Recently I had the opportunity to take part in a 48 hour game jam in aid of Children in Need.
Game jams are a fantastic environment for testing your game design skills as the very limited time given tests your abilities and short-comings to the extreme. You need to be able to taper your design scope, be confident in choosing which features stay and which get cut and most importantly communicate your design in a clear and concise manner, quickly.
The design of a game jam title follows much the same process as a regular game and begins with the game concept.
In the case of our Children in Need game, Whack-A-Cake, the initial concepts were created by primary school children. As part of the judging panel, we saw a shortlist of concepts but decided to merge two of the children’s ideas together. This meant that we still needed to produce a concept after all!
Ordinarily I would create a short (normally two pages) concept document but given the time restrictions I felt this was unnecessary so instead the team gathered together and we threw some ideas around, before settling on the core design.
With the team fully briefed on the core design, I then went about creating the design document. If you’re taking part in a game jam as part of a small team, a full design document may not be necessary. The Whack-A-Cake team consisted of around fifteen developers (with a further dozen or so focused on marketing and raising awareness of the cause). Because of this, and the fact that the vast majority of developers didn’t have games experience, I felt a document was necessary.
Ultimately, the design document is a great way to explain the game to the other developers and the PR team. It also serves as a quick reference to the game’s design and is still the best way to confirm the design decisions raised in the concept stage.
As soon as possible you should begin play testing the game. The earlier you can spot required balance changes the better, it is also important to know how any changes affect other departments. For example, if the points awarded for a particular item change then the help page needs to reflect this and this will require an art change.
It is also important to gather as much play data as possible in order to conduct some design analysis. While developing Whack-A-Cake, there was a debate as to whether the best tactic was to only click on the good ingredients or click everything that pops up. By recording the results of a number of games using these two tactics, we were able to confirm that only selecting the good ingredients was the best tactic.
While my focus is games design, many game jam teams do not include a dedicated designer, this was a key reason in writing this post as I believe that the designer role is one that cannot be overlooked if you want to create a product that is fun to play. I hope that this post helps smaller jam teams organise their designs to create better gameplay experiences in their projects.