8 tips for surviving the Epic MegaJam

Game jams are exciting, but a lot can go wrong when the deadline sneaks up on you — if you're not prepared.

Nick Pfisterer •
8 tips for surviving the Epic MegaJam

Every year — usually in late summer/early fall — Epic Games hosts the Epic MegaJam, a special challenge where you have one week to make a game in Unreal Engine (or, as of 2023, UEFN) around a special theme.

You can register for the 2023 Epic MegaJam here. This year’s theme is “Antiquated Future”.

Game jams are a lot of fun, whether you're working solo or with a team. It's exciting to try new and unusual ideas within the constraint of a theme. But that excitement can turn sour when you get a nasty surprise two hours before the deadline.

Over the years, I have seen many MegaJam participants panic at the last minute for a number of reasons:

A lot can go wrong when the deadline sneaks up on you – if you're not prepared. Here are 8 tips to help you avoid those nasty surprises and survive the Epic MegaJam with your sanity intact.

Know what is required to submit a game

First thing’s first: joining the Epic MegaJam does not register your game for consideration. A surprising number of people miss this. When you visit the landing page, you will first click the Join Jam button to participate.

Once you do, the button will change to say Submit your project.

Clicking this now shows the submission form you have to fill out in order to submit your game to the jam. Most of the form is self-explanatory and doesn’t take much time, so I will focus on the ones that tend to surprise people the most. All of these are required:

Note: these assets will not affect your final score. Only the original content you create during the jam will be judged.

Package and test a working build right away

I know it's boring and lame, but this can save you from major headaches down the line. You don’t have to do it right away, but very early on in your project — preferably on day 1 — I highly recommend doing the following things:

At this point, you might be thinking “Nick, uploading builds and downloading them from itch.io takes a long time! We need to iterate more quickly if we are going to make the deadline.” If this is you, then you’ll love my next tip.

Use butler & itch app

It’s easy to upload your game via the itch.io website, but there are some limitations.

Thankfully, there are two great apps you can download to solve all of these problems: butler and itch app.

Butler is a command-line tool made by the Itch team for publishing builds. You can download it here. It allows you to iterate on your game much faster by unlocking the following features:

Prefer a GUI over the command line? there’s an app for that, and it’s free!

The Itch app is a desktop client for the itch.io platform, similar to the Steam app. You can download it here for Windows, macOS, and Linux.

It’s a nice enough app for managing your library and accessing your admin dashboard, but it has a secret superpower for developers. If you upload builds via butler and have your teammates download the game via the Itch app, they will get automatic patch updates instead of re-downloading the entire game, which will speed up your iteration time even more!

If you are tired of waiting for builds to upload and download, Butler + Itch app is the one-two punch you need.

Use version control

If you’ve never used version control, now is a good time to start; especially if you are working with a team.

Version control allows you to more efficiently collaborate with others by making it easier to share code and assets. Perhaps more importantly, it also keeps a backup and history of changes to all your project files, so you can roll back to an earlier version if something goes wrong.

There are several different version control systems out there, but the most popular ones are Perforce, Git, and Subversion. Perforce is the most popular one to use with Unreal Engine — it’s great at handling large binary assets and is pretty deeply integrated with UE5 — but Git and Subversion are fine to use if you prefer them.

If you want an easy solution just for the Epic MegaJam, Assembla is granting participants access to their platform and supports Perforce, Git, and Subversion. You can sign up here for access.

If you’re new to version control, I recommend reading the docs for working with version control in Unreal. Epic has also provided a quick how-to guide for getting started with Assembla during the jam.

If you’re using Unreal Engine 5.2 or later, the Perforce editor plugin provides a much-improved UX. My favorite feature is the ability to easily drag-and-drop assets between changelists.

Be ruthless about reducing scope

Making a fully playable game in one week is challenging. Don’t waste precious time building unnecessary features or endlessly polishing that one corner of your level that most players won’t even see. This is one of the most common ways the deadline can sneak up on you. Don’t let it!

Here are a few ways to keep the scope of your game manageable:

Look at it this way: would you rather ship a very small, short game that looks and feels great, or a large, ambitious game filled with half-baked ideas and no clear vision?

Focus on your strengths

Game jams are a great opportunity to try new ideas or learn new skills. However, focusing on your current strengths can go a long way towards helping you ship a completed game. This is especially true if you are working alone.

What are you already good at? Game design? Environment art? Characters? Music or sound design? Whatever it is, consider making that the star of the show and building the rest of the game around that.

For example: Let’s say you are a talented musician but you’re pretty new to programming and 3D art. Maybe you’re going for the Best Audio special award. Come up with an idea that lets your musical talents shine. Utilize assets from the Unreal Marketplace to fill the gaps so you can focus on giving players an outstanding aural experience. Otherwise, you may end up spending too much time wrestling with new tools and unfamiliar workflows, and find yourself unable to reach the finish line.

Of course, if you care more about having an excuse to tinker with new tools than shipping a completed game, don’t let me stop you.

Take care of yourself

Game jams can be a thrilling experience. It’s really, really easy to get absorbed in your work and spend 10 hours hunched over in front of a computer as the day passes you by. I get it! You’re passionate and you’re having a blast. But it’s really important to take care of yourself along the way. Neglecting your health and fitness can actually be detrimental to your experience.

Here are my recommendations:

In short: your game will suffer if you neglect your health. You will be more prone to stress, anxiety, and making mistakes. With proper self care, your mind will be sharper and you will be more productive.

Ship something!

This one is the most challenging, but it’s a big one: reaching the finish line. Everyone wants to ship an amazing game. It’s why you’re here in the first place. But I would argue that reaching the finish line with a playable game — even if it’s just a prototype — is more important than struggling to make a more polished experience and not shipping anything at all.

This is a game jam, after all. This is not a risky commercial project with a big budget and lots of jobs at stake. It’s OK for things to be rough around the edges! People expect it. No one is going to be disappointed in you because you didn’t ship a highly-polished indie darling roguelike.

Take advantage of that.

Lean into it.

There is one caveat here, though: don’t leave the default material anywhere in your final submission. From the official rules:

All art assets in the game must have a material other than "DefaultMaterial" applied to it.

Above all else...

Have fun! Yes: there are a lot of exciting prizes, and a lot of talented developers competing for them. Don't let that stress you out too much. Enjoy yourself, and take this opportunity to explore some novel ideas that might be too risky for your commercial projects. If you're new to Unreal, this is a great way to get to know the engine by building something very small and focused. You also get a taste of what it's like to compile a playable game and share it with strangers, which is a thrilling experience all its own.

If you’re looking for more tips, or want to hang out with other participants during the MegaJam

I hope these tips help you have a better experience with the Epic MegaJam. Have fun, rock on, and good luck!