George S. Patton, America’s WWII military general, once claimed that a good plan implemented today is better than a perfect plan implemented tomorrow. In other words, an idea is worthless unless you use it. If Patton had stepped into the computing facility of Griffith College Dublin toward the end of January, 2013, he would have been proud to see his advice in action. As part of the annual Global Games Jam (GGJ), dozens of developers were bringing their dreams to interactive life.

Working under the theme of Heartbeat, one team was creating Tour de Lance, a surreal adventure that requires players to feed Lance Armstrong stimulants to keep his heart ticking over. Elsewhere, developers were making Tell-Tale Trials, a 3D story game based around Edgar Allen Poe’s story The Tell-tale Heart. Another game, Pulse Unknown, challenged players to control a cyborg with a human heart.

Simultaneously, in LIT Tipperary’s GGJ event, a team was creating Slingshot Surgery, about a paramedic who transports hearts for transplant patients. In Belfast, some developers were making a multi-player rowing game. All these developers were working against crunch time, collaborating and brainstorming between power naps and pizza.

Eoin Carroll, the Computing Facility’s Programme Director at Griffith College, has organised GGJ at the college for the last three years and believes the purpose of game jams is elementary: to get people developing games.

“Lots of people have ideas for games and never take them any further,” says Carroll. “Others are afraid of the time it takes to get up to speed to develop a game and then publish it. [A game jam] gives them a crash course in ActionScript, Flash or Game Maker. At the end, they have a finished product. They can take those skills and build them further. For our students, it’s a great way of seeing how much can be done in a very short length of time and to what level of professionalism.”

Debbie Rawlings, Director of Operations at Bristol-based developer Auroch Digital, runs a number of game jams, including GGJ, and contends that jams are ideal for ideas and innovation, as well as networking and learning new skills. Auroch’s Game the News, which turns topical news stories into playable games, emerged from a game jam. “From doing games jams, we realised what is possible within 24 or 48 hours,” says Rawlings.

In Ireland, the jam scene is thriving. While GGJ takes place every January, game developer Andrea Magnorsky (BatCat Games) and coder and tech event organiser Vicky Lee run Dublin GameCraft on a number of occasions annually. The first GameCraft took place in February 2012. Events have since been held in Thurles, Belfast; another is due to take place in Derry, as part of CultureTECH 2013, in September. Titles forged under Andrea and Vicky’s organisation include Tornado Apocalypse, from GameCraft @ Games Fleadh.

Andrea Magnorsky (BatCat Games)

In March, 2013, 091labs hosted the first Galway Game Jam under the theme of Magnetism. Another event is now planned for June, 2013.

What’s involved in organising a game jam? Ideally, an organiser will secure sponsorship to cover food and refreshments, prizes, and venue overheads.

For GGJ, Carroll takes part in IRC chats with the organisers at International Game Developers Association (IGDA): “There is extensive use of forums for communication with the organisers. Myself and Phil [Bourke, Games Design and Development Course Coordinator for LIT-Thurles] have run it enough times that we know the set up. We’re aware of the snag points during the 48 hours where students are either going to get fatigued, or they’re under pressure to get things done. Within 24 hours before the event starts, we get the theme, and the keynote speech sent to us, so we can set up and start at the designated times.”

On the Friday of GGJ, everyone gathers to watch a short keynote speech. Past speakers included John Romero (Quake, DOOM) and Cliff Bleszinski (Gears of War). The secret theme is announced and sites worldwide must complete their games by Sunday afternoon.

Choosing a suitable location for a games jam is crucial. “Make sure you have plenty of space,” advises Rawlings. “Once everyone gets themselves into teams, they need to separate out a bit, focus and get their heads down.” Jams are held in conference halls, universities, and other private spaces. “Griffith College has given me increasing bigger rooms to hold the event as we have grown over the last three years,” says Carroll.

Dublin GameCraft III, in May 2013, was held in Dublin’s Engine Yard. “There were bathrooms, a kitchen, couches, and a lot of natural light,” says Magnorsky. “Loads of people said this was a great place. We had breakfast, lunch and dinner. The dinner part was interesting. We charged for this event for the first time, although it was only €5.”

Dublin GameCraft usually takes place over eight hours, but the time limits on jams vary from a couple of hours to a month. In the case of a 48 hour jam such as GGJ, participants often work throughout the night. Outside Ireland, TIGSource has held one-month jams. Seven Day Roguelike organises week long affairs. TIGJams challenge coders to build games in as little as three hours. Glorious Trainwrecks have been known to offer two hour limits.

Most jams are based around themes, which can vary from Ludum Dare’s Evolution to 2012’s F*** This Jam, in which participants created a game in a genre they disliked. In location-based jams, developers are not told the theme until they arrive, so everyone starts on a level playing field. Some events include individual challenges. GGJ challenges, for example, include Two Heads Are Better Than One (requires multiple devices to play), and True Colours (a game only uses the classic 16-colour palette).

For GameCraft III, the theme was Non-Violent Exploration. “In the morning of the GameCraft, we announce the theme which is decided by the judges,” says Magnorsky. “The judges are selected semi-randomly from people we know – ‘Hey, do you want to come and judge all these games, which means you have to play about 30 games in two hours while drinking and eating pizza? It’s not like many people go, ‘I hate that idea’.

Game jams have few rules or restrictions, although GGJ organisers are asked not to reveal the theme to the world. “It starts at 5pm local time for each time zone,” explains Carroll. “If we get the topic and we announce it to America, it will be spoiled for them. So we ask the participants not to put it out on Twitter and social networks. Apart from that, it’s up to the discretion of each organiser to run it in their best interests.”

Most jams are over 18. The GameCraft organisers were hoping to include coderdojo, the global network for young programmers, but insurance for the venue prevented this.

Due to the lack of strict rules, game jam teams come in all sizes. For the first year of GGJ at Griffith College, teams came together organically. For 2013’s event, the 54 entrants each pitched an idea for a game. A bidding war then began in which people signed up to each other’s teams. While some teams consisted of 10 people, others were two-man (or woman) operations. “Part of the idea of the Global Game Jam is you meet and work with people who you might not know on a day to day basis,” says Carroll.

Technology and disciplines vary wildly. Participants can use whatever building tools they prefer, whether Unity, GameMaker, etc., and develop for any platform (iPad, Xbox, PC, etc). There are coders, character designers… even production managers.

“At this year’s event, we had people from industry, postgraduate, undergraduate students,” says Carroll. We had first year students who were able to get a game developed over the 48 hours. Most of the studios that helped us out were start-ups over the last year or so. They were able to talk about their experiences, or give quick training on Unity and other tools.”

Magnorsky urges those with specialist skills – like musicians and writers – to come along too.
“I think it really enriches the experience,” she says. “Every time I invite people with other talents they think it is amazing. The more they like games, the more it helps.” Carroll continues: “[The lack of] music is always a bit of an issue. The other issue is a shortage of artists – 3D assets. At this year’s event, one guy said he was happy to be a roaming artist for all the teams. People came up to him with their specs.”

Different approaches
Game jams have been on the go for over 10 years, since events such as Ludum Dare began producing titles in 2002. While critics of the format suggest it is impossible to produce a decent game in a short space of time, impressive titles have emerged from jams. Rom Check Fail, a mash-up of various retro games, was born out of TIGSource’s one-month jams. Irish developer Terry Cavanagh made the brilliant Sine Wave Ninja as part of a jam. Experimental Gameplay Project, meanwhile, unearthed the classic World of Goo in 2008.

Jams are open to a variety of approaches. Debbie Rawlings has produced jams that bring game developers together with scientists: “The scientist is in the role of designer, so he or she is embedded as part of the team.”

Last year, Rawlings and Helen Kennedy, a professor at the University of the West of England, held the XX Game Jam: the first all-women jam. This 24-hour event was held to coincide with Ada Lovelace Day, which celebrates the world’s first computer programmer.

“The point of doing it was to encourage more women to come into the games industry,” says Rawlings. “After we put out the call, 43 female developers signed up within 8 days. Most of those were programmers. By the time the event came around, another 40 women were on the database. We offered travel, accommodation, and childcare costs, so people could travel from around the country. The venue gave us their office space from 6pm on a Friday night until 11pm. The next day was 6am to 6pm. Some of the teams worked through the night at their hotels. A couple of girls found a cafe that was open 24 hours, so they worked in there.”

The theme for XX Game Jam was Clockwork; winning titles included Donkey Kog Country. “The standard was amazing,” says Rawlings. “As high quality as any jam that I’ve ever run.”

A winning formula
Although some jams have winners, or games that are singled out, organisers are quick to suggest these events are not competitions. Creating an atmosphere of collaboration and communal bonding is the priority. Not competitiveness.

At the end of Dublin GameCraft III, the organisers ordered 40 pizzas for the participants and opened a fridge full of beer. “While people are doing the game jam they are focused on making the game,” says Magnorsky. As soon as the game jam part is over – after 12 hours in this case – there is a People’s Choice award. Each participant has a token, so they can vote on games, and play everyone else’s games. This generates an ice-breaker between the teams.”

Game jams foster new friendships, increase confidence and create opportunities within the community. These games don’t have to be approved in boardrooms, they are not subject to focus groups, and they don’t necessitate enormous budgets. “We always make the point that you’re never going to develop Gears of War or FIFA,” remarks Carroll. “You want a small scope for your game. Get a prototype up and running, then work from there. If you have time to expand the prototype, that’s brilliant. If you don’t, don’t worry about it.”

It’s perhaps no coincidence that the concept of thinking small and simple is producing some of the best games on the market. Magnorsky sees the future in small indie games. “You are trying to push creativity without the limitations of big budgets,” she says. “Maybe that helps something like Journey. That was a group of 10 or 12 people and that was just astonishing. That was not a casual game for me. It was something uncategorisable.”

For Rawlings, who knows companies that emerged from teams who met at game jams, the concept is a no brainer: “If you want to get into games, do a game jam.”

Galway Game Jam, 22 June.

Derry GameCraft @ CultureTech, Sat 14 Sept.