IGF 2005: Student Showcase Finalists Preview

In a prelude to next week's GDC and IGF coverage, we offer a preview of this year's Independent Games Festival Student Showcase Finalists. Representing three continents, this year's finalists bring an eclectic off-beat mix of innovation and perhaps a look at the future of game design.

With the Independent Games Festival just around the corner next week in San Francisco, and the main IGF finalists continuing to get plenty of press (see the IGF website and our recent indie postmortems for further coverage), we thought it would be apropos to focus on a part of the IGF which sometimes doesn't get as much of a spotlight, and provide a preview of this year's very worthy Student Showcase finalists, showing off the game developers of tomorrow.


School: University of Southern California
Development Time: 4 months
Location: Los Angeles, California

It seems as though whenever a new game comes out that features multiplayer capabilities it lacks a key feature, cooperative play. As much fun as playing against your buddies is, playing with them to accomplish a common goal is just as fun, and even more challenging. A group of USC students have taken the concept of cooperative play and brought it to a whole new level with their game, Dyadin.


The story of Dyadin is interesting enough, two planets collide and the inhabitants of each must learn to deal with the new laws of physics, but it's really just a footnote to a completely unique multiplayer experience. Each player controls a character that exists in a world laid on top of the others, a kind of chop suey mix of both planes of reality. As you move around the game field the color surrounding your character will change depending on the relative distance between you and the other player. When you're far apart each player is blue, get a little closer and you'll turn green, if you get right next to each other both the characters and their aura will turn yellow. The color shifting of your characters is the basis for Dyadin's most challenging component, the need for an almost zen-like cooperation. In order to overcome each level's various obstacles, whether they're force fields or bad-guys, you'll need to match it with your players' color with that obstacle, ensure that they'll part of the same plane of existence, and send out a destructive shockwave. Since each players fate relies so heavily on the actions of their partner you might think that griefing would be an enormous problem, on the contrary, playing Dyadin with someone is almost like signing a social contract, where each party understands that their fate is in the other parties hands.

Although the gameplay in Dyadin may seem rudimentary, after all, you're simply moving around destroying barriers and bad guys, the unique way the team has implemented cooperative play makes it easy to see why it's a Student Showcase winner.

Mutton Mayhem

School: Grinnell College
Development Time: 5 months
Location: Grinnell, Iowa


Those poor sheep, it seems that game developers just love to put them is the worst possible situations. Although Mutton Mayhem is billed as an economics simulator, most people will derive pleasure from the slaughter of the games' innocent sheep.

The objective in Mutton Mayhem is to use sheep to build up your point total, and if that involves their slaughter then so be it. When you start the game you'll be asked to choose one of three different player classes. The shepherd is a benevolent individual that looks out for the sheep by gathering them around and guiding them to the safety of a farm house. The poacher is a bloodthirsty killer who uses his pair of knives to maim and kill fleeing sheep. The necromancer is a dark creature that has the power to bring slaughtered sheep back to life. While playing Mutton Mayhem you'll need to utilize all three character classes: using the poacher to kill groups of sheep; the necromancer to resurrect them; and the shepherd to guide them back to the farm house for points. Knowing when and where to switch between character classes in a vital element of the game, if you simply run around killing everything that moves your opponents can utilize the necromancer to resurrect the dead sheep and guide them back to their farm house for points and powerups. Since each character class moves at a different speed over the game's three different environments it's important to know not only when to switch classes, but where, you don't want your poacher trudging through the desert waste at a snails pace trying to find victims.

Sure, Mutton Mayhem's graphics are far from state of the art, the sound is comical (not necessarily a bad thing), and the gameplay is far from the strategic depth of Warcraft, but what it does it does very well. There's just enough depth to keep you thinking about new strategies, and enough action to keep you on your toes. Besides, any game that lets you kill and resurrect sheep, then guide their zombified remains home for points isn't all bad.

Scavenger Hunt

School: DigiPen Institute of Technology
Development Time: 9 months
Location: Redmond, Washington


Everyone loves a good scavenger hunt, don't they? Racing around town with a list of useless items you need to collect before your friends get to them is fun for all ages. Whether you're a child collecting toys, or an adult collecting beer coasters, scavenger hunts bring out the hunter-gather instinct in all of us. Which brings us to Scavenger Hunt, a game from a group of DigiPen students that will undoubtedly bring back fond memories for those who play it.

The basic gameplay mechanics in Scavenger Hunt are pretty close to the real-life game; run around town with a list of required items and try to beat your friends to them. However, the Digipen crew didn't simply create a glorified Pac Man clone, they're added a number of features that help the game stand out. For example, when running about town in search of objects you'll come across a number of specialty items, such as gags, tricks, and treats. Gags act as a sort of weapon in the games' frantic multiplayer matches. Hit your opponent with a cream pie and they'll find that their vision is temporarily obscured. Unleash a snake can at someone that's too close for comfort and they'll jump back in fright, and lose some of the items they've collected. Tricks are more difficult to find than gags, but have a greater effect on the game itself since they affect almost everyone in the game, not just players in sight. The most dramatic example of this is the ability to cause a solar eclipse. An eclipse doesn't sound too disruptive, but when you consider the fact that it takes away the player's ability to effectively search for items it's easy to see why a collective groan is let out anytime its used. Treats, as you can probably imagine, act as a temporary boost for the player that uses it, whether it's a speed boost, or immunity against tricks and gags, treats are every bit as important as the more destructive powerups.

Scavenger Hunt stands out from the other Student Showcase entrants thanks to its high production values and depth of gameplay. It's a textbook example of what a small group of students can accomplish with the right tools and talent at their disposal.

Squirrel Squabble

School: University of Nevada, Reno
Development Time: 4 months
Location: Reno, Nevada


Just imagine - you wake up one morning with a splitting headache, you reach down, and discover that you and your brothers' nuts have been stolen. No, it isn't some tasteless joke (not entirely at least), it's the action platformer Squirrel Squabble. It seems that our furry hero has been knocked out cold by a band of unscrupulous squirrels who took the liberty of relieving him and his brother of their precious nuts. And so the quest to reclaim the family jewels begins.

Squirrel Squabble is played on colorfully cartoonish 2D backdrops that do a great job of maintaining the games' overall kiddie feel. You'll go head to head against a number of bad-guy squirrels on their home turf, from a gaseous sumo wrestler, to the sadistic master of disguise known only as "The Boss." Using some very straightforward controls you'll need to race around the game field collecting various types of nuts before you opponent can get to them. Once you have a nut in your possession you can either toss it at your opponent in order to stun him, or drop it into a holding area. Once you've created a line of 4 like nuts in the holding area that row will be cleared and you'll gain points. The fact that you can put your nuts into your opponents holding area means player interaction involves sabotage as much as it involves tossing nuts at the other guy. While playing against the sometimes tricky computer opponents is a challenge, the game really shines when a friend joins in and the cheap shots begin. With the havoc players can wreak with one another's holding areas, some of the matches can go on for quite some time before one player is able to out-nut the other.

The unusual mix of puzzle and action elements may prove to be a challenge for some, particularly when the action speeds up on the final level, but with the controls being as simple as they are (only two keys, not counting 4 movement directions) it shouldn't take long to get into the groove.

Stars and Stripes

School: Texas A&M University
Development Time: 3 months
Location: College Station, Texas


It may seem unusual to have a racing game selected as a Student Showcase winner, but after playing Stars and Stripes for a few minutes you'll see why it was selected. This isn't simply some racing game with marbles and pretty backgrounds, it's an bold attempt at adding new elements to the racing genre.

Racing a marble along a track may not seem particularly challenging, and that by itself certainly wouldn't warrant its selection as a Student Showcase winner, but the developer has really gone out on a limb to do something different with what some people would say is a tired genre. As you start the game you'll notice that there isn't a track in the traditional sense, and this isn't just referring to the transparent nature of the racing surface. In Stars and Stripes the track is actually created on the fly, so while you'll undoubtedly come across track elements that you've seen before, such as banks, loops, and barriers, you'll never race on the exact same course twice. Interestingly enough the track actually forms in front of the race pack, and drops off behind them, so if you fall too far behind, or get too far ahead, you'll find yourself plummeting into the abyss. While such a handicap may seem severe; after all, who doesn't like blowing their friends away in a race; it's a big part of what makes the game so enjoyable. Since the winner is decided by the number of pickups one gathers, and not the crossing of a finish line, there never gets to be a point where all hope seems to be lost, there's always a chance at regaining the lead. To help you do so there's a number of powerups that you can employ, including one that blacks everything except for the balls and a rough outline of the track.

While some will surely criticize the developer for hamstringing players, it's easy to see what he was trying to accomplish. In keeping the racers so close together each race is frantic from start to finish, so that even the worst racers can feel like they've got a chance at taking the gold. It's doubtful we'll see many mainstream racers employ the elements that make Stars and Stripes such a strong game, but that's why we've got the IGF.

Rock Station

School: DigiPen Institute of Technology
Development Time: ~12 months
Location: Redmond, Washington


So just what is Rock Station? This game is a rock-and-roll-themed third-person 3D space shooter for Windows that includes both single-player story and 2 to 8 player LAN modes. Though space shooters are fairly common, Dave Bastian, one of Rock Station's developers, mentioned a few of the things that makes the game memorable. "I think [gamers] will appreciate the amount of polish that went into every aspect of development. We must have spent a hundred hours just balancing the characters to make for fun LAN play. I also hope gamers will enjoy playing through the story mode with each character to get the whole story behind Rock Station."

The major focus at the IGF is innovation, and the development team behind Rock Station was certainly thinking about that when they made it. "Rock Station is innovative in several areas," Bastian explained, "we created a space shooter without being limited by the genre. Most PC space shooters, such as Wing Commander, Freespace, X-Wing, Freelancer, Elite, etc. have very similar plots and art styles. We wanted to create a game in a genre we love but without being restricted by it. Instead we created a game with an over-the-top plot and art style, and added combos and special moves to create a wholly different kind of space shooter. Rock Station plays to the strengths of the PC platform with LAN play, mouse & keyboard control, and massive particle effects, but we didn't feel we had to be restricted by the platform either. There's much more that PC games can do. Our unique combination of console and PC games from both gameplay and stylistic perspectives is representative of what I believe more PC games will be like in the future."

With one solid game in the spotlight one wonders what is next for the development team behind Rock Station. "We are currently working on another game at DigiPen that we hope will also make it into the IGF next year, " Dave said. "After graduation at the end of this year we all plan to work in the game industry. We hope you'll keep an eye on us!" Certainly being one of the relatively few games to make the IGF is reason enough to keep an eye on this group, and good game is plenty of reason to keep your eye on your screen.

Intergalactic Shopping Maniacs

School: Game Academy
Development Time: ~4 months
Location: Kang Nam Gu, Seoul, South Korea


Over the years there has been a recurring game show that has appeared on TV in America and some other parts of the world called Supermarket Sweep. In this show viewers watch as contestants run up and down aisles trying to get the largest amount of valuable groceries into their cart while also keeping in mind specific items that would be worth extra points at the end. Why all the talk about a game show when considering a video game? Well, for those who have always hoped for a chance to be a part of that game show, your opportunity has arrived! Intergalactic Shopping Maniacs gives you competitive shopping with an intergalactic twist.

In Intergalactic Shopping Maniacs you take on the role of a shop-aholic who has come into town, located somewhere out near Alpha Centauri, on the opening day of a new shopping mall. The mall is running some opening-day specials, including the chance to race through the mall in a shopping frenzy with the hope of achieving the coveted title of 'Shopping Master', or at least keeping a few of the things that you put into your cart.

The game is played from the first-person perspective, but as you have probably already guessed, instead of using your targeter to fire a weapon, you use it to help you look around the shopping mall, and clicking on an item will place it into your cart. Each level progresses by giving players a limited amount of time to find specific items and get them into their cart, while avoiding point-sucking obstacles. The gameplay is quite different than what you'll find in most other games out there and the non-violent approach is a nice twist on what is usually a weapon-based approach to first-person games.

Soccer Ref

School: The Multimedia Innovation Centre, The Hong Kong Polytechnic
Development Time: ~12 months
Location: Hong Kong


Sport games are hard to do in the indie world because it is quite difficult to create a sports game without the licensing that the more mainstream developers are able to obtain. However, when sports do show up in indie gaming, the focus almost always centers around a new way to look at the sport. The need for innovation when you don't have a licensing agreement seems to spur the innovative thought process.

Soccer Ref is a game that is exactly what it says it is. Instead of a game where you play soccer, this is a game where you take that marvelously maligned position of referee. As a referee you try to work your way up the career ladder without, gulp, getting killed. You do this by calling plays, just as any referee would do. However, just as in real life, you will quickly find that both spectators and players will take exception to the calls that you make. Since this is soccer that we are talking about, you may find it necessary to temper your calls a little bit to avoid ending up six feet under (or you can choose to defend yourself with weapons).

Soccer Ref doesn't really attempt to play like a pure simulation game, as the ability to use weapons to defend yourself from the crowd certainly attests. In fact there are a lot of heavy action aspects to the game that are intermixed with a management-feeling mode that occurs between levels. In addition to your chief ref, you are also responsible for the safety of the crew, which leads to a multi-focused approach. The combination of the different styles of play and the overall theme of the game make this game a great example of the innovation commonly highlighted at the IGF.

Team Robot

School: Georgia Tech
Development Time: ~3 months
Location: Atlanta, GA, United States


Team Robot sounds a lot more like it would be a college class project or maybe a cool tech-science show than a puzzle game. In this game "the main idea is that the player has to assemble a team of robots and use them to navigate through each level. The player has to decide which bots to use, and when and how to 'activate' each bot. Your team of robots acts as a train, and the bot at the front of the train can be launched off in a direction specified by the player. At this point, the activated bot carries out its default behavior (this is where the choice of the bots comes in). The activated bot may help the rest of your train by acting as a bridge pushing a switch, or blowing something up for example. The last bot in the train is the Caboose Bot, of course, and the goal of each level is to get your Caboose Bot to the finish," explained Tommy Parry, a programmer on the game.

While the game may sound something like a very modified version of Lemmings at first glance, it is clear to see that this game is pretty difficult to match up with any known games out there. It is very innovative and different from any other puzzle game available. Parry discussed the idea further, saying "we designed the whole game to be innovative. We didn't want it to be easily placed into a genre. Yes, it could be called a puzzle game, but it is far from a Tetris clone. We succeeded in making an innovative game because we developed an interesting set of rules defining the game, and then made plenty of bots and levels to capitalize on our overall game design."

As far as what the developers hoped players would come to appreciate from the game, Parry said: "We hope players come away from our game with a sense of achievement. We hope that during the game players are wondering what new bots or puzzles await them next, and we hope that they are just having fun." A sense of accomplishment and a fun time all rolled into one game? Sounds almost too good to be true, but plenty good reason to give this game a spin.

War, Siege & Conquest: Battle for Gaia

School: Royal Institute of Technology
Development Time: ~4 months
Location: Stockholm, Sweden


War, Siege & Conquest: Battle for Gaia was created with a different take in mind on the strategy/world-building genre. It combines a real-time persistent online world with a 3D engine and a rather singular style of game play. "We want players to feel that real-time strategy games don't necessarily have to be strictly associated with 10-minute click-fests, which is unfortunately a far too common sight today. The same dedication that players give to MMORPGs we want to grab and give to the strategy genre," said Fredrik Zetterman.

Playing any MMORPG is typically very involved, and so making the game accessible to a wider range of players was a point of heavy consideration by the team as they put this game together. Zetterman stated, "one of the features of our game is that you as a player are not required to sit for hours at a time to be successful. However, since you're not in control over your troops and kingdom constantly, gamers will be anxious and will try to log in as often as possible. Even when you're sleeping, your kingdom is constantly evolving, for good or worse. This certain aspect of our game was something we [discovered] was very addictive when we ran our first beta."

Creating a game like this one is usually a massive undertaking, the kind that most developers would typically try to avoid due to the work involved. Zetterman talked about the need to use time wisely in the development process, saying "even though any CS student could tell you that you should always start from a clean design, in practice with a tight deadline this is not always a possibility. The lesson to take home is that you better make it possible as each hour spent on design is ten hours you don't have to spend on mind-numbingly boring debugging."

So what was the overall experience that the developers hoped gamers would enjoy? "With our game we expect players to at least get a glimpse of our ambition and understand that this is [a] concept that could work very well. But in the end, it's all about having fun. We had great fun making the game and by releasing it, we hope we may entertain [other people too]," Zetterman responded, which is certainly a great goal for any developer.


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