How to Run a Game Jam
Depending on the nature of the jam and experience level of the participants, more or less structure than outlined here may be appropriate. More guidance will be needed for first-timers, but you’ll want to find a balance between rigid checkpoints and allowing jammers to stay in their flow.
This guide is geared towards a smaller group (25-40 participants) of mainly first-time gamemakers or first-time jammers.
For a group this size, we suggest:
- 1-2 coordinators, 3-5 volunteers and 1-2 technical/artistic mentors (rather than "floaters")
- 6-8–hour jam days (no overnighters)
- Providing catered lunch and dinner (poll participants for dietary restrictions), plus coffee, tea and water kept fresh throughout the event
- A space that is accessible for those who rely on assistive devices
- Clear information about accommodations such as child-care and interpretation
- Public transit stipend for all participants and volunteers, by request
- Reliable wi-fi
- Loaner computer availability
- A shared USB stick for backing up games throughout the weekend (jammers should be encouraged to back up to their own devices/services)
- Focusing on providing a fun, affirming and productive event rather than completed games or other specific output ￼
1 week before the jam
Audit the jam space
- Power: Where are the outlets? How many are there? Do you need extra power bars?
- Are there enough chairs and workstations for the number of registrants?
- Any specific space needs for assistive devices such as wheelchairs, or extra table space for prototyping?
- What’s the wi-fi password?
- Who can you contact if something goes wrong with equipment or the facility?
- Does the space have its own code of conduct? Does it need to be supplemented by your own?
- If participants will be borrowing laptops, are they charged up and passwords known?
- Are all entrances to the space and washrooms accessible to people who use assistive devices?
- Is there a coffee maker and refrigerator?
- Can jammers leave belongings on site overnight?
Email all participants with a reminder of the start date and time of the jam, information about food/transit/accessibility, and links to resources and suggested software to download around 3 days prior to the jam, and again day-of with any final information they may need.
Jam Day 1
30 minutes, e.g. 9-9:30 a.m.
- Give people time to arrive, have coffee, chat and get settled in before opening remarks.
- Greet each participant and find out a little about their goals and ideas for the jam. Check in with each person to make sure they’ve downloaded and installed any software needed so they can hit the ground running (if the jam is specific to a tool).
- Have people wear name badges with pronouns.
- If a photographer or videographer will be present, be sure to request consent from each participant. Remind participants to ask for permission before tagging others on social media.
- You may want to play music in the space to help people feel more comfortable chatting.
30 minutes, e.g. 9:30-10 a.m.
- Introduce the coordinator(s) and all volunteers/mentors. These individuals should wear name badges and also state their pronouns.
- Set expectations by presenting the schedule, including any lunch/dinner times, workshops, presentations or check-ins.
- Post the code of conduct on a wall or in your group chat. Review the procedure for reporting any issues or violations in confidence.
- Let jammers know they can work solo or in groups, and encourage them to chat with fellow participants about their skills, abilities and goals for the jam to find a good fit. Encourage jammers to talk to volunteers/coordinator if they’re feeling frustrated, stuck or confused as they’re all there solely to help.
1 hour, e.g. 10 a.m.-11 a.m.
If running a tutorial or workshop during the jam (great for first-timers), do it at the beginning of the jam and keep it brief and tailored to the participants. Suggested topics for jams geared toward first-timers:
- "How to Jam":https://dmg.to/blog/34 (include tips, survey of jam games for context and inspiration)
- Software tutorial (walk through modifying an existing game - good if everyone’s using the same tool, such as Playmaker or Twine)
- Game design concepts (higher level, good if participants are focusing on a theme rather than tool or format, or largely from another artistic discipline)
Morning Work Time
1 hour, e.g. 11 a.m.-12 p.m.
This will be a quiet time as everyone settles into their workflow and refines their idea. Some people will probably be sketching ideas on paper or a whiteboard, making notes or an outline. No one’s running into any technical issues at this point.
1 hour, e.g. 12 p.m.-1 p.m.
If catering is being provided and space allows, set up in a space away from where jammers are working and encourage people to take a break and chat with each other about what they’re working on. You’ll need volunteers to help out with setting up and cleaning up food. Be sure that any food ordered to accommodate specific dietary requirements is clearly labeled, and that the participants know that it is available for them.
5 hours, e.g. 1 p.m.-6 p.m.
By now, many participants will be getting into the deep end. Some people may be floundering a bit about what to do next, others will have specific technical questions. Now’s a good time to:
- Remind people to work in a spiral - start by building something small but complete, build iteratively, and articulate each step in their design.
- Have brief one-on-one conversations about goals for the end of the day and end of the jam to keep everyone’s expectations reasonable, and to ensure no one feels lost or left behind.
- Tip: If someone’s feel stuck or not sure what to work on next, ask them what they’re dreading doing tomorrow/least excited about and have them work on that, and talk through it with a mentor. This is prime energy and excitement time, exploit it!
- Be an example - get up for breaks, drink water and stretch!
If the jam starts later in the day, you'll have time for a dinner break and an evening check in. Shift everything up if you're running shorter/earlier.
1 hour, e.g. 6-7 p.m.
2 hours, e.g 7-9 p.m.
About 30 minutes before the end of the day, check in with where everyone’s at and ask if they’d like to show their progress to the group. Have jammers gather around each participant’s computer to see what they’re working on. Don’t pressure anyone to demo - keep it light, informal and encouraging. You might want to avoid a dramatic countdown to end time as that can be stressful and put people off sharing.
Remind everyone to back up their games. We usually pass around a USB stick so we know everyone’s done it, for redundancy and archival purposes!
Energy may be flagging and some people will want to pack up and head home before the day is wrapped. That’s okay! Tell them you’re excited to see where they’re at tomorrow.
Jam Day 2
3 hours, e.g. 9 a.m.-12 p.m.
Energy will vary wildly at the beginning of the day. Some people will be excited about the final jam day and eager to get cracking. You don’t have to worry about them too much.
🚨 Others will be considering switching tools, scrapping their idea, or significantly modifying it. What you advise them to do will depend on their personal goals, the state of the work they did on day 1 and the context of the jam.
- Switching tools very rarely solves a game design problem. It’s tempting to do if you’re having trouble getting your game to do something that seems simple, but comes with its own set of unknowns and issues. Strongly advise against this. Instead, think about the problem from a play/design point of view and ask for input from mentors and other jammers if they're available. Describe the design problem, rather than the technical issue.
- Scrapping an idea and starting from scratch doesn’t accomplish much. Remember, the jam is about the process, so any idea will do. If you don’t like your idea anymore, that’s ok! After today you can abandon it. Instead, try swapping out one element, such as your art or writing, for something completely different. In other projects, abandoning an idea is often good advice, but in a jam, capitalizing on momentum and the work you've already done to complete something small will yield great rewards.
- Overwhelmed by the work you have left to do? Cutting features, editing and paring down is a great idea! In fact, remove as much as you can - the simpler your goals, the more likely you’ll end up with something small that you’re proud of. This is something amateur and professional game developers do all the time and it’s a valuable design skill.
1 hour, e.g. 12-1 p.m.
Use lunchtime for brief demo/group check-ins for anyone who missed last night’s end-of-day presentations.
5 hours, e.g. 1-6 p.m.
- Everyone should be feeling good about their progress. Walk the room every hour or so and check in with anyone looking lost or frustrated.
- Remind mentors now is an important time to make themselves available to jammers. Stay present and aware.
- Offer to playtest and provide feedback to anyone who’s close to being finished, and remind the go-getters they can revisit anything they cut out earlier now, as they have a few hours til the end of the jam.
Back up your games! This is prime data-corruption time, so pass around the USB stick.
1 hour, e.g. 6-7 p.m.
Calmly let everyone know how much time they have and give out pep talks as required. There will be some buzz and excitement, but make sure no one’s feeling too anxious. “Wherever you’re at at the end is great and everyone’s excited to see what you’ve been working on!” Skip the dramatic countdown.
Get one-on-one confirmation from each jammer that they’re up for presenting, so no one feels put on the spot or obligated to speak in front of the group at presentation time. Make a list of who’s in.
1 hour, e.g. 8-9 p.m.
Pencils down! Have the group gather around each jammer in turn. Some people may try to use this time to keep working on their own game, and should be encouraged respectfully to join the group and support their fellow jammers.
Each jammer talks about their game and the work they did/issues they encountered/favorite parts for ~5 minutes, giving others the chance to play.
Thank volunteers and staff, congratulate participants on their work. Let everyone know if there’s an additional public showcase date or other follow up post-jam.
Send people home with a token if you can – we do jam t-shirts. A badge, pin or custom sticker pack would be cool!
Setting realistic expectations
One of the biggest problems you’ll encounter is frustration arising from a participant realizing they can’t make the game they wanted to with the time, resources and skills they have available at the jam. Counter this by reminding them that this is NOT the time to try to make their magnum opus, their big grand idea. This is practice and it's really valuable. Their future magnum opus will benefit greatly from this experience. This jam is about the process of working within specific constraints and achieving a contained, precise goal.
Personal goals trump themes, experience trumps output, understanding is more important than productivity.
- Don’t shout announcements at the group or interrupt someone who looks focused. Respect the discipline it takes to concentrate on a new skill/project for a weekend and let people work and settle into their own routine/workflow.
- Countdowns are stressful, avoid!
- Initiate conversations with a statement rather than a question (“It looks like you’re having trouble with something.” “You look like you just solved a tricky bug!”) so that jammers can ask for the help if they need it or just nod if they don’t want to be interrupted. Look available (pace the room quietly, observe facial expressions and approach jammers who look distressed). Here are some more tips for mentors!
- Discourage volunteers and mentors from gathering and chatting near the jammers for extended periods of time as this can be distracting and alienating (it’s hard to ask for help from someone engaged in a personal conversation).
Make sure latecomers don’t feel left out. Find them a seat and power, introduce them to nearby jammers, give them the rundown of where you’re at in the schedule and find out what they’re going to work on.
Keep coffee flowing, help maintain a clean jam space, find dongles and power bars, pick up food from caterer or restaurant or greet and guide them in, and answer logistical questions.
Getting Jammers Unstuck: Working in a spiral
Start with the simplest mechanic in your game, and work in small chunks. Get one feature working completely before adding complexity. Build on complete features to work them into your game system, testing as you go. Examples:
- Twine: A very simplified version of your full game - 4 rooms instead of 40. Or, start with a simplified outline in a writing program.
- Platformer: Get your character moving left and right on the screen before adding obstacles and jump mechanics.
- Adventure game/visual novel: Get one dialog interaction working before doing all your art.