Game-Design Contest Hatches Out-Of-Control Moths, One-Armed Whirlwinds

24-hour 'Mobile Game Mosh' took place over the weekend.

Did you make a video game last weekend?

From noon Saturday through noon Sunday New York's Parsons design school hosted the "Mobile Game Mosh," its second annual Atari-sponsored 24-hour design contest, challenging 60 college and graduate students to do just that. Through struggles, little sleep and some unlikely turns of events, some pulled it off.

This is a chronicle of a hectic day that would have even challenged Jack Bauer. It's a how-to and sometimes how-not-to guide to make a game in just a day.

At 10:30 a.m. Saturday, as the 60 prospective designers settled in with bagels, juice and coffee, Parsons staff organizers explained the rules. Teams could make single or multiplayer games on a standard compatible with Nokia cell phones. The multiplayer games were expected to involve a cell phone interacting with a big screen, using the handset to control action against dozens of competitors in a movie theater or on giant screens in Times Square.

Many of the details of the briefing were highly technical. Anyone lost at offhand comments like "Believe it not you could also write action script on Cold Fusion" didn't belong.

Robert Nashak, chief creative officer of one of the event's sponsors, mobile-entertainment developer Glu Mobile, told the students, "The mobile game space is booming, revenue-generating and really boring." He acknowledged that cell-phone games are notoriously dull. The next 24 hours were a chance to do something about that.

Talk of the business potential stoked a reaction. John Klima, a game-design teacher at Brooklyn Polytechnic University and — because he's also a grad student there — a member of the school's eight-person team challenging for the event, wanted to be clear about the fate of the game his team was about to produce. Contracts signed by the contestants gave away the rights to Atari and Glu Mobile. "If we make the greatest idea ever, do we get a dime?" he asked.

"We'll figure something out," Nashak replied.

At noon Parsons' Communication, Design and Technology Chair Colleen Macklin rang a bell and the 11 teams scurried to their positions. They opened sealed envelopes that contained four different verbs, two of which had to be incorporated into the game's design. This was a failsafe against teams assembling games in advance. Nashak was on the verb-selection committee that sorted through 184 action words. "We eliminated anything that sounds like a video game, like 'fight,' " he said.

Several students were interested in 22-year-old Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute student Mike Stanton's verb "jiggle," but he didn't have time to trade. He was a team unto himself, ditched by two friends who had to attend a wedding and another who just didn't seem into it. "I almost looked for other people, but I figured it could be fun to show up and see what I could come up with," he said.

The sole member of Team Mikey had been up since 6:30 a.m. that day. He had an idea for a multiplayer game, sort of a "Missile Command" that allows players to repel missiles onto the big screen and into other players' phones. Somehow it would use real physics to track movement.

Klima's team, the Polymorphs, quickly jumped on an idea: Their game would feature a whirlwind with one arm. Maybe two? No. Just one. Actually, in the end it would have none.

By early afternoon the Difference Engine decided to make a simple game about a moth. The moth would be out of the player's control, automatically and inexorably drawn to a light that traced the exterior of a phone's screen. The player would manipulate blocks on the screen, trying to funnel the attracted moth into a mid-screen goal point, even as the light wooed the moth elsewhere. Days after the project, team member Robert Scott said he'd been toying with an idea like that for some time. "I wanted to take a concept of Taoism," he said. "You have to actually choose not to act. If you fiddle too much it will hinder you."

A team from Mercy College wanted to make a racing game that forced people to answer trivia questions while driving. A team from Parsons tried designing a multiplayer landscape of combative animals.

The Difference Engine had tested their game on paper, using cardboard squares for the movable blocks and a dime to simulate the orbiting light. Team member Issac Everett had been composing music, alternating among Australian didgeridoo, harmonica, keyboard and other instruments.

Stanton rocketed ahead of the other teams. Not having anyone to brainstorm or disagree with, he had been the quickest to creating a partially playable game. But he started to struggle. "I've hit a lot of walls," he said. "The latest wall is I don't know if I can write this."

Professional game designers began to stop by to offer advice. Greg Costikyan, a mobile-games designer, stopped by to see Stanton. "I can see this would be hard to play looking at two screens," he pointed out. Stanton explained the bigger problem: The software the contest required the student designers to use would force an enormous lag — at least five crucial seconds — between commands getting sent from cell phones to the computers controlling action on a big screen. The bigger problem was that the software required for making the contest's games wasn't allowing missiles fired by player one to automatically zap into the phone of another player.

Stanton was discouraged. "In the next 20 minutes I'm going to decide to maybe make this single-player." At 3 a.m. he abandoned the game.

At 9 a.m. Sunday the Polymorphs were in good shape — their game was largely done. Some team members napped or hung out near a breakfast spread, watching the even more relaxed team For(24) play "Guitar Hero" on a PS2. Within an hour the Polymorphs would let people test their game, "Whirlwind Romance." Some found the first level too hard, but others breezed through it.

The Difference Engine were chugging along to completion, though there was one problem: It seemed that their program could play only music or sound effects, not both. They couldn't let Isaac Everett's playing go to waste, so they chose music.

Stanton hadn't slept. "My eyes aren't drooping," he said, "but my body wants to turn off." At 3 a.m. he had gone to a stairwell to think. "I was frustrated," he said, "but I got to the point where a lot of people seemed to really like the idea I had."

Stanton realized he could save the idea for another time. He was now working on a game about swinging a ball through a goal with the help of player-placed gravity nodes. He called it "Swing" and got it done easily in time.

At noon the contest was up. One team from Parsons squeaked out some final touches minutes after the deadline and then everyone began filing home.

On Sunday afternoon a four-person panel including Atari CEO Bruno Bonnell and leading New York indie game designer Eric Zimmerman convened where the students worked and judged the games. "The place smelled like a locker room," Glu's Nashak said. "I was worried about the judges not wanting to like anything because of that."

Stanton's "Swing" won for most innovative design. He would have to share the $1,200 prize with no one. "Whirlwind Romance" won for best audio, while a game called "Fowl Frenzy" took the prize for best visuals.

The Difference Engine, whose members had alternately slept, gone to play music at a wedding and even hit the gym on Sunday afternoon, took the overall top prize. The five-person team got free software, a trophy shaped like a chunky old cell phone and a $1,500 check. Now Atari and Glu can make big money off the game if it gets made and is a hit. Team leader Jessica Hammer didn't mind. "I hope they do because if they make a lot of money, people will say, 'Who made that game?' The answer will be us, and we'll get a call."