How Game Jams Jumpstarted My Career

I am a huge advocate for game jams. Whether you are a fresh novice still finding your way in games or a seasoned AAA veteran, there is a ton of value in participating in a game jam.

However, there are already plenty of articles and resources detailing the potential benefits of game jamming. So instead, I want to discuss how game jams served as a turning point for me. When I was at a scary low point in my life, I did 4 game jams in 4 months, and it jumpstarted my career.

Now, I know that is a strong claim. So to ground it in reality, here are some important disclaimers:

  1. My game jamming experience is just one of many factors that helped me get started.
  2. Game jamming is not a guaranteed path to success. Like anything, results will vary depending on approach, timing, and luck.
  3. Game jams are not a replacement for personal projects. Rather, they are something you can do in addition to (or to take a break from) your personal projects.

Getting those out of the way, I stand by my claim. Today I am a happy game designer/programmer hybrid on a healthy career path, and I truly believe that I wouldn’t be here without game jams. Game jams gave me the confidence, skills, and portfolio to jumpstart my career.

Post-Grad Blues

In 2013, I graduated from RIT with a B.S. in Game Design & Development. But due to my poor performance as a student (the details of which I can cover in another blog post), I returned home to Long Island with a sparse portfolio and zero job prospects. Meanwhile, some of my fellow RIT graduates were getting hired by the likes of Bungie, Zynga, and Microsoft.

It was a tough time for me, and I questioned whether or not I was on the right path. Slowly I began to realize how many opportunities I passed on at RIT, and how many great resources (professors, game lab, etc.) I no longer had access to. How could I turn things around on my own?

The Turning Point

One night, at the height of my frustration, I decided to try and make one of my simplest game ideas: a top-down puzzle game where you control two characters simultaneously with arrow keys. I described the idea to my gamer friend Marco, and asked him to design a level on graph paper while I set the code up.

Once I had the absolute basics – a red and blue dot moving simultaneously with the arrow keys – I asked Marco show me his level. I must have described it poorly, because he misunderstood and thought the characters were supposed to keep sliding until they hit something (like a sliding ice block level in Pokemon or Zelda). Instead of ignoring or correcting his design, I ran with his interpretation, and the result was a fun spatial reasoning puzzle!

An early prototype of Brain and Brawn

Though not officially a game jam, this mini jam-like experience gave me a fun, playable prototype in just one evening. It was an incredibly empowering experience, and I found myself compelled to keep iterating on the prototype (that would later go on to become Brain and Brawn).

With this boost of confidence, I decided to try some game jams in NYC.

4 Game Jams in 4 Months

In a period of about 4 months (October 2013-January 2014) I participated in 4 different game jams.

Purgatory (NYC Gamecraft 2013)

First there was the New York Gamecraft, where we were asked to make a game about “Lost Doorways” by the end of the day (7.5 hours). I planned to team up with a friend but he did not show so I was forced to improvise and meet people. Somehow we managed to build Purgatory: a simple arcade-style game where you must avoid enemies/obstacles and get to the door in a rotating room.

The whole experience was a blur, and I couldn’t believe it when we won “Best of Show”! This was my first hint… maybe I could be good at this after all?

Face the Music (Indie Speed Run 2.0)

High on the success from Gamecraft, I asked my Purgatory teammates Andrew Kelley and Anthony Nguyen to join me again for Indie Speed Run, an online game jam that generated a unique theme for each participating team. For this we built an action platformer called Face the Music, which attempted to convey “procrastination” (our assigned theme) via its mechanics.

However, sloppy platforming physics and a mismatched rock & roll theme (which came from the required element “microphone”) got in the way of our mechanics-driven metaphor. It was an early lesson in unification: the different parts of your game should all be working towards a common goal.

Corporate Pie (Indie Speed Run 2.0)

I managed to do Indie Speed Run a second time, this time with my artist friend, David Wallin. We made a puzzle game called Corporate Pie, where players attempt a “corporate takeover” of a literal pizza pie by strategically placing and removing toppings with different abilities. We were never quite able to solidify the core mechanic, so we were making huge changes all the way to the last minute, and the result was a bit sloppy.

I learned from this how important it is to find the fun in your core mechanics as early as you can. Otherwise, if you try and make everything click only at the last second, you run into the risk of never finding that fun at all.

Negative Space (Global Game Jam 2014)

For Global Game Jam 2014, I teamed up with David again and with another programmer Altay Murray, and we built an art game called Negative Space based on the theme “We don’t see things as they are we see them as we are”.

Once again I was making a game using mechanics as metaphor, but this time we did everything right. Our team had great chemistry, we had a fun prototype by Saturday afternoon, and I even had some opportunities to run around with my laptop and get feedback from external playtesters.

Our success in this game jam reinforced the hard lessons from earlier jams. Unlike Face the Music, everything from gameplay to aesthetics were all working towards clear goal of how different the world seems to an introvert and an extrovert. And unlike Corporate Pie, we found a fun core less than halfway through the jam, which gave us plenty of time to iterate on the delivery.

What I Gained

In addition to the lessons I learned from game jam individually, what did I gain from the overall experience of doing 4 game jams in 4 months?

First and foremost, game jamming gave me an incredible amount of confidence and validation. I went from feeling like a failure in September to a legitimate aspiring developer in January. It’s hard to quantify these qualities, but they absolutely contributed to my overall drive and willingness to take creative risks in 2014 and beyond.

Second, game jamming quickly set me up with a portfolio of several 1-3 minute web games. It was hardly ideal, but it was great starting point that I could improve on over time. And it turns out that short web-playable games gave me an edge, even over some large scope games that took many months or years to make, because employers are starved for time and do not want to download software of any kind.

Third, through game jamming I discovered that I had an affinity for level design. I was responsible for designing the levels for 3/4 of my game jams, and each time I had a blast and felt like I made a meaningful contribution.

Last, but not least, I discovered that I can code! I had a mixed relationship with programming at RIT, because I had a naïve understanding of what game design was, and it felt more like a graduation requirement than anything. But through game jamming it became crystal clear: programming enables iteration. And rapid iteration is integral to the game design process. So while on some level coding will always be a “means to an end” for me, I am fully capable of delivering production quality code, and I am happy to do so for the sake of improving a game.

Takeaways

What should readers take away from my experience?

Quite simply, game jams have incredible potential to jumpstart your career. When I go to meetups, I keep hearing aspiring indies and fresh graduates looking to break in complain about this catch-22: you need experience to get a game job, but you need a game job to get experience.

But game jams are, in part, a solution to that issue. Game jams require zero experience to participate and contribute. And they are probably the quickest method for an individual to build confidence, skills, and a portfolio of game prototypes. It may not be equivalent to industry experience to an employer, but it is very productive use of your unemployed time.

So if you are looking to turn things around and jumpstart your career, there is nothing stopping you. Go participate in a game jam!

Game Jam Resources

Regularly scheduled game jams:

  1. Global Game Jam (biggest jam, once a year – usually in January, sites around the world).
  2. Ludum Dare (online, worldwide from the comfort of your home, once every few months)

GGJ also has an amazing list of tools and resources to help you prepare for a jam. (Not that preparation is required).

 

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