At about 3 pm on Sunday, January 22, over 7,000 new games sprang to life, none of which existed just two days earlier. These are the fruits of an intense, 48-hour game-making jam session called the Global Game Jam, undertaken by over 36,000 artists, programmers, designers, writers and musicians in 702 cities across 95 countries, all based on a central theme interpreted in a dizzying array of different ways. Some may go on to become commercial products, but the real focus is on innovation, collaboration, and getting more people into the art and business of making games.
The general idea comes from the music world. Unstructured jam sessions in the garage are a great way to practice, build skills and maybe glean a catchy little hook that could turn into a song later on. "Game jams" work the same way: lock a bunch of creative people in a room – real-world or virtual, it doesn't matter – for a given amount of time (usually a weekend), give them a theme, and put them to work. The end results won't be a fully-polished triple-A blockbuster, but they could well be the seeds of a quirky indie gem.
Beginning in 2002, Ludum Dare is one of the longest-running game jams, held three times a year. Double Fine, the studio behind Psychonauts and Broken Age, do occasional in-house jams called Amnesia Fortnights as a creative exercise, and non-games software companies run similar events in the form of "hackathons." Those on their way to the annual Games Developers Conference (GDC) can even kill the long trip from Chicago to San Francisco by taking part in a 52-hour Train Jam.
The biggest of them all is the Global Game Jam, held every year since 2009 toward the end of January. It kicks off at 5 pm on the Friday night with a keynote address from a games industry personality, where the theme is announced. To keep participants from getting a head start, that theme is kept secret right up until the event begins, and even during: with jammers working in every timezone from New Zealand to Hawaii, the first off the blocks aren't allowed to discuss the theme online until the final site is up and running.
Then, jammers have two full days and nights to turn in a playable game based on that theme. Often held in universities, sleeping usually takes the form of sporadic naps under a desk, bathing is optional (but encouraged) and meals are communal excuses for a well-earned break. The final products need to be uploaded to the Game Jam servers on Sunday afternoon, and although the ticking clock is a powerful motivator to churn something out, it's definitely allowed to have some rough edges. It is, after all, a prototype, and games aren't being judged on their quality.
"The ethos behind Global Game Jam is innovation, collaboration, and experimentation," Giselle Rosman, the Executive Producer of the Global Game Jam, tells New Atlas. "We really try to push away from making it into a competition, and have found that that makes it a lot more accessible for emerging practitioners, and as well as people who might feel a bit overwhelmed by it all. Women are much happier to come and try it out when you're not being judged at the end."
Instead it's an exercise in creativity, and working within the constraints of a time limit and theme helps to narrow down options. The general consensus seems to be that Friday night is best spent brainstorming ideas, before locking one in by Saturday morning and iterating on that for the rest of the weekend.
"We came up with about 12 ideas before we actually locked down one," says Nicholas McDonnell, a game developer from Melbourne, Australia. "And we shot down most of the ideas because they were out of scope, then we shot down ideas because they weren't as funny or as fun. The ones that are easy to describe, the ones that are easy to just have a conversation about, usually they're the right ones to go with. A simple concept leads to very simple design, which is perfect for a game jam."
The game McDonnell and his partner, Daniel Draper, turned in was called Le Chic: a two-player hand-modeling game with deliberately-awkward controls, where players compete to position their fingers and thumb in a given gesture before their opponent does.
The idea sprang from their interpretation of this year's theme, "Waves," as in waving hello, but the theme is broad enough to spawn games about sound waves, Wi-Fi signals, surfing, rippling water, or fighting through wave after wave of enemies. From platformers and puzzlers to shooters and text adventures, the games themselves take on a wide range of genres, playable on computers, VR headsets, mobile devices, or even non-digital projects: board and card games are common, and there's even the odd escape room in the mix.
Some of these prototypes end up spawning commercial success stories. McDonnell's entry in the 2014 event was Screencheat, a four-player split-screen shooter where everybody's invisible, and the only way to hunt down your opponents is to commit the cardinal sin of glancing into their screens. After a few months of tweaking and polishing, the game was released onto Steam later that year, with PS4 and Xbox One versions following later. The fiddly Surgeon Simulator, Kickstarter-funded card game CatTube Famous, and VR party game Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, also have their roots in the Global Game Jam.
But releasing a game isn't the only end goal. Some people use the event as an excuse to get a crash course in a new piece of hardware or software, try a new role in a team or work with strangers. Experimentation is encouraged, and in that pressure-cooker environment, perfection just isn't on the cards. Letting go of that lofty goal is a valuable learning experience.
"It's kind of refreshing, really," says sound designer, Adam Scott-McGuinness. "To not be sitting there thinking about every little frequency, and is it going to translate well onto car speakers, and is it going to work on this and that. You just go, 'it sounds good, let's go'."
Just finishing a project at all is challenging enough, even if the end result is "a dumpster fire that wouldn't even catch fire," as one jammer described his project. It's a surprisingly rare thing to experience, and Rosman says giving people that opportunity is one of her favorite parts of the job.
"There's a lot of people studying games, and they might have been studying for two or three years, but they've never actually finished a game," Rosman explains. "That's really important, and a really hard thing to do with anything artistic is to go 'it's finished, ship it.' Even if it's a complete bit of rubbish, you've gone through that entire process. And so the next time it's much easier."
For other interested newbies, this could also be the first step to a career in game-making, a daunting goal with no clear starting point. The weekend acts like a microcosm of the entire process, and putting yourself through that in the company of professionals and other enthusiasts is a great way to make contacts.
In the end, the Global Game Jam isn't about the games. It's about the people making games, and diversifying that pool with people of a wider range of races, sexualities, genders and skillsets, can only improve the appeal of the art form, and the reach of the business.
"We have some writers and artists who haven't worked in games before, and web developers and programmers, rather than games-specific programmers," says Rosman. "I'd really love to encourage more of that, actually. You don't need to have experience in games to do it. It opens it up to others like 'hey, here's an amazing method of communicating my thoughts and feelings'."
Source: Global Game Jam