The World’s Oldest Game Jam is Still Going Strong After Starting with a Dare

20 years later, people still love making video games with unreasonable constraints for Ludum Dare.

In April 2002, about 20 friends challenged one another to make a game from start to finish within 24 hours. 20 years later, Ludum Dare is the longest-running game jam in the world, with thousands of participants.

Ludum Dare was originally proposed and created by developer Geoff Howland, but for many years has been run by Mike Kasprzak. Kasprzak joined the games industry at age 19, thanks to his passion for gaming, but found himself somewhat disappointed developing for a younger audience than himself. “[I] don’t really necessarily have a passion for kids’ games,” he laughs. He kept working on personal projects, but developing all day didn’t leave him with a lot of enthusiasm for going home and continuing personal programming projects.

That’s what made the intense, brief energy of Ludum Dare interesting to him the first time he heard about it. “[It] kind of suited my wacky personality,” says Kasprzak. He, Howland, and the other participants coordinated on IRC and forums. With each person making a game from scratch, there were 18 entries at the end of the 24-hour period. “We did that, we loved it, we made lots of mistakes, and we were like, ‘we’ve gotta do this again, this is great.’”

Howland continued to run the jam several times a year, but then passed the reins to a group that included Kasprzak and Mike Hommel, another participant in the very first Ludum Dare. “My memory, before I checked the Wikipedia [page] and found out I was wrong, is that I won,” says Hommel. “But the theme was “indirection interaction,” and I made a 1v1 local RTS called Castle Smash…It was definitely a rush and fun for all involved, so moving forward and making it an ongoing thing was inevitable.”

The competition grew in popularity, bringing more people together. Seth Robinson, who was another member of the group that picked up from Howland, recalls finding a community even when the competitions themselves weren’t running. “The [IRC channel] was code sharing, impromptu photoshop challenges, desk pics, food pics, philosophical debates, just everything,” he says.

The event went through many changes, with dates and websites inconsistent between events, making it difficult to build a base of participants. “We were disorganized, but we were still obsessed with it,” says Kasprzak. It took time to stabilize to where it is now, which Hommel and Robinson both mostly credit to Kasprzak.

“[At first] it was this hobby, side project, fun thing we did just as a bunch of friends that kind of got out of control,” says Kasprzak. But as it gained popularity, there was a point where he and the team decided that either it dies or someone has to keep it going. And I guess I’m bad at quitting!”

Kasprzak worked full time on the jam for about five years, although he now also runs indie studio Limited Snacks. That only became financially possible when the jam took on sponsors. “Sponsors have been approaching the contest for years, but there was a ton of pushback from the contestants against the idea of sponsorship, which left [Kasprzak] in an awkward position — he had to keep running it but had no way to make money,” says Hommel. “Not very fair. I’m quite glad he’s got sponsors signed on now, and that Ludum Dare has dedicated management.”

The jam now runs twice yearly, and can reach up to 10,000 signups per event. That’s quite something given that the idea of a “game jam” wasn’t widespread when Ludum Dare was first created. Kasprzak recalled the Indie Game Jam, which began around the same time, being the first to use the now commonly used term. On indie game website, it’s normal to see 50 or more running at once.

As the concept of jams became more popular, Ludum Dare split their participants in two, the “compo” and the “jam” groups. The jam track was more laid back, allowing participants to form teams and work together, where the competition required full games to be made by individuals, for example. Prior to the split, some competitors had been very strict about what they felt was competitively fair. “Early on when hardcore masochists were creating their own fonts and text blitters during the 48 hours, there was a serious discussion over if Flash and Game Maker type engines should be allowed at all,” says Robinson.

In one early Ludum Dare, the voting period coincided with Hommel’s honeymoon. “Of course I brought my laptop to Hawaii and voted on things from there, like a good nerd,” he says. Some people had complained about his game — he had used his new wife’s voice to make bird noises. Those upset argued that it wasn’t a truly solo effort. “That’s how hardcore people were about doing everything yourself back then. …And I was there in Hawaii defending myself in the comments instead of sitting on the beach.” In the end, Hommel was vindicated. “I won — both the argument and the Ludum Dare.”

The addition of the jam track offered a more accessible option while leaving the hardcore option available for those who wanted it. More recently, that has expanded again, with Ludum Dare Extra. Extra allows people another three weeks so that they can fit it around other obligations, like work or family. Entrants to Extra are free to still limit themselves to 48 hours, just on a different weekend or spaced over time, or to iterate for longer on their project.

In small part, Kasprzak says, Extra was designed so that he could participate again. “Because I’m working my ass off up until the event happens, [but] I would still like to take part in this!”

Kasprzak, Hommel, and Robinson all expressed surprise at just how far Ludum Dare has come in its 20 years. “It’s wild to see Ludum Dare and the game jam concept in general get so big,” says Robinson. “Part of me misses when it was reasonable to play and rate every game. These days, at 10 minutes a game it would take like 500 hours.”

Kasprzak says that people approach him at events to tell him the stories of how influential Ludum Dare has been in their careers, perhaps as inspiration, releasing their polished game after the jam, or through meeting people who they would go on to work with. “That keeps happening again and again, and I’m like ‘oh my god, what have I done,’” he laughs.

“I mean, to me, I’m just running the schedule. I’m just here making sure it constantly happens and the side effect of just doing this long enough is that you can see an effect…I am kind of the cog that keeps it running, but without the community, we are nothing.”