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Another 24 Hours? The Mobile Game Mosh

Returning for its second year, the 24-Hour Game Design Challenge saw 11 student teams converge on Parsons School of Design in New York to take the field in this year's event dubbed "The Mobile Game Mosh."

Saturday March 11th, 10:15am - Introduction

It's been a little less than a year since the previous 24-hour game design competition, and I find myself in the same exact spot, in the middle of the computer lab of Parson's Design and Technology Department. The weather outside for the previous event was cold and rainy. Rather bleak really, so the thought of spending 24 hours (well, more like 25 and a half) cooped up inside a college lab doesn't seem too unwelcoming, especially when it's to build a working game. This particular morning is easily the nicest New York has seen all year; the sun is out, the air is warm, and unfortunately, the day looks quite inviting.

Yet no one (else) is anxious to go outside and bask in under the clear blue sky. Instead, college students from all over New York are eager to get started. There's energy in the air, as everyone finds their team's spot and attempt to get settled in.

10:40am

Everyone gathers to hear Katie Salen, the director of the Design and Technology Department and one of the driving forces behind the event, lay down the ground rules. The previous year's competition was called “Retro Redux: the 24 Hour Game Design Jam”, in which students working in teams had to create a game that would work as an Atari 2600 title. The event was regarded as a smash success, so the organizers decided to do things a bit different, to be more ambitious. Hence why this year's event was dubbed the “Mobile Game Mosh”, due to the platform: cell phones.



Two Bit Operation

After a brief hello, Salen hands the stage to Dave Carroll, a member of the developmental team, who explains the process. Teams had the option to create either single-player or multiplayer games. For multiplayer, teams were required to make their games with Flash, which would then operate on Nokia phones (one of the event's sponsors) that are loaded with Flash Lite Player, a version of the program specifically tailored for mobile devices. During the technical breakdown describing how the games will be delivered to the phones, it's explained that true, real-time multiplayer action is simply not possible, with a lag between button input and server response being a couple of seconds. So it is asked that instead of fast-paced, arcade action, participants consider a genre less time intensive, such as strategy. It is even strongly suggested that the phone be viewed as a controller, and that all the primary action take place on a large screen that everyone will refer to in unison. The Nintendo DS's set-up is cited as the main source of inspiration for the dual display idea.

As for the reason behind the use of Flash for creating cell phone gaming content, the reasons are two-fold. First, it makes workflow relatively easy. But the main reason is to provide an example as to why cell phone carriers should pre-install Flash into handsets - to help spread the platform, which would make development of games far easier for everyone, from big publishers to indie developers.



Team Daddy

For single-player titles, GameMaker, an object-oriented program that allows for game development without any programming skills, was required. Dex Smither, another member of the developmental team, as well as a student who would be participating in the event, gave the audience a demonstration of GameMaker, and went over various technical aspects and quirks to keep in mind. Though at a certain point, Dex encountered difficulties with the program, which was oddly reminiscent of the previous year, where the GameMaker demo also proved to be less than smooth.

Near the end of the talk, Salen later stated that all games must be playable to qualify. Any multiplayer game had to work on the provided handset and single-player game had to work on a PC, since unlike Flash there is no means to output GameMaker onto a phone. She also presented the design constraint, which was created to prevent pre-planning among the students: each group would be presented with four cards, each with a verb, and at least two of the verbs must be utilized in the game, at least as a starting point. Those who did not like their verbs had the option to trade with other teams.

12:00pm

Each team is handed their cards and the competition begins. Excitement hits a fever pitch throughout the entire lab as everyone goes over their verbs. There are 11 teams in total, comprised of 60 participants, from 7 different universities across the state of New York. There's the Polymorphs from Brooklyn Polytechnic University, Two Bit Operation from Cornell University, Mercy from Mercy College, 7SAMURAI-1 from New York University's Tisch ITP, Team Mikey rom Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, The Difference Engine from the Teachers College and Union Theological Seminary at Columbia, and finally five teams representing Parsons: For(24), La Pwnistas, !KILLAH BITZ!, Oh My Mosh, and Team Daddy.

The first team I speak with is Two Bit Operation. There are six members, and everyone seems rather young; all of them appear to be freshmen. Their verbs are "suck", "grip", "fade", and "conjure", and everyone seems super enthused with what they got.



The Polymorphs

Just around the corner are the Polymorphs, an eight-person team, headed by an instructor, John Mahlman, with the other seven being students in his class, though John himself is taking classes, hence why he is able to participate (one must be a student to compete). It is apparent right from the very beginning that thing are highly organized, with John manning the helm of a potent, well-oiled machine. Everyone is extremely enthusiastic, and highly optimistic, especially John, who states that they have "plenty of time", which has the potential to be famous last words at such an early time. Their words are "whirl", "balance", "grapple", and "unfold".

But the one team that immediately catches my eye, as well as everyone else's, is Team Mikey, simply because it's just one guy, Mikey, or Mike Stanton, who was originally going to be accompanied by two others that decided to bail out due to a wedding that was also taking place that weekend. Everyone is curious to see how one person will stack up against ten other teams, each of which all have at least four people onboard. The unique arrangement saddles him with certain obvious disadvantages, but lends certain advantages as well. Mike's four words are "clone", "jiggle", "flock", and "swing".

1:30pm

Every team is already hard at work. Most are brainstorming ideas on dry erase boards.

The La Pwnistas is perhaps the most attention-grabbing team, perhaps due to the leet-speak name, and how a few team members are wearing bandanas with the name embossed (similar to the previous year's Parsons team, in which everyone decided to make screen-printed shirts.... though unlike then, the La Pwnistas made their personalized garb beforehand, whereas their predecessors took a break during the competition to create theirs). Hence why they immediately become the "cool kids" of all the teams. Also reinforcing this fact is how every attempt to get an answer to questions about their plans is replied with a joking or sarcastic response. Their words are "bind", "snap", "wander", and "illuminate". From those four, the La Pwnistas have drafted 50 others via word association; despite the wisecracking demeanor, they are all business.



The Difference Engine

Meanwhile, in one of the smaller labs around the corner is Mercy, where everyone is huddled around studying Arcadia, a game produced by gameLab. Their four verbs are "tunnel", "juggle", "mosh", and "bombard", and they've decided to create a game that "keeps the player confused", so perhaps Arcadia is a excellent example to draw from. In the same room is !KILLAH BITZ! Unlike most of the other teams, these folks seem rather aloof, though just as determined.

Back in the main room I find yet another curious group, The Difference Engine: the odd mix of students from different schools, each with so little in common with video games, making them yet another team worth keeping a very close eye on. Despite the totally oddball gathering, one can easily detect the high level of cohesion among the members, despite the fact that had just seen each other for the first time the day prior (when they, among other things, attempted to predict the words they would be given). Their words would end up being "nudge", "seduce", "ship", and "glide".

Across from them is Daddy. Their words are "infuse", "digest", "stretch", and "pull", though I don't get much info from them. Like the other Parsons students, they keep much of their cards close to their chest. Yet, everything seems calm, cool, and collected. Meanwhile, on the other side of the room is Oh My Mosh, whose four verbs are "mimic", "tip", "carve", and "scramble". Unlike the other teams, the energy level is rather low among the seven-person team... everyone is quiet, nervous even.

And right next to them is Mikey, the one-man gang, who at this point already has a working prototype running in Flash. It's already apparent that working as one person, without having to refer to others, has proven advantageous... it is also clear that when Mikey mentioned he was comfortable with Flash, he was not exaggerating.

3:00pm

Things have grown a bit quieter, yet everyone is still talking and planning.

The Polymorphs are fleshing out their concepts. On their dry erase board, I notice the word "whirl" has been circled a few times. There's also a timeline that states all major milestones for programming, creation of assets, and play-testing. It's even hoped that with enough time, another game might be produced.



For(24)

A discussion regarding technical hurdles take place among the La Pwnistas. It would seem that they would like to take advantage of GPS, as well as the built-in cameras the phones have, but it seems a bit doubtful. They also have chosen to analyze popular games.

Aside the far off room containing Mercy and !KILLAH BITZ! is another room, also housing two teams. First is 7SAMURAI-1, six men, a mix of undergraduate and graduate students, all with a very heavy programming background. They're also one of the most optimistic groups, and at this point they're fleshing out a concept; going in they had some notions of doing an MMO featuring rats, and they're attempting to see if they can retrofit their concept with the four verbs given, which are "swirl", "splice", "circles", and "flow". There are some concerns with the technical limitation, but there's an air of confidence that they can be overcome, but without an once of ego or arrogance.

Sharing their room is the For(24). Their words are "skewer", "contact", "extend", and "ostracize". At this point, they're still debating between doing a single player or multiplayer game. Though one thing that is agreed upon is that the controls need to be simple, and one person cites a game that they had just played in the lobby as the main source of the epiphany. "It's calamari something?"

The game in question is We Love Katamari, which Katie Salen was spotted playing earlier in the open area next to the lab. She and Parson's Design and Technology chair, Colleen Macklin spent the late night of last year's event playing the first Katamari game, as well as World of Warcraft. So it's clear what this year's means for students to blow off some steam would be (along with Guitar Hero).

5:30pm

The first signs of programming have begun, at least for some. Two Bit Operation has revealed that they will be engineering a puzzle game - a Puyo Puyo clone, but with a certain distinction; players will have to ability to suck dropping pieces to the side where they will rest. How they will utilize the saved piece is not exactly clear, but at least the verbs "suck" and "grip" seem to be easily apparent.



!KILLAH BITZ!

And the first signs of trouble have also sprung up. Mikey, who managed to get his game running on the phone two hours earlier has run into technical difficulties. Half of La Pwnistas have left the building for Barnes and Noble to conduct some research. Half of Oh My Mosh is also missing from their work area, but are instead just around the corner, playing Katamari.

Some are still in the process of hammering out the details. For(24) are still deciding upon the rules. Right next to them is 7SAMURAI-1, and since their title is multiplayer, they must use Flash. The problem here is that the designated programmer has no experience with the application, so he's teaching himself as he goes along. But everyone is still extremely enthusiastic. In fact, they are determined to find a work around solution to latency issues by avoiding the workflow that Parsons organizers have set up. It's also noted that their MMO has a new animal - slugs have replaced the rats.

Others have managed to get their games actually working, just not in an electronic form. On a table near the Mercy team are some random bits of paper that were used to prototype their idea, which was what they had been doing the past three hours (I'm told that their original idea was also tested in such a manner, and it led them to realize some holes, which lead to their current new idea). I also come across the Difference Engine in the middle of trying out their paper version.


8:00pm - Crunchtime

It's about an hour until various game designers from the New York area will be making a scheduled visit to playtest the teams' offerings. At this point, everyone's programming and dealing with problems that come up the best they can. Two Bit Operation for example has had various members work on different areas of the game, and at moment are facing difficulties merging the code in GameMaker, which was actually a re-occurring problem the previous event.

Meanwhile, Mikey has managed to get over his technical hurdles, and again his game, which is a multiplayer version of a Pong-eque game (with a rather stylish interface) that allows for any number of players to jump into and out of the game at any moment, is coming along just fine. And nearby, a person from Daddy has just shown me one cartoony character pooping, with another eating the poop. The Polymorphs also have a character moving about, which happens to be "whirl"-ing tornado. The team leader tells me that watching Katamari helped with the formulation of their idea.

Everyone is further behind than they expect but mostly still on course with the notable exception of Oh My Mosh, who are in the midst of an internal despite regarding character design, with no programming having been done thus far.



Mercy

10:00pm

The professionals have arrived, and are playing and talking to the various teams. Some students seem visibly deflated, but thankful for the input. For the most part, the visitors seem genuinely impressed with what they see, yet are more than willing to provide insight on how to make things better.

Catherine Herdlick, a producer from gameLab, spends quite a bit of time with La Pwnistas's dodge ball simulator, and her overall sentiment was that their game was too complicated, which is actually a common criticism among all the titles. Frank Lantz, who is the co-founder of area/code, ends up telling the Polymorphs that they need to simplify theirs. If a game wasn't too complicated, it was often simply buried in too much "stuff" for a lack of a better term. "Cut away all the extras... concentrate on controls" Frank tells Two Bit Operation after trying out their dropping block puzzler.



Team Mikey

I asked what Frank thought of what he had seen up that point, which was about half the games, and noted that they were all "small games on cell phones" and wished that many were more ambitious, or at least took advantage of the medium. But he had to commend the effort and hard work of everyone, as well as the fruits of such labor on such a limited time frame, and especially with no one having any production experience. Even the sometimes hard to please Greg Costikyan, the man behind Manifesto Games, was seen giving the big thumbs up to the Difference Engine. What was his opinion of everything he had seen afterwards? Simply put, "It's not the same crap."

Most seemed confident with the direction each team is going, more or less, save for Oh My Mosh. When Frank is presented with two possible concepts and ask which they should start developing, he reminds them that such a point has long since passed.

Sunday, March 12th, 1:00am

Everyone's busy implementing all the opinions and suggestions that the experts have relayed, so there's a quiet in the air. But there is a sound, something which one simply doesn't hear all the time, game design mosh or not, and it's a flute. The Difference Engine's sound person has brought with him an entire treasure trove of musical instruments, all from various parts of the world (I noticed a didgeridoo peeping out from his bag), and the flute is being recorded for the game. I also see watercolors and brushes all around the area, and am then shown the painting which was produced, which has been scanned into the game, and will serve as the background. The rather unique combination of art and music fits in well with their game, which is a rather artistically-inclined, puzzle-action-oriented title featuring a moth; the player must move tiles to help it navigate the landscape and avoid a persistently following light which could spell doom if contact is made. Aside from a nagging memory restraint problem that they keep bumping into, all is going relatively well.



Oh My Mosh

Another team that is making good progress is the Polymorphs; their game let's the player take control of a hurricane. The goal of the player is to "feed" the whirlwind houses to help sustain its force and form. Even though they have fallen behind their schedule, everything is still going well, and their highly organized workflow is paying dividends.

For(24)'s game is finally taking form. It appears to be a simple dungeon crawler, in which the player must find an item in order to defeat the boss. The art looks quite nice, though things are rather rough on the programming end (again, more GameMaker quirks).

While some folks in Mercy are creating art assets in Photoshop, others program in GameMaker, with the remaining members busy writing. I discover that their game is a combination driving and quiz-answering game. The basic concept is that the player is going down the highway when they decide to call in a radio station to respond to questions. It's the team's notion of "confusing the player" finally fleshed out. So a pair of students ask one another, as well as anyone else they can talk to, for questions and answers, no matter how ridiculous they may sound (to avoid redundancy, they estimate that they need approximately 300 unique questions).

Oh My Mosh has finally started programming their game, having at last decided upon a concept. One can sense a degree of stress among the members, reasonable considering their uphill battle starting this late in the game. But it has been mentioned that they should build upon their strength, which is their cute character designs, which seems to shaping up the best.

Some technical problems prove to be greater for some than others. 7SAMURAI-1's upbeat demeanor has begun to fade away as more and more issues come up with the networking aspects. It seems the desired solution to the latency has not come together, and now there are issues with the infrastructure which Parsons has provided as well.

Meanwhile Mikey has encountered yet another major technical setback. His own attempt to have various handsets "talk to each other" has failed, much like the 7SAMURAI-1's. Mikey

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