I don’t think there is a single best method to do the Ludum Dare. I’m no expert and you may agree or disagree with my ideas but I’ve finished an entry for 9 different main LDs since LD #1. I’ve also failed many times and learned from those as well.
Making a game in 48 hours is hard. There will be times when you feel discouraged by your lack of progress, skills or inspiration. If you’re going to finish a game this weekend, you need to make that your #1 priority. Don’t start the LD without knowing that no matter what, you’ll make a game this weekend. Maybe a very shitty game if things don’t go your way, maybe an awesome game, but a game no matter what. Don’t have any doubt about it and it won’t be a problem.
The excitement here and on IRC before the compo is a great way to build up that motivation, but be careful that once the compo is started it can work against you when others seem to be advancing their game more quickly.
There won’t be that much time for installing new software and learning how to use it. Do that now and be prepared.
Make sure to test all your tools before the compo. At the very least verify that you can run your software. Do you know where you put that dongle or original CD? Did you make any hardware change that could cause a problem with software activation (that happened to me with ZBrush once, their customer support fixed the problem… the next Monday).
If possible make a mini test game. At the very least, test your pipeline. Can you get those sprites to load? Can you export your 3D character and load it in the engine?
If you’re making a game from scratch without an existing engine, I suggest writing a conversion tool or plugin that will convert files to an extremely simple format that can be loaded directly. No need to waste precious LD time writing an .obj loader or whatever.
Get the ball rolling
So you may expect that once the theme is announced you’ll sit in silent meditation for a while and get the most amazing idea. Well, if that happens good for you. But for me it has never been that easy.
So just get started anyway. What? Without an idea? That’s right. The longer you wait, the harder it is to come up with an idea that you will like.
Have a few generic ideas ready before the compo and get started on one. Or just create a sphere, apply physics to it and literally get the ball rolling Once you’re working on something it’s a lot easier to have ideas than if you just sit staring at a blank page. And if after a few hours you think of something different and have to restart again, that’s ok. It’s a lot better than doing nothing and still not have an idea. You can probably reuse a lot of the code and assets anyway.
Your final idea can also come much later. For LD #5 I started making a dungeon crawler type of game. 28 hours into the compo, I accidentally used a glRotate instead of a glTranslate. I thought the result looked cool and ended up making a racing game on a ring shaped track. I would never have had that idea without that happy accident.
Get rid of the placeholder graphics
Nothing kills motivation like a game about rectangles colliding with triangles. Placeholders have their use but for the magic to happen, to feel like you’re really making a game you need graphics sooner than later.
Sometimes I like to start with a bunch of generic graphics that I will be able to use no matter what my game ends up being. You don’t need perfectly polished graphics, avoid that at all cost. You just get diminished returns quickly but you need enough for it to feel like a game. Then if you have extra time at the end (that won’t happen) you can go back and improve them. The main character, if that concept applies to your game, is vital. If you have it, everything else can be placeholders. At least, you’ll have some life on the screen.
Don’t sleep all day
Yes, you need sleep. The competition is 48 hours long so don’t even think about not sleeping. But be careful about turning off the alarm clock. It’s easy to sleep too much which not only wastes productive time that you will regret not having near the end of the 48 hours, but it can also make you sleepy and unproductive. Personally I think sleeping about 6-7 hours a night is best during the LD but you may be fine with less or need more.
Just don’t be lazy. You’re going to regret any time you waste on other things. For the weekend, make your game your absolute priority. You can watch your favorite tv series the next week but you’ll regret a long time not being able to add that one thing that would have made your game so much better.
In the end, win or lose, it’s just a game! The important thing is to enjoy the Ludum Dare and doing something you wouldn’t do normally: create a whole game in a weekend!