Students Create Videogames at NJIT

Joe Stachura, a Digital Design major, designs a video game at the NJIT Game Jam.

Dozens of students stayed up all night -- some all weekend -- jamming.  It wasn’t a musical jam.  It was a video game jam -- a 48-hour video-making marathon during which students worked under intense deadline pressure to make video games.     

Nearly 70 NJIT students joined in the Global Game Jam -- the world’s largest game-development event.  About 7,000 participants from 44 countries gathered at sites around the world to make games. The NJIT Game Jam, jointly organized by the Digital Design Program of the College of Art + Design, and the Information Technology (IT) Program of the College of Computing Sciences, was the 14th largest site in the nation.

Jammers around the world gathered at their sites on Friday afternoon. They watched an online video about rapid-game development, after which the jam’s theme -- a serpent eating its own tail -- was announced. Teams built games around that theme. Their deadline was Sunday at 4 p.m.  Most of the NJIT teams developed fully functional games within that deadline.  And most importantly, the students who joined the jam got a crash course in game production while also having a weekend’s worth of sleep-deprived and caffeine-fueled fun.

“The NJIT Game Jam was simply outstanding,” said Ben Gross, a digital design major whose team created a 3-D game called Labyrinth. “Many students from different majors collaborated to build video games that were innovative, creative, and most importantly, FUN!”

Andrzej Zarzycki, an assistant professor in the College of Architecture and Design, said what made the jam successful was the collaborative nature of the teams, with digital design majors teaming with information technology majors.

"Students formed a number of multi-disciplinary teams, the results of which were evident in the quality of their game projects,” said Zarzycki , who coordinated the jam and spent the weekend with the students. 

Four other professors helped organize the jam and spent the weekend helping the students develop their games. Taro Narahara, assistant professor of Digital Design who teaches game courses at NJIT; Augustus Wendell, a university lecturer and coordinator of the Digital Design Program;  Kunal Majmudar, an adjunct professor of Digital Design who is also a musical  composer (he helped students integrate sound and music  into their games); and Marc Sequeira, a lecturer in the Information Technology Program who coordinates the Game Development Specialization, where students take classes in all aspects of game production, including design, programming and 2-D and 3-D graphics.    

NJIT students excel in game development. Gross, the digital design major, is for instance adept at designing 3-D environments. He described his team’s 3-D game, called Labyrinth, as a puzzle-based exploration game where players solve an Indiana Jones-like maze. Once a player solves the maze, he’s confronted with a series of puzzles that ultimately unlock the final treasure; an idol in the shape of a snake eating its tail.

“Although tiring and stressful at times,” said Gross, “I came away feeling like I achieved something awesome.”

Many students who did the jam also got a special surprise. Microsoft representatives attended the jam ran a workshop on developing apps for Windows Mobile phones. They also helped students with their games. But most significantly, in the eyes of the students, the representatives gave Windows phones to all those who developed game apps for the Windows phone. Microsoft also sponsored a number of small awards for students. Another sponsor, Scirra Software, provided a number of game development software packages – Construct 2 – which were awarded at the closing session on Sunday to teams that developed 2-D games.

The jam also gave students a chance to meet professional game developers. Dan Acosta, a digital design major, was part of a team that built a game called Blasteroids (pictured left). In the game, a giant asteroid falls lethally toward Earth. Players can prevent the asteroid from crashing into Earth by controlling a robot that fires a canon at the asteroid. It was a hard game to build, so it was great to have a professional gamer work with the team, said Acosta. 

His teammates worked hard, added Acosta, and pooled their respective talents. Whereas he worked on designing the graphics, characters and overall look of the game, the IT majors on the team developed the coding and structure of the game. 

“That collaboration made the two nights we stayed up fun and efficient,” he said. “And working with a professional game developer gave me a great connection. It was a weekend well-spent on gaming!”

Danielle EsmayaDanielle Esmaya (pictured right), a digital design major and lead artist for a team that built a game called Seed.Genesis, agrees with Acosta. The jam gave her the chance to work as lead artist on her team.  She did the background art for Seed.Genesis, a game in which players control a seed that’s been planted in a rainforest.  Players use the touch-based controls on a mobile phone to guide the seed toward rain drops. The more drops the players collect, the bigger the seed grows. The object is to avoid falling leaves, which hamper the seed’s growth. 

Alexis Polanco Jr., the team’s project leader, said his teammates worked well together. Polanco, who double majors in architecture and digital design, said Seed.Genesis still needs work but that his teammates agreed to further develop the game and possibly even commercialize it.

Another jam team comprised of four IT majors: Mike DiFabio and Grant Butler (two software developers) and Jerry Reynolds and Michael Shulam (two artistic designers) developed a game called LightCopter that will soon be available on Apple’s iPhone App Store as well as on Android platforms for the Android Market. The team originally designed the game for the Microsoft Windows platform and then expanded it to target the other operating systems.  

“The success of LightCopter shows that the Game Jam was not only educational,” Zarzycki said, “but also entrepreneurial. The students on the team plan to found a start-up to work on other cross-platform game apps.  So the Game Jam spurred innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship.  Not bad for one weekend of fun.”

(By Robert Florida)