My First Failed Game Jam – Ludum Dare 37

Last weekend I participated in Ludum Dare once again, but unlike the last three times, I didn’t actually manage to finish a game. There’s a few reasons why, so let’s pick apart what happened and see what I can take away for next time!

The Game

The theme for this Ludum Dare was ‘One Room’. I started the jam as I always did by writing down whatever ideas for games I could think of. I always try to come up with five to ten before even thinking about which idea I’ll choose.

Some of my ideas this time were:

  • Escape a room
  • Fight in a room that gets smaller
  • Build a room – tower defense or something?
  • One room, but with different dimensions/worlds, each similar but with variations
  • One room over time – something story based with branching paths?

Every time I’ve done Ludum Dare so far, by the time I’ve come up with a bunch of ideas one of them will jump out at me above all the rest. This time was no exception; the last idea was the one that jumped out at me this time.

In the game I’d imagined, the entire game would visually take place within one room – the bedroom of someone whose life you would play out. As you make choices, items would appear or disappear in the room based on those choices. At the end of the game when the person dies, the room would be filled with momentos of events both good and bad that your choices had impacted.

That’s the idea at least! Some might argue that this isn’t a game since there isn’t really a failure state, and that it falls more into the category of interactive art or alt games. I wouldn’t try to argue that point one way or the other, my goal was simply to make something different from the usual top down shooter/platformer/simple puzzle games that you see all the time.

So What Happened?

In the end, I wasn’t able to finish the game. There’s a lot of reasons why that is, but I’ll start by going over what it is exactly that I did.

At first I wasn’t completely sure I wanted to go with this idea. From a technical standpoint it wouldn’t actually be very difficult to implement. It’s just a single room, some text boxes, and items that appear conditionally with some text attached to them. The art side would take a little longer as I’d want the bedroom to look very warm, inviting, and safe. I planned to do it in pixel art being that I’ve still not learned enough about drawing to do another style. I’d do a fairly low resolution to make it faster to draw. With the room itself drawn, all I’d have left is to draw the various items.

I knew right away that the bulk of the work was actually going to be in the writing. If the writing was badly done, the events and their intended emotional impact would fall flat and there would be virtually no gameplay to back it up. Essentially, what I’d planned to make was a Twine game with a visual component. It would live or die by the writing.

To be sure that this was the idea I wanted to settle on, I decided to write out a few of the events in the game as a test of whether or not it’s something I thought I could even pull off. Once I was satisfied with that, I committed to the idea. It was this idea or nothing, since I wouldn’t have enough time left to start from scratch on another idea.

I began by writing out a tree of possible choices the player could take. At the time, I thought that the best way to do the game would be to have branching choices so different players would have different rooms at the end and could compare them when they finished playing. In theory at least; most Ludum Dare players will just move on to the next game. A screenshot feature would be really nice to have if I’d gotten that far.

Too Much Stuff

I didn’t get very far into this tree diagram before I realized I’d never be able to create that much content. I simplified the design by deciding it would be a linear series of events. Each choice the player made would add or remove points in three hidden stats. The stats I picked were ‘happiness’, ‘social’, and ‘diligence’. The names and their effects hardly matter though since they’d be hidden from the player and were only there to vary the experience a little for each player. Certain choices would be hidden or visible based on these hidden stats which would create a weaker form of branching.

I continued on and wrote four of these events. By this time it was past noon on Saturday, I felt like I’d need at least 20 events total, I hadn’t written any code, I hadn’t made any art, I had to figure out exactly how the stats were going to impact what choices appeared or were hidden later on, and I wasn’t feeling at all motivated to continue. I decided at that point to pack it in and relax for the rest of the weekend.

What Went Wrong?

There were a few things that I can point to that caused this game jam to be a failure for me. I don’t think my idea was a bad one, but I think I’m the wrong person to execute it. I haven’t done any sort of creative writing since I was a kid. I felt like I was constantly drawing a blank trying to write something that would evoke an emotional response in the reader. That sort of writing is a skill I simply don’t have.

Something that I can take away from this is that creative writing is a skill I’d like to build on. When I finish Chaintanks, I plan on spending several months just building skills like drawing, or maybe composing chiptunes. Creative writing is another skill I could spend time improving. I doubt I could ever achieve a high level of skill in all of these areas, but it couldn’t hurt to try and build a more rounded skill set.

I want to say that scope was an issue here, but it really wasn’t. I realized very quickly that I’d planned too much work for myself, and cut the feature set down to a reasonable size. That’s something I can say I did well this time around.

Really the factor that had the most impact was my state of mind at the time. I wasn’t as enthusiastic about this game jam as I was about the last three. Part of that is that I’m starting to feel a bit burnt out from working on Chaintanks for so long, especially when I think it’s not a good game. The other part is some minor stuff outside of gamedev that was going on that I won’t get into here. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t feeling one hundred percent, and attempting to take on a task like creative writing was much more difficult because of it.

What Would I Change?

The next time I participate in Ludum Dare, I think I’ll avoid game ideas that involve creative writing unless I’ve taken the time to work on that skill beforehand. Also, if I’m not really feeling my best, I’ll avoid choosing any ideas that are overly taxing, or even go as far as waiting until the next jam.

Other than that, I still want to try out weird or unusual ideas for game jams. Last time I tried making a puzzle game even though I’d never done one before and it turned out much better than I expected. I don’t regret going after an unusual idea this time, even if it did end in failure. Next time, I think I’ll try doing something a little outside the box again!

5 thoughts on “My First Failed Game Jam – Ludum Dare 37

  1. Whoopse, I didn’t finish a sentence: “It’s part of why I just use my time”… to work on longer projects I already had going on.

  2. The human element of game development is definitely something that plays a factor. Trying to come up with a good idea is hard, and trying to come up with a good idea that excites you enough that you need to finish it is harder. Good effort, dude, hope this experience didn’t do anything to dissuade you long term.

    Not as many people write about incomplete attempts at Ludam Dare and reading about your process and the break down of motivation will probably be familiar for a lot of people. It happened to me a couple times during past ludam dares and I decided instead to focus on longer term projects that had my interest. It’s part of why I just use my time

    I think Chain Tanks, Changling Infiltration Simulator, and TeleMage were all great games. I think you do fantastic arcade and puzzle games and those seem to draw you in the most.

    When I was working at Hothead Games I remember one piece of wisdom that really stuck with me, it was projected to the room from the founder. He said that he thought it was important for each person to be really good at their “thing”, because it’s so much more rare to be a 10 at something than it is to be a 4 at something. His suggestion was that it is better to bump that 10 to a 12 than it is to bump a 4 to a 6, because anyone can be a 6 at a bunch of stuff, but 12’s are impossibly rare.

    Basically the concept of either a jack of all trades or a master of one. I think it’s super good that you’re learning pixel art, audio, and programming and I really believe as an indie dev you need passable knowledge at a broad range of stuff. Creative writing could definitely be one of those things and will round you out as a person. Honestly all of that sounds great, but when it comes to games, I really believe you’ll do your best work on things that you’ve got a history of excitement about.

    Don’t shy away from doing top down games just to diversify if you keep being pulled back in to them. I’m also not trying to tell you *not* to diversify, I just think it’s important that you don’t let a voice in the back of your head say “we did something similar already, can’t do that again” when sometimes that’s what your heart really wants. 🙂

    Cheers dude!

    1. At the beginning of the jam I actually was genuinely excited about this idea. For my other game jams, I’d say those were all unique in their own ways too – telemage with it’s way of attacking by switching places, chaintanks with it’s bizarre infinite chains, and CIS with swapping identities. All of those games fit the the theme for the jam really well, and all were way more interesting than ‘let’s just cludge the theme into a top down shooter’ which is what my other ideas like ‘build a room – tower defense?’ all felt like.

      If I have an idea that’s some variation of ‘top down shooter’ that really jumps out at me and fits the theme, I’ll absolutely be all over that! However, in cases like this where something weird and a little outside my comfort zone pops out at me, I don’t want to be afraid to tackle that too. Game jams are a great way to try something new that maybe your not so great at since it’s just for a few days.

      In this case it turned out that this sort of game isn’t well suited to me, but I initially thought that about CIS too and that turned out really well. I’d certainly never do something heavily story based for a long term project like Chaintanks, but for a jam I’m glad I tried something new!

      I don’t plan to become an author or anything with creative writing. I’d just like to boost that skill a little bit so if I come across a game jam idea that would need that skill I can be a little better prepared to make a cool jam game, even if I never end up doing a long term project involving writing.

      1. Great points and absolutely right about Jams being *the* right place to try new stuff. It sounds like you’ve got a really good and balanced approach to this honestly, I’m definitely looking forward to your next games.

        I think it’s good not to be afraid to tackle something a little weird that pops out at you either, a lot of what I was trying to do with my comment earlier wasn’t to dissuade that at all because I think that’s where a lot of cool ideas come from. I wanted also encourage working on stuff that feels obvious and pops out at you because for me, at least, I feel like I sometimes feel guilty for indulging a lot in ideas that I really enjoy if I feel like I’ve already done them myself.

        A concrete example of where I’m coming from is that I love drawing my furry character, but I always try to push myself to draw different angles that are hard, or sometimes to draw other things just because I “should”. I’ve appreciated hearing from external sources it’s okay to indulge in tropes you enjoy because a lot more often I hear people encouraging you to break out of your comfort zone. 🙂

        Anyway just wanted to let you know where I was coming from, but I also know you are really good at following your passions. It’s one of the things that I really admire about you.

        1. Thanks dude! I think there’s definitely wisdom in both approaches to be honest. Really the only thing that I’d shy away from is doing nothing – at least for too long, everyone needs a break from time to time. As long as I’m getting better at something, be it something new, or something that I’m already pretty good at, I’m happy!

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