Game Jams and the User-centric Approach

For one of the courses I am currently taking (called “User Experience and Prototyping”), one of our goals is to write a relatively small blog post every week. As such, I found it fitting to post these here and give them a unique category (ueap2012), so that it was easy to view them as a unity, while still having them publicly out here.

Firstly, in this post I choose to define games created at Game Jams to be those that are only made over the course of said game jam, and have not been thought of, prepared or finished outside of the short time-span that a game jam covers. I will get back to why this point is important later in the post.

Now, without further introduction, these posts all have a chosen focus. This one is taking a look at the user-centric design approach (roughly defined: getting feedback from the users as quickly as possible), in relation to the before-mentioned game jams by asking two questions, which I have chosen to “answer” individually, rather than mixing it all up too much.

Do you think user-centric approaches are at odds with the Game Jam approach?

As simple and short as possible: No, not at all. Why? Bluntly speaking, the question seems forced, as it seems to do its best in convincing us in either or both of the following two statements:

  1. User-centric approach is the best way of developing games.
  2. Games produced at Game Jams are not being made using a user-centric approach.

The first point could very well have some merit to it. For example, beta-testing has always been a valuable way of getting both player feedback, as well as figuring out clever uses or exploits of the game mechanics before the game hits the shelves. Point being, I would never argue against a user-centric approach being bad, as there is simply too much that speaks against such a statement. However, if this approach is not the best, then it becomes interesting to ask why it would even matter that it could be an “endangered species”? True, it is great that there are a diverse set of different approaches to game development, but I really doubt that there is a grand universal strategy, that simply works for every game out there. While it is no secret that game jams are becoming more and more popular, I doubt that it will become the primary type of development method for the gaming industry – and especially not cover AAA-games, or other products of that scale.

The second point needs a bit of elaboration, and this relates more to the second question that you would think, because it seems to make the fundamental mistake of assuming that game developers are not gamers, or plays any games. True, there might always be come exceptions, but I think it goes without saying that being a game designer or developer that does not play games is a rather ridiculous thought. With that, it might be a good idea to look at the next question:

If the idea is to get a player involved early in the process, how does this fit into what goes on at a Game Jam?

My point here should be quite obvious, based on what I just wrote above. The high amount of developers (and thus, gamers and players) present, should make it almost impossible not to find someone who would lend a second to help out with some testing – they are probably looking for people to test their own game already. Help them help you, basically. We all know it is incredibly difficult to test your own game, for various different reasons, as the developers by nature knows everything that was intended to know about the game. Having other “gamer game developers” present would thus not only give great feedback, but also an educated elaboration of the potential issues with the game – perhaps even that little idea that can make it into a master-piece.

Now, I mentioned at the start that I chose to define the games mentioned here as ones that were only made over the course of the game jams. The whole topic of discussion for this post falls completely apart when this is changed to focus on what game jams is also used for: crunch-working on projects that have been prepared before, will be finished after or both. That is, the game jam is used to work effectively on said game, and using the before-mentioned feedback of the high amount of other gamers and game developers found within close proximity.

So, to sum up: No, I do not think the user-centric design approach will suffer from game jams. On the contrary, game jams provide a new and exciting way of using user-centric feedback to improve games. Furthermore, I also firmly believe that games developed outside of game jams will continue to be user-centric, as patching, beta-access (and that is even excluding games that technically go live while being in the open beta, free-to-play and the like) and more open social interaction between developers and the players have become a norm.

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