SAN FRANCISCO — To get a game in the student showcase at last week's Independent Games Festival, students had to make sure their game is fun, plays well and maybe even looks cool. Failing any of those standards would be a deal-breaker. Giving your game a title that sounds like a chapter heading from a math textbook apparently is not.
Who's up for a game of "Invalid Tangram"?
Maybe student game designer Josh Szepietowski deserves a break. After all, who before him was clever enough to mash up "Tetris" and "Galaga," which more or less is what "Invalid Tangram" is all about? Szepietowski is a student of the Guildhall at Southern Methodist University, an academic program in Dallas that also produced "Weekday Warrior," a "Half-Life 2" mod that took top honors in the modding category of this year's IGF.
To be a student in the IGF showcase is to spend Wednesday through Friday of the Game Developers Conference in the show's expo hall, manning a kiosk running your PC game alongside kiosks of every other game in the festival. That put Szepietowski in an alley of 10 student games. He wanted attention but didn't desperately need it. He's already got a gig lined up at Dallas development studio KingsIsle Entertainment. Still, he'd explain his game — which is available here — to all visitors.
Players control the spaceship on the bottom of the screen. Arrow keys move the ship. One keyboard button shoots lasers at enemies dropping from the top. The enemies explode and drop as intangible squares of red, yellow, green or blue. The squares stack like "Tetris" blocks. If same-colored squares pile up next to each other, the player's spaceship can absorb them. The bigger the color combo absorbed, the better the temporary power-up; absorbing six connected green blocks instead of just two, for example, gives the spaceship a better, smarter, enemy-seeking ray rather than one that just spits toward, if not at, the fluttering bad guys.
Math experts might wonder what part tangrams play in all this. Surely those who recall the definition of the word could figure it out at a glance of the game. A tangram is any shape produced from the reassembly of a square that was cut into seven specific shapes. In Szepietowski's game, the enemy spaceships are all tangrams. So are the foxes, wolves and other ghostly objects falling in the background. The player's spaceship is a bit of a cheat. It's kind of a tangram, but not quite, which may be where the whole "invalid" part of the title comes from.
If that isn't mathematical enough, a couple of kiosks down from Szepietowski's game in the IGF student alley was "Euclidean Crisis." That game came from students at Stanford. They've created a real-time strategy game that looks like "Command & Conquer" or "The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth" reduced to geometric shapes. The playfield is a grid. The units are simple little spaceships. The balance of power is represented by lines of different colors connecting each friendly and enemy base. The players call fighters to action by drawing circles around them and sketching pathways. It's all more fun than plotting points in geometry class, which is the point. The game can be downloaded here.
Not every game at the IGF student showcase sounded like a homework assignment gone fun. Some sounded like poetry (" ... And Yet It Moves"). Some sounded familiar ("Gelatin Joe"). The game with the least-assuming title, "Rooms," proved to be one of the biggest head-turners. The game was already an award winner in South Korea, where university students built a series of virtual rooms that players can shift up, down, left and right to help a man trapped in a mansion find his way to freedom (HandmadeGame.com).
All these games were up for a top student prize at the GDC awards Wednesday night. The one that actually won had a name neither math-friendly nor obvious. It's called "Toblo." One of its creators proposed to his girlfriend from the podium. She accepted.
The honor, though, is supposed to be just getting nominated. That was probably prize enough for most. Student developers like Szepietowski already have jobs lined up. Others received their own GDC perks, like Krystel Guiloff, who worked on the competitive, microphone-supported, out-sing-the-Fat-Lady game "Opera Slinger." Her team's game didn't win, but she did hear that a certain games reporter was going to interview the world's most revered game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto. She really wanted his autograph on her DS. When the request was posed, Miyamoto obliged.
But would he have said yes if her game was named after some mathematical term? Well, probably yes.
Finalists for the GDC and IGF student showcase can be viewed here.
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