How we messed up and how we succeeded: Malta Global Game Jam

An Organiser’s Postmortem/Pre-mortem

Organising a Game Jam is no walk in the park. It is more like a mad dash in the woods, without a map, for 48 hours, while being chased by energy-drink fueled bears, cranky because they haven’t hibernated and they also need the wifi password.

What follows is our attempt as organisers to give you a hastily drawn map on the back of your hand, so maybe you can make it out of the woods with less claw marks on your back and bruises on your knees. If you’re thinking of participating in a Game Jam you should probably have a look at Dorian Bocur’s post-mortem of his Game Jam participation.

If you’re planning your Game Jam and the cranky wifi bears are so close that you don’t have time for our flowery narrative skip on down to the TL:DR section.

Considering that the Malta Global Game Jam is starting up soon (26–31st January 2021), it might be worth revisiting the article originally published on Gamasutra updated with some remote participation tips.

Poster by Iella

The core organising team was composed of 5 of the Institute of Digital Games’s faculty and staff (Jasper Schellekens — Research Support Officer, Costantino Oliva — Assistant Lecturer, Antonios Liapis — Lecturer, David Melhart — PhD Student, and Daniele Gravina — postdoctoral researcher).

Our Game Jam preparation always started with the selection of the keynote speakers. There were years where we we had the luxury of being able to invite three keynote speakers due to the support of the Malta Art Council. But as they say: “More Speakers, More Problems”. Everyone had a different idea of what was important to bring to the table, but finally we agreed on a good balance. And having learned our lesson from last year we went quickly through our list to make sure our speakers wouldn’t be booked on the date.

Once that was completed, we encountered another problem: how were we going to allocate the very limited time for presentations before the announcement of the theme? We normally made do with only two speakers, so we had to cut the presentation times down significantly mostly at the expense of the Q&A session. However, we did a mixed Q&A panel with all speakers simultaneously which was not only a great compromise, it also allowed the speakers to build on each others answers.

In 2018 we had set up a live stream and we recorded the keynotes with our limited recording equipment they are still secretly available here:

Mike Cook “Make Your Game Jam Smarter, Healthier And Weirder With Procedural Generation
Emily Short, who presented “Matching Story and Mechanics
Matt Binkowski “How we balanced Dying Light and how I fucked it up

We’ve since abandoned the steaming and recording since we hadn’t found much engagement and they did take a lot of work.

While we had been forced to downsize back down to one speaker in recent years, we always ensured we had quality speakers to inspire the jammers and give them important advice. In 2019 we were joined by Tomasz Kisilewicz — Lead Artist at 11bit Studios and in 2020 by Kari Koivistoinen — Senior Producer at Machinegames — Co-founder 3rd Eye Studios.

Tomasz Kisilewicz — Lead Artist at 11bit Studios in 2019

This year we’re trying something new because of the online format, with an opening keynote and a closing keynote. Some budget was freed up as the programme is online this year, so we were able to return to two speakers and a silver lining is that we were no longer limited by travel costs, so we were able to invite Jupiter Hadley (co-founder of IndieGames.com) giving us a great indie games perspective and some US speakers — (still unannounced, but from a big IP) who can give us some AAA perspective.

We’ve also changed the format to a shorter time 20 minutes and allowed more time for discussion. With less interruptions and more distractions, we think that the short online session is the way to go. We have some experience having transferred a number of academic conferences online (FDG2020 and Ludomusicology).

The Good

The Pub

We experimented with a Pub Quiz last year and it was honestly a really good addition. The held it at the legendary “The Pub” in Valletta, renowned last stop for legendary actor Oliver Reed and it provided an opportunity for jammers to interact before the jam. Sometimes joining teams and showing off their knowledge and answering the very odd games questions that our quizmaster Daniele devised (fact-checked and verified of course, he is a researcher after all). This year, we can’t have The Pub, however, we’ll try and set up a Mozilla Hubs space to do some pre-jam interaction, but Mozilla Hub quiz doesn’t have the same ring to it. (Although Hub Quiz? Maybe?)

David Melhart MC-ing the Game Jam pub Quiz

Group Formation

Part of the fun of the Game Jam is meeting new people and trying new things, but we know it isn’t easy to do that. It doesn’t come naturally to everyone. So in order to help people find a group they can click with we do some guided brainstorming on the theme. This helps people see whose ideas they like and puts them in a position where they will need to communicate and exchange ideas.

Step 1: Divide and conquer

It’s natural for people to form cliques, but these become little self-contained silos where jammers sit inside and warm their hands with the fire of familiarity. While nice and comfortable, this might result in a team with only artists because they all studied together or a bunch of programmers that work together. So we divided them up into smaller teams to brainstorm, many times, until their resolve was broken and they were (hopefully) all moderately familiar with each other and their skillsets. For example, we divided the group into artists, programmers, sound designers, writers in one case and students and professionals in another case, car license and no car license as well just dividing them based on game design element cards that we gave them.

Step 2: Put them to Work

We used cards with game design elements as prompts for brainstorming. Since the theme was already announced at this point, we gave jammers a random combination of game design elements and asked them to propose a game using those elements related to the theme. The purpose to this was two-fold. Firstly, jammers could get to know each other and their ideas and join a person whose idea they like (in a way replacing the pitching sessions many jams have) and secondly, while team formation was happening jammers were still thinking about the theme and exploring possible games.

Brainstorming session to break the ice during group formation. Photo: Daniel Karavolos

Step 3 — Set Them Free

At a certain point it comes time for us to step back and let the jammers organise themselves. Like good parents, it came time to let out jammers find their own place in the world without interference from us.

We’re sticking to a similar format using break out rooms in Zoom for the online version. Having run the Global Game Jam for under 18s in the summer in the manner, we’re confident it transfers to the online domain.

https://www.facebook.com/123468857849548/videos/228492498545910

The Expert Panel

We get caught up in the details of the game, we haven’t slept in a while, but never fear, the expert panel is here! Each year we invite our experts in to see what the jammers are doing and provide some encouragement and advice. They’ve been through this before and can help teams scope their games, provide ideas on game mechanics tweaks, and offer encouragement. It also give the jammers some one-to-one time to ask industry professionals questions (usually about games).

The expert panel consisting of Kari of Machinegames — Julian and Andrew of Anvil Game Studios and Antonios Liapis of the Institute

The Bad

Funnily enough, it seems the bad one are strongly related to physical logistics, so that is some good news (maybe?).

Wifi

Something. Always. Goes. Wrong. With. Wifi. In this case it was that we had made guest accounts, but they were per device and people were connecting multiple devices so we ran out very quickly. Understand your Wifi, have spares, and if possible have tech support available.

That’s one headache less for the remote edition. Or is it? Now everything relies on the Internet to proceed, but at least it is out of our hands.

Badges

Remember that brilliant idea about the badges we mentioned earlier? The concept behind the badges was that we would have 3 different badges to facilitate interaction: Jammer, Crew, and Random.

Everyone received a Jammer badge, the volunteers and staff received a Crew badge so people would know who to approach for questions and those people that were looking to join a team were given a Random badge to show they were on the lookout for a team. It turns out the 25mm is even smaller than it sounds.

#Random badges to help identify those looking for teams. #Crew for the volunteers. #Jammer for all of the participants.

The badges were a bit too tiny. Luckily the colors were different enough to tell the difference, but if you wanted to read them you had to get very close. Who knows? This might have actually been an advantage, bringing people closer together. Print bigger badges though, really.

Since we’re using Discord this time around, we might be able to just hand people some virtual badges, which honestly is way less hassle!

Tables

We ran out of tables and chairs. When crunch time came and everyone was at the location, suddenly it became a Mad Max post-apocalyptic world where tables and chairs were the only valid currency.

These jammers later sold their foldable tables and retired on a distant tropical island sipping mojitos in their mansions. Photo: Jeremy Grech

No tables this year!

The Ugly

After getting pumped from the three great keynote we were ready to ride the wave of excitement onto the announcement of the theme. We opened up Slack and clicked on the video link. Only to have it turn out to play the theme announcement of 2017. Frantically we shouted: “Call Sicily! Anyone in contact with Jammers from somewhere else in our time zone?” When the panic subsided we finally found the 2018 video right there in front of us. So let that be a lesson to all organisers: Don’t Panic. Ever. (Or note down another Jam Site’s contact details so you can call them when you’re panicking?) Or save the keynote on your PC clearly labelled as soon as you can. Just don’t share it with anyone.

The Checkered Flag

As organisers our focus of the Malta Global Game Jam is the experience of making the game and of going through the stressful development cycle together. At the end we do an Arcade Mode where everyone plays each other’s games and we have a winner by popular vote. There is no judgement about whether it is the best game, it is just the game that the jammers enjoyed the most on the day.

Arcade mode initialized! — Photo Matthew Spiteri

Arcade mode will need to be largely replaced with Zoom demos because installing and playing in an isolated room probably isn’t going to be the same as stopping by each desk to play the hastily cobbled together executables that might not work on other computers. We are leaving some time for people to try them out (simultaneous to some discussions by our keynotes).

And they lived happily ever after

Once our kind volunteers helped with the clean up and we closed the venue we went home and passed out. In sleepless delirium (definitely absent of all rational thought) we smiled to ourselves and nodded thinking: “Next year let’s do that again, it wasn’t so bad.”

Team being handed the coveted Popular Vote prize at the end of the Jam. Photo: Daniel Karavolos

No clean up this year! But that also means less time spent with our wonderful volunteers which is a real loss really… But we’re already thinking “let’s do that again next year”.

Volunteers hard at work with registrations
Photo Matthew Spiteri

All the best for everyone jamming and organising at the end of the month! For those who are interested but want to learn more we have an FAQ on our registration site. There is always some role to take on and there is always something to learn! There are so many resources for designing games without coding.

https://twitter.com/i/status/1322870208827138049

It is intense and people will work hard. Have a taste of the Sunday morning in 2017.

Can you feel that quiet concentration?

TL;DR:

  1. Get to your speakers early
  2. Have activities to bring people together — guide them to find groups (e.g. through brainstorming activities, teambuilding activities, or games)
  3. Make it easy for people to show they are looking to join a group (e.g. through clear badges)
  4. Plan for more tables and chairs that you think are required
  5. Have an arcade mode so people can try the games they made
  6. Decide whether you want you want to be a competitive or collaborative site

An overview of the 2020 games made at the Malta Site

Originally posted by author in Gamasutra, now updated with minor details and new lessons on remote events.

Jasper Schellekens is part of the top-ranked Institute of Digital Games at University of Malta. Leading innovative research from Game AI to Game Philosophy.

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