Remote Game Jams

A New World

It's been an interesting few years thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. I've been working from home since the pandemic began in March 2020 for a company (Encircle) who was generally opposed to having employees regularly work from home. Now they have embraced it and significantly downsized their office space even though the employee count has grown. They have hired people who work from different countries, even in different timezones. Some of my colleagues have spent months at a time working from areas of the world they would have never been able to travel to otherwise. Personally, I was able to move out of the city to a quiet rural area where I feel my quality of life is improved. As someone working purely in the digital space, it is an entirely different world I live in now.

A New Challenge

I was reflecting on this earlier while adding game jam projects to my portfolio from the past few years. Before the pandemic I had typically gone to game jams in-person. I've been to Global Game Jams in Vancouver, BC and Waterloo, ON. I've also been to TOJam in Toronto a couple of times. It's a wonderfully creative environment to be in and I highly recommend it.

There are two game jam projects I've contributed to that stand out to me as being less successful than others, and they both have the common element of remote work. The games are Sine Shooter and Spellchopper. Sine Shooter was pre-pandemic but my collaborator had moved too far away for us to reasonably work together in-person. Spellchopper was at the start of the pandemic and involved more collaborators and more timezones. These were very real challenges, especially in a game jam environment where proper scope is always a formidable obstacle to overcome.

However the blame is certainly not entirely the fault of remote work. The last two game jams I've contributed to, also remotely during the pandemic, have been what I consider the most successful jams yet! With Ghostlight we greatly improved our project management and collaborative documentation, and managed to develop a game in a weekend with 3 people from 3 different timezones. We were a year into the pandemic at this point so all of us were fairly comfortable with tools that made it simple to collaborate. We also had the bitter taste of past remote jams lingering in our mouths that helped us learn from our mistakes in the planning process and ensure we had a clear vision and a clear execution plan. Then with Dungeon, With Friends! I believe we had an even stronger vision and plan of attack. We even brought another developer onto the project part-way through without issue.

The Not So Secret to Success

The secret to a successful remote game jam is communication.

Accessible and Complete Documentation

Use tools like Google Docs to brainstorm and narrow down ideas that you are going to be excited to spend your weekend building. The jams I participate in have extended their timelines to include a couple more days, which we have found incredibly useful for the ideation stage. If you can have a crystal clear vision of the project by Friday evening, you are on your way to a successful jam. At in-person jams we typically used whiteboards and took photos of them, but I've found online tools are generally superior and you won't risk missing anything.

Bonus: having these ideas kicking around in documents can be very helpful at future jams. Sometimes good ideas just don't fit with the current jam, but they might be perfect down the road.

Well Defined Tasks and Roles

Once the project's vision is defined, it's time to put on your project management hat and invest some time breaking the project into tasks that can be worked on by a single team member. It's a big plus if you're able to assign some of those tasks at the start of jam, giving ownership of certain areas of development so you can avoid getting in each others way. This helps communicate who is working on what, priorities, and statuses throughout the jam, and it can help catch game design considerations that were missed during ideation. Missed design considerations often impact scope, and scope is the archnemesis of game jams. So although it's incredibly tempting to jump in and start building your cool ideas, I have learned it's worth spending that extra hour or so figuring out your plan of attack.

Bonus: if you keep your tasks up to date and continue to document issues as they come, then if you ever open the project again in the future, you will have a decent idea of the state of the project.

The Buddy System

Using a tool like Discord or Slack is great for chatting, but it also helps you feel more connected and motivated with your team as you build the game. You can connect your code repository to send a message to your Discord server or Slack channel when someone commits something new or a task has been completed. You can hang out in the server just to let your teammates know you're there if they want to drop in to chat. When you're working remotely it's not always apparent what your teammates are doing, but seeing code commits or even just that you're online can be a big motivator. A long silent period of no new commits or discussion is disheartening. Push your commits often, use descriptive commit messages so your teammates understand what cool new things you did, and try to be available. Most importantly though, every now and then, take a moment to play the game together so you can discuss and enjoy your creation.

Bonus: with good commit messages you can scroll through the commit history and it will tell a complete development story. This is incredibly useful if you're like me and only update your blog/portfolio every few years ;)

Future Jams

Going forward I suspect almost every game jam I participate in will be remote, but that's mostly because I moved to the middle of nowhere. I look forward to jamming once or twice a year and no longer feel discouraged about remote work or timezone differences with collaborators. Game development is a unique passion that many of us have and I'm glad to live in this new remote digital world where we have all the tools required to build cool ideas with our friends, no matter where we are.