Before the jam
I heard about the Home Of Nerds (HON) game jam through word of mouth at a meetup for game devs I went to in London. Being a composer and not a developer, I thought I’d feel a bit out of place, but there were a few other audio folks there and I felt very comfortable after initial introductions (click here to find out more about the meetup).
HON have a huge Discord server for game developers to talk to each other. I found the #gamejam channel in there and introduced myself as a composer. The game jam was a couple of days away and people were already starting to put teams together. Luckily, I managed to find a group called Inverted Gameswho were looking for someone to write music and as soon as we were allowed, we got to work on our game.
Friday — the first day
The theme for the jam was Dying Is Good. The two developers on the team got talking and came up with a game idea where you absolutely had to blow yourself up, avoiding being too controversial of course. They did some tweaks and created the base of the game in libGDX. It was starting to come alive. Myself and Shawneth sent messages back and forth on the Inverted GamesDiscord channel to get a good idea of what kind of music would be needed. The hardest thing for me was knowing there was a very small time-frame to complete all the music (3 days, but really 2 and a bit as I had work all day Friday) and not having any clue as to the pace or style of the game. We agreed on an electronic retro soundtrack in the end and I got to composing as soon as I got home from the day job.
I didn’t need much motivation to write as I was super excited, but I did need to make it as easy as possible on myself. I didn’t want to burn out half way through and realise all the music was dreadful. To reduce stress and save time, here are the things I did:
- Took two old tracks I’d previously done and copied all the instrumentation into one new track.
- Wrote out a list of every track I’d need to compose.
- Made each of the 5 tracks use the exact same chord progression.
- Made sure I slept. I didn’t want to be tired and irritable.
- Made time to relax. This was partly for me and partly so I could still have time to do stuff with my wife and not abandon her all weekend.
- Stopped worrying. It was all a bit of fun after all.
Taking two old tracks and making a template from them meant I knew I already had the sound I wanted. Without my track template, I know I would have run out of time and not have been happy with the end result. Writing a list of all the tracks I needed to compose stopped me from wasting time by writing music that wouldn’t get used. Making each track the exact same chord progression was a hack that saved so much time. I got over 5 minutes of music from one progression and meant it could be adaptive if needed (it didn’t need to be in the end, but better to be on the safe side).
Saturday — work, work work.
By the Saturday afternoon, I’d received a playable version of the game! It was simple and awesome. You ran around as a little blue alien guy, shooting purple alien guys. I played my music in the background and was happy with the tone of it all. I spent the rest of Saturday writing a couple more tracks and going back and forth with Shawneth making sure he was happy too.
Sunday — the final day
By Sunday afternoon, the game had progressed to a really fun, playable level where you had a finite amount of time and ammo, could pick up more time and ammo by shooting the purple guys, lost time if one of them touched you and could blow yourself up if you had a spare life. I’d finished all my music by about 3 pm and had given it to the developers to implement. They were just ironing out some bugs by then but were surviving on only 3 hours sleep and would go on to work on the game for 16 hours straight. I felt bad for finishing early and offered to help in any way I could. By the evening, we had a great little game that was ready to be submitted and for people to download and play.
- You can write a lot — Writing 5 minutes of music would normally have taken me a week or two, but under pressure, you’re forced to come up with ideas and get them out there as quick as possible. There’s no time to be fancy or perfect so you just create.
- Plan ahead — Even while you can’t actually compose the music, talk to your team and makes notes on everything for later.
- Don’t go overboard with the music — Only make what you’ll definitely need.
- Book time off work if possible — That first day makes all the difference.
- Decide on a theme as quickly as possible — I think we spent a bit too long on the first day discussing when we could have been making.
- Time and distance don’t matter…too much — We all seemed to be awake at roughly the same time, but I was in the UK while the other guys were across the pond. This only meant that awkward working hours were to be expected.
I’d love to hear how your first game jam went. Let me know in the comments below.