How to Host a Videogame Compo

About this article: I’d recently hosted a casual software designer competition (AKA “compo”) called Zodiac Attack. Since I’d been participating in software compos for the past few years – most often in a behind-the-scenes capacity – I wanted to record and pass along some of my observations and learned best practices that helped keep things smooth. Here’s the article I wrote for The Daily Click website.

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HOW TO HOST A COMPO
What I’ve Learned After A Few

After being a participant, a judge, and now an occasional organizer for events here at TDC, I wanted to spread the news about how I happen to go about it. Let me see if I can come up with a list of best practices for running a software competition (also known as a “compo” or perhaps even a “tourey” for reasons well- and fondly-remembered by many veterans) here at The Daily Click. I’ve boiled it down to a handful of small, relatively-simple rules that seem to capture all the stuff I’ve learned about the process.

KEEP IT SIMPLE: RULES AND ANNOUNCEMENTS
You’re asking people to do something for you: make games. If you’re like me, then you have at least a dozen projects sitting in deserted files, unfinished and likely forgotten. So how do we encourage others to actually finish their games when we know how hard it is to do that?

Don’t ask too much of them, and make it worth it for them to finish. That’s how.

Narrow down your description to a few basic, easy-to-read directives:
WHAT: the kind of game you want entrants to make. Note that if you have no restrictions on type (stand alone EXEs, Flash applications, etc.) or SDK (MMF2, GameMaker, Unity, etc.)then be sure to actually mention “all genres and platforms accepted.” That stops questions at the outset.

WHEN: the drop-dead due date or finishing period for your game. I’ll have more details about this in a moment, but it’s helpful for your entrants (and fence-sitters and various procrastinators) to know exactly how much time they have to finish their projects.

THE HOOK: What makes your competition unique? Is this a remarkable occasion? Is there a reason that someone ought to put more effort into finishing this project than usual? Some of the competitions I’ve hosted in the past are related to internationally-recognized holidays (Halloween is my personal favourite, and also makes a rich wealth of options for game-making), while my most recent has been related to the classic Greek Zodiac. Why not have a competition centered around a short phrase (popular for the ‘game jam’ events) or even a genre, like “sci-fi tactical RTS”? Notice that you’re focusing the entrant’s attention and material, but still leaving them plenty of breathing room.

THE REWARD: often confused with (or takes the place of) The Hook: what will the winner(s) receive if they are chosen for the top prize? Whatever the reward may be – even if it’s just bragging rights – mention it at the outset. Believe it or not, this part really isn’t as big a deal for the organizer as you may think it is.

If you’re concerned about money, don’t be. Financial reward doesn’t need to be part of it. I personally recommend coming up with an affordable, unique prize for the winner, and leave it at that. You can always add more to the prizes later, but to start the ball rolling I suggest simply making it unique.

THE PRIMARY CONTACT: Make sure people know to contact you (or perhaps your designated official partner) should they have questions about anything related to the competition. I also encourage people to post their questions and responses publicly, so that everyone can read and learn from them once they’ve been asked; it saves me the trouble of writing and editing a FAQ.

COMMMUNICATE
One of the things I attempted this time around (Zodiac Attack ’13) was to send a brief message to each person who ‘registered’ for the compo, and encourage them to keep at it. I let them know that there were only a handful of announced entrants, and that their entry had a good chance of placing well. I also iterated that if they had questions, they could contact me at any time and I would reply as soon as I was able.

Essential to making this work was requesting that people make known their interest in the main discussion thread of the compo. I would be able to visit their profile, then send them a brief message (composed in and copied from Notepad, slightly modified for each entrant) of encouragement.

Send your entrants one of these encouraging messages. It’s not advisable to overwhelm someone with sappy messages of encouragement. Do too many, and you’ll sound desperate, or weird, or something like both.

I also set up a second thread in the Competition Forum so people could post their screen shots and other media for their games. This didn’t work so well, probably because it violated my “Keep It Simple” rule. I think I did the same thing for the last time I hosted a Halloween competition, and I had a similar result. I think for future competitions, I’ll be asking people to post anything and everything related to their entries in the same thread, for simplicity’s sake.

STAY POSITIVE
Even if your competition announcement seems to have fallen on deaf ears, don’t fret. Treat each comment or question with courtesy, respect, and professionalism (or your closest attempt at it). If someone comments that your compo doesn’t seem fun, is too restrictive, or otherwise negatively comments on it in some way, do your best to not take it personally. This is the Internet, and it’s easy to read too much into someone else’s comment and take it a bit too hard.

Begging and pleading people to submit entries to your compo is also not a solid strategy, particularly if the requests are made public. You’ll likely come across as immature, “desparate for attention,” and so on. It may also discourage participation, with people perceiving it as boring, lacking serious competition, or otherwise unworthy of their time. Instead, when someone pipes in that they want to participate, offer some immediate encouragement and well-wishing. If you make such comments public, then so much the better.

OFFER FEEDBACK
One of my favourite things to read are comments regarding my games and example files. Not only do they usually help me become better at what I’m doing, but they’re rare treats: it’s an affirmation that someone actually played one of my games…! For a casual game-maker like myself, I can’t think of a better compliment.

What’s the best way to give proof that you actually played someone’s game? Give them specific, constructive feedback on their title. My most common method (a hold-over from my boardgame design background, to be honest) is to offer a strongest-point (what I liked the most about the game) and a weakest-point (what I felt needed the most work) critique. Even if you didn’t like the game so much, do your best to come up with a positive note about the game.

Also, being willing to offer feedback keeps you honest. If you say you’re going to judge and consider all entries for the awards, then the rewarding is all the more believable when you have specific, feature-led examples of what you liked and disliked about the different entries. Do the work you say you’re going to do.

END IT AT THE END OF THE WEEKEND
This is simply a logistical thing. If you have a day job like I do, and game-making is not your primary vocation, then you likely make games in your spare time. On what days of the week do most of your idle hours come? For me – and for most folks in the “Western” developed world – it’s the weekend.

One of the silliest things I did with Zodiac Attack ’13 is have the initial end date following the calendar. Well, the last full day of the contest ended on a Thursday, and the deadline was on a Friday. So how many complaints about the end of the contest surfaced when I posted a reminder of entries being due on a Friday? Way too many. I declared “amnesty” for all entrants, and extended the deadline to the end of that Sunday, giving folks another weekend of potential development time of which they could take advantage.

From that point on, I resolved that – no matter what calendar date it fell on – the last day of any competition I host would be a Sunday.

COMPETITION LENGTH
How long should the competition last? Oh, I don’t know. I usually give people a month, maybe two. But it should really depend on how much follow-up and communication you want to do, as well as the value of the prizes.

Imagine a two-by-two grid. The X-axis is “Development Time” and the Y Axis is “Reward Value.” Things usually break down like this:

1 – SHORT DEVELOPMENT TIME, LOW-VALUE REWARD (bottom-left quadrant): These are completely casual events, with a low (but strangely devoted) following and follow-through rate. Some people dismiss these events as not being a “serious” competition, while others champion these events for the fact that they’re so not-serious. Both camps can be stubborn, if they come to debate about it.

2 – LONG DEVELOPMENT TIME, LOW-VALUE REWARD (bottom-right quadrant): Few completed entries, due to boredom and participant atrophy/forgetfulness. Those who finish these types of events typically do so because of the value they find in the process of making an entry itself, as opposed to the reward. Such self-motivated people are uncommon, generally speaking.

3 – SHORT DEVELOPMENT TIME, HIGH-VALUE REWARD (upper-left quadrant): There’s a high potential for lots of negativity in these types of competitions. You’ll hear a lot of pissing and moaning about how there’s “not enough time” to do anything worthwhile. Once the rewards are granted, you’ll hear a lot of jealous folks chewing on sour grapes about how they could have done better, the organizer “doesn’t know what she’s doing,” and other non-helpful critique. Many people reject these types of competitions simply because the intensity can be intimidating, which tends to breed more negativity. I tend to avoid these kinds of competitions, myself. I have a feeling they bring out the worst in people.

4 – LONG DEVELOPMENT TIME, HIGH-VALUE REWARD (upper-right quadrant): Ah, the sweet spot! The best of both worlds: adequate time to develop a worthwhile, competitive entry, while a valuable-enough reward to make it worth spending so much time making a game. Both novices and veterans will feel they have enough time to put together a fun, competitive entry. I personally think hagar’s Summer FunTition of 2012 is the best example of this I’ve seen so far here at TDC.

I’ve hosted events or compos of all four types, and I’m still unsure which is my favourite. Upon my invite by the staff of Clickteam to include an MMF2 upgrade as a prize, Zodiac Attack ’13 jumped from category 2 to category 4. I’m very happy with that.

Here’s a link to the Greenwich Mean Time website:
http://wwp.greenwichmeantime.com/world-clock/

BE POLITE, YET FIRM
Note that the official nature of your competition increases in direct proportion with the value of your prizes. In other words, people will be more picky with the winners (and more competitive) if there’s an expensive prize to be won. Vindicate the winners – and silence the complainers – by providing a standard set of criteria. This can be as simple as a ratings sheet from 1 to 5 in a few different categories, to adding more people to the judging panel, to publicly posting the ratings and reviews, and more.

The more official you seem, the more fair you seem. The more fair you seem, the less people will complain about your competition(s) and who won.

CLOSING THOUGHTS
Hosting events is the closest I’ve come to being an admin without actually being one. If you like to be in charge every once in a while – as opposed to all the time – then you’ll want to host your own competition. You don’t need to ask for permission from anyone to make it happen, and all the forum tools needed for success are readily available…Just do it, follow through with what you say you will do, and do your best. Stay fair and play some games.

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