One of my favorite game studios, Double Fine Productions, hosts and documents their internal 2-week game jam which they call “Amnesia Fortnight”. While it may be stressful for a small company to stop production on their monetization pipeline, Double Fine sees it as a way to test out “experimental” ideas and give people who aren’t game directors a shot at directing a game. A chance for people to play a different or larger role than what they typically perform. It also provides employees a break from the daily grind.

I love the ethos of game jams because they force you to distill an idea down to its essence. The goal isn’t to have a polished, marketable product at the end, it’s to have something people can play. There’s a small plan, a lot of improv, and a lot of self-editing. If you can’t reduce the scope of your grand ideas, odds are you’ll end up with nothing at the end. Time-boxing is a forcing function for your process, eliminating ambiguity. Senior Gameplay Programmer Silvio Terra said it best:

‘A “maybe” to a programmer means one of two things; don’t work on this yet or work on this and the opposite of this. Neither of which are very fun to a programmer.’

— Silvio Terrra (Sr Gameplay Programmer)

The time-boxing illuminates other pain points, like bottlenecks. Senior Character Artist Dave “Rusty” Russell shared some of his wealth of experience, which I identify with a lot:

“Rule #1 of having 18 years of experience here is: Never block somebody. Don’t be the roadblock. If you are the roadblock or the bottleneck, you got a shit ton of people waiting for work and they’re not very happy with you because they can’t do their work.”

— Dave ‘Rusty’ Russell (Sr. Character Artist)

Bottlenecks (whether human, managerial, or technical) get amplified when time is a constraint. Not to get all The Goal here, but identifying and eliminating your bottlenecks is one the best routines you can do for your business and it might be worth exploring some kind of (tangential, not related to the core product in any way) game jam to find yours.

The most impactful moment of the documentary for me was when Lauren Scott, a Senior Systems Designer turned temporary Game Director, saved her game The Way Down. Realizing play testers (a coworker’s kid who stopped by the office) were getting lost, they saw a massive level design problem and were running out of time. Lauren simplified the plan. Rather than unique maps and puzzles per level, levels could be linear hallways built from a series of modular “rooms” rearranged and lit differently. The cascading effect of simpler, modular level design wasn’t limited to time saved, but that the game was easier to learn, giving players a sense of familiarity and mastery as they progressed.

Ahem… prototyping with design systems…

I super recommend the Amnesia Fortnight documentary. There’s lots of highs and lows and puppets on drugs. I personally get a lot of value out of peering into other industries, but when it comes down to it, it’s cool to see the fun and inspired creations people can make given the time and space. I sometimes forget that’s even possible.