Things I Learned by Running a Game Jam

This post is a recap of my experiences running this year’s Itch.io Jam for Kids, including a few things you may want to keep in mind if you’re ever in charge of a jam yourself.

On or around June 18th, my four-year-old asked me to make him a video game about trains. This was actually a continuation of a discussion we’d had earlier when I declared I was deleting Budge Studios’ Go Go Thomas from my phone, as I find their microtransaction model for the game to be red-hot garbage. I said I’d be thrilled to make him his own game rather than have an app for children advertise about $20 USD worth of in-app purchases twice for each activity. This was not an idle threat; I’ve done it before. So as promised, I brought the Surface Pro to the kitchen table, fired up Blender, and set about modeling a toy train to see if I could do anything interesting with it in Unity. When I had a reasonable starter model in place, I tweeted it out, because that’s what one does.

My devfam was enthusiastic and supportive as always, but one reply caught my attention more than the rest.

I half assumed @TrashGameArtist was kidding, but for fun I replied with some things he’s interested in and didn’t think much else of it. But the conversation about theoretical kid game designs developed until the suggestion to start an official Itch.io event was made. I thought this was a fantastic idea. Kids need useful play experiences more than anyone, as it directly stimulates brain development, yet they put up with some of the worst, most exploitative designs imaginable. If my admin time could help produce even a few positive playable experiences—not to mention place a sensible time limit on this activity for myself—bring it on. I logged into Itch, cobbled together the most basic of guidelines, and the Itch.io Jam for Kids was born.

What followed was two weeks of incredible learning, great community discussion, and sure enough, a prototype for To the Station! A toy train simulator developed to spec for a preschooler. I didn’t plan on taking away any worthwhile lessons from hosting the jam itself, but I couldn’t help it. Here are some notes in case you ever try this yourself.

 Itch.io’s jam tools are amazing

I first got to know Itch as a journalist covering indie games. I was super impressed by the features implemented simply to make my job easier, and in turn, put more eyes on the platform’s game developers. When I came back to try out jam hosting, I was just as pleased. The proof is always on display in the always-loaded jam calendar. I’ve been an enthusiastic Ludum Dare participant for a good decade, but it’s getting difficult to imagine not using ltch for any jam at this point.

Two weeks is the jam duration God intended

I’ve probably participated in my last 48-hour jam. I knew my own time for this jam was going to be under assault by everyday life. I also chose to start the jam with no lead-up time, so I decided to blow out the traditional weekend format and give everyone two weeks.

What a win this turned out to be! I think the best strategy is to pursue a design no grander than you’d dream up for a 48-hour jam, but to find a groove completing and perfecting it around the rest of your everyday life instead of replacing your life with frenzied crunch development. After all, this is how release-worthy games are completed.

Anything longer than a couple of weeks, I suspect time management issues and scope creep would rear their ugly heads. Less than two weeks, I don’t imagine putting myself through the stress again. It’s the two-week life for me.

Admin tasks will eat up your dev time

This is a no-brainer going in but remembering it for two weeks is harder. Not many folks will likely want to run small-to-medium jams without working on an entry themselves (rules permitting) so a host simply has to find the right balance for their time. Two different days I had to hang up intricate development tasks to deal with situations I felt might put participants or others at risk in one case or make us all look kind of ridiculous in the other (more on this later).

I also felt pressure to set an example in the attached forum, participating in discussions where I could, running a progress thread about my game, and of course responding to any questions that came up during the event. By the end of submission day, I’d given up several features on a fairly modest list to fulfill the host role successfully.

Dev tasks will eat up your admin time

Of course the reverse of the previous point is true, but it’s worth discussing what that looked like.

On only the second or third day of the jam, a participant posted a dual entry he was working on for an earlier jam focused on education that overlapped with ours, explaining that it contained not only a prototype, but also a lecture he’d put together about designing for kids. In my mind, the timeline was an issue that would prevent his project from being an official entry, but he joined hoping to participate and posted hoping to help. I wanted to at least check out the project and presentation and provide some encouragement. Unfortunately for my Surface Pro, his was a fairly large project and was downloading too slowly over Wifi. I determined I’d check it out first thing when I next sat down in my office and provide feedback.

The only trouble is I never made it back to my desktop PC. I actually still haven’t. I had to continue work on my game and provide official support for the event. That’s simply all there was time for. I should have stayed laser-focused, even at the risk of appearing rude or uninterested in anything else.

People will try to get away with things

In order of sheer audacity:

A participant posted pretty early on that they hoped to make a basic racing game in Unity but realized the scope was going to be out of control (which is very correct), so they found a Candy Crush-like tutorial series they wanted to follow to wow us all with a puzzle game. It sounded great to me. I wished them luck and said we were all looking forward to seeing it.

I got a notification a day or two later saying they’d submitted an entry.

I suspect not everyone knows this, but a jam host can see the exact date a game was submitted to Itch, and this one was something over a year old. Perhaps I’d still try it and offer feedback before officially disqualifying the entry. That’s when I noticed the following paragraph on the entry’s Itch page:

NOTE: If your virus detection software is acting up when you load up this game, please ignore it because it’s just the software being suspicious because the app is not recognized by it. So if it says anything please just ignore it.

Right. I followed up in the forum, asking why his submission was showing up as being more than a year old, also having a YouTube trailer a year old. I didn’t dive into the antivirus topic. He claimed the second game attempt overwhelmed him and he simply wanted to have something to submit. He hoped I’d understand. You couldn’t craft any better test for a jam host, because it was either a perfectly sincere story that must have been hard to admit for a vulnerable participant, or he was trying to destroy all our machines from the inside out. I’m no King Solomon, so I used the easy pre-existing project excuse and disqualified the entry which removed it from the submissions page. It was probably legit; I wish the developer the best.

As the jam was drawing to a close, I was eager to try out other submissions. I saw a notification pop up on one of the final days saying an interactive fiction novel had been submitted. Interesting choice for a game for kids, I’d better have a look. When I got to the submissions page, I couldn’t help but laugh.

The game was $7.99 to play.

For good measure, this game turned out to be long pre-existing as well, but I couldn’t help but laugh at the boldness required to join a game jam and try to sell the entry to the other participants. It’s hard out here for us indie devs. I get it.

It will all be worth it

In the end, we had a couple of awesome entries to keep mine company. A user called Sipsop created the Surprise Eggs Machine which was a cute little proof-of-concept which could easily be tied into a real brand. Minemaster552 who said he’s only 13 years of age submitted Lego City Builder, an unauthorized FLASH Lego game that was off to a great start at the end of the event.

My four-year-old got his train game and even provided the name. To the Station! in prototype form convinced me a toy train simulator could be viable and fun. I’m in the middle of my book project—alright, not the middle yet—but I’m excited at the possibilities of the prototype and have concrete ideas in mind about how to carry it forward.

I think the Jam for Kids will come back around this time next year. The biggest change will be even longer, even clearer rules upfront. Everyone seemed to have a great time, I know we all learned a lot, and we just might have started some projects that could go the distance. Hosting was a deeply rewarding experience and I’d suggest it to anyone. The better our events, the stronger the community.

Comment with your best theme idea for a jam!

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