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.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,