Today I’m going to tell the story of how I used extreme cutting to submit a game during my first game jam.
When you have a short amount of time to develop a game the best thing you can do is keep your scope a small as possible. If you’re human that’s going to be a challenge so my suggesting is that you cut things. Which is as hard for creatives but easier. They holy grail is to scope small & then cut. But no one’s that good right… right…
In this video I want to show you how cutting most of my ideas helped me complete my first ever game jam. Hopefully it will help you learn from my mistakes.
It All Started With A Theme
As a Software Developer I was familiar with the concept of a game jam, it’s a Hackathon. But so we’re on the same page here the concept of a game jam. It’s a “contest”, where people are given a theme & a time period to make a new game. Some works in team, and others work solo. But each Games has to be submit before the time is finished. Then all the submissions are rated & everyone rides off into the sunset.
I participated in the FTGD August 2021 game jam. Which was an event put on by Thomas Brush, that is mainly targeted for students in his Full Time Game Dev course.
The game jam lasted 48 hours from August 13, 9:00 PM (PST) to August 15, 9:00 PM (PST). The topic was The Golden Rule!
- Any reusable assets from the Unity Asset Store are allowed!
- Unity, Unreal, and Game Maker Studio game engines allowed.
- No NSFW games.
- You may work alone or on a team.
- Participants must rate at least 1 other game to be eligible to compete.
The rules where straightforward. However this would be the first time “releasing” a game that complete strangers would play. I was able to create and submit a game called The Golden Link.
Seems like that most scoped games achieve the best results during a game jam. Here’s what I’ve learned after slashing my ideas during my first game jam.
It’s important to remember that the journey is the destination.
The journey is the destination, man.
Which leads me to the first rounds of cut…
95% Of Your Ideas Will Be Trash, Cut’em
After learning the theme I’m not going to lie. I sat in my office for 30 minutes. My mind went blank as a stared into the Unlimited Void of Gojo’s Domain Expansion. Who makes a game about The Golden Rule…
Luckily, someone posted a link in the FTGD discord channel on “How to Quickly Get Ideas in Game Jams“. The video by Jonas Tyroller was super helpful.
He gives a three step process for coming up with game ideas based on a given theme:
- Ask what are all the interpretations?
- Pick which on you like best, ignore the rest
Checkout his video for more details. After following the process here’s what i came up with.
In the end I choose to make a game about, moving two characters with the same action. That came from the idea that you can “control other units with your actions”. The parent of that idea was “treating others the way you want to be treated”. Which leads use back to the theme of The Golden Rule.
Many of these ideas could have made an excellent game but most are trash. The main reasons are because of scope & my current skill level. My goal was to purely to have a completed “prototype” finished by the end of the Jam. Remember we have days here, not months or years.
First lets get into scope, which can be defined by the individual levels of your game! Thankfully in “The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, by Jesse Schell” we’re given four such elements. Mechanical needs, Story needs, Aesthetic needs, and Technological needs.
Lets do some rating shall we…
- Mechanical = Medium
- Story = Low
- Aesthetics = Low
- Technology = Low
- Mechanical = High
- Story needs = High
- Aesthetics = High
- Technology = High
My Jam Game:
- Mechanical = Low
- Story needs = Low
- Aesthetics = Low
- Technology = Low
In a game jam give yourself one Medium. Everything else needs to be Low. These rating should be based on your teams skill level & assets you have access to.
The second and third things for your game idea is if it’s Concrete & Interesting. However these things are pretty subjective. So you’ll have to make a personal decision on that. Also remember it should fit the theme.
This would be a good time to tell you what I decided to make. You control two characters with the same action. The goal is to get them both to a portal at the SAME time. If one character dies, so does the other. Here’s how I jazzed it up… you know cause story telling.
Golden Halos have caused mortal enemies to switch bodies and be teleported to Limbo. They most now rediscovering the Golden Rule to escape. Both must reach windows together to navigate towards the truth. The only catch is that their movements are now linked. Any damage done in this body will also affect the other across Limbo. This is The Golden Link!
That sounds like a really great game… time to build it.
Build The Game First
Finishing the core game loop first should set you up to have something to submit before the deadline.
Abraham Lincoln would say, “Give me 48 hours to build a game! I would spend the first 4 hours building the game, and the remaining 44 working on its polish.”
Actually, that’s just the 444 framework by Rami Ismail from Vlambeer. Regardless this is our next chopping block.
Ok so maybe you’re not like my uncle Abraham Lincoln-Gatson. But you can still use this concept.
What I attempted to do was have the core idea nailed-down on Friday, have the game built on Saturday. Sunday would be set aside for polishing & bug fixes.
So on Saturday I started working at 7:30 AM. Updated unity… pro tip make sure you have this stuff downloaded ahead of time. I then downloaded the Super Simple 2D Kit. This basically gave me everything I needed to create a 2D Platformer in Unity.
Four hours later I had added golden windows and uncovered a bug with character destruction. Expanded the camera, & added multiple room to the game.
Took a 3 hour break. Went to the arcade with Kiddo and got some lunch.
Side Note: Taking some time to recharge during a game jam. It can help refuel you.
Back to it at 3:00PM, and by 5:00PM I was battling bugs with character destruction & movement. Basically the core mechanic of my game idea. I also wasted time trying to use fancy design patterns and make my code look “pretty”. Please don’t fall into this trap.
Took another three hours off for dinner & family all to pick back up development at 9:00 PM. A few hours later it was obvious that these bugs in my core mechanic weren’t going to be fixed any time soon. So…. I started cutting more things. Enemies, block pushes, & wall jumps all meet Lincoln-Gatson Axe.
Regardless in the end, I didn’t have the core mechanics finished & working until 3AM on Sunday. Yep I pulled an all nighter. Fueled by Stumptown coffee, not sponsored by the way (but if you own a coffee roaster hit me up). If I wanted that Cherry Tree to hit the ground you know what I had to do. Cut It, Cut It. At this point level design was still needed. So I sketched out twelve puzzles on makeshift index cards before crashing at 4AM.
This is what the game looked like at this point.
Polish With Extra Time
Which brings use to the final act of this Game Jam journey at 10:00 AM. Polish Time the ultimate cutting ground during our game jam. The first thing I wanted to do was create some new artwork. I felt that a monochromatic style would be the easiest thing to pull of with my artistic luddite skills.
From 11AM – 1PM I collected reference materials, and the games story solidified. I was heavily influenced by games like Limbo & Downwell. In the end most of this research time could’ve been cut also. Hindsight is 50/50 but I’m still working on finding the balance between planning and work. A skill I’m sure the best game jammers… game jammers?! have mastered.
By 2PM Photoshop was running hot. By 4PM I had some of my created art in the game replacing what I had from the Super Simple 2D Kite. But with only 5 hours left before the submission deadline I had to pull out the axe.
And chopping is what I did.
- timer that keeps score… Cut
- Floating platforms… Cut
- Damage from “spikes”… Cut
- Uneven health bars… Cut
- Character death animations… Cut
- Add original music & sounds effects… Cut
- Make the main characters silhouetted Shaolin monks that represented yin, & yang… Cut
Ok you get the idea but even like simple things didn’t make it into the game like having a reset level button.
The last 4 hours where a blur. I created & play tested 9 levels in total after cutting 3 halfway through. Scrambled to create a main menu, & added last minute cover art for the game. Had to figure out how to upload everything to itch.io with 15 minutes to spare. Only to realize the builds display window is to small, to late to fix & reupload. By 10PM that night realized that my 6 year old daughter can finish this game!! 😅
When The Dust Settles
When you have an short amount of time to develop a game the best thing you can do is cut most of your initial ideas. This concept helped me place 8th out of 32 submissions in my first ever game jam.
The Three step process was:
- Cut most of your ideas.
- Build the core game FIRST!
- Spend all your extra time polishing your core gem.
Brainstorming, planning, and executing an entire game dev process in two days was a great test. It showed me that sometimes, good enough is good enough. The amount of code here that is held together with duct tape and glue is astonishing.
Hope you’ve learned something from all of this. Let me know if you think I’ve missed anything on this topic. Wishing you all the best!