Ludum Dare turns XV

Ludum Dare turns XV
Jem Alexander

By Jem Alexander

April 20th 2017 at 2:30PM

As the industry’s most famous global game jam hits an important anniversary, Jem Alexander talks to co-founder Mike Kasprzak to find out how we got here, and where it’s heading in the future

This month marks an impressive milestone for the industry’s oldest and most famous regular game jam. Ludum Dare celebrates its 15th birthday on April 21st by kicking off the 38th major jam and revitalising its web presence with a new site, ready for another 15 years of 72-hour global game dev competitions.

For those unfamiliar (all five of you), Ludum Dare asks participants to create a game within 72 hours based on a theme voted on by the community of jammers. These games are then rated by the community until one is crowned king. With thousands of games created and rated per jam, Ludum Dare has grown huge since its inception in 2002, when it was created by a group of games industry buddies.

“Ludum Dare started as this niche thing my friends and I did as a hobby,” says co-founder Mike Kasprzak. “Many of us were also involved in the games industry, so as we ran more events, it became interesting to watch how Ludum Dare paralleled the industry. You could track current trends in game development tools by checking what people used for Ludum Dare. Highlights over the years include the rise and fall of Flash, the rise of middleware and the explosion of indie games.”

The mention of Flash should give you an indication of just how long 15 years on the internet can be. “We actually predate popular services YouTube, Twitch and Twitter, but we started using them as part of Ludum Dare very early on,” Kasprzak says. “Today, I don’t know what we would be without them. 

“Nowadays there’s even a term for what we are: a game jam. We didn’t have a term when we started. I used to call us a ‘game compo’, something I borrowed from the Demoscene. Even the term ‘indie game’ hadn’t caught on yet. I think we were still calling games ‘shareware’ back then.”

I’m humbled that this ‘hobby’ project my friends and I started means so much to so many

Mike Kasprzak, Ludum Dare co-founder 

DARE TO DEVELOP

Ludum Dare’s success is the industry’s success, as many people who take part in the jams have used it as a way into working in game development. “Ludum Dare being successful means more people are making games,” Kasprzak says. “I’ve been told many stories about how Ludum Dare got Them into games, and I’m always thrilled to see the next big indie game to come out of the event.”

The growth of Ludum Dare over the years has several reasons, according to Kasprzak. There was some struggle early on, but the indie game boom gave the game jam a large boost. One famous indie developer in particular contributed to the jam’s reputation in a big way. “After a rough few years in the beginning, we finally kept to a schedule,” he says.

“Twitter hadn’t caught on yet, so consistency was one of the few things we had to keep people interested. That meant as 2008 rolled around, when indie games were finally gaining traction and mobile gaming exploded, more and more developers were looking for something to do. We broke 100 participants for the first time in April 2009.

“A couple years later, one of our regulars got some attention after he made a game called Minecraft. It wasn’t a Ludum Dare game, but while that was gaining popularity, he continued participating in the event. Notch taking part validated the event for a lot of people, and that’s when we really started to grow. To think, today 2000+ games in an event is normal.”

EVOLVE OR DIE

As the community grew, the organisers needed to adapt to the influx of participants. Evolving alongside the trends of the games industry. “The event began with some very strict rules, but we tweaked and loosened them over time so more people could enter,” explains Kasprzak. “I’ve been active as a game developer for the majority of Ludum Dare’s lifespan, and I do tend to keep an eye on trends.”

When a hobby gets off the ground to the extent Ludum Dare has, how does it feel to have expanded the community so greatly? “Actually that’s one of the things I miss,” Kasprzak says. “Back when Ludum Dare was smaller, it was easier to get to know people in the community. I could casually join our IRC channel and hang-out for hours chatting with whomever was around. But as I got busier, and the event got more popular, I had to take a step back. I miss the days when there was time to casually get to know folks.”

This community is a diverse one, thanks in part to the anonymous nature of the early-2000s internet, as Kasprzak explains: “Because we’re primarily an internet event, we never really see race or sexuality. We don’t see age either. Instead we get to judge each other based what we make, and how we present ourselves. We get to know people inside out, rather than outside in. I think there’s something kind of wonderful about that.

“As a side effect, that has made us a rather transgender friendly community. It just sort of happened, and I’m glad it did. I definitely think we’re better for it.”

 

There’s also a good cross-section of the games industry represented in participants of Ludum Dare. From indies to triple-A devs looking for an extra-curricular creative outlet. Hobbyists and students also get involved, as it’s a great way of creating something which could lead to a job in development, or a way to learn skills through practical means. Making games is the best way to learn how to make games.

Some games made during Ludum Dare are then developed further to become full products, sold on Steam. This is becoming a more regular occurrence as the years progress and there are some games that you may have played that you’d be surprised to learn started life as a prototype during Ludum Dare.

“There’s a handful of Ludum Dare games on consoles too,” says Kasprzak. “I’m still waiting to hear what the first Ludum Dare game on the Nintendo Switch is going to be.” Perhaps that game will be one created during the 15th anniversary jam. Who knows, maybe you’ll be the one to make it, dear reader.

Game jams are becoming a huge part of indie culture, and Ludum Dare has no signs of slowing down. In fact, as part of the 15th birthday celebration Kasprzak is looking to bring the jam up to date: “We’ve got our brand new site launching for the 15th anniversary event on April 21st. After that, and some housekeeping, we can start looking into what Ludum Dare can do to inspire even more people.

“I’ve never thought of myself as an educator. Growing up, I got out of school as soon as I could. But what Ludum Dare and other game jams do feels something like it. The impact we have on so many people is mind blowing to me. I’m humbled that this ‘hobby’ project my friends and I started means so much to so many.”