it’s certainly worth thinking about bringing some stuff with you.
Laptop – If you can bring a laptop, do. GGJ locations do provide access to PCs (usually with relevant development tools pre-installed) but everyone works better on their own computer. Bringing your own laptop ensures that you’ll definitely have access to a working machine with the tools you’re familiar with, it also gives you the portability you may need while forming a team. Before the event make sure your laptop is working well, with adequate hard drive space, and any applications you may want to use installed. Make sure you pack your charger, you’d be surprised how many people forget. Some people with adequate transport do bring desktop PCs. You’re a bit less mobile of course, but it’s still a great plan!
Peripherals – Bring a mouse, your wrist will thank you. You may also like to bring an external keyboard. Also consider bringing any input/output periphals that you may like to include in a game. Personally I’ll be bringing a comfortable mouse, a spare mouse, a decent keyboard, a graphics tablet (this came in seriously handy in my last jam, where I foolishly volunteered to do the art and would have been lost without it), one or two wired xbox 360 controllers, and an Oculus Rift development kit. Speakers, microphones and midi keyboards are often brought along by the audio-savvy jammers.
Headphones/earphones – Essential. You’ll need to drown out the other people and concentrate sometimes for your own sanity, and you’ll need to be able to hear your own game above the ambient noise. Bring some decent ‘phones, and make sure that they don’t leak audio for your neighbours benefit!
USB memory sticks – Don’t assume that the locations network will be working solidly throughout the jam, you may find yourself unable to share files with your team or that the network is simply too slow/restricted to transfer large files. Having a USB stick is always useful!
Camera – If you have a camera, bring it along! There’s probably one built into your phone. Game Jams are a fantastic social occasion and you’re guaranteed to get some fun photographs!
Other hardware – I take some other bits and pieces which may be overkill for some people. I bring a monitor since my development laptop is an 11″ Macbook Air. I bring a 3G router, which can provide internet access over 3G to wifi clients. This is wonderfully handy if the location’s internet connection fails as you can provide internet access to your team if necessary! I bring a couple of USB wifi adaptors for problem solving, and I have been known to bring a spare development laptop incase of emergencies! I took two flight cases to my last jam, but the team next to mine brought a coffee machine so I felt okay.
If you are bringing your own computer, spend some time beforehand making sure you have a good complement of software for the jam. Below are some thoughts and guidelines. As well as my own comments it’s worth checking out the Ludlam Dare tools page.
Text editor – Should go without saying really, a decent text editor allows you to work on most projects, you never know what your team will end up using! I use Notepad++ in Windows.
Programming IDE – Take your favourite IDE for your favourite language. Play to your strengths if you can!
Git client – You’re almost certainly going to be working with other people, and git is a fantastic tool for collaboration. Many game jam teams use Github or Bitbucket for source control and being able to work with these is essential. Take an hour or so to read some tutorials if you’re not already familiar, it’ll save you from having to do it on the day!
Dropbox – Many teams use Dropbox to share assets (and sometimes even their codebase!), but it’s also useful for creating “private” links to send to team-mates and share files.
Audio editor – It’s very likely that your game will include audio, and you might be the one working on it! Having the ability to chop audio files and alter the volume is pretty useful. Audacity is a decent, free and multi-platform solution.
Image editor – As above, your game is also likely to include images! Images that will need to be created, altered and saved in different formats. Paint.net is a decent free solution for Windows.
Unity – Like it or loathe it Unity is a very popular choice for jams, and licenses are often provided. Checking it out in advance is probably worth it!
Game Maker Studio – Game Maker Studio has a free version which is a decent place to start if you’re not an experienced game developer.
Screen recording software – This is an easy one to forget about, but you’ll probably want to create a demo video once your game is finished! Something fun that your team can upload to youtube.
IM client – A good multi-protocol IM client is handy for communicating with your team. Although you should all be in the same physical space it is especially handy to be able to paste text to each other, or communicate with people who’ve left to get some sleep/food. It’s also great to catch up with plans while you’ve been sleeping. Pidgin works well and is multi-platform.
Other software – Any software you use when creating your hobby projects is software that you should bring with you! Personally I go a little out of the box here and bring a netbook with a pre-setup Git server deployment. This way I can easily sit down with my team, take public keys, and give everyone access to a local, fast, centralised git solution with no real messing around. It’s been incredibly useful in the past, but perhaps a little over the top for most people!
Keeping It Simple
“My new personal goal for jams is do stuff that I wanted to try, not necessarily stuff I’m already good at. My last game we spend a big chunk of our time bugfixing, many of them collision bugs, and that isn’t not entirely the most fun thing to do. It’s easy to think that you both need a) a finished game b)something with non trivial mechanics. This jam I really want to just have fun, and see where it goes. Also, it’s quite easy to get really exited about an upcoming jam, and start defining what kind of game you want to make, what platform it should run on. That’s fine, but it might be hard to shoehorn in with the theme. Consider just showing up, there’s always time to come up with good ideas, and you can directly discuss them with your team.”
“Something that I have learned the hard way is that it is very useful to spend time at the outset making sure that your idea is feasable in the given time limit; Feature creep has never been so much of an enemy as in a game jam. Additionally, everyone will be excited and people will suggest ideas that might be fantastic but if it cant be made in the time limit then scrap it immediately, or distill it till it is feasible. Also don’t forget to just take a break every now and then, go outside an get some fresh air, take a walk. Lastly, I tend to program in C++ using SDL, and its important to create a solid framework before the compo. You will need to use all of your time focusing on making a game, not programming sprite blitting routines or the like.