Post Mortem & Thoughts on Game Jams

Now that the 2017 Low Rez Jam is over and the results are out, I thought I'd write up some thoughts about my experience developing Tea Tastes Better on the Moon.

See here for a full list of the 235 entries. 

General Thoughts

If you're anything like me, the ratio of your unfinished projects to finished projects resembles the scale of the sun to a pea. When there are dozens of game engines to choose from, thousands of tools at your disposal, and an unthinkable number of genres and ideas you could pursue -- sometimes it's just too much, especially when you're inexperienced. 

Motivation and inspiration can drive you to start, but they're fleeting. It takes grit, work ethic and determination to finish projects, and these can only be built through experience and getting stuff done. When motivation fails you, it will be your resolve driving you forward, steady and unwavering, like the beat of a steady drum. The rhythm becomes momentum, and even menial work will provide you with a kind of solace and satisfaction. 

Game Jams are so good for this. By their nature, they force constraints that can free you from the burden of choice, and allow you to gain experience. In my mind, there are several features of Game Jams that make them so useful and worthwhile:

  • Theme. All Jams have some kind of theme. Here are some examples: - mechanics (procedural generation, music, bananas) - genre (pixel horror) - story (diversity) - tools (MS paint) - graphics (NES, Low Rez, Kenney's assets) - engines (Game Maker, RPG Maker) Some Jams are once-offs, and some are recurring. Others change themes each time (eg. One Game a Month, Ludum Dare).
  • Deadline. Sometimes hours, sometimes days, occasionally weeks. Whatever it is, in order to submit your game, you have to be finished by the Jam's deadline. This forces you to think critically about what you can realistically achieve in that time frame, and practise time management. Also, let's face it, a looming deadline is sometimes the extra kick you need to get something done. 
  • Community. Game Jams vary in their size and scope. Some have tens of entries, others have hundreds. A lot of Game Jams allow developers to come together and discuss their experiences before, during, and after making their games. 
  • Feedback & Rewards. You'll get feedback on your game from people outside your usual circle. This is not only useful for improving the game and becoming a better developer, it's also incredibly rewarding to know people have actually played and perhaps enjoyed something you have made. Some Jams have a ranking system where entrants are encouraged to play and rate each other's games. Some even have rewards on offer (assets, money, licenses). But, there are many with no rating and/or reward, and are just done for the love and fun of it. 
  • A finished game. Obviously, at the end of a Jam, you'll have a game under your belt. So like, soon, it might be the sun to two peas.

Some of the Game Jams on at the time of writing. See the current list here.

Why the Low Rez Jam?

I'd been wanting to do a Game Jam for months, but had been quite nervous about joining something as popular and short as the Ludum Dare or GM48. The Low Rez Jam hosted a smaller community, and ran for 17 days (we actually joined late at ~5 days in). This time frame made it much more comfortable for me. 

Apart from this, in my own personal projects, two big struggles for me have been project scope and art assets. I fear my artistic skills haven't improved much since I turned five. These were addressed by the strict resolution constraint of 64x64 pixels. It severely limited the scope of what kind of game and graphics I could make. And luckily, I was able to recruit Scary Moonchild to do most of the asset work for me anyway!

Thoughts about Tea Tastes Better on the Moon

> The Idea

Ever since we could hold a controller, my sister and I have been playing every Mario platformer we could get our hands on. It was only fitting that we make our first game in this genre. As for the story -- in case you hadn't noticed, we have quite an affection for the cosmos. So, of course it would be set in space. When that was decided, one of us laughingly suggested it should be "Scary Moonchild jumping over moons to have tea with Friendly Cosmonaut"... and we just went with it. 

> Good Stuff

To my surprise, most of the code basically wrote itself. Simple movement and collisions were completed extremely fast. The gravity, momentum and jumping took a bit of tweaking to get the feel right inside the small 64x64 boundary, but it was all quite painless. The momentum and "sliding" features were really fun to implement, and meant we could play with them in Level 3 (ice moon) where there was much less friction. Health, damage, and enemy behaviour was all kept fairly simple, and there weren't really any major issues. One of my favourite features of the game is the little "aliens", all with their own dialogue, hidden around the moons. This was intended as a little "reward" for exploring the level. 

From left to right: Levels 3, 2, 4, and 5 of Tea Tastes Better on the Moon.

I had a lot of fun with the Eye "boss" enemy, which probably had the most complicated enemy behaviour. Apart from its "seeking" the player, which was just copied over from one of the first enemies in Level 1 (the little white eye blob thing), I programmed it to spawn randomly into one of the four corners of the screen every few seconds. If you moved away so that the Eye went out of the screen, it would fade away and be destroyed, and begin its waiting period for respawning. 

> Challenges

To my surprise, the most fiddly and problematic element was the camera. Originally, the camera was centered to just follow Scary Moonchild, but after implementing the enemies, it became apparent that there just wasn't enough room on the screen to see what was ahead. So I shifted the camera to show more in the direction that Scary Moonchild was looking. This became problematic again when the damage "pushback" was implemented, as the camera would start flitting back and forth. As a bandaid solution, I prevented the camera from "switching" while Scary Moonchild was hurt. This was an improvement, but could strike the player as a little odd as it appeared to be "stuck".

Before I first started programming and became interested in Game Dev, I thought level design would be the easiest part. But in the midst of developing TTBOTM, I actually found it incredibly hard to switch from the steady "flow" of programming (which involves constantly doing something), to the creative "planning" of the levels. For this reason, I only designed the first level myself. After that, I gladly handed over a lot of the level design to Scary Moonchild, who designed Level 2 (poison land) and Level 5 (the dark "boss" level) entirely. The rest we made together. 

A screenshot of TTBOTM in the GameMaker Studio 2 room editor.

Also, messy code. I'm usually quite careful with my code and try to be orderly and efficient, but as the deadline drew nearer, and there were features left to implement, my code became messier and messier. The "cutscene" code in particular was quite atrocious. If we ever went back to the game, there is a lot that would have to be reworked. 

Finally, the game's difficulty became really hard to judge. As I played through the levels tens of times each, I became accustomed to all of the enemies and the level layout, and feared the game would be too easy. I was aware we had become extremely unreliable judges, and would have to just wait for feedback. 

> If We'd Had More Time

I would have liked to add a pause/options menu to allow the player to tweak things like the volume or window size. A checkpoint system mid-level would also have eased some of the difficulty concerns. We also would have liked to spend more time refining the art assets and creating a more balanced colour scheme. Some of the colours became rather garish in contrast, and Scary Moonchild was a little difficult to see against the darker backgrounds. 

Advice for Joining Future Game Jams

There are Game Jams on all the time, so if you're interested, there is a wide variety to choose from. This website maintains a list of current and upcoming Indie Game Jams.

Here's a few points of advice:

  • Keep it simple. Have fewer, quality mechanics rather than dozens of half-finished ones. 
  • Be consistent. Due to time constraints, there likely won't be many assets in your game. Ensure the graphics, mechanics, and audio complement each other and send a similar "message".  
  • Make a plan. Even if it's basic, make sure you have a timeline in your head of the elements you need to complete, and the order you're going to work on them. As a rule of thumb, make sure the most important elements are completed first! User interface, menus, and additional levels are nice, but not necessarily essential. 
  • Engage with fellow Devs -- or don't. This is highly dependent on what kind of person you are. Sometimes even just seeing what others are working on can provide you with ideas and motivation, and there are often opportunities for collaboration. But, for some, it can also be distracting and perhaps disheartening to compare your work with others. That's okay. Consider abstaining from the community aspects and keeping your head down until your game is finished and submitted.
  • Work on the game afterwards! Obviously, you don't have to do this, but remember that it's an option. If the deadline hits and you're just not happy with your game, or you didn't have time to include mechanics X, Y and Z, there's always time afterwards. If nothing else, Game Jams can just help you brainstorm and get creative juices flowing.

Closing Statements

Doing the Low Rez Jam was an incredibly valuable experience for me. I feel a lot of pride for the game we made, and have been very touched by the feedback we've received. My skills and abilities have been tested and validated, and I feel more confident as a developer. It was a genuine pleasure to play everyone else's games in the Jam, and know that we had gone through something together. We'd all worked hard, and shared a game-making and game-playing experience.

Most importantly, I had a lot of fun. Late nights, lots of coffee, existential thoughts, silly conversations, frustrating bugs, moments of eureka. All of it was wonderful.

And I can't wait to do it again.

Files 44 MB
Aug 18, 2017

Get Tea Tastes Better on the Moon

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