Reeling from too much Red Bull and bleary-eyed from sleep depravation, a diminishing horde of student game designers, arms laden with computer equipment and unraveled sleeping bags, lumbered out of the Memorial Student Center at Texas A&M University last Sunday night, bringing a quiet end to the spectacle that was Chillennium 2017, a world record-setting, student-led game design competition hosted Oct. 13–15 by the Department of Visualization.
The fourth annual 48-hour contest drew 306 student gaming enthusiasts from 23 schools and two countries to the Texas A&M campus, setting the Guinness World Record for “Most Participants in a Game Jam,” a time-constrained battle royal between game developers.
The competition drew a diverse group of students eager to develop software skills, meet fellow game developers and network with industry professionals while competing for high-powered, professional-grade gaming software, cash and several highly coveted Chillennium trophies.
Excitement was palpable Friday evening in the MSC’s expansive, dimly lit Bethancourt Ballroom as participants eagerly awaited the contest theme announcement, their faces illuminated by a sea of computer monitors.
Clad in t-shirts from their respective universities, the jammers enjoyed a bountiful smorgasbord of junk food, tweaked muscular computers and haphazardly stowed blankets and pillows under tables, though sleep, at this point, was far from their minds.
At 5:30 p.m., with a drumroll the competition theme, “role reversal,” appeared, amid a flurry of fanfare, on giant screens around the commodious room. Eyes lit up, ideas started flowing and conversation roared, overpowering the ambient thrum of hundreds of computers as throngs of students enthusiastically gestured, firing off game scenarios to their teammates.
“What if we had a vampire and a werewolf?” Kyle Toom of Kansas State University proposed to his teammates, all game jam veterans. “If we switched their environments, it could be a double role reversal.”
Brainstorming in a circle on the floor outside the ballroom, Toom enthusiastically spitballed ideas with teammates Briana Priddle, Lilliam Fulton and Nathan McClain, all sophomore computer science majors. Earlier this year, the team won first place at a Witchita game jam and earned third place in a Kansas State competition where teams from Texas A&M took first and second place.
“This jam is much larger than anything we’ve done before,” McClain said. “Our strategy is to perfect a 3-to-5-minute game because the judges have a short time to play each entry. At other jams, we’ve done multi-level 15-minute games, but that won’t work here.”
The judging panel, composed of gaming company experts, software engineers, game developers and kids, rank games on innovation, quality, completeness, design and sound.
Toom’s team mulled numerous game scenarios before choosing a game where tandem players work as elves in Santa’s workshop on parallel tasks in a split screen. Every 20 seconds, however, the elves switch roles and perform the other’s tasks. The literal role reversal results in a fast, beat-the-clock challenge as players join forces to build toys and wrap presents.
A medley of 60-70 sound effects recorded on-site highlighted the team’s entry, “Furmoji Frenzy.”
“We went into a quiet room and recorded everything from a ‘boing’ to Kyle screeching like a howler monkey,” said a widely smiling Priddle. “The sounds go off randomly every time a player pushes a button.”
Experienced game jammers, the Kansas team scheduled sleep throughout the weekend and, though exhausted at deadline, they were one of the most well rested teams at the competition. In comparison, many participants reported logging only a couple of hour’s sleep, and one of them said he regretted what sleep he eked.
“I shouldn’t have slept at all,” said Columbia College Chicago student Charles Ross, as he swayed in place, zombie-like, with a glazed look in his puffy eyes. “I was constantly working and there was so much more that could have been done to make it better.”
Ross teamed with two Texas A&M students to build “Impervious,” a game where a devil, in love with a princess, has to rescue her from a knight.
Near the end of the event, as judges deliberated, a pink-headed duo of ebullient Texas A&M freshmen casually chatted, surrounded by several friends conked out in nearby seats.
The freshman visualization majors, Sam Land of Boerne, Texas and Sydney Houk of McKinney, Texas, said they initially didn’t expect to win anything or even finish a game, but entered the game jam to build their portfolios and glean experience for the future. By Sunday night, however, they had a completed 2-D game – “Dante’s Quest,” in which a small demon tries to save a world stripped of color by an evil angel.
The Dante’s Quest team attributes their unexpected achievement to the Chillennium mentors whose thoughtful guidance and suggestions eased them through the competition.
“They were fantastic,” Land said. “They answered so many questions for us and helped us get a handle on the game engine.”
Three-time Chillennium mentor Jeffrey Pease, an engineer at the Austin-based Cloud Imperium Games, said the game jam offers a great experience to anyone interested in working in the industry.
“Game jams provide a pretty accurate depiction of how the industry works,” said Pease, who spent 36 hours at the event and slept under a table in a sleeping bag to allow more time helping students. “You have a deadline and have to plan what you can get done within that. The closer you get to that deadline, the more you have to push yourself.”
Video game engineers are used to working in “crunch time” and anyone who wants to work in the field, he said, should be able to deal with the inevitable last-minute problems.
Inspired by their world record status, Chillennium ’17 organizers are eager to keep growing the event.
“We want Chillennium to be the mecca for student game design,” said André Thomas, who teaches Texas A&M visualization classes in game development and leads the department’s Learning Interactive Visualizations Experience, or LIVE, Lab, a university game development hub. “There aren’t a lot of places this could happen, but here it could. We want 3,000 students here for this.”
Chillennium trophies were awarded for first, second and third place and in four special categories during the event-culminating ceremonies.
First place went to a team from Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, for their combat game “Bag Box,” where two players share one controller. The team, Oddbird Studio, included members Joshua Cappelli, Benjamin Scott, Humphries Shae and Cody Romphf.
Texas A&M teams earned second and third place, as well as specialty awards for best design and VR.
The second-place went to, “It’s Gonna Getcha,” a four-person game where one player hunts the other three, but the hunter becomes the hunted if a magic gem is found. The game team included Travis Stebbins, Meena Subramanian and Stephanie Sykora.
The third place trophy went to “RGBeWitched,” a game in which the player casts spells to fend off mischievous sprites while attempting to complete a tile-matching game. The team of Brieyh’leai Simmons and Nic Lupfer created it.
The Texas A&M team of Alex Cavasso, Grant Tabor, Mason Coleman-Lopez and Kyle Oge won the best in design specialty award, and best in VR went to a Texas A&M team including members Ethan Epley, Nick Damon, Eric Zahn and Sam Simpson.
Matthewit Dechatech, a solo competitor from Northlake College in Irving, Texas won a specialty award for programming, and the team of Vong Pha, Stephen Merendino, Sarah Broussard, representing Southern Methodist University’s Guildhall graduate video game development program, won an award for sound.
Chillennium’s exponential success continues to enhanced the national prominence of the game design program at Texas A&M’s Department of Visualization. In 2017 rankings published by the Princeton Review, a leading test preparation and college admission services company, Texas A&M’s graduate game design program ranked 17th, 7th among public universities. Its undergraduate program ranked 35th, 11th among public institutions.