Reflections on participating in Arctic Game Jam

Last weekend I participated in a game jam and it’s no I want to write my reflections and learnings here. This post will be just about the experience of participating in the jam, and later I’ll write another post about our project later.

It’s been quite a while since the last time I did a game jam. To be honest I think overall my game jam experiences have started a little the other way round really – I started organizing them before even participating, haha.

This game jam was organized by Arctic Game Lab, and it was my first digital jam. However, a friend offered meeting up at his house in the countryside and working from there. It as certainly nice to have a change of scenery, so that it didn’t feel like work. So in the end we had a mixed team – half-local half-remote. It was also the first game jam where I worked directly in the development tool (Unity this time).

Expectations vs Reality

I entered the jam without any clear expectations, just with a feeling that whatever happens I will be able to handle it. However, there were some more likely scenarios that I was prepared for.

We had a pre-set group of 4, but we decided to also open up for additional members. During the start of the game jam, we got 2 extra members. I will admit it was a bit unexpected. There’s a certain awkwardness of working with strangers, especially digitally, not knowing what everyone is capable of. But it worked out well – I’m really glad they joined filling in sound and art since no one in our group was specializing in those. The only awkwardness was maybe me talking and taking change too much. (Maybe we should have done some little ice breaker though.)

I ended up coordinating the project a lot, which is what I do in my everyday work. I think this was a matter of habit, but often it’s good having someone facilitate that. I’ve certainly got a lot better at leading now, compared to a few years ago – specially trying to integrate the new people into our group and the project.

I expected to do game design, UX/UI and art, but I ended up doing mainly project management, game direction and some art. UX fell out of the window due to lack of time, I barely had time to touch the menus. And game design, well, I think I had a more general idea for theme, atmosphere, main features, rather than tweaking individual game mechanics – those ended up being handled by Enrico, a game design student and programmer on our team.

Learnings

A lot can be achieved in 24 hours! That’s how long it took us to develop the game (I did actually calculate the time). We started at 7 PM Friday, finished 3 PM Sunday, and had around 7-8 hours of sleep each night. I’m truly impressed how much us, and other teams, managed to do in this short time.

The dynamics of half-local half-remote team are strange. I’m very much used to that from working my job, where I’m the remote one but others have offices with several people (pre-pandemic at least). During the game jam it was the other way round. We did a fair amount of screen sharing, but even thought we were hanging out on the voice chat, we were muted most of the time and somehow it reminded me the atmosphere of work rather than fun and creating something together. And of course, I talked more with the local friends, which it made me feel a bit bad for the remote people, as if they were not included enough.

I focus better while alone. When things started speeding up, I needed to isolate myself in a separate room, sitting next to other people was stressing me out. Away from others I instantly felt more focused and comfortable when on my own, using voice chat even for people downstairs. This was a really interesting confirmation of my work habits.

Project management is very much needed, even in these short projects. I’m really glad we set up a Trello board and had most of the tasks written down, including a wishlist. It was easy to keep track of what’s done, what’s left and feel like we’re progressing.

Supportive atmosphere is a “make or break” for the project. The most stressful moments were when something was not working (be it tech or someone being late on their deliveries), causing us to not communicate properly. I really wanted to make sure people are included and their work is included. Sometimes we didn’t have time to discuss it all and had to add/remove things without asking. But in the end communication and willingness to support each other are key.

Give people freedom to do things the way they want. Especially for these short projects it’s really necessary to move forward, as there’s no time for feedback and alignment. It’s still a difficulty for me, as I tend to have a vision that I hope to realize. But game jam are also about the collaboration and everyone adding something from themselves, not necessarily about the most coherent vision, and that’s fine! I need to practice those situations more, more game jams!

It’s good to prepare repository and needed tools ahead of time. I got really easily overwhelmed with technical issues, especially regarding the source control. One of the programmers chose git service I’m not used to and tried to convince everyone into using terminal instead of a software for source control, even though most some of us had absolutely no prior experience with it. I decided use software anyway, because terminal felt way too overwhelming. I chose SourceTree, but since it’s quite advanced and I’ve never used it before I got super confused and overwhelmed. (Only a day after I realized I could have used GitHub desktop that I’m used to, but during the jam I thought it only works with GitHub-hosted repos, ohwell).

I’m no longer scared of Unity! This is a BIG milestone I would say. I’ve “worked” with it for about 2 years now, but never learned properly or completed any tutorials. I did 2 tutorials last weekend and that made me feel a lot more comfortable. But also I picked up a lot of small things from work. In the end I felt relatively comfortable in Unity, helping out another person on the team.

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I’m really glad I took part in this game jam. It was great to work with a new team, and take a break from the being consumed by working on Fig. I can see what skills I’ve improved and what still needs more time. I hope that everyone was able to learn something from participating!

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