The Depth Jam

Last week, I got together with three other designers for a four-day intensive design retreat known as the Depth Jam. The other attendees were: Chris Hecker of Spy Party, Marc ten Bosch of Miegakure, and Daniel Benmergui of Storyteller.

This event was an experiment. Chris and I had been discussing the idea for a while, but it took us a couple of years to get around to it. One of my personal goals in setting up this event was to find a new way to stimulate my professional development, because the old ways were not cutting it any more.

The Depth Jam was designed in reaction to shortcomings of other game-related events. In order to explain the design choices behind the Depth Jam, I will speak critically of these other events, in order to highlight the problems that the Depth Jam is meant to address. If you are a fan of these events, organize some of them, or otherwise identify closely with them, then this will be uncomfortable. The best I can do here is to assure you that this isn't attack-style negativity; it is criticism that comes from years of carefully considering these situations and thinking hard about how to make things better.


When I first started working in video games I learned a lot from conferences and lectures. The few days I spent at the Computer Game Developers' Conference in 1996 were eye-opening, even though I wasn't comfortable enough as a game developer to know how to make effective use of that time. As years go by and we get better at what we do, a natural shift occurs: in the beginning, we are mostly deriving benefit from other attendees and presenters; later on, we are mostly providing benefit to other attendees, getting little out of it ourselves. I have been to the Game Developers Conference 17 times now. I find that I still do get something from attending, but it really takes a lot of work and there are very few people I can expect to learn from.

All the smart programmers I know complain about conferences and consider them basically useless (except for the smart programmers who are also on conference advisory boards). I certainly developed this kind of frustrated "there's nothing good here to see" attitude in the early 2000s, but to mitigate this situation I shifted into being much more of a conference presenter than an attendee. A lot of creative energy went into planning new conference sessions and making them good. This helped extend the useful life of conferences, because I was learning a great deal by running sessions. After about eight years, though, this ran its course and I had gotten the bulk of what I was going to get from this arrangement.

Game Jams

In a typical game jam, developers gather for 2-4 days to do a working sprint, the goal being to produce a finished game entirely during the event. I was lucky enough to be around for the Indie Game Jam, which probably started the game jam trend (though I was often too busy working on last-minute GDC lectures to make jam games, sadly!)

From the first Indie Game Jam. Pictured: Brian Jacobson, Sean Barrett, Ken Demarest, Charles Bloom, Jonathan Blow, Brian Sharp, Doug Church.

The Indie Game Jams were very different from the jams we see today. The IGJ was founded on the idea of exploring the design ramifications of a crazy technical question; we would provide attendees with some code to accomplish some technical feat, then they would see where that would lead in terms of design. For example, the question for the first IGJ was "Graphics hardware is pretty fast now; what will people design if we give them an engine that can draw 100,000 little sprite guys on the screen at once?" We were picky about who we invited: attendees had to be designer-programmers who were actually good at programming, because dealing with new technology on a short timeframe can be very challenging.

Also from the first Indie Game Jam. Pictured: Art Min, Charles Bloom, Robin Walker, Thatcher Ulrich, Brian Jacobson, Zack Booth Simpson, and ... I don't know, Justin Hall? Charles Bloom again?

In contrast, contemporary game jams are more open. The idea is that it's great to make a game, any game, and that even if you don't manage to finish, you were still part of a community. This community spirit is often upheld as the best part of a game jam.

I think these jams can be really nice for beginners, to show people that making a game is something within reach, and to help them meet other people interested in making games. For experienced developers, though, I think these jams are not so good, because the jams are part of an overall social context that supports stagnation.

Experienced developers would do well to continually hone their craft and push beyond their comfort zone, but jams celebrate low expectations and provide Warm Community Feelings that create a comfort coccoon. "You made a game that is not very interesting? You didn't finish a game at all? Well, you are still part of a community that likes you because you are participating in a game jam, and that is what is truly important."

I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with desiring a feeling of community, but we must take care to separate the notion of participating in the community from the notion of success. Participating in a game jam is not an indicator of success at game development -- nor is attending the Independent Game Summit or Indiecade. I think that nice feelings are nice, but you want to build an ecosystem where the nice feelings coincide with behavior that will make developers robust and powerful and interesting in the long term. You don't want nice feelings to act as a soporific. Activities that are good for beginners are often stagnant for intermediate developers.

What to do about this? I think if there were a category of game jams with higher expectations, so that advanced jams were differentiated from beginner jams, that would be a nice start. The IGJ model definitely asked more of participants, but I don't think the IGJ is the right thing going into the future, because even if you are playing with challenging technology, the time-limited format prevents you from going deep. IGJ was nice in 2002, but today it would just contribute further to the problem outlined in Chris Hecker's rant Please Finish Your Game. We see lots of wacky but shallow game designs all over the web, and it feels like a problem, or at least a vast sea of potential unreached.

As Chris says in his write-up about the Depth Jam, "game jams are shallow by design." Because they are shallow, I don't feel they are the right place for me to develop as a game design practitioner.

Retreat-Like Gatherings

There have been a few retreat-like gatherings for forward-thinking game designers: see for example Project Horseshoe and Phrontisterion. I have never been to these. I like the basic idea behind these kinds of events, but the execution seems to have endemic problems. I know people who have been to both of these events, but when I ask, they do not recommend attending the events. Certainly I have found Project Horseshoe's written reports unhelpful.

The obvious problem with these events is that they are mostly just a bunch of talking. When people get together for a bunch of talking, most of them just say a bunch of bullshit (here I mean bullshit in the Harry G. Frankfurt sense) that is unfocused and untethered to reality. If it is not of critical importance whether what people say is right, then most of it is not going to be right.

I really like the retreat model as a basic template. Over the past few years I've been to a number of retreats, mostly for things like meditation or silent existential contemplation. There's a lot good about going to a far-away place where you are not bothered by the concerns of everyday life. But looking at Phrontisterion and Horseshoe, the question arises: how does one design a retreat like this that is not just a bunch of talking?

I knew some of the answer, because I've seen success in dealing with a similar question in a neighboring realm:

Local Developer Meet-Ups

Many cities around the world have regular meet-ups; once a month or so, game developers get together at a bar or something, and just chat and be social. I generally don't go to these because bars are antagonistic to interesting conversations and because attendees tend toward the neophyte side, which means we have the same problem as at conferences: there's little benefit to be had for an experienced developer. But these events also have the Horseshoe problem, in that the conversation is not focused and doesn't really matter, so people just say a bunch of nonsense. If all you want is to get drunk and be social, these events are fine, but they don't do much for professional development.

Two years ago I started a series of monthly developer meetups in the San Francisco Bay Area; the idea was to keep discussion quality high by (a) holding the meetings in quiet places conducive to good discussion, like someone's house (b) inviting only active game designers [this was not a "game industry" meeting, it was a "thoughtful game designer" meeting], and (c) starting each meeting with one of the attendees presenting their own work. After the presentation, we discuss that work specifically for a while; then at some point, the discussion naturally dissolves into separate, more-general discussions.

(I have been to some developer meet-ups that also began with presentations, but which to me did not manage to establish a culture of quality. One example was the Austin IGDA meetings back in 2002-2003. I think there were many subtle things preventing quality from rising, mostly having to do with intention of the event: the goal of the meeting was to drive attendance, not to be deeply interesting; also, they were "game industry" meetings, with all the associated issues. Also, scale matters: the Austin IGDA meetings were bigger, and they occurred in offices or at places like Dave & Buster's, which did not encourage a personal connection to the presentation or the other attendees).

The meetings in the Bay Area were very successful at keeping discussion quality relatively high. The situation wasn't perfect, but it was much better than your typical bar meeting. (I would have attended these regularly even if I were not involved in organizing them). Other attendees really enjoyed the meetings as well. After about a year, though, I stopped arranging the meetings because we seemed to have exhausted the supply of people willing to present, and I didn't want to start having meetings that were not kicked off by solid presentations. Because everyone had a good time, there's a reasonable probability that in the future we will pick these up again. I think we might be able to improve the discussions further by reducing the presenter-vs-audience asymmetry somehow (see the Depth Jam section below).

Key to the success of these events was having specific, concrete issues to talk about: a specific game being presented, so that discussion could be anchored to the details of that specific game. It's also important that the game was being presented by its author; if the session is just someone talking about someone else's game that they liked or didn't like or just want to say something about, it is too easy for the discussion to be useless bullshit.

It seemed like this model could be applied to ground a retreat so that it would not just be a bunch of talking.

The Depth Jam idea

Now, we come to the actual Depth Jam. We settled on the basic idea very quickly: the jam would occur in a relaxing retreat-like environment. There would be a limited number of participants; four seemed like a good number. Each participant would have a good game that he has already been working on for a while, and which presents some deep and interesting problem he would like to solve; this problem serves as a focus for discussion. The fact that every particpant has a game under discussion means that every participant has "skin in the game", which keeps discussion tethered and unfrivolous.

I'd like to emphasize this last point because it can be subtle but it is crucial. Suppose some people are showing their games and being criticized and generally having a rough time due to all the stress that happens naturally when having one's creation dissected; and meanwhile, the people who are criticizing do not have any obligations, and they are just tossing in comments from the peanut gallery. This situation creates a weird imbalance. The comments and criticism will not be as thoughtful as they could be, yet they will be taken very hard by the people showing the games.

If everyone is having their creations dissected, there's only one class of attendee instead of two. It is easier to empathize and avoid unnecessary harshness. People are going to be more careful that their ideas and criticisms are thoughtful, because they are acutely aware of wanting careful input when it comes to their own game.

The Format

Our first proposal for the Depth Jam had us spending one entire day on each game, so that we could dive into each game at maximum depth without context-switching. However, as the idea churned, we decided it would be beneficial to allow some iteration. Why not split the day into two time slots, so that each game gets half a day and we cycle through the four games twice? This would allow time to modify the games based on the discussion, which would give the discussion even more teeth: now we're not just talking about a particular problem in a particular game (with some kind of tendency to wax philosophical), we're actually figuring out how the author will address the problem here at the retreat, with the results of that approach to be plainly visible in the next session.

In our pre-jam planning meeting, we decided to go even further this way, breaking each day into four slots, cycling through all the games four times (so that each game had a two-hour slot each day). This seemed to work pretty well and it allowed a lot of iteration, but it might have been excessive. Daniel thinks there was too much context-switching and he might have been able to think more effectively if given more stability. My impression is that the talking was great for the first couple of days and degraded in quality toward the end (but was still worthwhile even then). At least two attendees did not have a problem with this, though, and found that the final discussions were very valuable for them.

For the next jam I would propose a mixed format: we'd start with two 4-slot days, just like we did this time, followed by a day with no-talking, all-working-and-quiet-and-taking-a-walk, followed by a final 4-slot day. (Or, perhaps I would lengthen the retreat to 5 days and put the rest day in the middle.)

The nice thing about the 4-slot-per-day format, which would not have been true of the 2-slot-per-day format, is that it gives us the maximum amount of calendar time for ideas to stew between iterations. I have long been appricative of the role of calendar time in good design. Sometimes it doesn't matter how many hours you pack in trying to get things done; the good ideas will arrive unpredictably, and maybe you just need to allow time for this to happen. I was curious whether this principle would also be true on the timescale of a 4-day retreat. For me, at least, it was; I got my best idea in the shower on the morning of day 3, in response to discussions we'd had on day 2. During my session on day 3 we discussed and refined the idea, and on day 4 I showed an implementation of it.

Creature Comforts

We spent some money renting a nice beach house and ordering catered food; the cost for the event was around $5000. Chris goes into more detail about this in his write-up. You don't need to spend any money on an event like this, but if you can afford it I recommend spending some money to help create a nice environment that minimizes stress and factors away concerns like "what are we going to eat for dinner" and "who is going to do the dishes". The purpose is twofold: first, it helps you focus on the subject at hand; second, the minimization of external stresses helps you deal with the potential added stresses of working really hard and disagreeing with people all the time.

If you think that the Depth Jam will help you make more headway on even one deep problem than you would have otherwise, and thus make your game better, it's easy to think that the game will also sell a little better and that costs in the neighborhood of $1250 per attendee are easily justified.


Discussions can easily turn into arguments, or at least energy-sucking disagreements. As peoples' energy gets drained, they become more irritable, so there's a feedback loop lurking here. A little bit of this happened at our Depth Jam, but we saw it happening and course-corrected, so that the final day's discussion was reasonable.

Prior to the jam, though, we had not thought much about this. I think it would be helpful in future for the attendees to go in knowing that irritability is likely to happen; the mere fact of this awareness probably helps the situation, and anyway, a little bit of psychologically-aware pacing at the beginning would have gone a long way.

Games and Attendees

It's very important the attendees be capable both of participating in good discussions and acting on the discussions to improve their games within a short timeframe. This latter requirement basically limits attendees to being competent designer/programmers. If someone can't program, it's hard to see how he can participate meaningfully in this style of depth jam, because it would be very hard to iterate. Possibly if someone is a level/world/puzzle designer who can build scenarios quickly in UDK or Unity or whatever, it can be made to work, but I still think that person would be feeling the limitations of being unable to make algorithmic changes.

I don't think that having teams of people would work, at least not for the format described here, because it would dilute the energy and bog down the iteration process. If you have one designer and one programmer trying to do the job that the other people are doing as single designer/programmers, your duo is probably going to have a hard time keeping up. If the jam is made up entirely of duos, it's going to make discussions a lot messier and lower-energy (twice as many people talking about the same number of games). At least one of us felt that four people was already too many for high-quality discussions, because you keep having interesting ideas but have to wait for other people to stop talking in order to say them, and by that time the discussion may have moved on to a different topic.

We have tossed around some ideas about how to scale the jam to larger groups, but haven't come up with anything that is fully convincing yet.

It's important that the games be high-quality efforts that pose problems that everyone will be interested in. We were fortunate to have four very interesting games: Miegakure, a puzzle-platformer in four dimensions; Storyteller, a game about building stories through character interactions; Spy Party, a heavily player-skill-oriented game about subtlety and deception in human behavior; and The Witness, a first-person puzzle game with a heavy emphasis on nonverbal communication.

If time permits I may do a detailed write-up of the issues we discussed for each game and the resolutions we reached (though care must be taken here, as we don't want to disclose aspects of these games that the designers would rather keep secret).


I am happy with the way this first Depth Jam went. I think we can certainly tweak the format to improve it, but already it is a useful tool in my further development as a game designer. I got much more out of this four-person, four-day event than I do from attending a conference. It seems appropriate to me to do a Depth Jam every six months. Provided we are organized enough to get the next one together, we'll adjust the format and see how it goes!

See also:

Chris Hecker's write-up
Daniel Benmergui's write-up
Miegakure web site


  1. This is a really nice write-up. I think that the idea behind game jams is an interesting one, and that this is something fundamentally different from that idea.

    Just quickly on the “feel good” nature of jams, I think that it is important not to undervalue that community aspect. Things like the Depth Jam require a very large minimum amount of community to happen, so I think that the feelings nurtured in Jam spaces is really important. That being said, I also completely agree that successful participation in a Jam can hardly be considered “success” in any real way. It is very helpful to achieve various complicated ends, but participation in itself is far from an end.

    Now on the specific way that this went, lacking any real substantive knowledge of the interactions that occurred in the space of the four days, it is hard to make any real judgements on the value. It sounds, from everyone’s write ups, that it was very helpful for all of you.

  2. Hi Jon. I was wondering how the results of the Depth Jam affected your input into The Witness, i.e., did it change your mind on certain aspects of your design, did it cause you to have a better understanding of your game from a different perspective (of the other designers), hell, did your question get answered?

    Also, apologies for the Twitter tirade on the writing in Braid a couple weeks ago. Bit out of line of me to say!

  3. A few notes on jams:

    IGJ sounds very similar to online-only precursors like speedhack, which were around quite a while before it. I think you may be overestimating the significance of IGJ. (Also focusing on a technical problems seems like a bad idea even for 2002; did it really produce any good results? LD seems to have a better track record in terms of producing interesting work.)

    TIGJam isn’t about completing a game within the Jam time; most people there seem to work on their own ongoing projects and just use the Jam for socializing, getting playtesters / feedback / discussion, mini-talks, etc.

  4. I think most of the game jams these days are for beginners, and that’s why the ‘but you tried!’ awards are given. And that’s okay. It encourages more people to become game developers, which means there will eventually be more people at the higher levels for you experts to talk with.

    Other than advertising or charity, most game jams just aren’t made for expert developers. That doesn’t mean they can’t participate, but they surely aren’t going to learn as much.

    As an amateur game developer (and professional non-game developer) I probably don’t have much perspective on it, but the depth jams seem like a really good idea. Getting good feedback on your idea can be really, really hard. Fans are likely to say it’s good just because they’re a fan, and haters will say it’s bad just because they don’t like you. Somewhere in the middle are some people telling the hard truth, but they’re very hard to pick out from the rest.

    With a group of game developers, and a qui pro quo situation, the feedback you’re getting is probably as close to the hard truth as you can get. The calendar days thing worries me, because as you said, sometimes it isn’t a matter of hours… Answers just come when they come. Sometimes 4 days isn’t enough for me to come up with really insightful advice for a project, and especially not if there’s 3 projects and I’m worried about my own, too. But that’s not all the time, so probably isn’t a major concern.

    Thanks for sharing this idea, and I hope to one day be in a position where I can benefit from these Depth Jams.

  5. It’s almost a relief to read something like this when everyone’s rushing around trying to tell you not to be so serious. Forward thinking like this is surely the difference required for taking something good and turning it into something great. I’m sure all of this effort is appropriately placed and manifested and it makes me look towards the release of The Witness with huge anticipation. Keep up the great creativity battle!

  6. I think this sounds great. I’ll try something similar for my next game. Gotta say though, this quote from Chris’s writeup made me break down laughing :

    “Daniel and I played some intense frisbee on the beach every afternoon, Jonathan did t’ai chi and kung fu on the patio, and Marc read.”

    I mean I admire you all so much so this image is just surreal. Seriously though, thank you for sharing the details of this with us, as jealous as it makes me :P

  7. Why do you want external rewards from game jams? The enthusiasm can be use as motivation to reach the high goals youve set for yourself. I’ve never participated in a jam where I didn’t give my utmost best, resulting in interesting design almost every time(see glitchhiker). It also heavily helped me develop rapid prototyping skills and I can now prototype any of my design ideas within a few hours.

    Depth jams sound interesting when you are stuck on big problems and want high level feedback.

  8. Just after reading this article i realized that, once a week, a friend and I are indeed making a Deaph Jam :)

  9. Great write-up.

    I think game developers would benefit from more start-to finish development writeups, which would discuss game design and application development/architecture.

    There’s plenty of stuff out there – mostly written by people who haven’t seen a game through from start to finish. It promotes over-design, over-technicality, strict inheritance-based OOP and all sort of “conceptual”-phase, feel-good stuff that never results in games being made.

    Given this, can you blame novices for limiting themselves to an “A for effort”?

    I’m currently experimenting with game development patterns. Rapid is better. Enough with the pseudo-progress and hyper-theoretical ideas and more results.

    If it works out, I’ll try writing some start-to-finish game development tutorials for HTML5/JavaScript and Flash. Until then, here’s the lecture that convinced me to use components/messaging:

  10. Sounds awesome. We definitely have a few lingering gaps in design/tech/feel that I think a format like this would benefit us greatly. Buckle-down for a weekend, and connecting or strengthening dots (or tossing them out, if it comes to that) sounds ideal at our current state of development.

    I do agree with the need to be a designer/programmer though (which I surely am not). If the problems or ideas could be tackled with simple prototypes, maybe a less technical person could get by, but if one were looking to nail down late stage ideas and design choices, real technical chops would likely be a must.

    Maybe approaching the jams holistically could allow for a more diverse group of attendees, I wonder. But perhaps that would transition more into a traditional jam environment. Actually that sounds horrible for anything other than prototyping or critical discussion, not legit get’er done work.

    Very cool though, we actually were discussing the idea of jamming out some aspects of FRACT after David and Henk got back from ToJam – food for thought.

  11. We do a mini version of this every Saturday arvo (I love the idea of upgrading this to a ‘Depth Jam’ style retreat once a quarter or something though):

    1st Hour: Everyone gets a chance to rely on the group to brainstorm/solve a design, game dev or biz dev issue. Crowdsourcing our professional development, yo.

    2nd Hour: Playtest games, give feedback, criticism, hit the white boards and system design the shit out of a problem

    Folks who come in each week with “hey, how do I sell this game to everybody and make a bazillion dollars?” quickly get sick of us.

    For us this is an opportunity to keep pushing each other and maintaining a weekly focus of “what needs to happen to improve play?”.

  12. A really cool concept!

    This format makes a tremendous amount more sense than the other formats.
    I really like how it focuses on improving a current project.
    Rapid prototyping is great for fun, but for serious development, I would chose doing so in this way every time.

    I will definitely attempt doing one on a future project.

    Also I would love to hear about future iterations of the Jam.

    Also I assume the “Big Problems” addressed are design problems. At the moment I can only see this working with a focus on design. Is this correct?

  13. “who is going to do the dishes” <– Who knows. The act of washing dishes might have struck me with an idea that may not have come otherwise had I just contemplated on washing the dishes.

    But actually, I don't wash dishes.

    Had any of you experienced that? You came through an experience you thought would be genuinely bad but you got something out of it in the end?

  14. If anyone else got interested, here is the original essay by Frankfurt on bullshit
    Same content as the book.

  15. Sounds like a great process – hope I can try it.

    Only random thought I had is whether it’s a good idea to have all four people participate in each discussion slot. If one (rotating) person sat out each slot, the different mix of personalities would probably lead to a greater variety of perspectives. I know I can sometimes talk over other designers if I get excited about an idea, so rotating voices would ensure that each participant can go deep on each of the games. As a bonus, everyone would get a block of time to do nothing but code.

  16. Quantum Suicide

    Seems more like a way for a bunch of wealthy indie game developers to isolate themselves from the community and make an elite party that excludes everyone else to give them a sense of superiority. Just an exclusive indie developer elite club, sitting around in a expensive beach house under the guise of furthering productivity and critical thinking.

    • The good news is that you are free to go do whatever you feel is a better version of this event, then write about it on the internet like we did.

      As long as it is genuinely focused on depth and generates interesting results, I am sure many people will be interested in hearing about it (us included).

    • Ditto @ jb

    • But how were they being superior? They were just working on their games and trying to talk with intent… They invited close friends that had games that needed to be worked on and could help each other’s games. No elite club here just not a club at all!

      I think you’re just mad because you like to be part of a community that thinks making little half-assed games is fun or cool or maybe you’re just mad because you don’t have friends to help you make games or mad that you can’t work at a beach house for 4 days or idk wtf is wrong with you!

      Maybe if your interested we could get some money and work on my game or your game or both and then we would be a sort of elite not like these nerds here

      Capcha: ign lies


      • Was that internet potshot really worth the time it took to type it out (miniscule as that may have been)?

        • yes. What about your comment?

          I feel the horrible need to butt-own people for being wrong in teh internet.
          Although this [comment edited for unnecessary ugliness — moderator] it was the, what do you call it? The starw that broke the camel’s back?

          If someone is wrong in an internet argument you can bet both your balls I’ll be there to deliver their asses right back to them!

          yeah! I sure taught hima! Now he will never act a jackass on teh internetz again

          Capccha: sad question

  17. Michael Yacavone

    Having done a lot of work in small-group facilitation, this is a great set of insights on the advantages and limitations of various formats. I would be interested in the difference in “feeling-tone” (as Jung would say) and value between having three people and four. I imagine it would be vast.

    The idea of a silent day in the middle is excellent. Omega Institute’s week-long programs (which run from Sunday dinner to Friday lunch) have Wednesday afternoon off for nature, reading, café, etc. If you did this I would extend the retreat to five days, so you have a pair of jam days on either side of the internal day.

    Finally, if you try an odd number of participants (as opposed to a number of odd participants), I would be interested in the difference between having a four-day retreat with a silent day and a five-day retreat with a silent day. Think about the time-cycles of three people doing, say, two hours each on the first two days, then silent day, then either a wrap-up day, or, a “re-entry” day and then a wrap-up day – vs four people doing the same. There will be a very interesting difference in tone and quality of the post-silent day depending on what follows it, and how much ‘competition’ for mindspace accompanies it.

    I think all of these principles could be utilized in a jam for visual designers. Radically changing the visual look and tonal texture is often fluid in the hands of a skilled designer, in the same way algorithmic changes are ‘easy’ for a programmer. In some ways, further differentiating the various game jams into disciplines or perhaps ‘tracks’ of jams could extend the value of that particular format to more people over more time. Agree completely that everyone has to have similar stakes in participation and outcomes.

    Finally, I think one way out of the “value fatigue” associated with attending conferences et al is to focus on contribution to others. If you can find a way to gauge (if not measure) the value others get from one’s presence or lecture or session, it can make it easier to ‘justify’ the time and engage in the real work it takes to prepare a session. No one owes anyone else their learning, it’s a gift, but it’s also a choice the presenter makes trading-off against other demands or opportunities.

    I say this simply because the only reason I got interested in games at all was watching the author’s presentations on YouTube. They are inspiring, thoughtful, and deep – terms I had never previously associated with games. Since then I have been “typing my game into the computer” as they say, and we’ll see what the world thinks about it someday soon. None of it would have happened if Jonathan hadn’t taken the time to think about what he thought, write it up, travel to a friggin’ beige conference hotel, stand before his peers, and accept their feedback in the wake of it. It’s a big commitment. It has a ripple effect. I’m glad it happened.

    (Cross-posted from Gamasutra.)

    • +1 I like the idea of different disciplines doing different jams in a similar format.

      Jon has been very inspirational to me in my career decisions. If it weren’t for him beating some life into the cold heart of video games. I’m not sure I would be trying to put my voice into the mix. It’s very easy to lose faith in the value of interactive experiences when most of those experiences are just pulling triggers and watching people’s heads explode.

  18. This seems like a nice event, I really like the idea even though I would not compare it to game jams since it’s done for the fun of it. As you pointed out the strong social and community aspect of game jams are what they are about, now, though it was certainly not the case. Depth jam makes me think of a rationalized, somewhat automatized version of the kind of meet up you have with good friends, you have them test your game and see what they think and since you respect them sometimes it makes you change your game.
    In the end I think that it all comes down to the people your doing it with. You absolutely need designers with the same level of expectation than you and this is why you succeeded at this depth jam. You’re all digging deep into game design, I’m sure you would have done the same in a week end over drinks :)

    Anyway, thanks, it’s a great format.

  19. Mr. Blow,

    I’m curious what you think are other ways to improve game design for adventure games. In your adventure game you use puzzle panels to clearly indicate interactivity. It seems like a problem for 3d first person adventure games is that you can’t make everything interactive but having some things interactive is arbitrary. Having a system on top of the environment like your panels or a portal gun seems like one solution to the problem of players not knowing what they can do.

    I’m just wondering what your thoughts are on this since I’d like to see lots more modern adventure games in 3d environments but without the ambiguity. Do these games need to be built around systems?

    • It’s hard to make a general statement about this, because it is sort of a case-by-case thing. Different things are best for different games.

      However, it’s very easy to see things NOT to do. If you put a fricking sliding tile puzzle into your adventure game, you are probably doing game development wrong. (Similarly if the game is some kind of click-the-background-fest, as you allude to.)

      • Appreciate the response! I use to love adventure games in the early 90’s which is one reason I’m excited about your game. I tried to play some more modern ones but they are horrible. It seems tough because part of what was great about those games was there wasn’t a strict mechanic, there was more surprise and discovery. However it seems to come at a cost since they don’t flow very well and were often too hard.

    • For what it’s worth, it seems to me that all games are built around systems, including adventure games. It’s just that adventure games’ are usually convoluted in a certain unpleasant way. From area to area, the rules change an awful lot so the things you learned for previous puzzles can’t be used in new ones. A friend of mine picked the word “heterological” (different logic/diseased logic) to describe this kind of game system.

  20. This sounds exactly like a writers workshop… Why even call it a jam at all? It seems like “jam” implies creating a new work from scratch, but this is explicitly about workshopping a work in progress.

    Also, was the Indie Game Jam at all inspired by the Berkeley All-Nighters Group? I’d like to think that something good came out of what was otherwise a total failure…

    • I looked through the comments entirely to point out that this is like a writers workshop (with the setting of a retreat).

  21. Hello Jon Blow:

    I was at a couple of the CGDCs in 96 or 7 or thereabouts, too, and was also a bit of a fish out of water. I remember my first session was led by Scott Kim and I discovered the guy sitting next to me – amazement – was Alexey P of Tetris. I talked with him a little later, said I was working on making Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game playable (or something along those lines) and after we’d got past the bit where his Russian ear couldn’t understand my Brit accent he waved a hand at California and said, “You hope to build Castalia here?” in a tone of sheer disbelief.

    Well, yes I do. And I’m not entirely naïve in thinking the impossible can be achieved. I had a mentor when I was a kid who took on the S African government in person as a white school teacher / priest, and lived to keynote his friend Mandela’s first Inaugural.

    In any case, that was way before Serious Games or Games for Change were happening, and with a few exceptions like Mike Sellers, Chris Crawford and Johnny Wilson, almost nobody thought games could go the full distance to “serious” – despite the fact that Huizinga had published Homo Ludens in 1938, Wittgenstein made something of a big deal out of games in Philosophical Investigations, and Hermann Hesse won the Nobel for Glass Bead Game in 1946. Sadly, there was a disconnect between the two ends of the “game interested” spectrum.

    No matter, times are changing, and we’re ripe for some more depthful games.

    Like you, I guess, I favor games with something of a contemplative quality to them, being something of a monkish personality myself, and my (our) games are designed to tap into the natural creativity of players, regardless of age or cultural background or purpose (play, education, brainstorming, therapy, contemplation) – see The crackling energy of a Sembl move

    They’re also geared for dialog, non-linear discourse, group facilitation, conflict-resolution – a topic which relates to your jams and Michael Yacavone’s comments above. We’re a ways yet from delivering the full spectrum of possibilities we’re aiming for, but the key in every case is mapping humanly-perceived analogies on a board with ongoing player comparison and discussion of their merits.

    On the one hand, mapping analogies is very much in line with work by eg Koestler, Hofstadter, Lakoff, Fauconnier and Turner – and on the other hand it’s the basic move in the arts, whether you call it rhyme, counterpoint, match cut or whatever. So we’re aiming to bridge that damn arts and sciences “two cultures” divide.

    Which brings me to my almost last point – just to thank you for a comment you made on a video talk I saw: “and because we’ve got so much benefit from science, we’re a little bit overdosed on the objective view of the universe…” Oh, yeah!

    Last but not least – a friendly shout out to Justin, if that’s Howard Rheingold’s old buddy there. You gave us blogs, Justin, and I for one am deeply grateful!

  22. Jon:

    I found your reference to Brian Moriarty’s Psalm 46 lecture just today & listened to it — wonderful. Brian was another key games industry figure with an interest in the Glass Bead Game all those years ago. I met him at a Chris Crawford gathering the day before one of the CGDCs, in Los Angeles as I recall. Anyway, thanks for the pointer — I just spent a wonderful hour or more immersed in Moriarty & Bach.

  23. Just curious,
    Have you went through with your planned schedule of having another Depth Jam after ~6 months? We’ve already hit the ~10 month ‘line’, but we haven’t heard anything about an additional event, or what changes you may have made to your ‘Jam Strategy’.
    I understand that the production of the game has increased dramatically, so it’s understandable if you haven’t had the chance to ‘get away’ again yet.

    Your fan,

    • We haven’t done another one yet. We are starting to think more seriously about it now; we’ll see when the next one is.

  24. It’s simultaneously amazing and awful that a four year old article is the only worthwhile Google result for “game designers retreat”. Amazing because this article is super valuable, awful because it looks like designers retreats aren’t something a lot of people are doing (or they’re just not talking about them).

    Thank you for writing this. For the past few days I’ve been pondering how a writers retreat style gathering could be done for game designers, and this article helped tremendously. I’m more determined now to pitch this to a few of my colleagues/designer friends, and they’ll need to read this.

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