Game jams are a fantastic way to push your creative boundaries. With a theme to work around and the clock ticking, you’ll generate ideas you’d never have conjured otherwise - ideas which may even grow into million-dollar releases.
If you need some convincing, let’s explore 15 of the best indie games on the market today that can trace their success back to a game jam.
Game jam: Ludum Dare 27, 2013
Theme: Ten seconds
Before Hollow Knight, there was Hungry Knight - a simple little adventure game starring the skull-headed insectoid that eventually became the protagonist of Team Cherry’s beloved Metroidvania.
Hungry Knight was the product of the Ludum Dare 27 game jam, which ran with the theme ‘10 seconds’. As the Knight, you’re tasked with defeating enemies and taking their apples before your 10-second hunger timer depletes.
Response to the game wasn’t particularly glowing at the time, but when the developers considered what kind of game to enter for their next game jam, themed ‘Beneath the surface’, the notion of their little Knight exploring an underground kingdom was born.
Hollow Knight, developed by Team Cherry
Game jam: 7DFPS Challenge, 2013
Theme: Create a first-person shooter
You don’t get too many more ‘Does what it says on the tin’ game jam titles than the Seven Day First-Person Shooter Challenge, where competitors had - wait for it - seven days to make their own first-person shooter.
The concept behind SUPERHOT Team’s entry was simple but brilliant: kill all the enemies in the room before they kill you, but time only moves when you do. The original prototype, which is still playable on the SUPERHOT website, exploded in popularity, becoming the fastest game to pass through the Steam Greenlight program (where users could vote on which indie games they wanted to see published on the Steam Store).
Within three years of the full release, SUPERHOT had sold over two million copies worldwide.
SUPERHOT, developed by SUPERHOT Team
Game jam: Molyjam - What Would Molydeux?, 2012
Theme: Tweets from the Peter Molydeux parody Twitter account
Game jams are meant to be fun, and if there was ever a jam that put fun at the heart of its competition, it’s the ‘Molyjam - What Would Molydeux?’ of 2012.
The entire jam was based on the insane ramblings of the Peter Molydeux Twitter account - a parody of actual game developer Peter Molyneux, who’s as famous for his audacious ideas and unkeepable promises as for his games. All participants had to do was pick an idea generated by the Molydeux account, and make a game out of it.
The Tweet that developer Ben Esposito chose inspired the idea behind Donut County - a game where you play as a hole in the ground, growing larger and larger as you swallow more items - which has gone on to make an estimated $1.7m.
The Tweet that inspired Donut County during the 2012 Molyjam
Gods Will Be Watching
Game jam: Ludum Dare 26, 2013
The story of Gods Will Be Watching’s success reminds us that even if your game doesn’t win the jam, it doesn’t mean the idea doesn’t have potential.
A point-and-click adventure defined by harrowing moral decisions isn’t exactly how most of us would’ve interpreted the theme of ‘minimalism’, but that’s exactly the direction Deconstructeam took in 2013.
Gods Will Be Watching finished second in the Ludum Dare 26 game jam, but the developers knew the idea had legs. An Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign quickly followed, which raised over $20,000, and the game was officially published by Devolver Digital a year later.
Gods Will Be Watching, developed by Deconstructeam
Princess Remedy In A World Of Hurt
Game jam: Games Against Ebola, 2014
Not every game has to make its developers millionaires to become one of the best game jam games ever made.
The charity jam, Games Against Ebola, saw ten well-known development teams livestreaming the development of their jam entries to raise money for those suffering with Ebola.
One of those entries was Ludosity’s Princess Remedy In A World Of Hurt - a simple, hour-long adventure game where the eponymous Princess Remedy cures the residents of Hurtland with her magical powers.
The game is available for free on Steam, and even spawned a sequel - Princess Remedy 2: In A Heap Of Trouble. More importantly, the game helped raise thousands of dollars in humanitarian aid as part of the Games Against Ebola Humble Bundle.
Princess Remedy In A World Of Hurt, developed by Lumosity
Game jam: Vancouver Full Indie Game Jam, 2012
Theme: Alternate Universes
TowerFall was developer Maddy Thorson’s first commercial release, raising over half a million dollars inside its first two years on the market.
The first prototype was developed for the Vancouver Full Indie Game Jam in 2012. The game focuses on multiplayer archery combat, where players must work together to fend off waves of monsters and enemy archers in an alternate universe known as TowerFall.
Incredibly enough, Thorson went on to create another indie gem just a few years later which also has its roots in game jam participation. That brings us to…
Game jam: Four Day Game Jam, 2016
One of the best game jam games of all time just so happens to be one of the best indie games of all time. Celeste is a triumph of precision-platforming and emotional storytelling, and it all started in a simple game jam.
The exact details are a little hazy, though - we know it was a four day jam, and we know it ran in 2016, but themes and jam organisers aren’t as well documented. It may have been an internal game jam at Matt Makes Games, the development studio Thorson ran before Extremely OK Games.
What we do know is that the first build of Celeste was made in a matter of days for the PICO-8 fantasy console. Not only is the original build still available to play today, but you can also unlock it in the full release of Celeste by visiting a hidden room in Celestial Resort Side A.
Celeste, developed by Extremely OK Games
Thomas Was Alone
Game jam: Personal game jam, 2010
Another widely-adored indie platformer, Thomas Was Alone first came to be during a personal game jam run by Mike Bithell. Little could he have known that the game would go on to sell over a million copies, and even snag a BAFTA.
That BAFTA win came in 2013, when voice actor and comedian Danny Wallace won Best Performer for his role as the narrator. The game was also nominated for Best Story and Best Original Music.
In Thomas Was Alone, our AI protagonists attempt to enter the human world - a goal they can’t achieve without each other’s special talents. It’s a unique take on friendship, but that’s what makes game jams so exciting: creative interpretations of simple themes.
Thomas Was Alone, developed by Bithell Games
Game jam: Ludum Dare 43, 2018
Theme: Sacrifices must be made
The original build of the creepy, metafictional deck-builder forced players to sacrifice cards they’ve already played to bring stronger ones to the board. The game received a lot of attention and positive feedback when it was published to itch.io, where developer Daniel Mullins then began to expand it into the game we know today.
In its first year, Inscryption sold a shade under one and half million copies, and is largely recognised as one of the greatest deck-builders on the market today.
Inscryption, developed by Daniel Mullins Games
Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes
Game jam: Global Game Jam, 2014
Theme: We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are
Here’s an ingenious take on an open-ended jam theme: in Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, one player sits in a room with a bomb that’s minutes away from detonating. The second player has the information you need to defuse it - but they can’t see the bomb.
Your success in Keep Talking all boils down to effective communication, but that’s easier said than done. Is that symbol a broken R or a wobbly 3? By ‘nothing’, do you mean the word nothing, or do you mean the screen is blank?
It’s a brilliant twist on the 2014 Global Game Jam’s ‘we see things as we are’ theme, where stress and poor communication can affect your perception at crucial moments. The game went on to be released for all major platforms, selling over 200,000 copies in its first year.
Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes, developed by Steel Crate Games
Game jam: #NoticeMe Game Jam, 2022
Theme: Then the night changed everything
It’s time for a game we know very well here at GameMaker: Moonleap, the winner of our very own #NoticeMe Game Jam! With every jump, the world of Moonleap flips from day to night, creating new hazards and traps that separate you from the collectible stars.
Moonleap’s success doesn’t all boil down to clever puzzle-platforming, though: the game became a rallying point for the Brazilian indie game dev community during the #NoticeMe jam, helping to shine a light on their work, too.
Developer Guselect later lectured at the ‘Gamers of the Future’ event in Brazil in 2023, helping to inspire and educate the next generation of Brazilian game devs, proving that the best game jam games can measure their success in a thousand different ways.
Check out our interview with Guselect to hear more about his story and the development of Moonleap for the #NoticeMe Game Jam.
Moonleap, developed by Guselect
VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action
Game jam: Cyberpunk Jam, 2014
Speaking of games developed with GameMaker, VA-11 Hall-A is our next stop; the self-described ‘booze ‘em up about post-dystopia life’ released in 2016 - two years after first debuting in the 2014 Cyberpunk Jam.
VA-11 Hall-A finished 23rd when the competition came to a close, but developer SUKEBAN GAMES had stumbled on something special. The game’s plot is completely non-linear, but it’s not dialogue options or moral choices that influence the story - it’s the drinks you make.
The prototype submitted for the Cyberpunk Game Jam is still available to download, and the full game is available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch.
VA-11 Hall-A, developed by SUKEBAN GAMES
Game jam: GB Jam 3, 2014
Theme: Game Boy
The adorable but challenging JumpJet Rex takes inspiration from a number of classic 2D action-platformers, including Mega Man and Sonic the Hedgehog. In fact, its origins are so deeply rooted in the classics that the game was originally designed to look like a Game Boy game.
That was the theme of the third GB Jam, after all, and it has to be said that the original build - which is still available to download - would fit right in on Nintendo’s first major handheld console.
The full release followed a year later, complete with more levels, customisation features, and a colour palette that expanded beyond the restrictive Game Boy grey.
JumpJet Rex, developed by TreeFortress Games
Surgeon Simulator 2013
Game jam: Global Game Jam, 2013
Theme: Sound of a heartbeat
Fairly ironic that a jam themed on heartbeats could produce a game where you often find yourself accidentally silencing them, but hey, it certainly paid dividends for Bossa Studios.
Surgeon Simulator’s crazy controls made it the perfect game for YouTubers and streamers, helping to fuel the game’s early popularity online. Add a cameo from the Heavy from Team Fortress 2, an alien, and even a former U.S. President, and what was once a simple game jam entry had become a viral sensation.
Two years after first entering Surgeon Simulator in the Global Game Jam, the full release of Surgeon Simulator 2013 had sold over two million copies.
Surgeon Simulator 2013, developed by Bossa Studios
Game jam: GameMaker Beta Jam, 2016
To conclude our journey, let’s take a look at one of the homeliest game jam games that lived beyond the competition deadline: the open world adventure game, Forager, which claimed the silver medal in GameMaker’s first game jam.
The recent addition of a new tile mapping feature was the main inspiration behind this jam, and Forager made full use of it with a clean and colourful world that fellow jam entrants were spending hours in, even in its infancy.
Forager was crowned the GameMaker Game Of the Year in 2020, selling over 600,000 copies by April of the same year.
Forager, developed by HopFrog
This article is designed to show you how incredible games can be born from even the most obscure, abstract, or subtle game jam themes.
There are plenty more brilliant game jam games that didn’t make this list because their jam themes aren’t public knowledge, including:
- Don’t Starve - Developers Klei Entertainment like to let their hair down every Christmas with a yearly company game jam. The prototype Kevin Forbes and Ju-Lian Kwan developed for the 2010 edition of the Klei game jam later became the basis for the popular indie survival game, Don’t Starve.
- The Binding of Isaac - One of the most famous indie games of all time, The Binding Of Isaac, began life in a week-long game jam between developers Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl.
- The Darkside Detective - Spooky Doorway confirmed on Twitter in 2021 that The Darkside Detective started out as a game jam demo back in 2014, and took another two years to develop in the team’s spare time.
- Snake Pass - Another internal company game jam, this time at Sumo Digital, gave rise to one of the most impressive and interesting indie games of 2017: Snake Pass, a 3D platformer that forces you to master the physics of the snake itself to complete the game’s puzzles.
- Goat Simulator - If you know your game jam games, you were probably surprised to see us omit Goat Simulator - arguably the most famous game jam game of them all. Unfortunately, developers Coffee Stain dropped a bombshell back in 2018 when they revealed Goat Simulator wasn’t made for a game jam at all.
Don’t Starve, developed by Klei Entertainment
Need some more help with your game jam?
If you’re new to the world of game jams, check out our ‘What is a game jam?’ article for a complete introduction to these exciting competitions. You’ll learn more about their origins and discover how creating your entry with GameMaker can actually increase your odds of success.
If you’re stuck for ideas, we’ve also written a 14-step guide to generating new video game ideas.