So! I just participated in my first game jam, Adventure Jam. It’s also probably my last game jam for a while, because it was freaking exhausting. It lasted for two weeks—a good deal longer than average game jams, which seem to prefer the 36-72 hour range—but that’s not much time to create an entire game experience from scratch.
Which, of course, is the point. Much like NaNoWriMo, an event I dearly love, the idea is to use the pressure of a deadline and the camaraderie of fellow participants to create something you might not otherwise make, and to see what creative shortcuts you come up with to deal with the limited time frame. But unlike NaNoWriMo, with a game jam, there’s a chance your end product won’t even work.
My finished (a term I use loosely) product is Ree’s Ruined Earth Courier Service: Shipment Delayed. It’s a small part of a larger story that I’ve been tinkering with for a while. The whole thing is quite short, so if you haven’t played it, please check it out! Everything I describe below will make a lot more sense if you do.
I made the game in Unity, created all the art assets in Photoshop, and used my own code for everything except for the pathfinding (for that, I used a plugin called PolyNav. I was on my best behavior and did all my work within the official two-week period; aside from some simple sketches of the backgrounds, I didn’t do any preproduction at all.
So what did I learn?
- Even after scaling down my vision a lot, my idea of how much I could accomplish in two weeks was laughably overambitious. Originally I planned on full intro and ending animated sequences, sound effects and music for the whole game, and I even considered an entirely separate opening scene set in Ree’s home base before the characters take off and the main action begins. In the end I was barely able to scrap together a quick, barely-interactive ending, and I just skipped the audio entirely.
- Dialog is the quickest and easiest aspect of an adventure game for me to produce. I wish I’d realized this earlier and given Ree and Glaya some longer interactions; it was fun to write, players seem to like it, and it’s one of the things adventure games do the best among game genres.
- Coding is the slowest and most frustrating. I already knew this, but I didn’t anticipate just how much time I would have to spend fiddling with the various game systems and trying to get them to work. This ate up a lot of time I wish I’d had for more animations, or sound work. Which leads us to my next point…
- I really should have spent time developing my game logic before the jam started, or used an out-of-the-box adventure game solution. I’m pretty sure this would have been acceptable under the jam rules. All of the scripts I wrote to manage the state of the characters and environments, and to properly stage the events and dialogs in the game, could have been developed beforehand, leaving me with a lot more time to just create the actual content of the game. I’m actually pretty pleased with the flexibility of the system I came up with for game events and dialogs; it’s clunky, but it’s not bad for (a portion of) two weeks’ work. But still, not a great use of so much time.
- When you code all day for your job, coding a game is a lot less fun than it would otherwise be. I’m a mobile developer by trade, so I spend a lot of my workday dealing with the same bugs and frustrations that awaited me at home when I worked on this game. That dampened my enthusiasm for the game a little, and led to the need for longer mental breaks, which meant less development time. There’s a flip side to this, though…
- Coding all day makes you a much better coder. I hadn’t created my own game from scratch in a while. The last time I made an adventure game was over five years ago when I had no clue what I was doing, so I was pleasantly surprised at how much faster the process was this time. I was able to put together the logic and keep things well-organized in a way that would have wowed my past self. In addition to helping me finish the game faster, it’s just a really nice feeling to be demonstrably better at something than you used to be.
- Working on a team for a jam is probably a good idea. The most impressive results from this jam mostly came from teams, which makes sense. More people = more resources for design, code, art, and sound. I enjoy working alone because of the freedom it gives me, but it definitely limits your scope. If I ever do another jam I’ll likely seek out collaborators.
- Creating something quickly can yield awesome results, but the resulting exhaustion makes it hard to go back and refine it. I really want to polish up this game with some more animations, more detailed artwork, and of course sound. Maybe I’ll even create a full-length game with the whole story. But a few weeks have passed since the deadline and I have yet to actually sit down and work on it. The last few days of the jam were a frenzy of work and kind of stressful, and unfortunately, that’s still my emotional association with the game. Hopefully in time I’ll get over it and get back to work. I’ve dealt with the same issue when I did NaNoWriMo, so I know it can be done.
Issues aside, I’m pretty pleased with the game. It’s buggy and missing a lot of features but at least it has the things that I prioritized: a self-contained story, character development, and artwork that creates a real sense of place. There are no real puzzles to speak of; I may add some later, but it was never the puzzles that made me love adventure games. It was getting to experience a compelling world through characters I liked. Hopefully my game conveys that—and with any luck, I’ll finish a remastered version that does so even better.