Lightning in a Bottle: Hackathons & Game Jams

The hardest part about projects is never the beginning; it’s the end. It’s hard to tackle the end of a project with the same vigor and tenacity as the beginning. Time-constrained events like hackathons or game jams are amazing opportunities to blend the beginning and the end in one huge flurry of creation. There are many lessons to learn by participating in one of these events.

Starting a project is a very familiar thing for many people. It’s full of inspiration and motivation. The sky is the limit and you want to – and believe you can – do it all. In that moment, you’re living in an ideal world where budget or restrictions aren’t an issue. Many people know this feeling well, because it’s fun. Everything’s exciting and new. But once the honeymoon stage of the project is over, it’s hard to stay motivated and push to the end. Designers, artists and programmers alike can be unfamiliar with the later stages because they don’t reach it as often as they do the intro stage.

The final stages of projects are tough for a number of reasons. One is that you can fall into a cycle of perfectionism, finding more and more tiny flaws with your product and thus delaying the release of it. There is a delicate balance that every designer must learn between making sure that all major problems are addressed and letting go of whatever imperfections there may be and just letting the product live. But one thing is for sure: You have to finish. It’s the one thing that separates good designers from great ones.

The Beginning is the End is the Beginning

I’ve participated in a few hackathons and game jams for a few years now. These were all somewhat evenly spaced out and served as a sabbatical from the long and arduous project lifespan I’ve come to know at my day job. What makes these events so great for designers is that it compresses the entire timeline into one chunk (with the exception of HackForHealth, which was a month-long hackathon). The start and the finish blend together, whether it’s an 8-hour hackathon or a 48-hour game jam. With a deadline looming ominously in the not-so-distant future, the main goal is to get it done. Have something to show. Worry about adding features and side quests later, right now, just make it usable/playable. Here are some tips I learned during those hectic but productive hours that applies to not only the hackathons themselves but also the creative process at large.

Don’t get lost in the nitty gritty.

Some teams will drop out and not finish. I’ve only done that once and it was this year during Global Game Jam. We had been designing a computer card game, something akin to Magic: The Gathering. I was illustrating and designing the cards themselves while my two teammates worked on what the cards were, their stats, and eventually the code. We spent so much of our time just on the game design and the minutia of the stats that it was Day 3 of 3 and we were only just then starting to code. Naturally, we didn’t finish in time. It was possible we could’ve finished if we simultaneously coded and designed – the functionality of being able to pick up and set down cards was necessary no matter what the stats were, so getting that done first before worrying about the card rules would’ve helped us reach our goal.

Take mini breaks

Breaks are necessary for all projects. Stepping away keeps your mind fresh and opens your eyes to things you don’t see when you’re focused on details. Breaks are good for big picture thinking, which is crucial in hackathons. If my Global Game Jam team had just stopped at any time during the project and realized that this was a card game we were making and that we could present them as actual printed cards, we would’ve had something to show. We would’ve also been the only physical game in the Austin game jam. I still regret that today. (If you’re curious to see the card designs, they’re on my dribble here! Click the attachments to see full views of all the cards.) We were so caught up in trying to make it a computer game that we didn’t realize we already had a great game in front of us.

Learn to compromise

Chances are you’ll be working on a team. When you’ve only got 8 hours to make a working product, compromises are going to be inevitable. This goes hand in hand with not being a perfectionist. The project comes first. You can always come back to it after the hackathon is done and redo it to how you like it.

Drink lots of water.

That’s not necessarily hackathon or game jam specific advice, but it’s good to follow nonetheless.

If anyone were to ask me if hackathons were worth the stress, I’d say yes in a heartbeat. After my first hackathon at T3 in 2013, I was exhausted and hungry. I could barely function as a normal human being. Yet I had created an awesome mobile experience with two of my friends and managed to take 3rd place. Although we had gotten a cash prize, the realization that I could say on my resume that I placed in a hackathon was an even bigger boost to my self-esteem. You may or may not win, but if you do it right, you can end your hackathon or game jam experience with a product you and your team can be proud of.

Banner image courtesy of Death to Stock.



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