What happens when a game outlasts the weekend?
Game jams are a huge part of the indie development community. The time-limited challenges offer free exploratory spaces for developers to create anything from sparse prototypes to full games under a competitive or creative spirit. Jams last from between 24 to 48 hours and offer the challenge of creating a game from scratch around a prescribed theme. Often, these events allow developers to test or improve their skills under pressure, or even enjoy a challenge with friends. Beneath these superficial offerings, however, a multitude of things are happening at every game jam that takes place, and each one brings us closer to innovation.
Party Hard, a stealth game requiring the player to silently murder partygoers without detection, is a perfect example of what game jam games can become and showcases the importance of game jams to the indie community. After the jam, the developers decided to complete the game, as well as release a spin-off called ‘Party Hard Tycoon’ and a second Party Hard game. We got in touch with the developers to learn more about how game jams offer more than a time limit and an internet connection.
The pressures of a game jam mean that developers must prototype, create, and finalise games through a series of quick decisions and breakneck speed development. Though the games themselves may be buggy or unpolished, the speed at which they are produced offers developers important lessons when it comes to releasing games. Having to wait through months or even years to learn the process of developing and releasing a game can often become unwieldy for developers with a burning idea. Over the course of a weekend, though, devs participating in a game jam can gain an outline of the processes and trials required to complete a full game.
Developers must learn to make cut-throat decisions with the wider project goals in mind, communicate with a full, often stressed, team, and create assets and functioning code. Undertaking all of this against an iron-cast deadline offers a unique way to quickly understand the process of creating games.
This pressure not only offers a rapid understanding of skills and processes but also yields significant creative exploration. Game jams have a very different process of creation – sometimes bugs are turned into features, ideas are tested and wacky things happen, quick solutions need to be made. The entire idea, due to lack of time, is normally more random and decided within a second. As George Kulko of Party Hard developers Pinokl Games explains: “There was a spark, and a fire burned.”
Game jam developers generally focus on the main game feel to begin with, as opposed to fleshing out any story or fixing the rougher edges. Starting with the core gameplay in this way often leads to highly unique results. “The best ideas are born spontaneously,” says Kulko. “I don’t think that if we gathered meetings and brainstormed for a few days in a row, we would eventually come up with a better concept. We had this little idea of a pixelized masked loon crashing some local party in the middle of the night. Our producer, Alex Ponomariov, came up with it out of nowhere, and we thought, ‘hey, this actually sounds fun as hell’s guts’.” Without audience pressures, financial constraints, or the worry of spending too much time on a project, developer instincts surrounding core gameplay mechanics and storylines can take over and run wild.
Many developers use game jams to achieve a variety of different goals: trying out strange ideas, working on side projects, or learning a new tool. Some developers take the time to learn a new engine, others to work on aspects of game development that they may not be as up-to-date on. Ultimately, however, it’s the creativity at the centre of a game jam effort that makes it memorable. Every quick patch, every sudden change in direction, and every game-breaking bug solved contributes to the tapestry of 24 hours’ worth of pure creative energy. Game jams “keep you in shape and open-minded,” Kulko explains.
Beyond The Jam
The results of a game jam can vary significantly. While they often represent an efficient way to build up a portfolio of smaller games, the entire community around game jams prove invaluable in feedback and iterative direction. Party Hard was not the first game jam game by Pinokl Games; they slowly built their skill through quickly prototyping across a number of jams.
Party Hard, at the completion of this particular jam, struck all involved as a winner. Despite all the bugs and lack of story direction you would expect to be present in such a rushed endeavour, the core gameplay mechanics that had sparked the imaginations of the developers hours before still retained their fire. The stealthy laying of traps and sneakily stabbing individuals in the dark proved consistently enjoyable, even out of the heat of the kitchen. Even so, the developers were still not convinced there was more life in their darkly comedic stealth title. “The plot was woven in between the levels later on,” says Kulko, “but keep in mind it was a mere prototype. We never planned Party Hard to be a full value release in the first place.”
Developers don’t often decide to continue with game jam games on their own unless the game itself resonates well with the community. However, as the independent industry continues to grow, many publishers are often lurking in the workroom. In the case of Party Hard, tinyBuild reached out and made that all important offer to take Party Hard to the next level. “We were offered a contract we couldn’t refuse,” explains Kulko, “a decision was made to produce a full-scale product. I’m not sure how far it would go without tinyBuild’s promotion. Their support meant a world to Pinokl, no shadow of a doubt.”
Publishers are aware of the diamonds emerging from the pressure on the coal. It’s becoming more and more prevalent to see game jam games transforming into full titles, for their core ideas to become complete experiences. The unbridled creativity and instinctive approaches of the developers enjoying such freedom yield unique and innovative experiences, and we’re seeing more of them come to market now than ever before. In the case of Party Hard, publisher investment in the benefits of game jams meant everything. “Imagine mounting a steed instead of fighting on foot on the battlefield. That’s what being backed up by a publisher is like,” says Kulko, reflecting on the hurtling support their 24-hour game picked up.
The benefits of game jams to innovation and creative application have reverberated across the entire industry. Small studios have started holding their own internal jams with the intention to create quick projects to efficiently test new ideas. Entire distribution sites like itch.io often rely on game jam concepts to stock the shelves. Even publishers – as we’ve seen with Party Hard – are using the events to scout their next hit.
When things do go right and code can be easily rewritten, developers sometimes end up with more than just a basic demo. In Party Hard’s case, the game got a spin-off and a sequel, as well as console releases and a dedicated community, all thanks to a publisher’s watchful eye and the developer’s hashed together prototype.
Since Phil Fish’s slow decline, the independent industry has become somewhat categorised by the dogged worker typing tirelessly at a keyboard and spending their lives refining every part of their perfectionist passion project. The advent of profitable game jam experiences, games that would not have been possible without the pressured time constraints and creative freedom of a weekend, looks set to derail this perception. A flash of inspiration becomes a prototype, and a prototype becomes an enjoyable, engaging release, and it all contributes to a wider message: you don’t have to grind for a good game. Within game development, many developers tend to spend years on the same project, as it does take time to make a fully fledged game. The benefits of that stressful, exhilarating weekend are unbound, and I hope to find more and more developers continuing their game jam games and being inspired to take part.