Chicago Game Jam 2013: Post-mortem (the Steve version)

This will be a long post, so strap in.

As you may already know, the Chicago Game Jam was held on Oct. 25th – 27th.  It was an absolute blast, and I have to thank IGDA Chicago for putting on a wonderful event, and the Nerdery for being amazing hosts.  I met a lot of really great people, collaborated on my first true game, and learned so much about what goes into game creation and design.  Before I go any further, let me just say that if you are thinking about going into game design of any kind, you should do a game jam.  No matter what your skill set may be, by the end of the jam you will have some idea of what it might be like to work on a game in a real development environment.

The Good.

1.  Lots of friends to make.
If you’re reading this you’re probably a gamer.  While I’m not trying to encourage the stereotype that we’re sun-fearing basement dwelling lizard people, gaming can be solitary.  If you’re the type of person that would want to come to a game jam, you probably both play and create games – you may be doubly solitary.  If you’re a social butterfly despite your gaming habits, you may find there simply aren’t that many people to talk shop with in your daily adventures.  Game development is hard, and there aren’t that many people willing to do it.  The Game Jam presents an amazing opportunity:  when you can get a whole room full of people together to just talk about creating games, it makes for some really great conversation.

2.  I made something.
No matter what else happened, I made something.  At the end of the jam, it wasn’t the exact product that I wanted to make, but it was a product nonetheless, and it worked (mostly).  I can say, for the rest of my life, that I made a game.  As a creator (whether in a technical or artistic sense) there is this tendency to never really finish anything.  Before feature one is even finished, you’re thinking of features two through five.  The jam forces you to eliminate feature creep.  I’m absolutely horrible with feature creep, but during the jam I found myself saying “it’s not working, we have to cut it” a lot.  It gave me a sense of discipline that I’ve never had in the creative sense.  Deadlines make sense for creative people; that was a big take-away for me.

3.  I learned a lot.
I learned more as a participant in this game jam than I have in any other capacity.  My programming and development skills improved literally overnight.  I learned how to be productive despite exhaustion, environment, and frustration.  When I think back on the weekend, it wasn’t all pretty.  There were plenty of annoying bugs to track down and features that were unceremoniously abandoned.  By Sunday afternoon though, I had learned and experienced a hell of a lot about game development.  The jam demands all that you have, because your teammates are relying on you.  In those moments of self-doubt, frustration, and exhaustion, you learn how much you really want to make games.

The Bad.

1.  It’s physically draining.
I work a typical 9-5 job, so I left straight from work to head downtown on Friday, only to turn around and head home a few hours later.  Saturday morning I’m back downtown, preparing to settle in for a 36 hour coding marathon.  I slept for maybe 3 hours the entire weekend, and they were not at all restful.  By Sunday afternoon I was exhausted, and I’m still feeling the after-effects the next day.  Don’t get me wrong – it was the best sleepover ever.  That said, I’m 31, and just can’t pull all-nighters like I used to.

2.  It’s mentally draining.
As physically draining as the event is, it can also be just as mentally draining, if not more so.  From the moment the jam starts until the moment it ends, it feels like intellectual and emotional overload.  At first it’s fun and exciting, then the repetition and tedium sets in.  As the night wears on and exhaustion inevitably begins to take hold, it becomes harder and harder to be productive, which tends to bring out the irritability.  I worked hard for as long as I possibly could, but at some point I started getting restless and punch-drunk.  Productive moments started coming more slowly and it was easier to get caught up in conversations about other games, movies, etc…  Once the sun starts coming up, the mentality quickly shifts.  With the final bell approaching, my mind flew into overdrive for the last few hours.  By the time the event was over I was so mentally drained that I felt like I could barely count to 5.

3.  Collaboration is hard, especially with strangers.
I think a long-term game jam reality show would be great, because the environment of a jam is a lot like one of those profession-based reality shows.  Everyone wants to have fun and learn, but everyone also wants to succeed, and put their best foot forward.  People at game jams are people that want to make games professionally.  They’re also usually very creative.  Without the proper leadership and guidance, it’s easy for the scope of a game to spiral out of control.  Everyone has ideas, and almost always, people want to implement their own ideas above others.  While that seems perfectly natural, it can also make collaboration difficult.  I was lucky to get on a team with people that were mostly easy-going.  We worked pretty well together, given the nature of the event.  We started out strangers and ended up friends who built something together.  No matter what, that will always make me feel proud.

The Rest.

The jam was fantastic; a wonderful experience that I’m glad I took part in.  It challenged me mentally, emotionally, and physically.  I made friends, I networked, I drank lots of coffee.  I actually made a game!  Whether or not the game I helped create was a prize-winning masterpiece, finishing it is a huge boost to my confidence, as is successfully collaborating with others.  Coming in to the jam I wondered if I’d be able to find a team and be useful.  Both turned out to be true.  Once again, a big thanks to the IGDA for holding this event.  And to anyone thinking of trying a game jam, do it!  You’ll have a blast.

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