A Simple Guide to Game Development Contests

How do you find out about these things?

I hear about game development contests relatively often, but it's almost always too late to enter. I end up just being frustrated and wonder: "Where do people find out about these contests?"

We've recently been more fortunate and have been able to successfully enter two contests. And here's how we finally were able to find out about them in time: by subscribing to insane amount of gaming news. Below is a list of game development related news sites, feeds and other resources.

Boing Boing's Games Inspired by Music contest

News sites:

Indie-related Twitter profiles:

  • Andrew Wooldridge - random game news and web development links from a professional web developer.
  • IndieDB - News, insight and media direct from the developers.
  • IndieGames.com - The latest independent games news, interviews, and features, from the makers of Gamasutra.
  • Jacob Seidelin - Ridiculously good JavaScript hacker and creator of javascriptgaming.com.
  • Make Games - A collection of interesting games and game design related links. High content, no noise. (From a current Twitter employee and previous co-worker of mine, Kevin Cheng)
  • Wolfire - An independent game company (they blog almost every single day, yowza).
  • Of course there's also our Twitter profile where we tweet about our own doings and game-related news.

Do you know of any additional resources for game development contest news? Please let me know in the comments and I'll happily add them to the list.

So now that you know about these contests coming up …

How do you know if you should enter?

So you found out about an upcoming contest and you're interested. Should you try to put a game together to enter into the contest? This is a difficult question. First: is it a good fit?

If the contest requires that your game is built on Unity but all of your experience is with pygame, that's probably a good sign to forget about the contest and get back to whatever else you were doing.

It could be that the contest is so amazing that it's worth derailing your current project, starting a new one, or learning a new language, but I'd seriously advise against that. I think it's a good adage to finish what you've started and play to your strengths. You might be able to enter a contest outside of your skill set, but you'd probably make a better game just for yourself for fun. So I guess what you should ask yourself is:

Will you benefit from entering?

Onslaught! 'box art'

On the surface, this is another way of asking, Could you win? The benefit of winning many of these contests is clear: for example, with the recently-announced Activision contest, the grand prize is something like $100k and a publishing deal. That's pretty major! But keep in mind that with a prize like that, you're going to get some very polished entries by some veteran game developers. The competition will be intense.

So, maybe you can win and maybe you can't; other benefits can arise from entering. For example, if you read our postmortem on the Boing Boing contest, you saw that we were driven by the hard, unchangeable deadline, which was great because we often can't find motivation. We also made a bunch of mistakes and learned from them, which is another beneficial side effect.

Merely being involved in a contest can also get some much desired attention to your game. According to Google Analytics, Boing Boing has referred over 1,500 people to our game Onslaught!. That's not much from a big business perspective, but for a tiny and unknown team like ours, it's great!

Determining if a contest or promotion is shady

So you found a contest, you figured it's worth your time for one reason or another, and now you're in! You want to enter. Just please do one more quick thing first: make sure the contest isn't shady. You can do that by reading the fine print and getting a second opinion.

If you're seriously considering entering, it's probably worth your time to read the fine print. It's certainly not fun reading, but you could get into a bind otherwise: a single sentence could disqualify your game or remove your rights to your intellectual property. Fortunately, there are resources out there to help you.

The guys over at Wolfire often write about the bigger contests (like they recently did). For that particular contest, you can also get insight from Tom Buscaglia: The Game Attorney (a real attorney!).

Now, if you can't find the fine print, that's a bad sign right there. A legitimate company running a "real" contest is going to have documentation to cover their asses. If you're just entering into a quick weekend contest like the fine folks over at Game Jolt regularly hold, that's fine. But if there's supposedly a cash prize, and you're going to expend hard-earned time and/or money on your project, it had damned well better be legit.

When in doubt, why not ask your indie game development peers? Late last year I bumped into an interesting thread with the subject Indie Game Competition - $15k and possible publishing deals!. What was interesting to me was a post that said:

And you still owe me over $250,000. I also found out I am not the only developer being scammed by Zoo Games, so this should be a warning to everyone here.

I'm not going to pretend to know what's going on there, but it doesn't smell right, know what I mean? For that reason, I'd have passed on that contest.

Decide quickly and move on with your development

The most important thing is not to be affected by decision paralysis. In the past I've spent an embarassing amount of time just thinking about these sort of contests. And in the end I never entered, so all I had to show for it was a ton of lost time. Think about it this way: you're probably going to keep making games either way, aren't you? So set aside a little time to determine if it's worth your while, then move on and get back to making games!

Have I missed any important steps? Have you had any luck (good or bad) with these contests? Hope to hear from you in the comments.