Ludum Dare 44 Game Jam Postmortem

Ludum Dare 44 Game Jam Postmortem

My first game jam, and I finished it, woo! For those who don’t know, Ludum Dare Compo is a game jam competition where you are challenged to create a game from scratch based on a specific theme in under 48 hours. All artwork, sound, code, etc. has to be made in that time window. I definitely wasn’t able to add nearly as many features as I would have liked, and didn’t do as well as I was aiming for (I got 480th overall out of about 2,500 entries) but learned a lot during it. You can play the game I made for the game jam for yourself here: https://dmarkham421.itch.io/devil-and-aliens-georgia

Here are some of my main takeaways:

Not all themes are created equal

I wasn’t a fan of the theme for this game jam. The theme was “Your life is currency”. It didn’t stoke my creativity like I wanted a game jam to. The first few hours of the game jam was spent racking my brain trying to figure out a game that would fit the theme. First I threw out some ideas that fit the theme but were too insensitive, or too morbid. I also tossed out some game ideas that were out of the scope for a weekend project. I ended up landing on the idea of a game where you make a pact with the devil, and your bets would win you rewards in the “regular” game, in this case a top down shooter. I wasn’t a huge fan of the idea, I wanted something more creative going into the game jam, but I needed to settle on something and start making a game as precious hours were ticking away. 

Not all features made the cut

I settled on the idea of a top-down shooter where you make side bets with the devil. I had more grandiose ideas of how the game would wind up. I had plans to make the enemies have multiple attack patterns, arms that you could shoot off, weak points on the enemy you had to target, different phases, etc. I even wanted to, if time permitted, to make a boss battle where the boss learned the players attack patterns altered its behavior accordingly. Time did not permit. I ended up only having time to implement the one type of enemy without significant variation. A lot of my time was spent learning how to do the various basic things I needed to do to put a game together in an engine I wasn’t all that familiar with. Luckily I had staged the feature development such that I still had a functional game in the end, just not as feature-rich as I originally wanted. 

The Devil and Some Aliens Went down to Georgia

Leave time for testing and balancing

I ended up working up to the wire, and actually never played the final iteration of my game until AFTER I submitted it. I had played various rounds of the game, but most of the balancing of the game was done by blindly setting variables and hoping the game scaled well as each play-through of the game could take 10-25 minutes. Most of feedback I received was that the game started too slow. This is something I could have worked out if I had left more time to balance the game. There was also an unfortunate bug that slipped in at the last minute that caused the “Double or Nothing” bets to not actually double your reward, luckily the rules allowed that one to be patched after submission.

Sleep is important

I tried to cram late nights like I used to back in my college days, it didn’t work too well. Turns out I can’t really function on limited sleep anymore (and probably couldn’t back in the day either I just didn’t notice as much). I was dragging, over-caffeinated, and tried to nap when the caffeine stopped working. Unfortunately my body, as well as my two dogs, aren’t used to staying up late or taking naps in the middle of the day so I wasn’t very rested even with naps. I ended up getting about 9 hours of sleep over the 48 hours of the competition. This is not healthy:

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 Looking back, I think I would have more productive overall, and happier, if I just stuck closer to my normal sleep schedule. Game development requires a lot of energy and focus and I think I would have gotten more done in less time rather than trying to stay up as long as possible during the competition window.

Game Jams are a good learning experience

I hadn’t released a game in the Godot game engine before and this was a great way to force me to learn it better. I had been working on the side on a mobile game, but was stumbling over how to implement certain features with the engine, and this was a good opportunity to take a step back and force me to go over and learn the basics again. Especially with me having to release a game at the end of the competition, with menus, sound, art, etc. It forced me to learn things like the U.I. system in Godot, which I had mostly pushed aside and avoided in my mobile side project as something I would get to later, well there is no later in a Game Jam setting, everything is now. 

On top of learning to make a game from scratch faster so I can have time for more innovative features, I also need to improve my art skills for future game jams.

Accountability is a good motivator

Like I said, I’ve been working on a mobile game on the side for a few months now, but don’t have all that much to show for it, I had hit a wall that I would compare to writers block. Working on a game jam game, knowing that all of my code, and the game would be public in less than 48 hours was a surprisingly good motivator. Not to mention the competitive nature of the competition. It lit a bit of a fire in that I wanted something to show for my time, and if I spent a ton of time tinkering trying to perfect any one mechanic, I would have little to show for my effort. Instead it motivated me to tackle the “mission-critical” features first. Borrowing a software development term, it forced me to focus on making a Minimal Viable Product first, and add nice to have features and polish later if time permitted.
So ultimately the game didn’t quite pan out as well as I had hoped, but was a good learning experience. I think my main takeaway was that I need to get better at the basics to the point that they are instinctive. Things like adding a menu system, attaching sounds to a character,creating a sprite-sheet from scratch and creating animations from it, etc. need to be second-nature in order for me to be able to quickly make the core of a game and move onto more interesting, novel features. I’m not at that point yet, especially not with Godot, but I think attending more Game Jams, as well as doing other things like trying to build lots of small games by giving myself a strict time-limit of 30 days like the One Game a Month Challenge will help with that.

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