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Build something cool in 24 hours


The highlight of Foo Camp for me was hearing game development guru Squirrel Eiserloh talk on total immersion / ultra-rapid game development. I'm dying to try it for everything from creative writing to learning Flash to composing music to video/podcasting and of course game development. I cannot imagine a better, faster path to creativity, innovation, and most importantly getting something done!

The notion is this: stick people in a house for 48 hours, with a goal to have something created at the end. Depending on the nature of the goal, participants may be collaborating (like building a game together) or working alone (musicians composing, writers writing, etc.). The key is the process--a process that forces you to supress the "inner judges" that stifle creativity, and gives you not just permission but an order to create as much as possible, as fast as possible... even if what you end up with is 97% crap.

The point is to learn something valuable from the experience... something you'd likely never get to in your day job, even when--as it is for Squirrel and his game developer cohorts -- what you do in the jam is what you do in your day job. In other words, by working under the ad-hoc/jam constraints, you're able to "improve your craft" and discover things about yourself and the work that you might never find in your traditional work environment. It takes the idea of rapid iterations to a completely different (dramatically compressed) time scale. What could take weeks, months, or years to evolve suddenly happens in hours. And the work never leaves your personal brain RAM! No more cost of switching contexts as you go from personal life to meetings to actual work to commuting to whatever... this is 100% being in the zone, where each hour spent in one of these jams is worth perhaps 10 or more hours at work in your usual environment.

The idea can be mapped to virtually anything for which you want to encourage maximum creativity, innovation, and most importantly... getting something done. While it may be a Big Deal to start your own Foo/Bar-style self-organizing conference, the total immersion "ad-lib jam" model is something we can all start in our home town, wherever that may be. All you need is a handful of participants (maybe 4-8), some delivery/take-out menus for chinese food and pizza (revise to reflect what goes for "fast delivered food" in your culture), maybe a few pillows and blankets, a whiteboard and some markers, and whatever other tools of the trade your participants need to make things.

(Sidebar: out of the 15 or so people at Squirrel's informal session, the most engaged participant was Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.)

For writers, that could mean laptops or even just paper and pencils. For programmers, that might mean the programming tools (game engine, compilers, source control if multiple participants are collaborating on the same app) or art tools (Photoshop, etc.). For music composition, that might mean real and virtual instruments (guitars, midi keyboards, synth guitars, mics) and sequencing software like GarageBand, Reason, or Logic. And for pure idea brainstorming, whiteboards, post-its, and big flip-chart pages to put stuff up on the walls as things progress.

I won't bother explaining how to run one of these things, because Squirrel and friends have already done this at:
The Ad-Lib Game Society site, which encourages others to start their own "lodges", like their founding chapter in Dallas, Zero Lodge. (He mentions that they've taken inspiration from the earlier Immersion Composition Society, as well as the Indie Game Jam).

But does it have to be face-to-face?

This was a natural question. And the answer was... probably. A big part of what makes this work is that you are not in your normal environment. No kids, no chores, no I-should-be-doing-something-else. More importantly, it's the energy of the other participants that makes this so effective. You know exactly what I'm talking about if you've ever been in a highly engaged group where everyone's really cranking and you can almost feel the brain power and creativity rippling out of each person's head like Wi Fi.

Squirrel said that while they had tried a virtual jam, it wasn't that successful. One example he gave was that while at home you might hit the wall and give up (or get tired and go to sleep or do something else), when you start to hit that point during a live jam, all it takes is one guy walking by playing air guitar with his head phones on and you're suddenly hit with another wave of energy (or at least that little bit of competitiveness and pressure because you know you've got to demo something in three hours!)

The total immersion part of this is crucial, and until someone figures out a good way to make this happen remotely/virtually, face-to-face is probably going to be a lot more effective. (I have no doubt that there are ways to make this work remotely/virtually, but it would take some real effort and creativity to pull it off.)

Here are just a few of the ways in which I'd love to use this approach in my own life:

Storyboard Jam

We develop our books (Head First books, and the not-yet-announced new series we're working on) from storyboards, as opposed to outlines and TOCs. The storyboard is by far the most important part of the creative process for the books, and it's often the most difficult for authors... including those with tons of previous "traditional" writing experience. Having everybody go off and spend hours with their storyboards (either alone or in collaboration with another person), then periodically getting back together for a show-and-tell with feedback would be amazing. In fact, we did do something like this once -- we called it a "Head First Bootcamp" -- that brought together a half-dozen prospective authors plus our O'Reilly editor, for five days in Colorado, all staying in one house, and with food brought in most of the time. One of the outcomes of this intensive week were Eric and Beth's storyboards for the Head First Design Patterns book, currently one of the top five bestselling computer books.

There's no doubt they would have produced these storyboards back in their own home, but this total immersion week did kick-start things in a big way, and gave them the opportunity for vital real-time feedback.

Learn Something New Jam

I've been trying to squeeze in some time to learn Flash, but each time I never get past the first few tutorials. There's always something higher on the to-do list. But if, say, 4-8 people got together, and we all had a sole task--to learn something new and then create a demo of what we learned at the end (with a checkpoint at the halfway mark), then it would give me the permission to just get in there and have Flash loaded into my brain, with the goal of creating a prototype of something I've been wanting to build. I honestly believe that if I don't do it this way, I simply may never get to it. I need someone to say, "You aren't allowed to do anything for the next 36 hours... no email, no going out to eat, no working on anything else."

Music Composition Jam

This one doesn't need explaining.

Write a [screenplay/article/chapter] Jam

Neither does this one.

Game Development Jam

I did a several year stint as a game developer, but have done virtually nothing since leaving that world to work at Sun (which, sadly, involved lots of enterprise development but NO games). I was thinking that the only way to get to work on games again was to work in the field, but that's ridiculous. There's no reason that me and six of my friends -- including coders and designers and maybe someone who understands audio -- couldn't get together and build a game. As Squirrel points out, we'd probably learn more valuable lessons we could take back to our real work than with just about anything else we could do in that amount of time (including attending formal "training" classes).

Let's do it!

So... if you're in Colorado, anywhere around the Denver/Boulder area, please email me at headrush[at]wickedlysmart[dot]com, and let's start a new chapter/lodge of the Ad-Lib Game Development Society!
(And thanks Squirrel for such an inspiring lesson, and for putting up such great info on your site.)

And for everyone else, I urge you to study the info at the ALGDS site and consider starting your own in your area. And who knows... maybe we can attend jam sessions held by one another's lodges. I'd love to crash one of Squirrel's jams (I'll make the coffee!), and perhaps someone from out of town who wants to do a book could come to one of our book jams.

I'll say more over the next few days about lessons learned at Foo Camp, but this was by far my favorite, and the one I'm most likely to implement soon.

Posted by Kathy on August 24, 2005 | Permalink


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» Team jamming from Adrian Trenholm
Kathy Sierra at [Creating Passionate Users][1] posted [Build something cool in 24 hours][2] yesterday, based on an idea for total immersion / ultra-rapid game development from the wonderfully named game developer, Squirrel Eiserloh: > The notion is... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 25, 2005 4:33:44 AM

» green team from LifeBox
Well, yesterday was pretty fun. After work (which I can't really ever talk about because the stuff we do is Very Important and Top Secret or something) I headed over to Enspire Learning for a SIG meeting of the Austin... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 25, 2005 3:03:46 PM

» Creating Passionate Users: Build something cool in 24 hours from fuzzyLizard
This is a cool idea! Kathy Sierra, one of the inspirations (and authors) behind the Head First series of books posted an article on her blog entitled Build something cool in 24 hours. The whole idea is that you get a group of people — developer... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 25, 2005 6:44:17 PM

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» 24h party coders from WeBreakStuff
If there’s one thing I really like, is rapid development. This means I got pretty excited when I was going through some blogs and found this blog post from a few days ago over at the awesome Creating Passionate Users. Basically, the post talks a... [Read More]

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I'm really glad to see a structured "48hr game challenge" group that can encourage REGULAR events. I see so many people get together, do one event, have it be rather mediocre and then never try again (or extremly infrequently). The listings of each event on the AHGDS site is a nice motivation to also do something creative and fresh even if you're just trying to keep up.

Posted by: David Koontz | Aug 24, 2005 6:40:58 PM

Wow! I'm an avid reader and game developer and this post is a pleasant surprise! I've wanted to go do the Indie Game Jam for a while but haven't been at GDC in ages, so this is awesome. This looks like a great thing for the game industry, which definitely needs more community, training and experimentation.

And besides, it sounds like a lot of fun! I've seen some cool stuff come from 24-Hour Comics Day, Rails Day and so on and want to get in on the fun. There needs to be a better way to organize this, but I'm up for this anywhere in Los Angeles or Orange County... um, once crunch time is over in November!

Posted by: Zach Baker | Aug 24, 2005 8:05:08 PM

This is known as a sprint in some circles. It's a chance to get together f2f and code for some set period of time with certain goals in mind. We've done several of them for pypy, which was kewl. Part of the kewl part for us was taking time to do stuph together besides code - we went hiking and sightseeing, as well as dining together. It was a good time and very productive. Loved it, and loved the concept.

Posted by: Anna Martelli Ravenscroft | Aug 24, 2005 8:06:05 PM

No time to read, but great that your blogging again :)

Is there a way one can print individual blog entries by the way?

Posted by: Johannes de Jong | Aug 25, 2005 12:30:53 AM

I've never tried printing blog entries, but I would start by clicking on the 'Permalink' for whatever post you're interested in. That'll take you to a page that has just the one individual entry. You can try printing it from there.

Posted by: Bill Mietelski | Aug 25, 2005 5:36:47 AM

Oh Kathy, you've done it again!

Now I've sent ANOTHER email to one of my key clients to encourage them to think and learn and take risks based on your articles... I've named dropped you so many times they'll end up thinking we're having some sort of relationship!

I'll let you know if they decide to go for it and brainstorm their hidebound arse into the current century!

Posted by: Lee Hopkins | Aug 25, 2005 7:04:45 AM

Every month, http://www.gameinaday.com also has informal events, for those looking for similar things.

Posted by: GBGames | Aug 25, 2005 9:05:28 AM

There used to be a hacking challenge conference called MACHACK which did this. It's now retitled ADHOC. http://www.adhocconference.com/ http://www.machack.com/

Similar idea. You can read their notes. A very good essay about it: http://rentzsch.com/adhoc/theConferenceAtTheEndOfTheUniverse

Posted by: Bill Coderre | Aug 25, 2005 8:59:37 PM

Wow, sounds like lots of fun. Reminds me of something my wife used to do when she was in architecture school called a "charette". Here's a definition: http://www.masterplanning.com/masterplanning/charette.html

Posted by: Dave Wood | Aug 26, 2005 9:11:21 AM

This sounds like a very quick way to be productive but an absolute horror of an experience for anyone who values their own personal space and time out. I think it also fails to acknowledge that much creativity comes from some quiet period, this process sounds much too 'alpha' and does not allow for deep creativity to emerge in it's own time.

Posted by: Stacy | Aug 26, 2005 9:45:21 AM

Great idea, back in 2001 a number of us showed up for a session at the North American Simulation and Gaming Association http://www.nasaga.org conference. The session had been cancelled but since we were there we invented a (in-person) game in the 45 minutes and played it. Here is a write up of the game http://mywebpages.comcast.net/hhowen/index.htm

Inspired by that session two of us ran a one day pre-conference session at the conference the following year. Working in teams of four or five, participants created and then played each other's learning games. Here is the material we used as resources for the session. http://www.learninglandscapes.com/resource.html
and a link to an activity that one of the participants later used in her own work.

Posted by: chris saeger | Aug 26, 2005 7:10:24 PM

whoops, correction to the link with the activity write up.

the link in my previous post is to Harrison Owens web site about open space technology. Invented in 1984 it is very much like foo learning.

Posted by: chris saeger | Aug 26, 2005 7:14:26 PM

JotSpot, FeedBurner, and SixApart are using this concept as part of their product development process.


And let's not forget the Rails 24-hour programming contest that spawned the incredible YubNub:


Posted by: Nivi | Aug 26, 2005 8:27:03 PM

What a brilliant piece of work-I should say art really. Just reading the words energized me in a way that has very real importance at this time in my life.

I love collaboration, regardless of the context. The best ideas do come from synergy. Yet there is something about a routine job that closes part of your mind. I say this based only on my own experience when I left my last job and went freelance. Some amazing things happened.

First of all, I learned what it was like to live under the poverty line, while working almost every hour of every day.

But far more important is that some space or part of my mind seemed to open up in a way that I don't think would have been possible had I stayed with the company I worked for.

Even though I was busier and worked more hours, I was able to discover that I have a passion for ideas, thoughts, theories and even writing about a particular aspect of my vocation (I'm Web designer and front end developer).

I started exploring the relationship of the Web to human activities and needs, the impact on our culture, society, political governance, etc. In other words, I was thinking and even written articles about the "big picture" and no matter how nutty the thought of the day was, it made my work profoundly meaningful.

It was wonderful to read that you believe this kind of experience doesn't go away; that it becomes part of you. I so want to participate in out of these group challenges. Thank you for this gift.

Posted by: Michael Almond | Aug 26, 2005 9:08:08 PM

Wow -- thanks for all the other great links you guys... Chris, nivi, GB, Bill and everyone else.

Stacy -- that was my feeling too, and I think these are valid concerns. There are at least two possible answers for some of this:
1) The way Squirrel put it, there *was* a lot of time for individual time. In the music jams in particular, people would go off for several hours at a time to work on their own stuff -- often coming together only to show what they'd done, but for the most part working entirely on their own.
2) This isn't about deep (slow-burning) creativity as much as it's about the kind of creativity you get specifically because you do NOT have the time to think. It's about what happens when you do NOT have the luxury of re-thinking... you just DO. A lot of brainstorming and creativity tools are explicitly designed to try to cause this very thing to happen (the suppression of the inner judges), and this is one way to implement it.

If you couldn't tell from other posts I've made -- I'm usually the one advocating *against* the emphasis on teamwork (count me NOT a fan of, say, "pair programming), but the jam idea is more about benefiting from each other's energy and the environment and rule/constraints, rather than about forced collaboration. I think the size of the house probably matters a lot too ; )

Michael: go for it!

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Aug 27, 2005 10:50:16 PM

Zach mentioned 24-hour comics, so I thought I'd throw out some links:

McCloud has a good write-up of the "first" 24-hour comic:

It looks like the 24hourcomics.com site includes some distributed events -- individual artists can work alone or gather in groups, all on the same day.


Posted by: terrie | Aug 28, 2005 9:25:00 AM

I stumbled across your blog while I was doing some online research. This was really quite a fascinating discussion. As an educator and writer, I am always looking for novel ways to increase creativity in myself and also in my students.

Posted by: panasianbiz | Jul 27, 2006 6:54:12 PM

My friends and I call those "Guru Gatherings".

Posted by: Joi | Sep 10, 2006 6:53:51 PM

Great info, thanks a lot!!! I wish I will have such a writing skills..

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