How to survive your first Jam - Mentally & Physically
8 min read
There are plenty of guides and resources out there about what to do in a jam... from a coding, design or artistic perspective, sure. But taking on a jam, or any competition, takes some level of mental and physical preparation.
So, it's your first jam and you want to run in to it, turn the computer on, type ferociously for 48 hours and have yourself a magically wonderful, jam-winning game at the end of it. Right? But it doesn't quite work like that.
Two days might not seem like a lot of time in the grand scheme of things but you can find yourself frustrated, burnt out or exhausted fairly quickly when it's two days of solid programming, sound design and/or artwork.
So, a little unconventional, but from someone who's done a fair few of these to someone who may be just starting out, here are my tips for your mental and physical well-being during a jam.
"Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable" - Dwight D. Eisenhower
We are fortunate that we have a short-list of theme ideas in the GM48 jam. It is common practice to take this short-list and write an idea or two for each in the week leading up to the start. It doesn't have to, and really, shouldn't, be a huge, in-depth document.
For example, when the theme "falling apart" made the short list, I wrote "platformer where the level vanishes around you" - for "two sides", I wrote "control two characters on two islands, collect things and avoid obstacles"
Once the theme is announced, you can flesh out your idea. It's easy to get carried away with how wonderful the idea looks in your head, but then you may find yourself getting attached to an idea and disappointed that theme isn't chosen. Hang on to that idea though, if you really like it, you can always make it outside of a jam after all. But for now, keep the ideas simple, then when the jam begins, take the first hour or so to pad out the idea.
Okay, the jam has started, the clock is ticking, you've got a game to make.
Game developer/reviewer, Yahtzee Croshaw, on the topic of game design, repeatedly advises people must "focus on the primary gameplay loop" - in a jam, this is where you need to start. A working main concept is your goal. Anything on top of that is second.
Some people use this jam to try new things and experiment, power to them for doing that, but you really don't have to. Working around a theme is the challenge in itself, if you want to ensure you can finish a game around a theme and you're just starting out, now is not the time to be learning entire new concepts. Make sure you are confident in your ability to actually MAKE the game. Then when it comes to adding the fluff around it, the polish, the juice, the extras, sure it's great to have them, but don't prioritise it over making a functioning gameplay loop.
When planning the scope of your game, it might be worth considering what can be 'stripped away' if needed.
Are you planning 50 levels? Will the game still be as fun with... 10? Or 5?
Are you planning an upgrade system? Will the game still be enjoyable if that system were to only have 3 upgrades?
Are you planning a map? How will your game play if that map was 20% the size you have planned?
Prepare for scaling your game because sometimes, in fact more often than not, you have to.
It's important to rest. Staying up for 2 days even without doing a lot of work is difficult and can be very unhealthy.
Not getting enough sleep can affect your judgement, memory, decision-making skills and your hand-eye co-ordination. You are more likely to lose attention and even be at risk of more serious health problems if you continue to lose sleep over several days. Sleeping is so, so important to your mental and physical health.
The rush of a jam might tempt you to want to go without, but in the long run, you are far more likely to burn out and not complete a game at all this way. Try to get at least 5 hours a night of sleep, 6-8 ideally. You can afford to lose these hours to sleep, there is still plenty of time to make a game in between this.
Generally, in your first jam, some people go down one of two routes: "Coffee... Energy drinks... junk food... more junk food... more coffee... more energy..." Or "I don't have time to eat anything or drink anything, I have a game to make!"
Both, for what should seem like obvious reasons, are bad. By all means, I'm no nutritionist and I certainly have more caffeine than I do most days during a jam. One jam I was so excited to make my game that I over-did the coffee and wasted hours just TRYING to fall asleep with coffee jitters. Then I woke up cranky and it took me even longer to adjust and carry on coding.
Get the balance right. I'm not telling you what you need to eat and drink specifically, you know your body and what it can handle far better than I do. Just be mindful that over-doing it, especially if you're not used to it, is not healthy and can affect your mental processes when creating.
When a game jam is on, I book the day after it off work to unwind. I make sure I have nothing else planned, no obligations, I clear my desk, make sure my washing is done and out of the way and then turn on the radio.
The reason I do this is because the radio is easy to listen to but not so distracting that I need to divert my attention from what I'm doing. And I don't want to side-eye my laundry when I'm working. And I don't want to work through clutter on my desk. And I don't want to stress about having to go to work when I'm working on a jam.
Your comfort levels are your own, but it's important that you prepare a comfortable environment when you do a jam. Make sure, if you live with others, that they know you are participating in this and that you would like to not be disturbed. Make sure you are not working in an environment that is audibly or visually uncomfortable. It might seem petty, or not important, but optimising your environment puts you in a better head-space for the feat you are undertaking here.
Making games might, and if you're doing a jam, should give you a lot of pleasure and entertainment. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't take a break from it.
I like recreational cycling; do you think I'd like to cycle for 2 days straight? With no breaks? Absolutely not.
For me, there is no greater small pleasure in life than when I have woken up, I can put the television on, have a coffee and eat breakfast, slowly, knowing I have time to relax before I have to start the day. Rushing causes stress and, in a jam, keeping an eye on your stress levels is important.
Find time to take regular breaks. When having a meal, don't eat and work, take the time to sit away from your desk and watch television, or go outside. For me, I always find a reason to go out for a small walk during a jam, usually to get something from a shop or lunch from a café, just to get out of the house for half-an-hour to an hour. The fresh air helps refresh yourself and you'll find, on your return, you're more capable to carry on and work better.
Even if it's not going outside, even sitting away from your desk several times a day and taking some time to focus on something else can help. Just because you have 48 hours, don't spend them all developing.
As a side note to breaks (and comfort), it's also good practice to keep on top of your regular hygiene routine. 10 minutes in the shower and a fresh pair of pants is going to feel much better compared to feeling uncomfortably... gammy.
In conclusion, you have 48 hours, but you need to plan and scope your work, make your environment comfortable, sleep, eat and take regular breaks.
Diving in head first without this preparation will more than likely mean you won't survive with a game on the other end of it.
I want to make it clear; I'm not telling you how to live your life, but everyone’s mental and physical health is important to look after. These are just my suggestions on what can help you with this. Don't stress, don't burn out and don't panic. A jam is a great and exciting thing to participate in, but it can be difficult if you aren't looking after yourself.
If you're thinking about starting a jam for the first time, I hope I've helped you consider the less spoken side of what you need to prepare for.
And remember, finishing at all is better than burning out. Better to have something past the finish line that you can expand on another time than exhaust yourself with nothing to show for it.
Now have a great jam and, most importantly, have fun!