Notes from GX4: Jamming Along to Game Jams

GaymerX is a gaming convention designed by and for LGBTQ gamers, with the tagline “Everyone games!” It’s officially a fan-facing event, but many of the panels and talks were geared for game devs just as much as gamers. I took notes, and you can click here for my other GX4 notes.

GaymerX speakers: Please contact me (carolyn at if:

  • I included something you said that should not be included, or
  • I quoted you without attributing (when you would prefer attribution), or
  • I made a factual error (I take notes by hand, and I make no pretense of infallibility!)

Jamming Along to Game Jams

Panelists: JC Holder (moderator), Emily Meo, Lain Farlight, Ellen McGrody, Tobiah Zarlez, Diana Liao

A jam event is a limited-time, low-pressure build event. Non-game jam events include NaNoWriMo, InkTober, and hackathons, which are tech development events focused on a specific goal.

Events need not be jam-centric to have a jam element, but it’s important to keep in mind that people participating in jams will focus on the jam rather than anything else going on at your event. A better way to integrate jams into a non-jam-centric event is to have a pre-event jam and then culminate with people showing off their creations at the event. is a great site for Internet-hosted jams, even ones that aren’t game focused.

New jammers often have trouble with time constraints, which can lead to anxiety. A few different approaches:

  • Scope as small as possible (note from Carolyn: see “Scoping for Game Jams”)
  • Focus on using your time wisely, rather than focusing on completion
  • Adjust your definition of success: what do you really want to achieve?
    • In many cases, simply learning something is the best goal for a jam – and if you focus on trying something new, the chances you complete your project go down. Which is okay – because if your definition for “success” is “I learned something”, then you haven’t failed.

TransHack is a hackathon to develop open source tech that can help trans and nonbinary people.

A good way to get started with game jams is to attend team events and look for a niche you can fill within your team.

False starts in game jams are okay. Each false start gives you more experience, and more code, assets, concepts, and skills – all of which are useful later!

For extended jams that focus on large-scale content production, like NaNoWriMo, focus on how much time you spend per day, rather than how fast you’re progressing. It will help you build good habits and avoid burnout.

Long-form jams teach good time management and approaches to productivity.

Consider the pomodoro technique to stay focused. It creates periods of focus, short breaks and long breaks at a good pace.

Meditation is a good way to fight jam stress.

Jams in a physical space often encourage or celebrate overcaffeinated beverages and skipping sleep. Don’t buy it.

While jamming, never ever fail to eat, sleep, and shower! Push yourself, but don’t abuse yourself – you are far more productive when you take care of yourself.

Always give yourself permission to skip jams, even when “everyone else” is doing them. This is for fun and learning.

If you want to run a game jam, talk with corporations. Finding corporate sponsors is not all that hard. Check for pertinent groups.

The SF/Bay area has a jam practically every weekend. Again,

Choose a theme for your jam as a way to engage people’s creativity.

When you’re at a physical jam, and you can’t find a team, the organizers can help you. Also try: write your need and skills on a piece of paper and hold up the information. In a digital space, do this on Twitter and the forums.

Don’t assume that people will automatically come to you if they need your skill set. Anyone can be shy, especially programmers and artists. Reach out!

Major game jams to know: the Global Game Jam (January 20 – 22 in 2017) and Ludum Dare (3 times a year). The Ludum Dare team competition (as opposed to solo) is a great place to meet people online for gamemaking.

The biggest test for a team is jam communication. This is a great way to find out fast if you have good communication skills with a potential future coworker.

Slack is useful during game jams for communication and focus. You can use different channels for different team needs, and the visible conversation can lead to spontaneous collaboration.

Places to find in-person game jams include Global Game Jam sites, game dev meetups, the Ludum Dare forums, and your local IGDA.

Game jam hosts usually don’t provide tools, though there are exceptions when a jam is sponsored and focused. For example, the upcoming VR Austin Jam (November 12-14, 2016) will loan Vives to people.

When organizing a game jam:

  • Be very clear about the tools and tech available
  • Provide links to tool recommendations
  • In-person game jams need:
    • Comfortable/accessible space
    • Water
    • Free wifi
    • Tables
    • A Code of Conduct
    • A safety plan

Should you take risks when participating in a game jam, or focus on making something? Decide your approach beforehand.

Set low expectations and surprise yourself.

Focus on one thing you want to do right or exceptionally well. Consider Undertale: it’s nothing new, just a very very good combination of existing ideas.

Think about a perfect 30-second gameplay loop. Then think about what your player’s focus is at 5 seconds, 30 seconds, and 5 minutes. Don’t worry past 5 minutes – that’s outside the scale of a game jam game.

Don’t approach a game jam with grand schemes or masterworks aforethought. Choose one of gamefeel, or message, or mechanic, and get just that aspect right.

Be modular in your approach. Create things that will be useful again later.

Game dev is an iterative process! Focus tightly on one thing, then improve from there. Have a center point and don’t lose sight of it.

Trust your team. You’re not the only one who can excel. Give everyone their chance to shine.

Be reflective as you work. Ask yourself: “Do I like this? Do I want to make these things?” Study yourself as you create.

Explore or excel: pick one for your jam. Don’t try to do both. You don’t have time.

Identify (an idea), commit (as a team), divide (up the plan) (note from Carolyn – there was a fourth item here and I didn’t capture it in my notes. Google is not helping. Anyone know?)

Game jams are an opportunity to practice craft in a focused, healthy way. They are (or at least should be) judgment-free.

Audio people often wind up working on multiple projects at a game jam. Great way to network!

Working solo is even more low-pressure and low-risk than working in groups.

Some studios have internal jams as breaks/refreshers and vehicles for inspiration.

Some people practice game jams as self-care: a break from everything else.


Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *