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
- 8-12 hour jam days (overnighters discouraged)
- Providing catered lunch and dinner (poll participants for dietary restrictions), plus coffee, tea and water
- A space that is accessible for those who rely on assistive devices
- 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 also back up to their own devices/services)
- Focusing on providing a fun, affirming and productive event rather than completed games
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?
- Is there wifi, and what’s the password?
- Who can you contact with IT issues?
- If participants will be borrowing laptops, are they charged up and passwords known?
- Is the space 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 prior to the jam.
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 the software they’ll be using so they can hit the ground running (and if not, have them do so right away).
If a photographer or videographer will be present, be sure to request consent from each participant.
30 minutes, e.g. 9:30-10 a.m.
Introduce the coordinator(s) and all volunteers/mentors. These individuals should be encouraged to offer their preferred pronouns.
Present the jam schedule, including any lunch/dinner times, workshops and presentations.
Note where the anti-harassment policy can be read, or print out and pass around.
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, single-track and tailored to the participants. Suggested topics for jams geared toward first-timers:
- How to Jam (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 GameSalad or Twine)
- Game design concepts (higher level, good if participants are focusing on a theme rather than tool or format)
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.
5 hours, e.g. 1 p.m.-6 p.m.
By now, many participants will be getting into whatever tool they’ll be using. Some will 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, and build iteratively.
- 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.
- 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. This is prime energy and excitement time, exploit it!
- Be an example - get up for breaks and chats every 20-30 minutes.
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.
Remind everyone to back up their games. We usually pass around a USB stick so we know everyone’s done it, and for redundancy.
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 and the state of the work they did on day 1.
- 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. 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.
- 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 well into their workflow by now. Walk the room every hour or so and check in with anyone looking lost.
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.
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 if applicable.
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.
Setting realistic expectations
One of the biggest problems you’ll encounter is frustration arising from the realization you can’t make the game you wanted to with the time, resources and skills you have available at a jam. This is NOT the time to try to make your magnum opus, that grand idea. There’s plenty of time for that later! That’s not what the jam’s about - it’s about the process and achieving a contained, precise goal. You can apply what you learn here - it will be a lot! - to your dream project in the future and it will be much better for it.
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.
- 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).
- Discourage volunteers 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).Latecomers
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, pick up food from caterer or restaurant, and answer technical questions. If volunteers are also acting as mentors, have them read Mentor and Volunteer Guidelines.
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.