With the announcement that TOJam 6 is imminent. We’ve done a little better each year and I’m really looking forward to this one. I wanted to take some time to share what I’ve learned by attending five of these crazy things and share what advice I have on improving your chances of success and minimizing your stress. TOJam only comes once a year, so make the most of it!

Preparation

Every year, I’ve handled preparation a bit differently. There’s a few practices that have emerged which seem to pay off quite well once you sit down at TOJam to start working on your game.

Focus Your Game Design

It takes quite a bit of time to balance and refine a game mechanic and make it really fun. If your game requires a few mechanics working together before it starts to be fun, chances are you won’t have nearly enough time to balance them out after you’ve finished implementing them all. You may not finish implemnting them all in the first place. I’ve done big concepts before and it is a nerve-wracking experience. You can get a whole lot done and feel surprisingly unaccomplished because it’s questionable whether you’ve actually got a complete game.

If you take a look at the award winners each year, you’ll  notice that they all do one thing and do it extremely well. This is not coincidental.

Plan in Stages

We decided to try a staged approach for Der Baron Von Ubercheesen: Cheese Factory. We laid out our plan with some definite milestones, and listed the things we wanted to have complete in order to call that milestone done. It didn’t lead us to be 100% successful, because the idea was just too big, but what we had done felt polished and cohesive. We used the same type of approach for Flip The Beach the next year, and it really clicked. There were a few advantages to this approach.

Completing a milestone gives you a little momentum boost. It also gives you a point where it makes sense to stop working for a moment and just test out the game so far. Take a break, look around at the other games in progress, give any conscious team members a high-five. Then package up a playable build and put it somewhere safe. When you sit down and start on the next milestone, you’ll be feeling pretty good about yourself.

It may seem too much like work, but figure out how long you expect each milestone to take, it will help you recognize early on if you aren’t going to be able to complete a whole milestone by the end of the Jam. This could save you some time and give you the opportunity to polish things up or focus your energy on things you can accomplish easily.

Build Boring Things Ahead

The rules for TOJam state that you can build some things like menu screens ahead of time. Don’t waste your time at the jam on this stuff. Arrive on Friday ready to start on actual gameplay code. It’s a waste of precious time and energy to do it at the Jam.

Know Your Art Needs

Make sure the artists on your team have an explicit list of assets they need to create before the Jam starts. If you’ve planned your game out, you should be able to do this, and even be able to tell them what order you’ll want things in. This is doubly important if you are going to be relying on floaters. Your access to their time is limited, so make it count by being prepared.

At The Jam

Play Other People’s Games

Maintaining inspiration is important, so don’t waste the fact that you are surrounded by creative people. Don’t intrude on people who are obviously busy, but if someone is looking for help play testing or if they are taking a break you may want to strike up a conversation about their game or give it a try in its current state. It only costs you a few minutes of downtime, but sharing the creative energy and seeing what other people are doing can help keep you motivated.

Avoid Scouting

Before the Jam make sure you know the food options in the area and the nearest location of your favourite coffee shop and any convenience stores. Check their hours. There were no 24-hour Tim Horton’s anywhere near George Brown that we could find last year. It took far too long to figure this out. It’s easy to waste a lot of time. (Aside: If you know of a 24-hour Tim Horton’s near George Brown, please let me know)

Sleep

I didn’t sleep at all at the first TOJam. Don’t do that. Trust me. You are going to spend the final day primarily fixing bugs, polishing, and balancing. These tasks are detail-oriented and  much harder to do when you are tired. Personally, I pull an all-nighter from Friday until Saturday and get a full night’s sleep Saturday night so I can hit the ground running on Sunday morning. Everyone is different, so you’ll have to figure out what works for you. That’s a pretty popular model, though.

That being said, if you can go all night once, do it. The overnight is an essential part of the TOJam experience, in my opinion.

Roll With the Punches

Plan to make your game playable in some form as soon as you can. Do the bare minimum for each aspect of the game and get a complete picture. You might find out that one of your major design choices isn’t actually terribly fun. Don’t give up, though. If there’s one thing I would like to stress above all else, it’s do not give up if something goes wrong. Just do what you can.