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On group forming at game jams

What happened to me at NGJ 2015, and some tips and ideas on group forming

After five days of creating games, partying, meeting friends, and making new ones, Nordic Game Jam 2015 has ended and I’m on a flight on my way back to Madrid.

For those who don’t know, Nordic Game Jam is (currently) the biggest game jam in the world with 735 participants, an event where game developers team up in small groups to create a game in 48 hours, usually based on a theme revealed at the beginning of the jam.

It’s not just an event for programmers: graphic artists, illustrators, designers of all sorts, composers and sound designers, writers, or anyone who’s up for the challenge.

Get together!

With such a wide range of skills and people, one of the hardest moments of game jams is usually group forming. Some people just play it safe, and come to game jams with a pre-formed group. In my personal opinion, this makes going to the jam almost worthless: if you’re going to work with your friends, you could do it from home without any effort, and anytime you want. Part of the fun of jams is to meet other jammers, and possibly find collaborators for future projects.

This said, I have always had a golden rule: never jam with the same people twice. And I kinda respected this rule since my first jam in 2010, throughout 14 game jams: during the years I have teamed up with amazing people such as the Vlambeer duo (Nordic ’12), IGF finalists Mattia Traverso (Nordic ’13) and Santa Ragione (Global Game Jam ’11), Hotline Miami composer Niklas Åkerblad (No More Sweden ’10), and a bunch of other very talented people.

With the other organisers of Global Game Jam in Rome, we always try to gently push people to team up with complete strangers, although most of the time we fail. I always stress that teams can also be flexible: if you start a jam with somebody and midway through you find you’re not comfortable with them or your ideas differ, you can always regroup: find somebody else, join another team, or just take a support role for other jammers. It’s not a crime, as long as you split up with your team-mates in a nice way, and possibly not too late.

Things don’t always go the way you expect

With this rules in mind, last year I came to Nordic Game Jam and jumped into the group forming with one goal: find some new amazing people.

Things were looking good and I was going to jam with an Australian friend who was by chance living in France. Unfortunately, just as group forming was over he decided to jump into another group for he heard a very cool game idea from them. No problem for me, but I was left alone.

I miraculously joined a friend of a friend and we started brainstorming hard on the theme (which then was “privacy”). We had a lot of cool ideas, but none of them seemed to tickle our imagination, so we didn’t commit to any one of them. After 3 hours of brainstorming, he eventually sort of gave up, and told me he was going to make a text game on his own.

Again, I was left on my own and this time I decided to go solo (it was very late and I couldn’t find any stray jammers). The problem is, brainstorming on your own just doesn’t work: you play with ideas in your mind, but they remain vague until you talk about them. Being in a team with others means that as soon as you speak your mind, you immediately hear what you are saying and thus give a clear shape to your thoughts. It’s an important feedback, and without it, I tried and tried to come up with something, but simply couldn’t.

In the end, I went back home without having made any game, which was a bit disappointing. But I have no hard feelings for those jammers who left me, because they were kinda honest and quick in their resolution.

Never give up

I came to Nordic this year with a need for retribution, and a great yearning to finally make a game. During the pre-jam talks I had met my friends Alex Camilleri and Michelle Westerlaken, two very good designers, but I didn’t want to jam with Alex because we already worked together at Nordic in 2013 on a crazy facial-muscle game called The Chenny.

Group forming at Nordic is very elaborate: after the theme was revealed, we were divided into six themed groups (single player, multiplayer, devices, arcade, etc.) and sent to specific floors of the enormous Aalborg University. Having the same wristband colour, I went up to the fourth floor with Alex and Michelle in the multiplayer group.

The organisers of NGJ 2015 addressing jammers before group forming

The organisers had setup an amount of various shapes on the floor with duct tape, and participants had to enter one of them and start talking about their ideas with the other occupants. When a stadium horn blew, people had to move to another shape and start mingling with different people.

I really liked the idea of this compulsory socialization moment (and I’m going to steal it for the jams I organize), and I actually kinda made friends with one of the people there just by talking those three minutes in the same square. But as time passed, me and my friends noticed that many jammers had a tendency to speak about game concepts that were not just hints or vague; but more like complete designs, already fleshed out and with a clear idea of the game genre and number of players. We wanted to keep ourselves open to possible changes and explore many ideas before settling on one, so we strayed away from the group.

I had heard one cool idea though: “A puzzle game, where the player has an obvious way to victory, but if he follows it, he wins the game and thus the game is over. The only way to keep playing is by not following the obvious path, leading him not to finish the game, extending play time”. I thought it was a nice idea and very in-theme with the concept of “obvious”, so I ran down the stairs to meet up with the two guys I heard this idea from.

They were ok with joining me, but declared themselves as inexpert jammers. I tried to reassure them that I had the experience to tackle any possible challenge, but this just had the opposite effect: the two started feeling uneasy at the thought that they could screw up and ruin the jam for me, a person that came from 3000 km away to have a nice time. They even suggested they might be possibly leaving the jam soon.

I tried as hard as possible to tell them that screwing up or lack of experience was no problem, and that – worst case scenario – we could try to create two interconnected groups to work on two game ideas at the same time, and then whenever (and if) they felt they wanted to go away, they could just leave and I’d work on my other game.

My teammates Alex and Michelle

We went back upstairs and started brainstorming with Alex and Michelle too, and things were going fine in the beginning. We were moving towards a fun game idea, even though a bit different from the initial one. Unfortunately, when we went home to rest a little bit, the two guys decided to give up the jam and sent me a message saying they would not be coming back the next morning.

So I was left with my friends, and after an additional round of brainstorming, we started working on Saturday afternoon, with less than 24 hours to go. Things went quite well and despite sleeping only one hour on the floor, we managed to produce 90% of the things we had in mind and came up with this fun motion-based game called How about some coffee, Tobii?, which eventually became finalist with other 9 games out of the total 140 submitted. Not a bad result for one day of jamming if you ask me.

What next

At the end of the day, I am left with the bitter taste of those two jammers that left. Did they do it for the pressure? I hope not. I really hope they left because they were too tired to jam, or maybe they didn’t like me or the direction that the game idea was taking.

I feel sad because they could have been part of our success, and instead they just quit. If I see them again at the Nordic, I’m going to force them to stay and make sure they make a game! If you guys are reading this, remember my words: I will see you next year, and we’re going to make an awesome game together!!

(this blog post appeared originally on my old website and on GameDeveloper in 2015)

All works and words on this website by Ciro Continisio, except otherwise specified.