If you’ve ever tried to complete a speed run or a perma-death and had friends ask, “Why on earth would you make life harder for yourself like that?”, you already understand the thrill of a game jam.
A game jam is a game development competition. Participants make a game from scratch in line with the theme of the jam and within a specified time frame. They can last for as little as 12 hours, or as long as two or more weeks.
Game jams can help you make new connections, gain experience, and test your development skills or existing indie game ideas. They can also be pretty damn fun.
This article covers:
- A brief history of game jams
- Why you should take part in a game jam
- What are the most popular game jams?
- Does GameMaker run game jams?
- Why you should use GameMaker for your next game jam
- What kind of game should I make for a game jam?
- How to come up with game jam ideas
A brief history of game jams
The year was 2002: 'The Ketchup Song' was inexplicably topping singles charts worldwide, Tobey Maguire was about to define the role of Peter Parker for a generation, and the world’s first video game jam was founded by Chris Hecker and Sean Barrett.
The 0th Indie Game Jam officially launched on 15th March. Only a select group of well-known designers and programmers were invited to join the jam, which challenged them to create a game on a specialised engine in only four days.
One month later, the first virtual game jam was launched on a forum that modern-day jammers may recognise: Ludum Dare (which is Latin for 'Give a game', apparently).
The community at Ludum Dare proposed a game development contest based on themes rather than technological restrictions - an idea which proved so popular that the community are still running game jams over 20 years later.
Participants of the 0th Game Jam, 2002
Why you should take part in a game jam
We spoke to members of the GameMaker community to find out what they enjoyed most about game jams, and why so many recommend them to new and veteran game developers alike.
Experiment with new ideas
They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and that’s certainly true in game jams. With time against you and a theme to match, you need to get creative.
If you prefer making dark, story-driven games in your own time, joining a jam about kittens and sunshine will force you to generate game ideas you’d never have considered otherwise.
In fact, despite an impressive track record of awards and competition wins, game jam veteran Dan Johnston from Chequered Ink told us that it’s not the thrill of victory that drives him to enter more jams.
'I don't really enter jams to win,' he said. 'I just like the opportunity to try out new ideas.'
'I've entered over 30 game jams with GameMaker and I try to make something completely different every time. I've made puzzlers, shooters, platformers, adventure games and even dice and card games.'
It’s a position shared by Paulina Molas of JoyHop Studio, who told us: 'We (JoyHop) often look for jams with interesting themes to look for game inspirations. Now we’ve had a few successes with our games, it’s become an addiction.'
Sometimes an idea that begins life as a game jam entry can become its own fully-fledged release, too.
2D indie classic Celeste began life as a game jam entry in 2016. In fact, the original game jam build (now known as Celeste Classic amongst fans) can still be played online. You can even play Celeste Classic in the full release of the game by finding the secret room in Celestial Resort Side A.
Celeste, developed by Maddy Makes Games
Improve your time management
Working against the clock has a habit of focusing minds. You quickly learn which parts of a game are must-have’s and which parts are like-to-have’s.
If you’re worried about the time restraints, you might be surprised to learn that many jammers find it quite liberating.
“Game jams taught me something special,” explained Bonte Avond’s Kyon. “Having to finish and publish something with a small amount of time creates some sort of freedom.
“Nothing has to be perfect, but it has to be finished,” he said. “Making a song with only time for one take, finishing that last animation and putting it in the game even if it looks quirky gives the game a kind of realness, it captures a moment.”
The more jams you compete in, the more streamlined your processes become. And hey, any game that feels like it has potential but can’t be completed in time can be picked up post-jam.
Whether your jam encourages teamwork or lets you fly solo, jams are a great way to meet like-minded people and get your name out there.
Indie game development can be a lonely experience at times. Joining game jams allows you to make new friends and form development teams that you can share your journey with.
Before you give us the old “Well now I’m not doing it” meme treatment, you’d be surprised how many jammers focus on the destination and forget to enjoy the journey.
Ultimately, if having fun isn’t the main reason you decided to join a game jam, why bother?
Game jams are a kickabout with your mates, not the World Cup final, so don’t be afraid to let your hair down and enjoy the ride.
What are the most popular game jams?
Given the number of platforms and communities that run game jams, you’re almost guaranteed to find a jam to join on any given day of the year.
While it’s impossible to list every community that runs game jams, here’s a quick rundown of some of the most popular ones:
Itch.io have a comprehensive game jam calendar to help you keep track of all the jams that are running right now.
We don’t envy whoever maintains that calendar, but they’re doing the Lord’s work.
Does GameMaker run game jams?
Not only does GameMaker run its own game jams, but the GameMaker community also organise their own jams.
The GMC Jams are organised by the lovely bunch on the GameMaker Community Forum.
You can enter these 96-hour jams alone or with up to three other members. All you need to do is drop a link to your game in the forum before the time runs out.
When entries close, the community vote to crown not only the overall winner, but also category winners, such as Best Art, Gameplay, Theme, and Story.
One of our community members, Siolfor the Jackal, is a particular advocate of the GMC Jam: “I have only participated in the GMC Jams here on the forums. I haven't missed one yet since they started.”
GM48 Jams are also organised by the GameMaker community, but these take place every quarter on the GM48 website, rather than in our Community Forum.
Each quarter, the community comes together to submit theme ideas. When they’ve voted for their favourite, the jam begins and runs for 48 hours.
The GM48 community is one of the friendliest jam communities you could hope to find, so don’t be afraid to get stuck in and ask for help and feedback.
One user, MulfoK, recommends the GM48 jam to every developer, new or experienced: “If you want to be a better game developer in general, and spark some game ideas in your head, GM48 is the place for you.”
GameMaker game jams
We’re no strangers to running our own game jams, either - we ran three over the course of 2021 alone.
In 2022, the contestants of our #NoticeMe Game Jam were competing not only for cash prizes, but also to see their game playable on a real-life arcade cabinet.
Some of our previous game jam winners include:
- Moonleap, winner of the 2022 #NoticeMe Game Jam
- Operius, winner of the 2021 GX Game Jam
- Lam’s Untitled Neon, winner of 2021 Amaze Me Game Jam
- Escape Sequence, winner of 2021 Holiday Sequence Jam
Operius, winner of the 2021 GX Game Jam
Why you should use GameMaker for your next game jam
Their research shows the prominence of GameMaker not only in game jams, but in successful jam entries:
- Six of the top 10 entries in an average game jam are built with GameMaker
- A quarter of the games that made the top 100 were made with GameMaker
- Almost a fifth of entries that finished in the top 250 were built with GameMaker
Note: Game Maker’s Toolkit found that 66.7% of games in the top 10 of the game jams included in their research were made with GameMaker. We’ve rounded the numbers down to make the data clearer to read, but you can see Toolkit’s numbers on their Twitter account.
What kind of game should I make for a game jam?
Some game jams will focus on one genre in particular, which will take the decision out of your hands. Others will impose short development windows, making more expansive genres like RPGs much harder to complete in time.
If you’re competing in a shorter game jam, a few genres you might want to consider include:
- Puzzle games
- Action games
- Arcade games
- Highscore-based games
Lots of jammers tend to go for simple puzzle games or scrolling shooters to ensure they meet their deadline.
Far be it for us to sound like your parents on a school sports day, but whether you miss the deadline or scoop the grand prize, it’s the taking part that counts. The main purpose of a game jam is to have fun, so try not to agonise over your genre choice.
Keep it simple if you’re struggling for ideas or short on time, and get more adventurous as you continue to compete in more jams.
How to come up with game jam ideas
Tragically, there’s no one simple suggestion we can offer if you’re struggling to come up with a game jam idea - so much boils down to the theme and time frame you’re working within, after all.
That’s not to say there aren’t things you can do to help stir your creativity. Check out our article on the best game jam games to see how some of the world’s greatest indie games took their jam theme and turned them into million dollar ideas.
We’ve also put together a list of 14 techniques you can use to generate awesome video game ideas.
If you’re still on the fence about joining an upcoming jam, why not pitch your questions to our GameMaker community? They can help dispel any fears, offer tips, and share their own jam experiences.