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Ludum Dare 18 is coming up and I'll be participating in it. I've done a couple other short-term game competitions in the past but this is my first big one (and my first solo one). I am REALLY excited for it, but I'm wondering if there are any tricks to preparing for this sort of thing, and any advice on what to do while in the competition. So...

How do you best prepare for, or participate in, a short-term game competition?

Your answer can be specific to Ludum Dare but I'm really talking about any game competition, as long as it's short-term -- not the month-long ones where you casually develop your game and release it; I'm talking high-pressure, finish-in-time, pull-an-all-nighter type competitions. The Global Game Jam fits here as well, if you participated in that earlier this year.

Also any tips in the context of a group of people (each working on their own solo game) would be great; I will be with the game development club at my school for most of the 48 hours (only a few other people, not a huge group).

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As this post is highly subjective, please consider making it CW. –  Noctrine Aug 3 '10 at 15:40
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I hope to have some good answers with distinct tips (as everyone is different and has their own experiences) and I hope the answerers will be rewarded with reputation. I don't see any reason for collaboration in answers (in wiki fashion). If this doesn't justify, then please feel free to make it CW; you are the mod after all! :) –  Ricket Aug 3 '10 at 16:38

4 Answers 4

up vote 13 down vote accepted

As both a game jam organizer and participant, here are some tips from my experiences:

  • Familiarize yourself with the tools you'll be using. You want to be using a development environment that you're already comfortable with; you don't want to be learning anything new on the fly if you don't absolutely have to.
  • Corollary: if you're allowed to start with some pre-written code (libraries, game engines, etc.) - whether it be something you've made yourself, or from a third-party source - familiarize yourself with that as well so.
  • Short-term contests require physical endurance, so don't neglect your physical side! Eat well, exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep, and in general make lifestyle choices that keep you as healthy as possible. In the short term (i.e. a couple days before the contest starts), make sure to catch up on your sleep so you're starting fresh.
  • Know your limits. From your own experience, how long can you develop in a continuous stretch before you start to see diminishing returns on your time? How long and how frequently do you need to take breaks to maintain optimum performance? What's your sleep tradeoff curve (that is, if you stay up late developing, does that make you MORE productive for the extra time spent, or LESS productive because being tired slows you down)? If you don't know these things about yourself but you have time to "test" yourself in advance of the contest, do so.
  • Prepare all the mundane stuff in advance. If you're participating from home, make sure you've got pre-made meals, snacks and drinks ready to go, and have shortcuts and bookmarks right on your desktop for everything you think you'll need that you want easy access to. If you have any favorite reference textbooks, pile them next to your computer. Think of other tools you might want: pencils/pens, graph and standard paper, maybe some dice and index cards and such for physical prototypes, etc. If you're going somewhere outside your home (as with a typical "Game Jam" event), pack a bag in advance with everything you want to take with you, and have that ready so you're not waking up early or scrambling at the last minute.
  • As a longer-term strategy, build your development skills; there is absolutely no way that being a stronger developer can hurt you. There's also nothing stopping you from doing your own "private game jam", challenging yourself to make a game in a week (or a weekend) as your personal schedule permits. The more of these kinds of projects that you do, the better you get at them.
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I've done Ludum Dare twice, my first attempt failed pretty miserably, but on my second go (LD17) I did fairly well, and made 7th place overall.

Just some random bullets (specific to LD mainly, but probably applicable elsewhere):

  • Sleep: This is very important, LD16 was my first 48 hour compo and I tried to go too long without sleeping and wound up taking a 10 hour "nap" through the deadline... For LD17 I slept both nights for 6-7 hours and it all went a lot smoother. I worked for less total time, but not being half asleep the whole time definitely helped.

  • Changing Plans: Last LD I completely changed my idea about 10 hours in, scrapped most of the work from that time and moved in a different direction. It seemed totally hopeless since my initial plan was just not fun; but I came up with another idea, slept on it and it eventually all came together. So don't be afraid to change directions if your initial approach isn't going anywhere.

  • Timelapse: This seems irrelevant, but being able to play back the 48 hours as a timelapse really helps you get a feel for where you spent too much/too little time. I also found that recording the timelapse was sort of an incentive to keep working and not slack off as much...

  • Community/IRC: A big part of Ludum Dare is the community, it's a lot more fun if you participate in the whole process; make timelapses, take food/workspace photos, hang around in IRC and most importantly, vote and leave feedback for everyone.

  • Middleware/framework/whatever: Some people prefer to truly start from scratch, but the rules do allow openly available middleware and custom-made middleware (as long as you release it open source prior to the compo). Given the number of gamemaker and Unity entries, I don't feel so bad about writing a quick framework using a few bits of middleware (I used Ogre and Bullet last time) the week before.

  • Audio: I personally have very little experience with audio stuff, so this has been a tough one for me, but a little bit of audio goes a long way. Last time I did manage to have a simple bit of (very repetitive) music (made with LMMS) and sound effects generated with sfxr.

  • Post Compo Version: I'd encourage you to keep working on your entry after the competition; I added online leaderboards and a few tweaks to my entry from last LD as sort of an afterthought, released it on moddb and it's been surprisingly successful (the leaderboard has over half a million ~20-25 second 'runs' recorded and apparently there's going to be a small article about it in a French games magazine).

That's all I can think of for now, Good Luck!

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Yay for sfxr! I found that gem of a program just a few days ago and definitely archived that for use during the competition. :) –  Ricket Aug 4 '10 at 0:00

I competed in a game jam last year and just making decisions before the competition really made things go smoother. For example, you don't want to be deciding on an engine when you should be coding.

Build/collect everything you can ahead of time. In the game jam I participated in, we were lucky enough to have some art assets provided, but we failed to get everything we needed so we wasted some time looking through the libraries for certain assets we needed. We also ended up doing most of the sound on site, which we could have handled before the event.

Try to anticipate some of the coding challenges you will run into. We were building a basic shooter game and one of the biggest challenges was trying to get the enemies to move toward a moving player in a realistic way. This was a challenge we could have predicted if we spent more time discussing before the event.

Finally, if this is a team competition, make sure to go over these ideas with your team members. You don't want to show up with many different ideas and spend time debating which to implement.

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Get your system down. Right now, get all the tools you may be using during the competition, and put yourself through a pre-competition dry run. You don't have to make a complete game, but see that you are familiar with getting things together (this includes every aspect, gameplay, art, music, etc.). This is the only "trick" you need. If you have a workflow up and running before the competition, then your prize is the ability to concentrate on the actual content of the game while the clock is ticking.

You can also publish this pre-compo game/experiment as a warmup ... the LD community likes it, and you might get feedback before the competition begins!

For something like Ludum Dare, there is nothing you can do content-wise beforehand, and the actual gameplay will probably be different from what you practiced ahead of time. But if you know you will use the XYZ platform, and it will be a 2D sprite-based game (for instance), then being able to get to the content/gameplay part as quickly as possible is crucial.

I learned this the hard way. LD16 was spent trying to get things working. LD17 was spent enriching the world.

I look forward to seeing what you come up with. Good luck!!

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A side note for LD: I saw that you can build your own middleware for the compo as long as you release it to everyone before the competition. –  infamouse Aug 3 '10 at 18:15
    
I really like that rule... But it has to be available to everyone at least two weeks in advance. I need to hurry and get something out by tomorrow!! :-O –  Ricket Aug 4 '10 at 12:46

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