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edeify.com » Blog Archive » Healthy Game Jam Marathon: A How-to Post-mortem

Healthy Game Jam Marathon: A How-to Post-mortem

June 11, 2010 – 5:52 am

First things first, this is not a guide about how to handle corpses. This is a guide about how to run a Health Games Challenge site based upon the lessons learned by the Pittsburgh IGDA chapter. It’s called a post-mortem because that’s what we call detailed case studies in our industry. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because we chronically over-work ourselves on passion projects that we end up getting so sick of after years of agonizing crunch that we like to imagine ourselves clinically picking through its dissected corpse at the end. Or maybe we’re just really goth (game developers do like to wear black and work at night). I dunno, ask Darius.

Anyway, though I’m writing this late at night and tend to veer into stream-of-consciousness digressions when I don’t have an editor, I’ll try to provide some structure for this post-mortem by providing some background on the goals we had going into the Healthy Game Jam Marathon, how we structured the planning and organization of the jam, and what lessons we learned to run better jams in the future.

Good, Quick, Cheap - Pick Two

One of my favorite truisms is that old saying about development (also applies to theatre costume design), “You can have it good, quick and cheap, but you only get to pick two.” Thanks to circumstances outside of our control, all of the sites for the Health Games Challenge had to be quick by default since we were only given three weeks prior notice to organize an event similar to the Global Game Jam but for the Apps for Healthy Kids competition. So now we just had to pick whether we were going to do it good or do it cheap.

Thankfully, this decision was also easy to make since the IGDA had kindly lined up funds from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Pioneer Portfolio for all the sites. Honestly, if we hadn’t gotten the $1500 grant to run our event, we probably wouldn’t have done it. It was too short notice, but the funds made the event feasible. Also, I’m surprised I need to state this since it seems like common sense, but after speaking with some other organizers, it looks like most of the sites did not do this. Whenever someone offers you sponsorship, request the full amount as early as possible.

This is generally true of fundraising and getting sponsorship for your events. Get the cash upfront as soon as possible so organizers won’t have to pay out of pocket. You’re already asking your board to volunteer their valuable spare time, so it’s nice if you can pay them promptly for their receipts (I usually pay immediate cash as soon as I get a receipt). Also, it’s highly likely you’ll run over-budget (we did), so it’s better to request the full amount and return any extra funds rather than under-estimate.

Focus on Your Core Competencies, Delegate the Rest

Okay, now that we have the funds, we just need to assemble the organizing team, right? At the Pittsburgh IGDA we have a process for this, so I’ll just lay out how it happened:

1. Official request from IGDA Chapter Admin Mailing List <chapter_admin@igda.org> forwards to our local chapter admin list, group comments on feasibility and asks for volunteers from the board to lead the event.

2. I volunteer to be primary lead on the event given my personal interest and qualifications (ran Dancetown, one of the early leaders in the Games for Health industry, have spoken at related conferences and know the sponsoring organizations, also been involved with prior game jams). Given the scope of the event, I ask for at least two other volunteers to help out with the event.

3. Manoj Anand volunteers to be lead on the physical location and secures Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center as our space for the event.

4. Awkward silence on the mailing list as no one else volunteers.

5. Adam Nelson of Obscure Games Pittsburgh is suggested as a lead for a proposed physical game design component since we were planning on doing a physical games event with his organization sometime in the future anyway. He is very accommodating since we offer to provide him with space, funds, and professional game designers.

After we have the three lead organizers committed, we do a quick Skype teleconference, split up our budget equally into $500 each, and break up the responsibilities thusly:

1. Jia is responsible for the overall event, sponsors, and prizes

2. Manoj is responsible for the location, food, and other costs for the first 24 hours of the event (software games portion)

3. Adam is responsible for the food, equipment, and other costs for the last 6 hours of the event (physical games portion).

Research 101: Knowing Is Half the Battle

Since I trust Adam and Manoj to handle their portions of the event, after we have our initial teleconference, we break off to handle our respective tasks and only occasionally exchange emails if something comes up. My main task is to make both their jobs easier by lining up sponsors, prizes, and generally making the event more awesome. Since I’ve never organized a healthy-eating-themed event before, while I’m in Boston accepting an award, I decide to drop by TEDxCambridge, which is a TED-style conference that asks, “How do you eat?”

This is incredibly worthwhile, and not just because it has the best food I’ve ever eaten at a conference. At the conference I learn about the current relevant topics in healthy eating, observe how the event is generally organized, and see how they lined up sponsors. I decide to focus exclusively on local organic groceries as sponsors and add more relevant speakers/guests interspersed throughout the event, including a closing artist I met during the event that’s from Pittsburgh.

Sponsorship 101: You can get pretty far by namedropping Michelle Obama

Though we tried to begin the sponsorship process early by creating a preliminary press release about the event to send out, we didn’t really get any sponsors until the week before the event when I basically started cold-calling local organic groceries. Given more prior notice, we could have potentially gotten larger companies such as Giant Eagle or Vitamin Water, but sponsors like those all require weeks or months lead up time to the event. Ultimately, I called up four local organic grocery stores on short notice and three of them were able to provide some sort of sponsorship: Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and the East End Food Co-op.

While the donations did help cover some of our food costs, I pushed hard on sponsorships mainly because it adds legitimacy to our event and helps tie us to our local community. For example, check out this video interview we did with the store manager of the East End Food Co-op about their store and why they’re sponsoring our event. We offered this option to all our sponsors and I’m glad they decided to take us up on it so we could let people know about a great local organic grocery.

Also, like this section title says, one trick to get sponsors on short-notice is to namedrop famous organizations and people who are already sponsoring you, such as Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative. Also, always have some initial sponsors to seed the pot. I often make my own company, Couchange.org, sponsor many of the charitable events I’m personally involved in. Most likely, many of the people on your board also have influential positions at local companies. Don’t be afraid to ask them to encourage their companies to sponsor your events, it’s good for both your chapter and your local industry.

Plan B: Anticipating the Unexpected

Okay, so if you’ve followed our instructions for running a game jam so far, you’ve assembled a competent organizing team, delegated tasks, gotten sponsors, and are good to go, right? Well, no matter how well you plan, things will go wrong. Most likely in a Murphy’s Law fashion that you totally didn’t expect. So it’s best to be flexible and just go with the flow if something unexpected happens.

For example, we had lots of last minute reshuffling with the schedule. Originally, we were expecting a speaker from the White House, Mr. McFeely, and massage therapists during our event. Ultimately all of that fell through, but none of the participants noticed since we only advertised speakers once they had fully committed. Instead, they were impressed by our vintage large-scale trophies from the Braddock Library (America’s oldest public library), inspiring keynote speech by Audrey Russo, and powerful closing poem by Vanessa German.

Lessons Learned: An error isn’t a mistake unless you refuse to correct it

Okay, now that you have a mostly positive impression of the competence of the Pittsburgh IGDA chapter and have hopefully learned some tips about how to run a games jam, let me show you what not to do by listing all our mistakes associated with the event (feel free to chime in with more through the comments section). We actually do this with all our events, through the board meeting notes we make publicly available through our Google group, which are kind of like bare-bones post-mortems. If you like these more detailed post-mortem write-ups, let us know through the comments and we might write more of them in the future. Also, feel free to let us know if you think we did a good job with our Healthy Game Jam Marathon since we’re competing with the other Health Games Challenge sites to see who ran the best event. If we win, we’ll mainly use the additional $1500 grant for our annual Gamers Give Back charity event to benefit our local Children’s Hospital. And now without any further ado, an increasingly large list of our mistakes:

1. Under-promoted the event = We only had about 20 some partcipants during the event, less than half the attendance we usually have at similar events we’ve run before. Part of this is due to the short notice, bad timing (right after graduation), and proximity to to a recent board game jam (jam fatigue?), but we could have also promoted the event better. The most obvious culprit, we’re still getting used to our new Twitter and Facebook accounts, which we didn’t efficiently utilize for promotion.

2. Inefficient use of food budget = With the lack of an accurate headcount, we narrowly avoided ordering way too much food for everyone. Some quick reordering by Manoj made the first day relatively efficient, but we still had lots of extra food and drinks by the end of the event. It seems it is much more efficient to just place group orders the day of the event when you have an accurate headcount rather than try to anticipate the number of people beforehand with a bulk order that usually ends up being wrong. Perhaps it’s best to just have a base minimal amount of snacks and drinks, then supplement it with additional food orders as people arrive. People also appreciate being able to order a custom meal from a menu rather than being given less choice with buffet style catering.

3. Tshirt Rush Order Again = It’s said that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Since this is now at least the third event when we’ve had to do a rush order (additional $100) for our tshirts, you would have thought we’ve learned our lesson by now. People love that we do custom tshirts for most of our bigger events, but we really need to submit these designs at least two weeks beforehand to avoid the rush fee.

4. Lack of Followup = We’re all busy people, which is why this blog post is approximately two weeks late. There’s several things we need to followup with after the event. A post-event press release thanking all the sponsors would be a good idea. Plus, we should encourage all the participants to continue developing their games for the Apps for Healthy Kids competition since the submission deadline is rapidly approaching on June 30th.

  1. 3 Responses to “Healthy Game Jam Marathon: A How-to Post-mortem”

  2. Thanks for the post-mortem! (In reality, the term comes from medicine, where doctors will perform a “post-mortem” after a patient dies in order to figure out what went wrong, so that they can potentially avoid similar deaths in the future. Even if a game has shipped rather than “died”, figuring out what went wrong on the project serves the same purpose.)

    It’s definitely useful for Jam coordinators to see things like this. I’d also love to see Manoj’s and Adam’s perspectives. In particular, two sticking points I see with other local game jams are how to secure sponsorships (you had a great hook with Let’s Move and the whole healthy/organic angle, but how would you have approached this if it were more generic… or would you say at this point it’s always better to have a strong theme for a game jam, so as to attract more targeted sponsors) and also how to secure physical space (probably easier for you since you’ve got ties to ETC, but if the building were unavailable, what would you do then).

    By Ian Schreiber on Jun 11, 2010

  3. Generally, I agree that it’s better to have strong themes for game jams since targeted events attract sponsors easier. For more generic jams, like the Global Game Jam, we approach local game companies. Also, if we didn’t have access to the ETC, we would probably have used the offices of a local game company.

    I’ve ask Adam and Manoj for their perspectives and we’ll try to post those up in the future. Due to the positive response, the Pittsburgh chapter has also begun working on a series of “how to” articles about the various components of running an active IGDA chapter.

    By Jia on Jun 15, 2010

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