Organizing a successful competition that doesn’t scale
Let’s look at the js13kGames 2017 competition from the perspective of those few months that already passed, see why this one was special, and why it have to change.
The definition of success may vary, but for me it’s one of the best projects I’ve created over the years, and you can believe me I tried a whole bunch of them. Most died quietly, yet js13kGames is constantly growing and getting more and more attention. There was an overwhelming 254 entries in 2017, exactly twice as many as the year before, and it broke the overall record of 160 entries in 2015.
Even though I started my preparations for the 2017 competition three months before the start and not the usual two, it still ended up being intense and crazy up until December. It’s not like the competition was the only thing I did during that half a year, but it took A LOT.
The backend issue
I’ve started the competition in 2012 – there was 4 or 5 jams a year and people were waiting months for something interesting to happen. Now there are 40-50 of them happening at any given point in time. Everything evolved since then, yet the js13kGames competition is still managed by me alone, more or less manually, on the exact same backend created around the year 2013 by a friend of mine (I was working as a front-end dev for a few years, then became a game developer, but I have absolutely no backend experience).
Since then there was a few (unsuccessful) attempts at trying to write a new backend from scratch, but they failed miserably because of various reasons. Usually because the backend developer decided he’s not interested in the project anymore since the budget I could offer for the work was non-existent. Happened to me at least three times with three different developers. Let’s just call it bad luck. Once it failed because I was focusing more on trying to cover the costs of printing the t-shirts than working with the dev that was actually interested in finishing it up. That’s absolutely my fault. Plus I once had two programmers developing a new installment at the same time, but that also didn’t work out.
Recently, platforms like itch.io are offering the functionality far beyond what I have right now, and more or less what I wanted to have years ago, but I feel the js13kGames is unique enough to not throw it there among dozens of other jams. Sure, there’s a strong game jam community, but js13k is solid on it’s own anyway, so why try to fix what’s not broken? Maybe I’m fine with my own little problems and don’t need a new level of those.
Shot in the foot
Last year I’ve received a very nice boost from a few companies who helped a lot by promoting the competition. Not sure if it’s related, but looks like it might backfired – it was the first time since the start of the compo when I was flooded by submissions containing source code of games stolen from the depths of the web, they weren’t even minified. I knew the "free t-shirt with free shipping worldwide for every entry" approach would come back at me at some point and bite me, and this was it.
All those fraudulent entries came from a single country that I won’t disclose, because frankly – it doesn’t matter. I knew there’s a different mentality there when it comes to copyright, or property of the digital assets you can find online in general, but the numbers surprised me anyway. It all resulted in me rejecting about 100 entries, and hours of extra work to filter them among normal games. I don’t think I rejected a single entry since the beginning of the competition up until now.
At the beginning I was trying to be nice by finding the original source code and telling the "developer" that it is someone else’s work, and he/she could easily create something on their own. It became annoying, and after about 50 such entries – really frustrating. After rejecting ordinary clones without an explanation I was receiving emails asking what’s wrong, and usually replying with all the details. At some point I got the same stolen game submitted SIX times by six different developers, all claiming to be the original author. When I removed five and left the first one, explaining everything, I received the message from one of them that the original was also stolen and should be removed.
Make it grow
Forget about the number of rejected entries – 254 were accepted, while I planned for 100-150. Now imagine having 1000 submitted entries. Either I’m going to be broke, or tell people I can’t make the promise of sending the t-shirts anymore – any of those would be a disaster.
Forget the t-shirt problem. Imagine having 1000 entries, out of which 95% would be submitted on the last two days, which (percentage-wise) usually happens every single year. That’s 950 entries to be manually validated and accepted by me personally. I play every entry to see if it works, then check if it’s not breaking any rules, especially the one about external resources. It takes time. Let’s consider the optimistic calculations – it takes 5 minutes to launch the game and check it against the rules. Given 950 entries it piles up to almost 80 hours straight, while all that is submitted two days before the end of the deadline.
Now imagine about 30% of all the submitted games aren’t perfectly prepared – the index.html is called i.html because of extreme minification, or instead of having index.html inside the main folder, it is one level below, in the subfolder called minified. I don’t have the time to reject the entry and write an email to the author that "it would be nice if you could zip it properly this time" – I fix it manually myself on the server. It takes time. One minute here, two minutes there, it all piles up to hours. And new entries are coming in faster than I’m able to sort this all out. And the closer it is to a deadline, the more people are asking whether their submission went through, or when it’ll be online.
Ship it, ship it cheap
Back in the first years of the compo I was buying the envelopes, putting every single t-shirt with a bunch of stickers and write the addresses on the packages myself, and then go to the post office with bags full of packages at least dozen of times, because it wouldn’t be possible to carry all that in one go. Now I’m lucky enough to be able to pay a little bit more to the printing house, so they will do it for me.
The budget is tight, so the packages are sent with the cheapest option possible, which don’t even consider it a package, rather a "way too big letter". Because of that, it’s not possible to have tracking of such package, so if it got lost, then I have a problem. Now imagine this "cheapest of all cheap" costs the same amount it cost to print a t-shirt. If I wanted to send it as a normal package with a regular shipping company, then it would cost TEN times as much. Literally, ten times more.
Just after the submission ended I kept receiving dozens of emails and private messages every week asking me when their swag will arrive, even though I haven’t even started to think about ordering the print. It’s super annoying, yet I reply politely that my budget was very limited, so the package can travel in a cargo container on a ship through the ocean, and it can take up to three months or so. I should have a copy to paste in such cases already instead of writing the same thing every single time. In all the previous years people were more patient… Now every single time I receive a message from someone asking "where is my swag?" again I’m telling them to be patient, and wondering if this particular package will get lost somewhere, and what I will do then.
Offering t-shirts for free for every entry worked so far, but when it reaches certain point it just won’t work anymore. This have to be different – for the next competition I’m thinking about awarding only top 100 entries, so the costs can be predictable, and I won’t receive any thrash just to get the free swag. In such case I’ll be able to pay more to have shipping with tracking, so the issue of "my package hasn’t arrived yet, where is it?" won’t be a problem anymore.
I almost went mental, but I love the community that grew around the competition and I still want to give them as much as possible. Things have to change though, and even if I’ll get 20 entries this year, I have to prepare for 20.000. This means the acceptance have to be more automatic, or involve volunteers. The preparations for the next edition have to start right after everything from the previous one is settled.
This also means I have to make js13kGames profitable, one way or another, because I can’t spend months doing something that won’t bring any money above paying the costs. If I have to support the existence of my family and earn money doing a regular job, or go mental with no income at all for half a year, then the choice is simple. But I won’t abandon my community, so the only way is to evolve.
Wish me luck, there’s only 6 months left till August 13th. Time to start the preparations already.