Lessons Learned from My First Game Jam

This article is a follow-up to my original Game Making Frenzy journal, which I posted last week.

Time heals all wounds, and that's doubly true for the scars left by a shitty game you slapped together and shamefully released onto the unsuspecting public. I knew it'd be tough for me to build a functional game after so many years without making anything, but I underestimated the toll it'd take on some inexplicable, misplaced sense of pride I seem to have. "It's not good enough," I thought, as though any game released at a game jam could ever be good enough. You could lock Will Wright, Peter Molyneux and Shigeru Miyamoto in a room for two days and even then it's doubtful they'd emerge bearing anything worth playing.

No, Bleat at the Moon isn't good. It's barely even playable. Whatever; that's fine. In fact, I'm glad it's out there because I'm confident I wouldn't be able to make anything better in the future if I hadn't gotten this space-goat-simulator...thing out of my system.

Any creative pursuit requires a few constants: hard work, risk-taking and regular cleansing. Hard work goes without saying, but we're all tempted to look for shortcuts. Taking thoughtful risks is the surest way to arrive at unexpected and surprising conclusions, and even if you stumble along the way you're bound to learn more than if you'd played it safe. And when I say "cleansing" I mean giving yourself the time and space to get all the gunk out of your system. For example, there's a direct correlation between the quality of my writing and how frequently I'm writing just to clear my head — just to stretch those muscles, so to speak.

The same certainly holds true for game development, which explains why the game I finally spewed out was so clunky, broken and uninspired. Whatever mental machinery I used to employ in making games is now rusty as hell; not a big surprise when you consider it's been well over a decade since I actually "shipped" a playable game. So yeah, things aren't working like they used to. And that's fine.

I recognize now that I don't get to feel any pride in this field until I make something worth a damn. Objectively, I knew that going into this thing — it's hard to overstate just how hard I lost my momentum in game development after high school — but throughout the duration of the game jam I kept agonizing over the impact this game would have on some imaginary "credibility" I may have.

Fortunately, I've come to my senses. I have zero credibility and no reputation — and that's awesome. It's a clean slate. I can start fresh and work hard and I'm almost guaranteed to get better. The only downside is that, as in studying any new discipline, the learning curve can be excruciating at times. But when you know you love something, it's easy to stay focused on the end goal.

For comparison's sake, I picked up my trumpet for a few minutes when I was back home in Portland a couple weeks ago. My fingerings came back instantly and I ran through scales through muscle memory alone — minor, major, diminished, chromatic — almost effortlessly. But when I actually tried blowing, the notes were sour, flat and inconsistent. Whatever bright tone I'd worked to cultivate in a decade of playing trumpet was long gone.

In other words, it's one thing to have an extensive academic knowledge of a subject, but it's another thing altogether to feel the craft — to put expertise and skill and experience together on the fly. But even so, the thrill of making music came back to me instantly and I remembered just how much I'd missed playing an instrument.

I'll be driving through Portland again in a couple weeks on my way up to Seattle. I plan on picking my trumpet up when I pass through. Even though I've got a long road ahead of me to regain what I've lost, that moment of instant recognition when I played my first few sour, tentative notes in years reminded me how much I had to regain. There's no time like the present.