UCI students build games in a week

April 13th, 2011, 7:41 am · 8 Comments · posted by Ian Hamilton


After a week spent building a computer game from scratch, Justin Britch is sitting behind a laptop Monday night just five hours from an 11 p.m. deadline.

“We couldn’t get our levels to work for a very long time,” Britch tells Reza Ghassemi, president of UC Irvine’s Video Game Development Club.

“For how long?” asks Ghassemi.

“Are they working now?” Britch asks his teammates.

No, half the levels still don’t work.

Britch, 19 and a resident of Mission Viejo, is participating in his second “Game Jam,” a week-long marathon competition put on by the university’s gaming club pitting teams of computer science, art and informatics majors working around the clock against one another to build computer games.

Though the games are simple, mostly two dimensional with flat maps and relatively simple multicolored animated characters, the third “Game Jam” competition held by the club is an opportunity for budding artists, game designers and programmers to add a finished product to their portfolio. And they do it in just a week while experiencing what it’s like to work and collaborate on a project.

With video game giant Blizzard Entertainment nearby, UC Irvine is seeing an increase in the prominence of video game development. The school introduced a new major, computer game science, in fall 2010 but too late to be promoted to prospective students. Britch is among around 40 students already accepted to the university who switched majors once he found out it was offered.

Now the degree program is being actively marketed and more than 400 applications were received for the fall 2011 quarter, according to Walt Scacchi, director of research at the university’s Computer Games and Virtual Worlds Center. A similar major, computer game design, was introduced at UC Santa Cruz in 2006, and the number of students majoring in the degree now outnumber those majoring in general computer science.

“When we talked to undergraduate computer science majors already here in the university and asked them what they want to do…when they graduate – the vast majority – 70, 80 or 90 percent – have said they’d really like to get a job in the game industry,” said Scacchi. “That’s without there being a Computer Game Science major.”

The Video Game Development Club held three of these “Game Jams,” the first only having two teams, the second having four and the third with five teams. Meetings for the club have gone from occupying a corner of a computer lab with a little more than a dozen people to filling a room with 30 to 40 people.

Some teams in the “Game Jam” competition work remotely using instant messaging and email to coordinate the project, while others spend time – a lot of time – working together at the university.

Ryan Sharpe, a 2008 UCI alumnus, was the producer for his team and spent around 110 hours with them through the course of the week, much of it in a Donald Bren Hall computer lab stricken with poor ventilation, as well as a bevy of heat-producing laptops, computers and warm bodies coding for a week.

He described part of his job as being about supplying food, with frequent trips to nearby In-N-Out and avoiding the “cliché” of Mountain Dew and pizza, as well as blankets and pillows when team members got tired.

Four fans, and propping the doors open help alleviate the heat as recycle bins filled up with empty soda cans.

Benches outside the lab doubled as beds for overnight work on weekends.

“You have to put the hours in. Games don’t just happen when you have an idea,” said Sharpe.

A freshman, Britch did level design as part of Sharpe’s team during the last “Game Jam” on a game that ultimately won the competition. He had planned to come to the university as a physics major until he realized he actually hated the subject as a senior in high school. He found out UCI offered the computer game science major and picked it up as a placeholder, thinking he’d switch to engineering.

“Then I realized this is what I want to do,” he said.

With the 11 p.m. deadline approaching Britch’s team finally got the levels working at 10:30 p.m., one of the last things they did.

“I walked around to each individual person and asked them. ‘Is this in the game? Is this in the game? And just ran down the checklist to make sure we didn’t forget anything,” he said.

They did forget something.

Around 10:45 p.m. they realized the project left out sound effects, three hours of Britch’s work left on the cutting room floor. Instead of missing the deadline they submitted as is, with 10 minutes to spare.

“There’s only so much you can do,” said Britch.

Another team, besieged by technical problems, didn’t finish in time and was disqualified.

Apart from the experience, the grand prize is a poster on the wall of the gaming lab in Donald Bren Hall naming them as winners.

“I plan on doing this every time they offer it,” said Britch.

You can try out the games for yourself, though I can’t guarantee how well any of these will work and they should only work on a PC:

Rainbow Dice Games: Camera Obscura (.zip file)

Chocolate Factory: Gnome Man’s Land (.zip file)

Team Dark Force: Fairy Frenzy (.exe file)

Nocturnal Games: The Way of Shadows (.zip file)