When 48h game jams are not enough

It’s high time to write something about my personal efforts that I hope will be of some use to other aspiring indie developers. What I am going to write today is probably not rocket science, but it’s still something I wish someone told me earlier: When you have a day job, going beyond weekend game jams is difficult and, in particular, 7 day jams are not a very good way to go about it. Let me tell you how I came to these conclusions.

First a bit about my background. I am a professional programmer, I’ve worked and I am working on AAA games. I am not doing indie games to „get into industry”, I am doing them to realize my own creative ideas. So far I have „published” two weekend game jam games – My Little Robo (currently not working due to broken compatibility between cocos2d-x versions) and Rainbow Rangers. I have also made a third that I have not published (because it turned out to be quite poor).

Some time ago I’ve decided that although I still do not feel confident enough to tackle some sort of full scale production, with such experience I could try doing something bigger than a 48h jam. What seemed like a pretty logical next step was a one week long project – there are some occasional 7 day jams and the „one game a week” challenge received recently many praises from quite knowledgeable indie developers. Above all, 7 days seemed like just the right amount of time to make such a slightly more ambitious project.

With that thought in mind I picked an idea – a chess based roguelike – fired up Unity and started working. After a week I failed, I admit, mostly due to overstretching myself, but I learned one important thing I would like to share: with a full time day job, a 7 day project is barely any different from a 48h game jam in terms of scale. So, if your goal, like mine, is to work on something bigger than that, such a project turns out to be a rather bad way to do it.

Why? Let’s start by analyzing how much development time there is in a 48h jam. A weekend to make a game may sound like madness, but actually it is a lot of time. I’ll tell you what’s my schedule during the Ludum Dare. On Friday I do the shopping and cook myself enough food for two days, tell my wife and family I will be busy for the whole weekend, prepare my computer and go to bed at 8 PM. At 4 AM of my local time the theme is announced and I wake up well rested and ready to work. I work till midnight, go to sleep and the next day I wake up at 8 AM and work till 4 AM submission deadline. Of course on Monday I have to take a day off at my day job, since I am too exhausted to even drive to the office, but this way I can easily put about forty hours of work into the game – an equivalent of a full working week. Does not seem like such a madness now, does it?

Now there are two problems when scaling this model up to a 7 day project. First of all, there is not that much free time during the rest of the week. Assuming the best possible conditions, if I work for 5 evenings on workdays and do a weekend crunch after that, this adds up to about 5*3 hours + 40 hours = 55 hours of work. But, second of all, those 40 hours on weekend are „borrowed time” – borrowed by arranging the rest of the week in a way that gives me as much time as possible during the weekend. And the more I scale this up, the more of that borrowed time I have to give back. For example the Friday preparations before weekend crunch mean I cannot work on Friday – one evening is out. Also, I can neglect my wife for one weekend, but not for a whole week – another evening is out. And I will probably need to do some shopping during the week – minus one hour. So the total goes down to about 48 hours.

And this is still working on borrowed time, since I am doing an intense crunch during the weekend. I can do this once, but if I were to do a „one game per week” challenge I could not keep taking Mondays off for a whole month or more. I would have to reduce my weekend workload from 40 hours to at best 2 * 12 hours for this to be somewhat sustainable. So the total for the week goes down to 32 hours.

So what does all this tell us? A 7 day project – if you have a day job – gives you merely 20% more work time than a weekend game jam. 20% means you can polish the game more, or add one extra feature, or think about it more, or work with less intensity, but 20% does not mean you can do a project of a larger scale.

A „one game per week” challenge means you will in fact be working on projects at least 20% smaller than a weekend jam. There is no denying such a challenge might be good if you want to quickly gain experience, or build up your portfolio, but if you want to try your hand at bigger projects – no.

What is a working game developer to do, then? I don’t have any proven answers. The obvious one would be „if one week is not enough, try two weeks”, but I tried the obvious answer previously and you know the results. So I am going to do something a bit different – an „80 hours game challenge”. I will create a work time meter that I will run whenever I will be doing some work on the project and keep working, whenever I have free time, until I have clocked in 80 hours on it. It might take a month, it might take two, it does not matter. I think this approach has two advantages. First, it guarantees the time scale of the project will be significantly longer than that of a weekend game jam. Second, it will give me a better understanding of how actually does my calendar time translate to working time, which I think will be an important knowledge when I will scale my projects even further.

I will let you know about the project’s progress on this blog.

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