4 min read

Dealing with the Game Jam “theme”

Virtually every Jam requires that you try to make a game that fits a theme. This is either a surprise word that the moderators came up with or one that has been voted upon earlier.

The theme for a Jam is typically announced immediately before it begins. The anticipation and surprise gives the start of the event extra excitement and serves as a means to inspire the participants in the same way that the “secret ingredient” is used in the TV show Iron Chef .

Once the theme word or words have been announced, digest it for a while. Some suggestions for coming up with a great game concepts based on the theme are as follows:

  • Take a walk
  • Listen to music
  • Mull over ideas away from the computer
  • Come back home and sketch your idea
  • Visualize the game being played before touching the keyboard
  • Talk about the theme over dinner with a friend
  • Sleep on it and start in the morning

Use this theme word as the genesis for your creative spark. Let it inspire you to think outside your normal comfort zone. Don’t get discouraged if you think the theme isn’t something you like: any game concept can be easily manipulated to fit a theme. Add one subtle reference and whatever game you’d hoped to make is still a possibility.

Haiku Time:
Many ideas.
They all seem to fit the theme!
Must I choose just one?

Games that tend to win Game Jam competitions often make use of the theme word to find endless material for humor.

One very strange statistical anomaly is that in most Game Jams, these three themes always score well in the voting stages: evolution, kittens, and fishing. Time and time again they are “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” and tend to be in the top ten, rather than the chosen theme. In Ludum Dare, for example, the “evolution” theme has been in the top ten almost a dozen times over the last six or seven years. When will “the evolution of kitten fishing” finally be the theme of a Game Jam?

What the experts say: Chevy Ray Johnston

A great way to come up with an idea to fit the theme is to write down the first five things that come to mind, then toss ’em. Those are the ideas everybody else is already thinking of and/or making.

If I could give one piece of advice to newcomers, it would be to make a really simple game, and spend all your time polishing it like crazy! Really polished games are addictive, impressive, and always popular.

Visual polish of some sort always seems to give games a boost-up in votes in compos, and makes them more likely to be clicked on by judges (especially in short Jams, where 90% of the games have little to no graphics). But unless you just care about winning, don’t sacrifice a fun or engaging and interesting game just to make it look pretty.

The best thing about Game Jams is the ridiculous shortcuts and solutions developers come up with to solve design problems in such a short time span.

I hope that in the future, Game Jams will see more people developing not just video games, but other types of games as well; and creative things in general. I’m talking about writing Jams, board Game Jams, card Game Jams, and tech Jams where people get together and try to solve technological problems with the same mindset and ambition. Jams are great.

Chevy Ray Johnston is author of many games including Fat Wizard and Skullpogo, the creator of the FlashPunk game engine (which is frequently used in Game Jams), and two time winner of Ludum Dare with the games FleeBuster and Beacon.
Twitter: http://twitter.com/chevyray
Flashpunk : http://flashpunk.net/
Google+ : https://plus.google.com/103872388664329802170


An example of a winning entry

Let’s take an example theme and see what it might inspire you to create. Take “ESCAPE,” the theme of Ludum Dare 21.

The winner of Ludum Dare 21 (theme: ESCAPE) created a game where you had to run away from an alien death beam in various platform-style obstacle courses.
Try it out: Flee Buster by Chevy Ray Johnston.

Other notable entrants created puzzle games where you had to escape from a mansion, jail, dungeon, or reverse pinball where you were the ball trying to get past the bottom. The possibilities are endless.

The key qualities that the top ten entries all had were:

  • Humor
  • Simple gameplay
  • Simple graphics
  • Easy to pick up and play (simple controls)


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