Reflections and lessons from Toronto Game Jam 9
🕓 May 1st 2014
For 3 years now I have participated in the Toronto Game Jam(#TOJam). It is pretty much my number one reason to live in Toronto these days. Despite not regularly practising game development on or off the clock, I do still consider it a hobby and this my favourite place to exercise it.
One of the things that makes the Toronto Game Jam so great is the fact that it is a non-competitive event. People are encouraged instead to challenge themselves and have a great time while helping each other in a greater collective goal of making a small game by Sunday. Speaking of help, the whole thing wouldn't even be possible without the tireless volunteers that work to prepare the event and run it through all hours. A lot of energy, enthusiasm and support under high pressure went into each of those games. If you aren't a participant and haven't seen the amazing list of games that came out this year from the jam, you really need to have a look.
Among the list you will find a game developed by myself and Rob Richard called Lemonade Startup. It is a satire business simulator game paying homage to the lemonade stand simulator games of younger years and the current popularity of startup culture. I consider it to be the most successful of the 3 jams I have participated in for several reasons.
- Having a vision going into the jam is essential. It isn't illegal by jam rules to be prepared and this is about your personal best. So setting yourself up for success is a good idea. Rob and I met for pints casually and discussed our idea. We drew out a plan of execution for day 1, 10am.
- Scope, scope, scope. Consider the scope of everything you add. It is really important to be able to draw a vague line in your mind of how you are going to get from start to finish in 56 hours. Ideas that seem unclear in execution or side fluff need to be benched. Don't even think about adding them just at the end either if it involves too much last minute coding.
- Sleep. Take breaks. Scope needs to account for a minimum of 16-20 hours of leisure per person. That's at least a good night's sleep every night.
- Regular 'nightly' builds. We set a goal to have something playable each day. Since it's a web game, Lemonade Startup was even shared online every night. This is really useful because it means you are setting yourself up to be ready for the post-jam arcade and getting opportunity to test it earlier. We made some key pivots on day 2 after realizing that drag and drop controls were too sluggish. We moved to hotkey capabilities and it made a world of difference.
- Team size matters a lot. I've tried a 6 man and a 1 man team before and seen both of their pitfalls. Large teams are hard to manage and organize. If you have remote workers, even harder. It also makes the pre-planning phase trickier. Take each member you add seriously; they contribute to scope. 2-3 people maximum seems like a key team size. The difference between 1 and 2 people is huge. The team support and constant discussion that you get from being 2+ will make for a better final product, not to mention the additional help when dividing tasks.
Every jam is a great learning process and I'm constantly fixated on improving the formula for a successful jam. Our shared past learnings taught us well this year. We had a web game ready in time for pencils down. There was some great feedback and reception during the post-jam arcade. While calendar oriented business simulators aren't for everyone, others took to it very kindly.
We also had a theory that this game would be liked among the tech/startup crowd. So on Tuesday, after making a few tiny tweaks, I posted our game on Hacker News and can proudly say we made the front page for an hour or two, getting as high as #8 for a glancing moment! It was very rewarding to see people getting into the mechanics and making wise cracks - comments here.
I'm really glad to have participated yet again in the Toronto Game Jam and hope I can participate again next year. I was actually very close to missing it, but managed to spontaneously start a team with Rob just days before registration opened. The only criteria going in was that we make a game built around a drag and drop calendar, because I thought I might reuse the code for other work.