Game jams and competitions can make your developers happier. That's what I'm proffering today. Even better, a jam can improve your team's morale, generate purpose and meaning within the company, and even help bring new products to the market that otherwise wouldn't have been built.
Why we do... what we do
My first experiences with computers involved games. Our teachers would throw us in a computer lab and we'd play number munchers and all that jazz. Our computer at home had some tank game on it that I played obsessively in DOS.
We all have that game. It's the one that made certain we'd find ourselves hacking away at keyboards working on games in our professional careers. I was 11 when my father bought me Ultima Online. A kid down the street introduced me to the game. I was hooked as soon as he cut up a dead body on the street, built a fire, and made human jerky. I played it for years and years.
Fundamentally, game developers are game players. Just as most poets, artists, composers, etc. have influences, we do, too. We're just as creative as any other group of people you put in a room.
Often times, in our day to day, we do not get to fully express the games latent within us. Our influences, our ideas, they're all just too much for any company to bring to market. That makes sense, right? One company can't have all of its employees making their dream games at any given point. That'd be overwhelming.
What if there were another way, though?
Ludum Dare 20 Compo
I spend my weekdays building games. Sometimes, I work on games that I wouldn't play, not ever. Other times, there aren't enough resources (time, money, people) to really explore and iterate on an "outlandish" idea.
Over the course of a long product cycle, working day-in and day-out on a subset of features can make the game lose its sparkle, especially as the game's specifications and designs are locked in and an ecosystem grows around it.
Change is good. Breaking from the normal is great. Having freedom to be provoked, find your center of thought, and explore yourself, your creativity, and your uniqueness is zen.
In this way, I found myself participating in Ludum Dare 20 Compo. I'm not going to get into the game I made, the process I took, anything like that. I'll save a post mortem of Wizards of the Brew for another time.
Rather, I want to share what I've learned about myself and how my perspective of game jams, competitions, etc. has changed.
Why a jam
Breaking from the normal routine of development, the high risk environment of professional game creation, provides a "low cost" "low barrier to entry" means of following Dan Pink's cycle of Challenge --> Mastery --> Recognition.
When a theme is released for the competition, the challenges are several. First, one must adhere a game design to the unique and often odd theme. In the case of Ludum, they must also build all of the technology, art, and audio and coerce all of these elements into forming a playable product.
Jams offer little time for "how will we monitize this?" "will users understand this?" etc. and allow, instead, a creative flow. There are few, if any, meetings to break up the thought process. Additionally, the tight time-frame precludes over-design of the game, technology, and art and, typically, leaves the "must haves" instead of chrome.
These stripped-down games are understood to have time constraints in development. Art quality, code re-usability, etc. (all good things for a production product) are allowed to lax.
When a developer finishes the game, there is a sense of mastery. The developer has mastered the technology, design, art, etc. of the creative process. They have given birth to something "new" that wasn't there before, overcome obstacles, and generated an end result that is visible, tangible, and playable.
This may happen every 2-4 years for traditional triple-A developers. For developers in casual/social, game development as a service has a way of tarnishing the game’s shipping. Having a game jam and a “micro game shipped” provides the same stimulation that shipping a larger product has without the time delay, and without the need to continually support it. It’s quick, clean, and not costly.
Then there are the awards. That same visibility allows others to comment, to see the creation, to experience it for themselves and speak to the creator. This is a very fulfilling act that, in and of itself, recharges the batteries.
It's also just damn fun.
Why integrate it into my company
Companies are "of the people." That is to say, they are composed of people. They're all unique and individual. Additionally, people have dreams, a perspective, and opinions. This is all theory of the mind. Because we are conscious, we should be able to put ourselves in our employee's shoes, right? That's an important aspect of social cognition.
Now, if you do so, you’ll understand that switching gears can have a positive benefit. It allows a break from the normal.
Why do this on your dime? Well, if you’re not going to support your employees doing it, they probably won’t. Many, if not most, developers have families and want to see them. Often times, our physical and social needs out-weight our desire to create a game.
That’s just reality kicking in. If we don’t support our employees and furnish a positive environment for them, who will? The majority of awake, productive hours are spent in an office diligently building a game.
Decompression has to happen.
Why not make it productive for both the employee and employer?
What can a company do with these jam products
Build them. Throw them out. Explore them further. If you’ve sponsored it, paid your employees to do it, etc., they belong to you! Just treat the concepts and people with respect. Grant them their due.
In the worst-case, your company has now just built a portfolio of “crazy ideas” that it can utilize. Additionally, cool art or technology may have come out of the competition/jam. Everything can be leveraged! You’ll find people are more than willing to work on ideas they helped furnish.
Two days of lost development equate to 16 hours per person. That cost can add up, sure; but, what does it cost you to not allow employees to express themselves?
Jams build bonds that wouldn’t otherwise exist, especially between varied disciplines of developers. This gel is priceless.
Having an internal system of pitching isn’t enough. These methods and systems can be too heavy weight for “silly ideas” or anything out of the company’s typical repertoire. What avenues are you providing for exploring these?
Remember, “your employees are very aware that they have one life to live” (Peopleware).
Why not let them show you just how talented they really are, and just what they are really capable of?
Andrew Andreas Grapsas is a game programmer at Arkadium, Inc. developing facebook games. Previously, he was a gameplay and animations programmer at Kaos Studios|THQ, and intern systems programmer on Medal of Honor.
Andrew is actively writing and programming for various projects. You can read more at his blog aagrapsas.com. He promises to update it soon.