For Ludum Dare 32, we hosted our second Ludum Dare Real-World Meeting here at the Tech Valley Game Space (TVGS) in Troy, NY, USA. Compared to our previous hosted event (LD 31) we had a greater number of attendees, including a healthy mix of newcomers and veteran jammers. How did it turn out? Get ready for the super-detailed TVGS post-mortem!
Why a real-world meeting?
So this one is an important question: why would we have a real-world meeting for a game jam that prides itself in being online? The short answer is that a real-world gathering provides a number of distinct advantages, both for jammers and Compo participants, that wouldn’t be possible if one were to work from their own home. To explain these advantages, however, let’s start by discussing some spiritual differences between Ludum Dare and Global Game Jam.
As anyone who has attended both jams can attest, despite having very similar rulesets, Ludum Dare and Global Game Jam have some clear differences in the way they are conducted, and how they encourage the participants. For Ludum Dare, when the jam starts, the team (often created between a group of friends) are entirely on their own to determine the best process to construct their game. They are often left to figure out how to manage their own time, how to distribute their work, what elements to prioritize, and where to get feedback to improve their game. Global Game Jam, on the other hand, takes a more formal approach: while each site conducts their event differently, many include exercises to help form groups and set important milestones. This has some significant advantages compared to the on-your-own approach: it helps ease beginners into game development, while encouraging experienced individuals to team up with complete strangers. In other words, by having a formalized process, Global Game Jam encourages budding developers to socialize and share their experiences with others, as well as empowering them to move out of their comfort zone and try new things.
So what advantages does Ludum Dare have that Global Game Jam doesn’t? It starts immediately after the jam ends: for Global Game Jam, the event… just ends, and teams are left to their own devices with regard to what they want to do with their game. Naturally, this leads a lot of teams to just abandon their game. For Ludum Dare, however, the end of the jam is merely the start of another vital journey in game development: marketing, receiving feedback from others, and actively improving their own game and development skills. For three weeks, participants are encouraged to player other Ludum Dare games, and to provide comments and criticism. In doing so, the team is making a name for itself and making them appear on the front page of the full Ludum Dare game listing, encouraging others to check out their games as well. Because the post-rating results are a vital part of the game jam, many people have come up with creative ways to advertise their game, using methods such as timelapses and live streams to display not just their development process, but also how they play and rate other people’s games. Even when the judging process ends, teams receive an aggregate score for their game, revealing what they did best and what needs improvement. By providing an extra task to handle after the event, Ludum Dare encourages developers to remain active and engaged with their game project well after the jam is finished.
With our real-world Ludum Dare meetings, we aim to provide the best of both worlds. The goal is to provide a formal process at the beginning of the jam, much like the Global Game Jam, as well as provide a schedule during the judging period to play, rate and comment on other people’s games. How did we do this?
What we did
When it came to advertising our gathering, we notified the Ludum Dare organizers of our location nearly a month in advance. Additionally, we contacted a local college’s game dev club to see if they were interested. While the latter didn’t seem to amount to much, the former caught the attention of a few participants.
Ludum Dare starts at 9:00 PM EST, yet we deliberately made sure the jam venue was open and accessible two hours early. On the first day we had ten people show up, a substantial improvement from last time where there were only three people in attendance for the kickoff. For the first hour, we simply introduced ourselves briefly and reminded the attendees that we would be having a presentation at 8:00. Other than that, we let everyone socialize and partake in some free snacks.
At 8:00 PM, we started our presentation by describing the rules of the jam, before having everyone introduce themselves to the group. We then asked all the people who were attending Ludum Dare for the first time ever to stand up, and receive a round of applause for making the initial leap to get involved. Next, we had all the programmers stand, then the artists, then the musicians and sound designers. The intent of this exercise was to help everyone see what the participants’ distribution was like, allowing jammers to carefully plan how to construct their team. Once this was done, we showed the keynote from Ludum Dare 31. Finally, we mentioned that we would also be hosting a showcase on Friday where participants could show their final results. This actually left us finished much earlier than expected: we were done by about 8:15, meaning we had at least 45 minutes left before the theme was presented. Whoops!
After the theme was announced (Unconventional Weapon), we had an hour-long brainstorming session, where we provided pens and paper to everyone. We recommended the “brain-dump method,” encouraging participants to write out a list of single-sentence descriptions of their game ideas. In the meantime, we also ordered some burritos because we were hungry!
After that, everyone presented their game ideas, with each person allowed to present as many ideas as they liked. From there, we announced that jammers should form teams based on the game idea they liked most. After realizing that teams weren’t forming cohesively, however, we switched gears and asked each of the jammers to write down a single idea on a big piece of paper, and have everyone else write their name down beside the idea they would be interested in working on. The latter method proved to be more successful, even though most jammers decided to strike out on their own anyway.
At the end of this exercise, we reminded everyone that the TVGS office would be closing at midnight, and encouraged teams to discuss their ideas in further detail. We also reminded everyone that, regardless of whether they were following the Compo or Jam rules, they should aim to have a prototype done by the next day.
Day 2 had five people come in, a precipitous decline from the day before. We let everyone work undisturbed until the 9:00 PM mark, at which point we announced that the Compo was at the halfway mark, and the Jam was one-third over. Naturally, we also reminded everyone that our suggested timeline indicated that they should have a functional prototype at this point, and should ideally be moving on to the content creation stage as soon as possible.
Day 3 had three people come in. At the 7:00 PM and 8:00 PM mark, we’ve reminded everyone doing Compo to start submitting their game.
Day 4 had four people come in. Like Day 3, we reminded everyone working under the Jam rules to start submitting their game at 7:00 PM and 8:00 PM. One participant wasn’t certain how to submit their game, so we’ve helped step them through the submission interface. When the submission process ended, we once again reminded everyone that there was a showcase on Friday where they could show off the game. We also encouraged everyone to rate and comment other people’s games so that they could get ratings, too. Finally, we announced that we would be starting a Twitch.tv stream of us playing and rating Ludum Dare games four times a week, and that they were encouraged to join in.
Naturally, the judging period of Ludum Dare consisted of us livestreaming our playthroughs of Ludum Dare games at the TVGS co-working studio. Although we successfully created 131 videos, only three of us who actually attended the real-world meeting joined in:
So how did it go? Did the participants like the meeting? We were able to contact a few who participated, and they seemed to have enjoyed themselves. Without sending a survey, however, the experience was hard to quantify. There is, however, one other method to tell whether the event went well…
What went well
A wide variety of games
As a game jam enthusiast, I’ve been to every Global Game Jam since 2010. As a weird tradition of mine, I’ve been to a different site each time I went to Global Game Jam. Naturally, some sites are better conducted than others, but for the best ones, they’ve all had a few results in common:
- They generated more games.
- The output of participants varied wildly in terms of both gameplay and aesthetics.
Ultimately, I’ve come to use this as a measure of figuring out whether a site was well-conducted or not. So what games were made here at the TVGS?
- My Voice is My Weapon
A game about creating a political movement by convincing passersby to join your cause.
A top-down shooter that requires the player ship to intentionally weaken itself to increase its combat abilities and stave off an increasing number of enemies.
- Star Power
A turn-based RPG where the player must strategically distribute star ratings among their party members and enemies each turn.
- Jammie Dodger
An on-rails, skill based dodging game that involves using only mouse controls to dodge incoming, color-coded bullets.
- Unconventional Stick Swinging Simulator
A silly simulator game about making every human character on the map stick to the player’s rod.
- Star Driller Ultra
A star fighter game about locking on and drilling into enemy ships.
All the games are different from one another, and each one innovates in some way on previous game genres. For this lucky organizer, this is the most certain sign that we have conducted our event well, even if there was a big drop-off with those who attended the event site as the days progressed. Ironically, this organizer’s games were probably the least innovative within the ones listed above, so if anything, I need to get my creativity back into gear!
New game developers!
Have we mentioned that for the My Voice is My Weapon and Adaptation creators, this was their first completed game ever? As a young game development community aiming to foster an encouraging, inclusive environment, we couldn’t be more proud with these results. There’s something beautiful to be able to assist curious minds to become creators themselves. Both have expressed enthusiasm about their resulting game projects, having learned a lot from the experience. Additionally, one of them is actively developing an improved version of their game.
Having a social space
Even though, like all game jams, most of us remained quiet through the development, there were a few special moments where developers from different teams conversed about their games and provided each other with some important feedback. Many veteran jammers know how critical these moments are: even while operating under a strict deadline, people were able to ask others for playtesting and feedback about their game in its current condition. It’s special moments like these that help a real-wold meeting stand out from working by yourself in an online game jam.
Plenty of (junk) food
Starting from the initial set of goodies we provided, our snack table somehow became an ever-expanding potluck that grew to encompass every variety of junk food imaginable. This was great, and we can say with confidence that nobody went hungry throughout the event. Whether everyone maintained a healthy diet is another story, however…
When we started our meeting, we made it clear that the TVGS studio would only be open from 8:00 AM to midnight. This was mostly out of practicality: the key-holders to the location can only stay up for so long, which meant that a strict time limit was necessary. However, this also had residual benefits for those who did manage to attend the physical location regularly: the closing time acted as a useful reminder that they needed to get some sleep. Consequently, it was rare to see anyone who looked sleep-deprived at the jam site.
What can be improved
As mentioned in our previous description of how we conducted the event, there were a few moments where things could have gone more smoothly. Most importantly, the gap between our initial presentation finishing versus and the theme being announced could have been shortened significantly. It was a bit awkward for everyone to be stuck waiting throughout the 45 minutes we had left before the jam actually began.
Equally in need of improvement was our approach to team-building. Originally, we remained hands-off on how people should form teams, but it seems we need to formalize this process more rather than relying on teams to form organically. Thankfully, the aforementioned “write a single idea on a piece of paper” method, originally copied from how the George Mason University in Maryland conducted their Global Game Jam, seemed to have been an effective course correction, and we plan to use this method in the next jam.
Boring ice breakers
During the introductory exercises, things weren’t all that exciting. We had everyone introduce their name and their favorite game genre (intended to provide different perspectives and highlight the individual tastes of attendees), but this portion didn’t seem to engage the participants as much. Rather than settling on a “dry but informative” presentation format, it might be a better idea to look into how to make the ice-breaker moments more interesting, such as how the University of Albany’s Global Game Jam organizers gamified the introduction process and encouraged everyone to actively engage in the process of getting to know each other.
Encouraging more people to revisit the location
As each day passed, less people came in to work at our location. We’re not sure why this is happening (something a survey could have helped us figure out), but our guess is that there wasn’t a clear enough incentive for participants to revisit our location once the teams had been created. This may mean that we need to focus more on how to make the advantages of a real-world meeting more apparent. Taking a page from how American University in Maryland conducts their Global Game Jam, one idea we have for next time is to establish a “show and tell” period when developers are encouraged to put their pencils down briefly, and walk around to check out the other games being made and provide feedback that can help teams to re-prioritize on their next set of tasks.
Ineffective at encouraging participants to play other Ludum Dare games
As mentioned earlier, our Twitch.tv live stream was primarily intended to encourage participants, especially first-time developers, to play and rate other people’s games. Unfortunately, this completely failed produce the intended result. Instead, verbally reminding first-time developers to play and rate other games proved to be much more effective. This is troubling because it takes a considerable amount of time and dedication to put together these streams.
What the stream did do was provide some publicity to our location, as well as allowing us to interact more directly with other Ludum Dare participants and provide them with some real-time feedback. Since the stream did serve a valuable purpose in this regard, we’ll most likely be continuing the program next time around, albeit with a less aggressive schedule. At the same time, we may want to look into other ways to encourage people to market their game as well, such as using our open office hours to obtain additional help and advice about promotion from other developers at TVGS.
What to prepare for next Ludum Dare
With another successful jam under our belt, and many lessons learned, it’s probably a good time to document our process and our future plans in an easy-to-recall way. We intend to get in contact with IGDA Albany, the organizers of the University of Albany’s Global Game Jam, to see if they can help us improve our ice-breaker exercises for next time. Furthermore, we plan on advertising to a much wider range of locations next time around as opposed to just a single local college.
In terms of the finer details, we plan on using the paper method for the team-building exercise next. For incentivizing repeated visits, we wanted to try devoting at least an hour on the second day for peer playtesting and feedback. Lastly, we will be looking into new methods to better assist developers in marketing their games throughout the judging process.
We want to thank everyone who participated in our location for Ludum Dare 32, and we look forward to seeing you again in August!