Game Jams and the Romance of the Last Minute

Deadlines & Dragons

Deadlines. Fire-breathing, gold-hoarding deadlines. Screenshot from Dragon Age: Origins.

If creative work of any kind is an epic adventure, then the deadline is the dragon guarding the treasure at the end. No matter how disciplined your approach, there’s always that rush to get the last details just right before the final countdown. In games, this can be exceptionally problematic due to all the multidisciplinary integrations that need to come together in a final package, and crunch is an unfortunate reality of the industry.

But what if there was a way to harness the chaotic power of the last minute? There is. But it might not be what you think.

During development, constraints are a blessing and a curse. In exchange for conceding potential freedoms – tying a title to a certain platform or demographic, or having to use a licensed IP – you gain some explicit instructions on what kind of game to make. Working within imposed constraints can produce some truly amazing works of art that never would have been created otherwise. Can you think of any sonnets that would be improved by removing the strict rhyming scheme?

Shakespeare's "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? (Sonnet 18)"

Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (Sonnet 18)”

Deadlines, by definition, are a type of constraint. The problem with deadlines, though, is that they are by and large artificial constraints, imposed by an outside force as opposed to a necessary function of the work process (e.g. the sonnet’s iambic pentameter).

They are also malleable constraints, and this is where they lose their power. For example, GTA 5 recently slipped from a spring 2013 launch to September. This isn’t unusual for Rockstar, who nevertheless manages to consistently ship great games.

Now take any small-time iOS developer. They might not have the reputation and cash that Rockstar has, but should they stumble upon an amazing mechanic during development that didn’t fit the project, wouldn’t it make sense for them to retool the game to incorporate their stroke of brilliance? The point is that the example of delaying for quality exists in all of our minds, even if we aren’t able to indulge in every whim to do so. This universally understood sentiment – a deadline is a deadline is a deadline, except when excessive quality is in reach – nearly undermines the concept altogether.

Concepts like Agile methodology and Scrum attempt to mitigate the damage of succumbing to the romance of the last minute by imposing even more artificial constraints. Now deadlines are every two weeks! Surely the rhythm of regular sprints will help the team coordinate efforts better to avoid the nasty pileup of crunch at the end of production, right? The fact is while Agile can certainly help, it’s simply a facet of human nature to try to do the best you can, even right up to the wire.

So instead of trying to squash this tendency with even stricter deadlines and processes, studios are finally starting to look for answers in the opposite direction. If the run-up to finishing a game is fraught with uncertainty, last-minute creative breakthroughs and integration miracles, wouldn’t it make sense to practice these skills as often as possible? Scrum sprints only account for completing tasks, not shipping projects. Wouldn’t iterating the process of actually shipping games gain your team much-needed experience in perfecting the ‘last minute’ cycle as a team?

The answer, of course, is the internal game jam.

Deceptively simple, the game jam’s deadline is arguably more powerful than a sprint deadline or build milestone. If you don’t think you’ll have something to present at the end of the jam, the prospect of a public shaming by your peers can be a purer motivation to finish strong than a soul-draining months-long crunch cycle.

Tim Schafer and Amnesia Fortnight

Tim Schafer and the Amnesia Fortnight box.

Because the stakes are low, expectations are adjusted, and the freedom to be creative is immense. Because the atmosphere is informal, a sense of fun pervades the process, even though you and your peers are technically still on the job. This combo of real pressure, creative freedom and a relaxed atmosphere can do wonders for team dynamics, and for gaining the immensely valuable experience of taking a project to completion.

There’s a reason why Double Fine, Epic, Mojang, Bethesda and Media Molecule have all ran internal game jams within the past year. The fruits of these exercises have gone on to become released games, or planted seeds for new directions for old properties. In the case of Double Fine, their inaugural Amnesia Fortnight jam is even credited with saving the company.

Humanity at its core is a curious, creative entity. Instead of trying to stem the tide of chaos that creative work unleashes, maybe the answer lies in embracing uncertainty – on our own terms – to better prepare for the wonderful things we’ve yet to create.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/parjlarsson Pär Larsson

    Hi. I’m stupid. I don’t know what an internal game jam is. Could you write for people like me, as well?

    • http://www.dashjump.com Ben

      Sure – so a game jam is similar to a hackathon, but for games. At a game jam, anyone who wants and is able to make a game shows up at the host’s location for anywhere from 24-48 hours, with the end goal of having a playable game to show at the end of the event.

      An internal game jam is taking the same idea, but instead of opening it to the public, a game company would host it itself. So the people participating would be employees, and they’d be given a large degree of freedom to work on whatever project they choose. Results from these internal game jams could go on to become components of future games, or even get their own releases once they’ve been polished up.

    • http://www.dashjump.com/ Ben

      Sure – so a game jam is similar to a hackathon, but for games. At a game jam, anyone who wants and is able to make a game shows up at the host’s location for anywhere from 24-48 hours, with the end goal of having a playable game to show at the end of the event.

      An internal game jam is taking the same idea, but instead of opening it to the public, a game company would host it itself. So the people participating would be employees, and they’d be given a large degree of freedom to work on whatever project they choose. Results from these internal game jams could go on to become components of future games, or even get their own releases once they’ve been polished up.

  • http://twitter.com/postwar Nikhil Pradhan

    Can’t share your story on Facebook. Says site has been reported for spammy links.

    Good read, though.

    • http://www.dashjump.com/ Ben

      Hmm, that’s odd – can you try it again and let me know if you’re still getting problems? I fixed some things on the backend that might help.

      And thanks! :)

      • http://twitter.com/postwar Nikhil Pradhan

        Still getting the error. This is what I get:

        The content you’re trying to share includes a link that’s been blocked for being spammy or unsafe:

        dashjump.com

        For more information, visit the Help Center. If you think you’re seeing this by mistake, please let us know.

        • http://www.dashjump.com/ Ben

          Dang, I’ll see what I can do about that. Thanks for the heads-up!

        • http://www.dashjump.com/ Ben

          All fixed! :)

          • http://twitter.com/postwar Nikhil Pradhan

            And…shared. Thanks Ben!

      • http://twitter.com/postwar Nikhil Pradhan

        And you’re welcome!

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