Student Teams Compete in Microsoft Game Design Competition
May 27, 2014

Student Teams Compete in Microsoft Game Design Competition

HOUSTON, TEXAS – University of Houston (UH) computer science students continue proving the UH game design program is one of the best in the nation and perhaps the world.

Randal Staewen and Sean Howard, known as Team Solipsoid, are among three U.S. teams advancing to the Microsoft Imagine Cup World Semifinals. Team Solipsoid will represent the U.S. in the game design category. The other two U.S. teams will be representing the innovation and software design categories.

To represent the U.S. in the world semifinals, the team first competed in Microsoft’s U.S. Imagine Fund program, an early-stage student startup fund and school. Microsoft selected 11 teams for Imagine Fund, providing each team with $10,000 in seed money to kick off their business and a 10-week immersive program designed to help them launch their business. Teams gained access to tools, learning resources, technical experts and one-on-one mentoring.

Team Solipsoid’s game, called “Unnatural Selection,” is set in a futuristic world, where a war between machines and organics ends with a victory by machines. The machines, however, eventually get bored and begin to recreate life inside an aquatic test facility.

“The player takes the role of a rapidly mutating aquatic species that tries to eat everything it can to grow large enough to escape,” said Staewen, a second-year computer science graduate student. “Players control the path of evolution through their diet and unlock further mutations by completing objectives. With its real-time multiplayer component, you can play alongside your friends and compete for the limited food supply, so your friends are also on the menu.”

Staewen asked Howard to join the team in late fall 2013 after the two had learned how to use the Unity game engine together the previous summer. This game engine is the software framework the two used to develop “Unnatural Selection.” The teammates embarked on the Imagine Fund program in early February, with a mentor assigned to the pair to guide them through the process of building their company and product from concept to idea.

“The program was intense, with two-hour video conferences twice a week for 10 weeks,” Staewen said. “It’s been a good experience for many reasons. I’ve learned how to talk about this game with people who aren’t familiar with games. The ability to communicate is essential if I want to get the support needed to successfully launch this product.”

At the end of the 10-week program, teams presented their product and five-minute pitch to an online audience of industry expert judges. The presentations were evaluated and scored on the criteria of concept, innovation and impact, as well as execution and feasibility. Game entries had an additional evaluation of the “fun” factor, assessing whether the game was exciting to play, offered good player feedback, was appropriately challenging and left the player wanting more. At the end of the day, Microsoft selected three finalists – one from each of the competition categories – to participate in the Imagine Cup World Semifinals.

“Our game will be judged against other games selected worldwide for the semifinals,” Staewen said. “I’m pretty confident about our game’s strength, so I’m optimistic about our chances of reaching the finals.”

Of the three U.S. teams, the one with the highest rank worldwide will advance to the world finals event hosted in Seattle in July.

“For the past five years, the Department of Computer Science’s game design teams have made the U.S. finals, showing the strength of the Interactive Game Design Program,” said Chang Yun, interactive game development instructor and research assistant professor in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. “Making the world semifinals is a big step in the right direction.”