The Game Jam Survival Guide

5 (2 reviews total)
By Christer Kaitila
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About this book

Game jams are fun. They are a creative, exciting, social experience. The goal of a game jam is to design a video game, either alone or in teams, as fast as is humanly possible; usually in a single weekend.

The Game Jam Survival Guide, written to help you have more fun and achieve greater results at your next game jam by building a successful game without burning out, leads readers through each 12-hour phase of a 48-hour weekend game jam.

Weekend warriors: dominate your next game jam! If you follow the system shared in this book, you will be able to build an amazing game that you're proud of and will entertain players, all in just one crazy 48-hour game jam weekend … and survive to tell the tale!

Embrace the best practices and techniques of past game jam winners and avoid common pitfalls along the way to the finish line. You too can survive a 48-hour game development marathon with your mind intact and an amazing game to show off to friends and family!

With The Game Jam Survival Guide you will learn the secret techniques that master game jammers use to create winning entries. It starts by showing you great ways to brainstorm and design a game based on a theme. It then moves on to highlight the best tools and techniques to finish a game in a weekend of coding. Anecdotes and advice from past winners and losers combined with humorous words of encouragement are sure to help you on your way. The author presents a list of game jams around the world, online communities worth checking out, fantastic game engines, and art resources. Finally, learn how to monetize your game by gaining sponsorship from big gaming websites. It's the fun way to make your own video game in one weekend!

Publication date:
April 2012


Chapter 1. Before the Jam:Prepare Yourself for Success!


"The enemy of art is the absence of limitations"

 ---Orson Welles


You CAN do it!

With a little positivity and a lot of hard work, you will succeed. There are several techniques listed in this book that will give you an edge over your competitors.

The IndieArcade Game Jam

This chapter will cover the things that you should do before the Jam, such as:

  • Preparing your tools

  • Forming a team

  • Social networking

  • Things to avoid

  • Preparing for success


Finding freedom in constraints

Creativity flows when it is constrained, whereas unbridled freedom is strangely inhibiting. The famous quote by Orson Welles above conveys this perfectly. Another example to illustrate this theory is Norman Rockwell's paintings.

When he was given a limitation of only black and red ink for his first magazine cover commission (, he worked within these constraints and developed a signature art style that launched his career. Would he have become so famous if allowed to use any other colors?

Creative constraints can give rise to surprising new ideas and can also improve the design of your game. For example, statistics were collected during an analysis of the Ludum Dare Game Jam's "post-mortem" blog entries in which Jammers listed "what went right" and "what went wrong" while making their game. A significant percentage of jammers reported being very happy with their art when they used a limited palette of colors, and conversely, a significant percentage were unhappy with their art when they used all the colors of the rainbow. Sepia-toned, subtle, complementing color choices are just one example of how imposing creative limits on yourself may in fact improve the final product.

The major creative constraint that Game Jams provide is time. Some game developers take up to five years to produce a single game. Many AAA console games took several hundred human-years of labor if you consider the time and number of people working on them.

When faced with the frenetic pace required to make a game from scratch on a single weekend, it will take creativity and some "out of the box" thinking to get to the finish line. Along the way, you might just find that your ideas are fresher and more inspired because these constraints push you outside your comfort zone.

Feeling excited enough to dive in and make a game in 48 hours? Your first step is to choose an event and sign up. The most popular and longest running Jams are listed in the Appendix 1, Game Jams.


What the experts say: Eric McQuiggan

Some big things that I find work well in the many Game Jams that I've been a part of or organized:

Centralized location: This is important as it allows people to get together and bounce ideas off of each other. It also helps teams get together and games get finished.

Rigid and adhered-to rules (to a point): As with most creative endeavors, the more stringent the situation, the more the creativity comes through (most of the time anyway). There is nothing more intimidating than a blank slate.

Some constrictions could be Time (48 hours is good, one week is alright), Palette, Screen Size, or Theme (most important).

Don't try out new tools: It's hard enough to make a game in a tiny timeframe, but when you compound that with having to learn a new skill set, it makes things really difficult.

Sleep: People think they can skip it, but it really makes your last day of the Jam terrible.


Eric McQuiggan is a founding member of The Dirty Rectangles which has held various Game Jams, makes Flash games at Fuel Industries and is Vice President of the Ottawa Chapter of the IGDA.


Dirty Rectangles:


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Game Jam survey stats

In December 2011, participants of Ludum Dare 22 were asked to fill out a survey on their experience. Ludum Dare is a 48-hour Game Jam, and over 2000 participants joined in the fun where a total of 891 games were completed. 747 people filled out the survey. Here are the results:

Looking at the stats in the previous image gives a pretty clear picture of what it is like to join a Game Jam. Most importantly, people have a lot of fun.

A majority of participants were either first-timers or less experienced Game Jammers. Most are happy with their games, of which about half work in a web browser. In order to finish on time, many people had to cut features and simplify their designs. Not everyone was as familiar with their tools or base code (source code that is the starting point for the game) as they should have been, and only a few tried to learn a brand new engine.

Most games did not run on mobile devices, but many were cross-platform. On average, most people did not spend time watching TV or movies, going outside, visiting friends, or playing other games.

Contrary to expectations, almost nobody drank coffee, energy drinks, or alcohol. Virtually nobody used version control (such as SVN or GIT) or time-management techniques (such as Surprisingly, not many reported having difficulty with packaging, installers, or submitting.

Perhaps the most telling statistic from the survey is that nearly everyone who participated plans to do so again. Game Jamming is fun, and addictive!


What the experts say: Jason P. Kaplan

The best thing about Game Jams is making something new and, hopefully, unique. With full-sized projects, one feels the need to be profitable, safe, and so on, which leads to familiar and iterative games. With Jams where there's nothing on the line but a day or a week of work, we find ourselves willing to break down walls and try new things.

If I could give one piece of advice to newcomers, it would be: Master your technology. Don't go into a Jam thinking you'll make a brilliant game on a new tech that you haven't used before. Know everything about the engine that you're coding in, your art tools, and your skill set. Only learn new things when you have copious time to afford said learning.


Jason P. Kaplan is the founder and organizer of the Game Prototype Challenge, and a game developer and designer. Passionate about helping people to get motivated and make games, he tries to distil said motivation to make his own games.


Game Jam:



Go with what you know

If you start from scratch or use a game engine that you've never tried before over the Game Jam weekend, it is highly unlikely that you'll finish anything more than a tech demo by the end. The learning curve is simply too steep. You'll spend all your time learning the new technology.

For this reason, the wise Jammer already has a game engine picked out, installed, and ready to go before the Jam begins. Now is not the time to try to learn a brand new engine. Get to know it before the Jam.

There is a list of popular game engines in Appendix 1, Game Jams.


Preparing your base code

The prepared warrior is sure to win in battle. It is not enough to have a game engine picked out. If you really want to make the best use of your limited time, you would be well served by first preparing a base code project.


What is "base code"?

More than just a game engine, a base code project is one that is already set up and ready to compile and run. A game engine downloaded from the web can take hours or even days to get set up and ready for use. Finding dependencies, installing plugins, fixing file paths for included files, and ensuring that everything compiles are things that a prepared Jammer has already completed long before the Jam begins. This template project, sort of a "hello world" app, should be a working, albeit simplistic game. The best base code already has all the "wiring" done to enable features such as a title screen, simplistic game logic, scorekeeping, sounds, asset loading, initializing graphics, and more.

Instead of opening up your editor and starting with a blank project at the beginning of a Game Jam, truly having your tools at the ready, much like sharpening your sword long before entering a battle, will help you hit the ground running.

One way to save time before a Jam is to create base code template projects for archetypical game genres that you are interested in. For example: a platformer; a grid-based puzzle game; a top-view scrolling shoot-'em-up (bullet hell game); or a visual novel style adventure game.

Many Game Jams will allow you to start from a base code template if you "declare" it at the beginning of the competition. Declaring your base code could be as simple as providing a link on your "I'm in!" blog post, that would allow others to download the same base code if they wanted to use it as well. This keeps the playing field level, yet allows you to have a working skeleton game ready to be fleshed out.

Even before the Game Jam "theme" has been revealed, many participants already have a genre of game that they've decided to embrace. Pick something that you've always wanted to make and simply fit the theme into that genre as best you can. Just remember, some genres are more labor-intensive and complex than others!


"I'm going to create a massively multiplayer, free-roam 3D RPG with realistic physics, vehicles, a deep crafting system with in-app-payments and live video chat!"


"I like the KISS rule: Keep It Simple, Stupid! Since I only have two days I'm going to make a single-player 2D puzzle game with one or two levels."


What the experts say: Mike Kasprzak

There just isn't enough time to make something the "right" way. Instead, you need to pick the fastest way. Not the fastest-performing way, but the fastest way you can get things working. Your time is most precious. For me, this was an incredibly refreshing realization... Jamming is like going through an entire product development cycle in a fraction of the usual time. You can try something out, note what did or did not work, and try again straight away.

Pick something that will take you only a couple of hours to make, then stop thinking and go make it. Get it working as soon as possible. Use dummy art. I like to throw-down simple geometric shapes such as circles, squares, triangles, and pluses (N.B.: This is not a PlayStation ad). And once it works, polish and make it better until you run out of time.

A Jam is an incredible teaching tool. We hate to admit it, but some facets of the game industry are cruel and punishing, the crunch especially. The thing is, crunching isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's just how we typically use it in the game biz. Jamming is probably the best way to understand the good, the bad, and the ugly of the crunch before you decide to make it a career.

More often than not, crunching a Game Jam game is some of the purest and most fulfilling game development you'll ever do. You're creating something for you. When you're done, you'll have something to show and admire, and the time commitment was just a couple days instead of the months and years a typical game takes.


Mike "PoV" Kasprzak runs Sykhronics Entertainment and is one of the organizers behind Ludum Dare. He's the author of many games, including Smiles HD, a puzzle matching game that's currently available for nearly all mobile devices of today. Aside from being a finalist in the Independent Games Festival Mobile in 2009, Mike has won some pretty crazy prizes with Smiles including a Smart Car.





Preparing your art tools

In addition to your game engine and development environment, you will want to have your art tools at the ready. Nothing is more frustrating than finding that you need to download and install something after the Jam begins, so test out your tools beforehand.

In a survey of Game Jam post-mortems, participants listed unfamiliarity with the art generation tool as the number one thing that went wrong. More frequent than code bugs, more annoying than installation hassles, more constricting than running out of time, it is the art production step which is the most common roadblock on the way to finishing your game.

If you are making a 2D game, ensure that you are thoroughly familiar with the program (such as Photoshop, GIMP, or Inkscape) that you plan to use. Know ahead of time what size and file format your art should be in order to work well in your game engine. Do your textures need to be square and 'power-of-two' in size? Can you use the Alpha channel? Will using images that are too big cause your engine to render poorly (or not at all)? Test out the process before the Jam. Make a sprite and get it working in your game engine.

The same holds true for 3D art; not only should you know how to sculpt a 3D mesh using 3ds Max, Blender, Sketchup, or Maya; but you need to be familiar with the export process. Practice getting art from a creation tool into your game, because there are always technical hassles. File format woes; size restrictions, technical constraints, bugs in the exporter are some of the potential hurdles.

Even the audio content pipeline should be premeditated. Does your game engine require .ogg files, .mp3 files, or .wav files? What sample rate should be used? These and more questions should be sorted out beforehand to avoid hassles later.


Practice makes perfect

The rule of thumb is to be sure that you have practiced using your entire art creation tool chain. You don't want to have to learn how to export a mesh after the Jam begins. Expect format woes or exporter bugs the first time round. One way to avoid these headaches during the Jam itself is to test your content creation pipeline beforehand.

Create a sample sprite or mesh, a tiny game level, and an example sound effect. Export them all in the proper formats. Embed or import this data into your game engine. Compile a simple "hello world" example game and ensure that your art appears perfectly. Test whether your animations run, your sounds are audible, and that the empty game prototype runs without errors.

If you can do all of the above, your game creation tools are ready for Jamming. A wise warrior knows that sharpening your sword before battle is smarter than trying to do it on your enemy's armor.

OrcaJam 2011 in Victoria, Canada

Forming a team

Some Game Jams, especially those held in person (at convention centers or computer labs) encourage teamwork. Others, such as Ludum Dare and most virtual Jams are usually solo efforts. It can be exciting and fulfilling to work together with a couple of other people to make a game.

One person may be the main coder while others work on art, sound, or level design at the same time. By joining forces, you will accomplish twice as much than what you would if you tried to do everything yourself. Network with the people around you at the beginning of the Jam and see if you can connect with anyone. This can be a great way to make new friends!

Social networking tips

Making a game is great, but doing it with friends is far better. The Game Jam subculture is a social scene. Jammers frequently use IRC chat rooms, email mailing lists, blogs, and discussion forums, and networking is of course constant. Using social networking is essential for making connections with your peers.

You don't want to be simply coding in a sandbox, unaware of what others in the Jam are doing. Instead, try asking for help with bugs that have you stumped: there is sure to be someone on that chat room or blog who has experienced the same problem. By the same token, offering to help others with their problems (or simply to play-test their game) will make you popular and appreciated. Helping others is always the best way to achieve social media success: it isn't what others can do for you, but what you can provide to others, that makes the difference between an obscure Game Jam entry, and one that everyone is talking about and playing.

There is a list of social networking resources such as Google+, Twitter, and IRC chat rooms, as well as useful applications that help you make time-lapse videos in the Appendix 3, Helpful Tools.


Things to avoid


Many 'gotchas' worth looking out for, including:

Not having your tools ready

Trying to learn a new language or API

Going without sleep

Not going outside or taking a break

Not eating properly

Many first time Jammers make the mistake of diving into programming before getting their tools in order. When a Jam begins, you should already be familiar with your compiler, editor, and language.

You should have already installed the tools that you need to program the game and create the art. The game engine that you want to use should have already been downloaded, and you should have already tried making a simple tech demo or "hello world" example.

This preparatory stage is essential, since 48 hours is not very much time. Stories of entire days lost due to broken tools, missing .dlls, and getting over the learning curve are legendary.

Many a Jammer has failed to produce a game because they spent an entire weekend learning how to use the game engine that they hoped to become familiar with.


"This weekend sounds like the perfect time to learn something completely new, so I've just downloaded a wicked looking engine and brand new compiler that I'm going to use for the first time while working on my game!"


"I want to spend the entire weekend working on my game and not waste the first day setting up my tools and getting over the learning curve, getting familiar with a framework that I've never used before, so I'm going to stick with what I know already. I have a simple game engine from a previous project that I'm going to start with and I'm using tools that I've had for years. I'm gonna stick with what I know so that I have a "hello world" app compiling without errors in the first 15 minutes."

Don't try a new language

Don't try to learn a completely new toolset or engine during the Jam, or that's all you will accomplish. In the same way that you wouldn't join a jazz music Jam with a musical instrument you've never touched before, once the Jam begins you should be using a tool that you are intimately familiar with. Go with what you know. If you are ever in doubt bout whether you should try the newest, latest, and greatest new tool, or a tool that you have already made a game or two with, the advice from the pros is "go with what you know". Now's not the time to do something for the first time.

Sleep is good

Another thing to avoid is attempting to go without sleep. Although there are stories of half crazed Jammers pulling multiple all-nighters and emerging from the sleepless fog with an award-winning masterpiece, the more common story is that of late night headaches, productivity dropping to near zero as fatigue kicks in, and Monday morning misery. Remember, you are most effective, faster, and quicker to fix bugs when you are fresh.

You will often come up with the solution to a tricky bug in your sleep. Your mind will mull over whatever it was that had you stumped the night before, so don't worry about getting a good night's sleep. The productivity gains that you will receive from taking short breaks, naps, and even getting your mind off the Jam for a walk outside are well worth the time spent away from your computer.

Real life matters

Quality of life matters, more so during a Game Jam. A little sunshine and some time spent with friends are going to help you have a fun weekend—and a life. Don't shackle yourself to your computer for the entire weekend. Live a little. Your game will be the better for it.


"At the start of the weekend I'm gonna order one dozen pizzas, six bags of chips and two cases of beer. It is gonna be legendary!"


"I find that my brain works best when I'm well hydrated. I'm going to drink tons of water, eat fruit and light, non-greasy food. This way I won't have a sugar crash or get headaches from caffeine withdrawal or a hangover."

Food = Brain Fuel

Another thing to avoid during a Jam is throwing your diet out the window. While many people will have a coffee or two when burning the midnight oil, as with all other things in life, moderation is the key. Too many beers, too much caffeine, or eating nothing but junk food will give you an initial burst of energy followed by a long hard crash or hangover. Your brain needs to be fuelled by non-greasy foods which tend to release energy over a longer period of time. Your thoughts will flow faster and clearer if you are well-hydrated—so drink tons of water. Always have a glass of juice or water by your computer. The better you treat yourself, the happier the entire experience will be.

Treating yourself well during a Jam doesn't just benefit you—your game will be better as well. You will create fewer inadvertent bugs if you are well rested and hydrated. Your morale will stay high if you aren't battling a pounding headache. Your mind will feel clear and swift, and your code will be masterful.


What the experts say: Mike Hommel

Don't be a stereotype. Red Bull and all-nighters is a surefire way to churn out garbage that crashes.

Don't skip on sleep, don't load up on caffeine. Just use normal waking hours and take breaks—go for a walk to clear your head, eat your food in front of the TV. Do these things to settle your brain down. If you're in a frenzy, you're gonna screw it all up, and you're going to burn out before the end. The end hours are the most important ones, you have to be at your best when you're looking at your game and deciding what kind of polish you can slap on in two more hours.

Keep a notebook. Then you can flip through that and consider it when the theme is announced. Another great thing to do is sit down and write out short phrases or sentences that the theme brings to mind. Does one of those expand into some kind of gameplay in your head? Look at every angle and every definition of the words. You might make the most creative game if you are the only one who realizes that "Gravity" can mean "somberness" as well as just "stuff falling down".

The genre or style of game that is most likely to win a Game Jam is "a surprise". If you make a plain old platformer, an RTS, or an FPS; that's not it. The genre of game that will win is "unique". Make something nobody has ever seen before. Invent some weird mechanic that nobody is expecting. If it's a flop, all you have lost is 48 hours!


Mike "Hamumu" Hommel is a successful indie game developer, the administrator of Ludum Dare, and one of the creators of nearly 50 games such as Robot Wants Kitty, Dr. Lunatic Supreme With Cheese, Kid Mystic, Loonyland, Mia's Happy Day, Sleepless Hollow, and more.



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Maintaining relationships

Surviving a Game Jam means more than just making it to the end with a finished game. It means more than simply staying alive during coding marathons. Truly surviving a Game Jam means that you also managed to maintain your real-world relationships.

Many Jammers have family responsibilities: shirk these and you know that you'll be suffering the consequences tenfold over the next few weeks. Instead of aiming to sleep in the doghouse for a month, take some time to spend with your family, fulfill your commitments, and show the people that you love exactly where they sit in your list of priorities (the very top).

Many wives and girlfriends (or husbands and boyfriends) may not take too kindly to your not being around to enjoy the weekend with them. It is imperative to get your loved ones on board with the whole idea. You can make up for the missing time by scheduling a special day trip or family outing on the day before the Jam (and perhaps also on the day after) to make up for it. Ego matters: if you put your wife in the credits as "executive producer" it will score you many bonus points.

Finally, get your social circle involved in the Game Jam itself: while taking a break for dinner, talk about game ideas and ask their opinions. Ask them for ideas. Ask them to be the beta-testers for your game. They'll feel like they were made part of the event.


Techniques to help you survive a Game Jam without getting a divorce

Booking the time well in advance so everyone knows it is coming up.

Making up for the time you're away: a family outing beforehand.

Putting your loved ones in the game credits.

Asking your kids for game ideas.

Getting your loved ones to provide voiceovers and sound effects.

Scanning your kid's artwork and use it for the game sprites.

Negotiating a way to make up for it: a date, chores, and so on.

Giving your partner weekend pass for something they love.

Getting your family to play the game you make afterwards.

Involving those you love in the Game Jam.

It only takes a little effort and caring to get your family and friends on board. This will avoid any guilt trips, bitterness, or feelings of neglect in the future. One tried-and-true technique is to book a family outing the day before a Game Jam. Talk about the fact that you'll be preoccupied over the next couple days and that the trip is meant to make up for it.

You will be able to enjoy the Jam that much more when you are unencumbered by feelings of guilt, so get your loved ones involved in the project. They will feel part of it rather than replaced by it.


What the experts say: Ian Schreiber

The best thing about Game Jams is they're a great equalizer: you can't tell the difference between a game made by amateurs and one made by pros most of the time.

If I could give one piece of advice to newcomers, it would be: don't be intimidated, just do it. You'll learn more in a weekend than you would in a year of classes.


Ian Schreiber is one of the organizers of the Global Game Jam. He has been in the gaming industry since the year 2000, first as a programmer and then as a game designer. He has taught game design and development courses at a variety of two-year and four-year colleges and universities, and has co-authored two books on games.



About the Author

  • Christer Kaitila

    The author of this book, Christer Kaitila, B.Sc. is a veteran video game developer with 17 years of professional experience. A hardcore gamer, dad, dungeon master, artist and musician, he never takes himself too seriously and loves what he does for a living: making games! A child of the arcade scene, he programmed his first videogame in the eighties, long before the internet or hard drives existed. The first programming language he ever learned was 6809 assembly language, followed by BASIC, Turbo Pascal, VB, C++, Lingo, PHP, Javascript, and finally ActionScript. He grew up as an elite BBS sysop in the MS-DOS era and was an active member of the demoscene in his teens. He put himself through university by providing freelance software programming services for clients. Since then, he has been an active member of the indie game development community and is known by his fellow indies as Breakdance McFunkypants.

    Christer frequently joins game jams to keep his skills sharp. Over the years, he has programmed puzzle games, multiplayer RPGs, action titles, shooters, racing games, chat-rooms, persistent online worlds, browser games, and many business applications for clients ranging from 3D displays for industrial devices to simulations made for engineers.

    He is the author of the book “Adobe Flash 11 Stage3D (Molehill) Game Programming Beginner's Guide” and is the curator of a popular news website called which boasts over 30,000 articles and zero ads. He is one of the administrators of Ludum Dare, and has hosted a mini weekend jam with the theme of “all talk: dialogue and conversation”. He also created the keynote lecture for Ludum Dare 21, an 8 minute video filled with words of encouragement and advice. His client work portfolio is available at and his personal game development blog is where you can read more about the indie game community and his recent projects. He lives in Victoria, Canada with his beloved wife and the cutest baby son you've ever seen.

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Latest Reviews

(2 reviews total)
Really solid overall summary of how to exceed, enjoy, and optimize your game jam experience. Gives you a lot of technical, social, and mental / health tips.
livre synthétique, riche d'information, j'ai bien apprécié
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