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  • Writer's picturemairinolan4

Everything I learned doing Game Jams on the Astra Fellowship

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

I am not a video game developer…

Okay, okay. That’s not quite true. I’m a puzzle game designer. I’ve worked on physical escape rooms, a bunch of tabletop experiences, outdoor puzzle trails, ARGs, and yes… A few video games as well. But I’m also the kind of person who opens up Unity and gets nervous sweats just looking at it. I mean, coding? Me? The last time I coded was some time in the early 00s when I added glitter text to my Neopet’s HTML petpage.

Those really were the good old days, weren’t they?

But despite that, someone, somehow saw something in me and decided to accept my application for the 2023 Astra Game Development Fellowship. Which meant I was suddenly presented with a dream come true, unique opportunity to learn all of the things, and learn them really damn fast.

The Astra Games Development Fellowship, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a grant to support the work of a “thinky game developer” for one year. And in case you’re also wondering, a thinky game, for anyone who doesn’t know, is essentially a really cool word to describe a game that makes you think. Puzzles, strategy, or resource management.

Are you braincells being thoroughly stretched out? Well then, you might be playing a “thinky game”.

The first part of the Fellowship focuses on experimentation and development through a series of game jams. And, as I write this, I’ve just ‘finished’ my final game of the six-jam series.

‘Finished’ is a very strong word, and we’ll get into that shortly… But first, I wanted to take time to look back the delicious jam and think on a few lessons. Over the past few months I’ve made some games I love, and some games I hate, I learned to collaborate with other people, and I learned how to discipline myself for solo working as well.

How many jams?! Six jams!

Show me the Jam(s)

Game Jam #1 — “Fairytales”

The very first jam of the season was titled “Fairytales”. From the first moment the jam was announced, I knew I’d be doing two things:

  1. I’d be making the game out of Twine, and

  2. I’d be making a sci-fi game

You remember the Neopets joke? Well, I was serious. Coding was a big scary black box of doom. I wasn’t ready for C#, but I did feel comfortable with the most basic level of HTML. Yep, the kind I used to make petpages out of.

After a couple of days work, I game up with a very short story idea where the main character has to decode a series of interstellar transmissions. It’s a little more complex than that, but I’ll let the game itself do the explaining.

Game Jam #2 — “Make it Thinky!”

One jam down, five more to go. The idea behind the second game jam was to take a genre that isn’t traditionally thinky, and make it thinky. For example, taking a ‘skateboarding’ game and somehow turn it into a puzzle experience.

This theme, I love! *chefs kiss* But with a new game jam came a new collaboration. For this jam I collaborated with a fellow fellowshiper (fellow fellow?), Caroline.

Together, we ran through a few ideas and slowly they converged onto another sci-fi game: This time about a to-and-from conversation between you, the player, and an alien. Originally based on the idea of making a ‘music/beat/ game thinky, we slightly ran out of time, but I’m still immensely proud of the results! I mean, baby’s first foray into Unity coding, heck yes!

Game Jam #3 — “Verbs”

Okay, okay, so technically this was the one of the 6 game jams I didn’t actually take part in. Life got in the way and an ill-timed holiday cropped up, you know how it is. But despite that, this was still my favourite prompt. The prompter (the fantastic Ludipe) gave suggestions such as “Dance”, “Fold”, and “Grow”. But of course my mind went to verbs such as “Shout”, “Scream”, “Squat”, or “Search” (why so many S’s, I do not know).

For this non-participation round, I made a bunch of things. Pages in my notebook, a few 3D models, and some sketches. The idea that took hold in my brain used the verb “Whisper”, where the player would walk around a speakeasy trying to solve a murder by carefully listening to the whispers of the NPCs.

Again, feeling not quite ready to take this into Unity, I focused largely on bringing a scene to life in Blender, and then uploaded a number of 360 degree ‘views’ into a platform called Telescape in order to click and move around the environment.

Game Jam #4 — “Everyday Things”

Rejuvenated from my mini-holiday and slightly disappointed that I didn’t have time to submit any the week before, I started week 4 ready to challenge myself. The theme of the latest game jam was “Everyday Things”. Think doing the washing up, or folding laundry. Things you do all the time — but this time, make them puzzley.

I reached deep, deep into the depths of my knowledge, and bolstered by an over-confident declaration that I wanted to try VR — fired up Unity and chose the “VR” option. For this jam, I wanted to make a supermarket. But a really disconcerting maze-like supermarket where every time you picked up an item from the shelf the whole maze subtly changed so the path you just walked is no longer there. So, I did just that. And since my avatar is The Rock, it has a subtle ‘Rock’ themed vibe.

Game Jam #5 — “Local Culture”

A Dwayne the Rock Johnson themed VR supermarket maze? Okay, that last jam was a little silly. I was having fun in a low-stakes “it’s okay if this turns out terrible” environment. But with Game Jam 5 came the first of the two-week long jams, and time to get serious about the ideas I may carry across into the full grant year.

For local culture, I dug down into an idea I originally pitched when I was first accepted into this Astra cohort. A puzzle game about delivering post in a town that has no street names or postcodes. Essentially a logic puzzle. The local culture was my own, hyper-specific, slightly cottage-core vision of rural England.

The result was “Delivered”, the first game in this series of jams I felt truly happy to have made. A game that can stand up straight on it’s own legs and no caveat of “well I’m not sure this works but at least I learnt something”.

Game Jam #6 — “Collaboration”

Last, but by no means least, was the very last jam. One could look on the jam and say ‘this is where she went off rails’ or as I prefer to see it, ‘oh okay, heres where she actually decided what she wanted to do and it wasn’t this’. The final topic was ‘collaboration’ and with a happy co-incidence I went on holiday with the coder who helped me with Jam #5 — my Unity Wizard brother.

I decided to play with an idea of a classic point and click adventure that’s been half-written over countless game design docs and notebooks over the years. The first week… Went well! My brother and I created some Unity scenes together, an inventory system, some simple animations…

A very early sketch of one of the scene’s (behind those windows — a parallax scroll sky!)

…And then I went home and stared at the Unity file unable to make any further changes. Why? Because I already knew the game I wanted to make for my ‘big project’, and it wasn’t this one.

So for the final game jam I submitted (almost) exactly nothing, and I’m thrilled with myself that I did it. Because A) I learnt so much in the first week and B) I used the second week efficiently, building a game design document for my ‘big idea’ and sharing with for feedback with peers.

So, what did I learn about making games?

1. Making games is so much fun

Going from “haha this is a weird little idea” to having a link you can send to anyone anywhere in the world is… Cool. And all you need to do is literally just sit down and do it. Make the game. It’s as simple as that. Why didn’t anyone tell me this earlier? Damn I wasted 27 years not making cute little video games? That changes now.

Don’t let your dreams be dreams (or something like that anyway)

2. Everyone should give themselves permission to make bad games

Nobody can make good games without first making bad games. It’s a tricky lesson to learn and it took me the whole game jam series to not feel bad about making something, well, bad! But game jams are great for that because they’re so short — literally nobody can make something super polished in that time, and I love that.

3. When making games, make sure you give yourself all the breaks you need

Without realising it, I had a pattern. Make two games, then take a break. Make another two games, then take a break. That works for me. It might not work for the next game dev, but the important thing is to make sure you’re taking the breaks you need, when you need them!

Me after sending one little email

4. Making games is 10% making them and 90% tweaking after

There’s nothing quite like clicking “play” after thinking your game is finished only to discover 15,382 bugs to fix. The lesson: ‘Finish’ early, and give yourself as much time as possible to tweak later!

5. You don’t have to always make games in [cool engine], you can make them in [super random tool]…

I spent all 6 jams telling myself “ok Mairi, we’re gonna do this Unity” and settling for a different system. Along the way I used Twine, Telescape, VR Chat, and cut up paper on my desk. And you know what? I still learned a lot, had fun, and made cool games.

I’d even take it a step further and say there is literally no right or wrong thing to make a game out of. If you want to make a game out of an ice sculpture? Go for it. Mashed potato? Even better!

I’m probably going to stick with Unity, but send me some mash and a plate and I’ll see what I can do.

Challenge accepted

6. …You can even use paper to make a prototype!

Ok so maybe I didn’t learn this right now. I come from a background in board games so paper prototyping is my jam. But since I’m writing about game dev lessons, you can have this one for free.

Sometimes it’s quicker to prove a concept, especially a puzzley one, on paper before firing up the engine.

For example: If you want to make a game that plays top-down on a desk — why not literally go cut out shapes on paper and put it on your desk and see how it looks and feels?

7. Make a game for you, and only you

There are experts. Loads of ’em. And they know lots of useful stuff. But the one thing they don’t know about is YOUR GAME. There’s only one expert in your game and that’s Jeff… Wait no, wrong notes. ITS YOU.

Of course, take feedback! But I believe strongly in not trying to please everyone. Even within the puzzle world we all have different expectations of a “thinky game”. One person might love Sokoban, and the next person might want hours of pure mathematics, the next person might be looking for an escape room where they can sort through a bunch of keys. Those are three very, very different things. So, don’t try to make something they’ll all love, just make something you’ll love.

It’s not a Mairi article unless there’s a GIF of Nic Cage in there sorry I don’t make the rules

Thanks for reading! 👋

Whether you’re a game developer yourself, a fellow Astra Fund recipient, or just my mum reading this because you love me (oh hi mum), I hope the article was useful!

For me, my next step with Astra will be making the ✨big game✨. Deciding what sort of a game you want to focus on for the next 10 months is an equally thrilling and nerve-wracking decision, but as I write this I’m feeling hopeful and excited about my idea. It’s my intention to post some development logs as I go. Perhaps on Medium, or perhaps on my personal portfolio, or perhaps on the Game Design section of my escape room site… We’ll see!

As for you, I don’t know what your next step is. Maybe you’re making your own game? Or maybe you’re just making a cup of tea. Oooh, or maybe you’re making a game about a cup of tea?! Or maybe you’re making a cup of tea about a game- no wait, that doesn’t make sense. In any case, go forth and make good things, and bad things, and share them with the world (especially if they’re puzzley) so I can support you!

If you want to learn more about what Astra is, you can read more on their website here.

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