Why Is the International Games Jam Ludum Dare So Important to Indie Developers?
The regular event makes developers think fast and trim the fat, leading to some amazing results.
"If you want to make games, you have to make games. If you need help, we're there to be your excuse."
Mike Kasprzak is telling me about Ludum Dare, which he has been involved with for a good 13 years, and has been in charge of fully running for at least six of those. It's an international game jam event that runs three times a year—voting for the theme of LD 33 is happening right now. Participating developers from around the world are given three days to make a game based on the theme in question—and it's really as simple as that. However, actually running the event isn't so easy.
"Ludum Dare was started by Geoff Howland, and it began as a game development forum," Mike says. "The idea to make his forum stand out was, 'Let's have a contest where we make games from scratch in 24 hours.' That would sound pretty crazy today, but this was way back in 2002, so it was extra crazy. Practically overnight it went from Geoff's forum to a team of four organizing and running this unusual new event."
"The prize is your product. Being able to say 'I made this' is pretty amazing."
Over time, Mike took on more and more responsibilities. "Finances, hosting, support, until about six years ago when I had kind of taken over. (Developer) Phil Hassey did a lot of great work building us a site. I kept us on schedule, Phil would sometimes come and fix things, and for a time it was just a matter of running events every four months. And then it got popular!"
The Ludum Dare "season" lasts for eight weeks. Five leading up to the event where theme voting begins and real-world arrangements are made (although you don't have to attend an event to participate in it—this being the internet age and everything). Each event takes place over a weekend, after which comes three weeks of judging. Everyone who has submitted a game gets to play and rate everyone else's. At the end, the votes are tallied and the winners declared.
There's no actual prize for the winners. "The prize is your product," Mike says. "Sure, we could have prizes, but being able to say 'I made this' is pretty amazing. And it doesn't hurt that since we've become more popular: 'I made a top game in Ludum Dare' is now something to brag about."
It's especially something to brag about when you consider the sheer number of games that are submitted. The most recent event, Ludum Dare 32 (theme: "an unconventional weapon"), saw over 2,800 different games made over just one weekend. Going up against so many talented developers—Markus "Notch" Persson was a regular before Minecraft came out and ultimately made him a multimillionaire—must be a daunting task, but the number of entrants keeps on growing, year on year. "Ludum Dare didn't inspire Minecraft," says Mike of Notch's earlier participation; "but it inspired him to make stuff. So at the very least, that's our legacy."
I got in touch with some more of those people who have been inspired by Ludum Dare, and gone on to make something successful, guaranteeing their own place in the video gaming world.
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Mark Foster is part of British indie studio Acid Nerve, the team behind Titan Souls, released earlier this year. It's received a lot of praise, and it all started as a Ludum Dare game. The theme for LD28 was "you only get one," and in Titan Souls you have to beat a series of bosses using simply one arrow. To make things even harder, you can only take one hit before dying. Titan Souls beat out 2,063 other entrants to win that particular event.
I wondered what, if any, the benefits were of squeezing in a whole game's worth of development into such a short period of time. "You strip off stuff you think you won't be able to get done in time," Mark says, "and focus on the core aspects of getting something complete together—general mechanics, interactivity, and win conditions—and then polish those down. You focus more on the importance of gameplay rather than anything else."
Evoland was the winner of LD24 with the theme "evolution," and Nicolas Cannasse of its makers Shiro Games agrees with Mark. "The time limit is a great way to remember the essentials when it comes to making a game fun. You don't have time for all the small details, so you have to understand what is important and what will be a waste of your precious time."
They both agree that Ludum Dare is an incredibly important event within the indie development scene. "For me, personally, Ludum Dare has been massively important and actually life changing," Mark tells me. "It is quite an important thing in connecting people and growing the developer world." As for Nicolas, LD provides the perfect opportunity to try out new things. "I think it's really important to be able to try new ideas, as in the professional world you're often very busy with your daily projects and lack the time to fully dedicate yourself to trying out something new."
Those new ideas aren't fully formed from the start though, especially since the theme is only announced at the very beginning of the event. "I usually don't try and think about the game I want to make beforehand," says Nicolas. "That's because once I have an idea in mind, it's hard to tear it down in the case that it doesn't match the theme." So before developing Evoland, he had no idea what the ultimate result would be, just that he "didn't want to follow the things you immediately think about when you hear 'evolution.'"
Mark Foster had a basic idea in place before the start of LD28. "The day before the jam I said, 'Maybe we should do something with boss fights,' but that was pretty much it. The theme for the jam shaped the game entirely. With the seed of boss fights already planted it kinda just came together with the one-hit mechanics and single arrow."
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Having a theme set for you is something that every creative person craves once in a while. "The theme solves the 'blank sheet of paper' problem," says Mike. "It focuses your brainstorming on a subset of ideas. Often you think of things you wouldn't have otherwise. And knowing that thousands of people from around the world are also doing it is encouraging. The excitement is infectious, and you want to be a part of that."
He admits that it's not for everyone, however. I posit that Ludum Dare must turn the occasional developer grumpy, to say the least, after three days of them bashing their head against a project. "Of course, we can't make everyone happy, but we can make like 95 percent of them happy—and a few even happier." Mike believes that for most people who take part, it's all about the personal challenge rather than competing with others. "Making a game in a few days is an accomplishment. And if you know others have played it, that's exciting, too."
"As I see it, a very big part of the indie game development culture is rooted in game jams," Mike continues. "We don't even think about it anymore, it's just normal for us. A common question game makers are asked is: 'Where do you get your ideas?' And today, a lot of people say, 'It started as a jam game.' Besides being one of the largest jams, people think of us as the 'home' of game jamming, and our community is one that people gravitate towards. We have an IRC channel that's 200 strong all year round, we have sizable Reddit and Steam groups, and an outrageous amount of Twitter followers."
This year Ludum Dare is taking on this responsibility and pushing it even further. "It will be expanding to better be the home of game jamming that so many people want us to be," Mike says. "Of course we'll continue to keep running our events, but we'll start collecting other game jam projects, too. Your portfolio of Ludum Dare games will soon be your portfolio of jam games. I'm digging up history, too. Our own history, as we're missing data from our first ten events, as well as some historic but forgotten jams. And that's pretty exciting."
"As I see it, a very big part of the indie game development culture is rooted in game jams." –Mike Kasprzak
Both Mark Foster and Nicolas Cannasse are working full time in video game development now, and although they have busy schedules, both have pledged to participate in future Ludum Dare events. Evoland was successful enough for Shiro Games that the studio is now working on a sequel. "I hope to have everything done with Evoland 2 by August 21, so I can fully enjoy LD33!" says Nicolas.
"Hopefully we'll be able to make something else for one in future just to get back to that fun game-making binge we love so much," Mark adds. "During Titan Souls' full development we didn't really have the time to do game jams... technically we were still working on one!"
Ludum Dare 33 begins on August 21 (or 22, depending on your time zone), and theme voting is currently underway. I'll leave you with a few words from Mike on why you should think about participating, even if you've never done so before. "If you like a challenge, know how to make things appear on a screen, or are willing to learn, and you have a couple of days, you might just enjoy yourself."
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