Hacking All Night: UO students compete to create a game in one weekend
Typically, the Lillis Business Complex is a dull place to spend a Friday night, but on Jan. 15, it was brimming with digital energy.
Programmers, designers and artists flocked to the complex for QuackHack, a 40-hour “hackathon” in which teams took a simple game idea and turned it into a workable prototype by the end of the weekend.
“We want to promote innovation on campus,” said Kate Harmon, a program manager at the University of Oregon business school. “Partnering with Lillis gives students an easy pathway to take what they create here and turn it into a business.”
Throughout the course of the event, participants ate and slept where they created.
While hackathons are a popular way for software developers to create, last week’s event was the “first-ever collegiate gaming hackathon in the U.S.” Members of the UO community and beyond were welcome to attend and compete. Over $3,000 in prizes were up for grabs, a mix of cash awards and cutting-edge tech.
Here’s one team’s journey through that weekend.
During the first night of the event, developers gather to form teams. They’ve come with fantasies of amazing games, and they’re searching for talent to make them real. Some of the ideas are modest, like a version of Risk that only takes 45 minutes. Others aim higher. One developer pitches a role-playing game that interacts with 3D-printed figurines. As the characters move along a real-life board game, digital recreations of their adventures happen simultaneously on screen.
Unlike most of the students participating, Bryan Varga and Drew Balog don’t have any experience in programming; they’re students in the UO’s product design department. They pitch a multiplayer game about debate, pitting two candidates against each other for a mock presidency. It’s a loose idea, but it catches the room’s interest. After they present, the team moves to a corner of the auditorium to see if they have any takers.
One of those interested is a high schooler from Washington state named Dhruv Khurana. He’s attracted to Balog and Varga’s debate concept, and he brings needed coding experience to the table. Immediately, a team forms. All three love the idea of debate, and from there, they work to gamify the concept. Balog brings up text-driven games like Papers, Please and Undertale as inspiration.
To make their idea into a game rather than a “fancy chatroom,” Khurana introduces the notion of a live audience that can judge the performance of the debaters. Within a 10 minute conversation, Balog and Varga’s idea for a presidential debate simulator has refocused on one core concept: an app which allows users to watch, judge and engage in active debate. The team retreats deep into Lillis, and starts a long night of work.
That night, Ted Brown, the founder of local indie game studio Oreganik, gives a speech on managing the scope of projects. The presentation sounds like an intervention, reminding the room of eager dreamers that their grand ideas might not be feasible in QuackHack’s 40-hour time limit. Rather than aim for the big picture, he pushes teams to focus on one element of their game and “make it magic.”
“Don’t make a Swiss Army Knife,” Brown said. “Make a blade.”
The team works until 3 a.m. before retreating for sleep — reckless enthusiasm and Monster energy drinks can only get them so far.
The next morning, the sweet smell of Off The Waffle catering fills the atrium. Every spare chair in the facility has become a makeshift work station, with participants cracking away at their projects. Downstairs, a Super Smash Bros. tournament offers a needed distraction.
For Varga, Balog and Khurana, progress is slow. Varga has put together a solid interface, but can’t make it run on a phone, and Khurana is having difficulty connecting players online.
The Saturday session continues deep into the afternoon before Varga and Balog face facts — with their experience, they can’t make an app in a weekend.
Balog sets his expectations low for the following morning’s deadline.
“I think what we’ll have — good favors permitting — is a working menu,” he said.
The frustration is inescapable. Struggling to realize their vision on a phone, the team crafts a card-based version of the game. Players draw topics, argue it out and other players vote on the outcome. While Khurana types away at a web-based version of the revised game, Varga and Balog rush out to get supplies for their new physical creation. The deadline is now just over 12 hours away.
After a long night of caffeine-fueled creation, the teams spend Sunday morning putting the finishing touches on prototypes. Green tables dot the floor, each one host to an original concept that arose over the long weekend. There’s a game of virtual reality Tetris, a board game about viral infections and even an app to teach you how to salsa dance. In the mix is Discourse, the final form of Varga, Balog and Khurana’s work. A piece of posterboard explains how the app version of the game could play, while a deck of physical cards allows passersby to play a round themselves. Questions range from “Sideburns or Mutton Chops?” to contemporary political topics like gun control.
Discourse didn’t have enough substance to win over the judges. The event’s victor was Game Full Of Animals, a multiplayer platformer that allowed phones to connect over Wi-Fi for control. The judges praised it for being one of the most technically impressive demos of the weekend and having a concept with the best shot at mainstream success.
While the judges didn’t connect with Discourse, the game found an audience.
“A lot of people showed interest in the app and card game, several suggested using Kickstarter. So although we may not have won, we have a feasible goal that we may be able to produce in the future,” Balog said.
As QuackHack closed, the team was more relieved than disappointed.
“We were just happy we could take a nap after being awake for 32 hours,” said Varga.