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Making a Game Jam Winning Game in 48 Hours

John is an experienced freelance content writer with an eclectic employment history, and enjoys sharing his home improvement knowledge.

Last year I got it into my head to start a project, which is a little hard to explain and not really important here, but the relevance is that it’s going to involve a lot of pixel art… which isn’t exactly my strong suit. So, I started hitting YouTube and watching tutorials on making pretty images out of tiny squares.

My search soon led me to a YouTuber called Brandon James Greer, and that led me to a couple of videos on “1-Bit Pixel Art”. Now, if like me at the time, you don’t know what 1-bit pixel art is, it’s basically regular pixel art, but you’re only allowed to use two colours. Needless to say, it’s a restrictive medium.

I started Googling 1-bit pixel art out of curiosity and soon came across an upcoming game jam being hosted by Aspect Manufacture. The rules were simple enough; make a game in three days using only two colours. Some optional themes would eventually become mandatory, but the main point was the colours. Two of them. No more.

On a whim, I decided to enter the game jam. I’d recently developed something of an addiction to the retro-inspired fantasy console, Pico-8, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to do something with it.

I had roughly a week before the start of the jam. Obviously, I couldn’t start making anything until it kicked off, but I didn’t want to waste any jam time trying to think up game ideas, so I started brainstorming what my game was going to be.

The themes were;

  • Radioactivity
  • Reflections
  • Dragons
I used Pico-8 to make my game. Pico-8 is a fantasy console, emulating the experience of making games on older computers.

I used Pico-8 to make my game. Pico-8 is a fantasy console, emulating the experience of making games on older computers.

As I said, the themes were optional, to begin with, but after much discussion with the entrants, the organisers decided to make the theme mandatory while letting the entrants choose which theme (or themes) you worked into your game. I had a good long think and settled on “reflections”, as that seemed like the best opportunity for some kind of quirky game mechanic.

After scribbling a bunch of random rubbish on graph paper for a few evenings, I landed on an idea I liked. The idea was a basic puzzle platformer. I decided to go panel-based because it would make coding the game a little easier, and the player would have a mystical ability to switch to a “mirror world”. Some level elements would only exist in the mirror world, and the player would have to seamlessly switch between the two worlds to get through each level. It wasn’t revolutionary, but hey, it’s a game jam. My main goal was to have a game at the end that felt complete. It might be short and terrible, but I didn’t want anything to feel unfinished.

Time zones conspired to have the jam start at 6am on a Friday for me, and I had promised my subscribers that I would stream the first few hours, so it was a bit of an early start for me.

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Surprisingly, things didn’t start too badly. There were a couple of false starts for the stream — maybe I should have done a proper test run first — but I didn’t look nearly as ridiculous as I thought I might. And there was even a good amount of chatter going on.

I streamed for two and a half hours and reached a point where I was facing a good few hours of tedious trial-and-error coding, fumbling at pixel art and stuff that just wasn’t going to be fun to watch, so I ended the stream and carried on coding on my lonesome.

I spent most of the day coding until I finally had to take a break to do some real work… and lost a whole day entirely.

You see, I’m a freelance writer for a living, and most of the time I have to go looking for work, but every so often I make a good enough impression on a client that they come to me the next time they need something writing. This usually happens a once or twice a week on average, since most repeat clients only need something every once in a while, but while I was busy coding that morning I received an inbox full of direct requests, and most of them were urgent. I ended up writing until 4am, taking a few hours to sleep, and then writing some more. All in all, I lost about twenty-five of my seventy-two hours, so naturally, I was eager to get back to it once that last job was submitted.

I gave my game the ability to switch between colour palettes while always sticking with two colours.

I gave my game the ability to switch between colour palettes while always sticking with two colours.

I spent the rest of that day getting the basic game mechanics sorted. I implemented the mirror world mechanic, which initially involved flipping the level entirely. Unfortunately, this was horrible to play, and after not much time at all, I abandoned the flipping mechanic. Instead, I settled for just making the mirror world look as though it was being viewed through a mirror.

I managed to catch up on my missed sleep that night and started the final day of the jam fresh. The game mechanics were serviceable by now, so I decided to focus on making levels. If I had time, I’d polish up the game mechanics some more, maybe add some additional artwork.

I submitted my game around 3am my time, about 3 hours before the deadline. I’d spent the last few hours adding more artwork to the levels and utterly failing to fix a problem where the regular level music and the mirror level music started over when you switched between the two.

But still, for a 72-hour game (made in 48 hours) using a restrictive style I’d never tried before, written in an environment I’ve only been using for a month, I consider the end result to be a resounding success.

The fact that it came in first place is just the icing on the cake.

Oh, and you can find that game here (it’s free).

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 John Bullock

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