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Why a game jam could be your greatest gift this year

By on December 11, 2012

This is a guest post by Patrick O’Luanaigh, CEO of nDreams

I remember my first reaction when Nicholas Lovell suggested to me that my studio should run a game jam. As a CEO, my first thoughts were about the lost productivity and the fact that the resulting games would almost certainly be rubbish and thrown away. Why lose two days’ worth of productive revenue?

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that it might work. Maybe the upsides would cover the downsides? Maybe the team needed a bit of a breather. Maybe I should say yes.

So I decided to do it, despite my initial reservations. We arranged it for a deadline-free week, and told the team the day before. They split into four teams, and spent two days deciding on a concept, planning the development and building a small playable game using Unity.

Why Unity? Well, prior to the Gamehack, several of the team members (including half the coding team) had no Unity experience at all. We’re doing more Unity work as we move forwards, so I hoped that, if nothing else, it would be a good way to make sure everyone in the team got some hands-on time working with it.

The team worked from 9-6 for two days with a handful of people working a little later. At the end of the two days, the teams presented their games. And they were genuinely impressive. All of the games were fun, and they all had real potential. In fact, we’re expanding one of them into an iPad title at the moment. I was also blown away by the fact that coders who had never used Unity before had created great playable games in under 18 hours. I think that speaks quite highly of the Unity technology.

Comments from the team were unanimously positive, saying things like:

“It was a great learning experience”
“Everyone was forced to take ownership. Even the meeker people in the office were being vocal about solutions and approaches.”
“This experience pushed my thinking as a game developer.”
“It gave the whole team a chance to be creative, try out some new roles and take a break from the heavy work load”.
“We should do this every year!”

What I learned from our game jam

It’s worth organising it properly. You should select teams of people to create an interesting mix, and encourage people not to pigeonhole themselves by what they usually do. We let everyone choose their own teams, and people were worried about being the last one picked or offending others, so they ended up picking teams randomly which wasn’t ideal.

I also learnt that shaking things up a little can be very rewarding. I’m always telling my daughters to try new food or hobbies that they haven’t tried before, as they might love them. But I don’t follow that advice enough myself! I could easily have ignored the advice to hold the game jam, but I’m so glad that we did it. If it hadn’t worked, I would have lost a couple of days of work and that’s all. But it did work incredibly well. I feel that the studio is more cohesive than it was before. Everyone in the team now has practical Unity experience. People have realised that it is possible to get results very quickly. Whilst hacking together games isn’t ideal for finished products, for prototyping or testing out ideas, it can be a brilliant way of working.

So if you run a studio, open up your diary now, and pencil in a couple of days for a game jam in the near future. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

About Patrick O'Luanaigh

I'm CEO of nDreams Ltd, a production company/development studio based in Farnborough, UK. I wrote a book called Game Design Complete, used to be Creative Director of SCi/Eidos and have a wife, two girls and one cat.