Three words that cannot come close to describing just how cool, inspiring and breathtaking the Imagine Cup was this year.
As you know if you're a reader of my blog or Twitter feed, I had the privilege of being the Game Design Captain for Imagine Cup 2010. As such, not only did I have the experience of the Imagine Cup as an Academic Developer Evangelist, escorting the Aussie team to Warsaw and cheering them on as they presented their solution in the Software Design finals, but I got to work with hundreds of students throughout the year who share a similar passion to me - video games and what goes into designing really cool ones.
For the finals, though, only six talented teams could be selected from a pool of 400, and I couldn't have asked for a better variety of styles, genres, motivations and of course, the nationalities represented. A brief description of the finals process:
· First, all six teams presented to the judging panel of five in a closed room. This meant that no other teams could see their competition - a fair decision as otherwise the later teams could have adjusted their presentations based on feedback to the earlier competitors. They were all allowed 30 minutes of presentation time plus 10 minutes of Question and Answer time from the judges. All were incredibly talented and very well spoken, with great explanations of why they decided to create a game in the first place, what went into the design process and the challenges and opportunities they hit along the way.
· At this point, the judges submitted an interim score to indicate the general feeling towards each team, as well as written feedback that will be delivered to the students after the competition so they can improve next year.
· The following day, the judges were given a two hour play test session with all six games on the main Imagine Cup showcase floor. This was a crucial phase as it allowed the judges the chance to experience the games for themselves and determine which games truly hit the mark when it came to fun and playability. I didn't really expect the judges to need the full two hours, but it absolutely flew by with most judges making sure they spent a full twenty minutes at each booth, absorbing every element they could for the games.
· From here, the judges had a deliberation session - which itself went for another two hours - while they discussed the pros and cons of each entry and helped each other get a more comprehensive view on all six games.
· When this was complete, the judges submitted the final scores for this phase of the competition. This is important to note - while there was judge deliberation, every judge submitted their own individual scores for each game independently and did not see the other judges' scores to ensure as impartial as possible a result.
· That night we announced the top three that would go on to do their final presentations - Belgium, France and Philippines. The other three were (understandably) disappointed, but also were keen to learn from the experience and came up afterwards to ask question on how they could improve for next year - this kind of attitude is humbling and inspiring - how often do we complain when we don't "win" something - these students are showing us that every experience is a learning one to better yourself - no matter the result.
· The final presentations were an epic affair. While I was on stage introducing each of the teams, my involvement was purely to facilitate - the students were truly the rock stars and I loved every second that they got the limelight. The finals were held in the Opera House in Warsaw - a truly magnificent edifice and one that was incredibly elegant and fitting for the occasion. It was open to all other competitors, mentors, judges and press, and the room contained hundreds of spectators for the Game Design finals. Up on stage, the five judges were arrayed along a long table, armed with microphones for the Q&A, while each team was on a super cool individual rolling stage that was wheeled in and out as their presentation came and went.
· The finals had 20 minute presentations followed by 10 minute Q&A, and all three teams had made changes to either their presentation or their games based on the feedback judges had given them - a very impressive feat.
· All of the students were composed yet enthusiastic - showing no sign of the nerves they were likely feeling, and instead treated the judges and the audience to an awesome show of their games. Even though I have only known them for a few days personally, I was incredibly proud to see them up on stage and absolutely owning it - would be happy for them to be on my presentation team any time.
· Then came the final wait - the Game Design teams presented in the morning, and had to wait through to the evening of the following day for the results, but eventually it was time for the results.
So, that's the process - what came next was simply awesome. At the finals in the Opera House, it was a packed house with all wings and balconies full of press, government and organisation officials, and all the Microsoft staff and the incredible Polish Microsoft Student Partners - the main audience space - the prime place - was reserved exclusively for the 400 students who crammed in to every available seat (well, except one). The buzz was INCREDIBLE. The air literally felt alive with the energy being given off by the competitors - the enthusiasm to see what was next, the expectation of hopefulness, the exuberance of youth spilling over to fill the entire mammoth space.
I said "except one" in the previous paragraph because I ended up being incredibly lucky with a special gift of a place amongst the students. As my job on the night was an usher for the students, we filled the auditorium space with them and then went to leave but I was a little late showing the last pair to their seats and the door was closed before I got out. I looked around and there was a lone seat in a corner and I got the experience of a lifetime.
I'm not going to write about all the awards and presentations, the official speeches, the photos, the excitement and cheering as teams were announced as winning this or that, or when the students all found out that they were all going to receive Windows Phone 7 devices when they become available in their territory. I don't think I could do it justice, but it's not the main purpose of this post anyhow. What I want to do is highlight the game design finalists and their placings.
The Game Design awards were presented by Vincent Vergonjeanne, CEO of Kobojo, who waxed lyrical about how awesome it is to be a game developer and his own experiences. He then announced third place had gone to…
… Green Gears Studio from France. The four French students were excited and leapt on stage with great enthusiasm (except for one who had to be wheeled on after an unfortunate dancing incident at a celebration a few days prior).
Then Vincent announced second place - this time going to…
… NomNom Productions from Belgium. These guys were out for redemption from their finals showing last year and pulled it off - second place and scored $10,000US which they're going to put towards creating their own game company and publishing their game Shift, properly. When it gets released, please check it out - particularly if you like puzzle games.
This meant that first place was obvious to those who knew the finalists, but Vincent still managed to put some suspense into the announcement but eventually announced that the winners for Game Design Imagine Cup 2010 were…
… By Implication from Philippines.
Yes, the students from Asia who competed for two previous years without any progress, not only made it to the finals but won the competition in their third attempt. This is a complete vindication of what I say - Imagine Cup is an opportunity not to be missed, and learn from your mistakes and keep on trying.
The three teams are all very well deserved of their wins and I congratulate them all wholeheartedly.
BY IMPLICATION - WILDFIRE - PHILIPPINES
By Implication impressed the judging panel at every turn throughout the entire competition. Whether it was the clean, crisp, ultra-minimalist style of their game, their solid premise and reason for creating it in the first place, or the clear ties to the theme and the Millennium Development Goals specifically, every part of Wildfire combined to make a package that was definitely at the front of the pack.
Wildfire uses the theme of volunteerism after the Philippines were devastated by wild weather last year and the country banded together to help rebuild. The four students, all super loyal to their country decided they needed something that would encourage this practice around the world - so that people would look out for each other despite opposition from others who might not have the best interests of the world at heart.
You play a simple guy, running around the streets of a randomly procedurally generated city, trying to inspire others to join your cause. Your inspiration serves as your energy - the more of it you have, the more you can recruit to your side, and the more positive actions you perform and achieve, the more inspiration you'll score. As you build up your troop of volunteers, a variety of tasks will be thrown your way, all tying into MDG's. You then assign the volunteers to each task. Along the way you'll encounter agents of the opposition who will try to stop you. Bumping into these guys will cause your city's health to deplete and cause you problems too.
In addition, the game includes Twitter integration where it picks up the UN's feed, popping up tweets in game for you to consider. Like a particular one and you can favourite it for later - the favourites will appear in your proper Twitter favourites too so it's easy to get to.
All in all, a very impressive production that has very few negative points to it.
NOMNOM PRODUCTIONS - SHIFT - BELGIUM
NomNom appeared in the finals last year in Cairo - the only finalist to do so - and it was obvious to me having been at both, that they listened to the judges and improved their game. Last year, the general feedback was that the game looked great but was difficult to understand, and in their presentation, NomNom was very clear about taking that feedback along with getting a group of playtesters immediately to play their game and took down copious notes.
As a result, Shift looks eerily similar to last year's game but is impressively different in execution. Shift is a game that aims to educate the world about a variety of problems that face the world - the first set of problems (i.e. the ones presented in their Imagine Cup entry) are those that most trouble the third world countries such as food production, water pollution, etc. But they were also clear on illustrating that they had add-ons in mind for other problem areas - even urban sprawls such as big cities with homeless populations and the Arctic Circle.
The game is a 2D puzzle game presented in a 3D environment that you have a small amount of control over. Each "island" is played out similar to Reversi but with some extra twists such as obstacles in the board and power-ups you can employ. The enemy and you take turns in laying down a line of your tiles, overlaying each other where possible, until the board is full - then it's a simple matter of adding up the counts for each, and whoever has the most, wins that board.
An additional trick to the game comes in when you have multiple islands that are played simultaneously. So, while it's turn-based, if you're not careful while concentrating on one island you could lose significantly on another. So it's important to keep rotating around and monitoring them all.
GREEN GEARS STUDIO - GREEN GEARS ISLAND OF NAZETH - FRANCE
Third place is another game I would love to have on my computer or Xbox - Green Gears: Island of Nazeth is a third person adventure-shooter with cute cartoon style graphics and over-the-top bright colours. The game as presented to the judges is the first chapter in a long story that is planned by the French team, and puts you in control of three characters - a Nurse, a Soldier and an Engineer - each with their own unique abilities.
There is some level of artificial intelligence built into the team, so the two you are not actively controlling will perform some actions but they won't take a lot of initiative without you switching over to them.
Each of the three has their own skillset - the engineer can disable the robot opponents you face, the nurse can heal the team and the land around you, and the soldier can destroy. However, the cool thing about the latter is that there are negative ramifications to using violence - a nod to the concept that at times, it's necessary to go a bit hard, but that there are repercussions you'll need to deal with if you do.
The game is incredibly smooth and the team have confirmed that they are intending to not only release it for the public but they're going to include the map editor that they built to make their own levels. This way the community can add to the world and story and of course add to the replayability of it.
I will write up an additional post to cover the other three worthy competitors at the finals: Papa Pure from Brazil, Fomis Team from Mexico, and JubJub from Thailand.
I'll leave it there but just want to make one more comment - keep in mind that the competition is Game Design, not Game Development. As such, criteria such as polish, fun factor and innovation are incredibly important and the judges don't look into the code (in face, we don't allow submission of code to protect the student's IP). Further, Game Design - no matter what you do - has a subjective quality to it. This might mean you see a game that didn't make it to the top three and think it should have, or that the top three should have been in a different order. This will always be the case - we are all human and have our own views. But be assured that the judges took their roles seriously and I was as proud of them and their efforts as I was of the students who competed (and I'm not talking just about the finalists here). There are a few things you can do about it.
1. If you're a student and passionate about video games - enter your own and show us why it's great.
2. If you're not a student - find some students and be their mentor - show them how they can approach the design elements and fit the theme the best they can from your perspective.
3. If you're not a student and can't serve as mentor for some - volunteer to be a judge. I won't guarantee that we can accept you, but if we know you're willing and able, we'll definitely consider it for future competitions.
WOW. AWESOME. WOW.
(apologies for formatting - typed this up in OneNote and posted using web browser interface on a free wireless hotspot in Rome which I had to traverse in Italian so had a few issues. :) )