University of Houston Students Finalists in Microsoft Game Design Contest
April 20, 2015

University of Houston Students Finalists in Microsoft Game Design Contest

HOUSTON – For the sixth consecutive year, computer science gaming students from the University of Houston are advancing to the U.S. Microsoft Imagine Cup national finals.

Tyler Swensen, Igor Esteves de Oliveira and John Montgomery, known as Team Skybit Studios, earned an all-expenses-paid trip from Microsoft to travel to San Francisco for the April 21-25 competition. They will vie for $4,000 and the top spot among three other U.S. gaming teams, as well as compete for the chance to represent the U.S. in the Imagine Cup World Semi-Finals.

Their game, called “Zoogi Roll,” is a casual, multiplayer, mobile game that offers people an experience similar to marble shooting and Pokémon by controlling a colorful team of living marble characters called “Zoogies.” They came up with the name Zoogi, because the game’s characters are based on animals such as wolves, sharks and sheep. Since they had the idea of using many different kinds of animals, with the player as the “keeper” of them, they decided to use the word “zoo” for their name. Since the Zoogies were designed to be cute, they added the diminutive “gi” at the end to reflect that endearing quality.

The premise of the game is such that the sky in the Zoogi’s world shatters following a massive event, and the king of “Zoogikind” puts out a bounty on the fallen pieces of the broken sky. Once a player has assembled a team, they compete against other players to collect as many pieces as possible.

Players start the game by first picking their team of Zoogies and then searching online for opponents. The players set the Zoogies direction and speed and launch them into an arena to collect points. Players take alternating turns, trying to outmaneuver their opponent or knock them out of the arena. Each Zoogi has its own unique power that the player can use to take advantage, such as explosions to send their opponents flying, jumping high in the air to reach hard-to-access areas or firing projectiles to help collect points faster than their opponent. As the players continue, the points they collect in each individual game can be used to unlock other Zoogies with new abilities.

“The game resembles a marble shooting game people might have played when they were younger,” Swensen said. “We wanted a multiplayer, mobile game that could give people a feeling similar to the experience of playing marble games with friends. We not only saw big potential for how many people we could target with it, but also that it was a casual game we actually would like to play ourselves.”

In the preliminary round, the team had to submit a pitch video. Once that passed muster with Microsoft, they advanced to the semi-final, where they had to submit a playable demo, instruction document, game-related document and the pitch video.

“Imagine Cup has really been my first time in a competitive environment where I’d be judged on all the skills I’ve been acquiring in the years of my education,” Montgomery said. “This competition takes a lot of effort, with numerous team meetings and working through one iteration after another on the game. We also had weekly online meetings with Microsoft about the business side of our game.”

While Swensen and Montgomery are both senior computer science majors, Esteves de Oliveira is a Brazilian exchange student majoring in computer science through the Brazilian Government Interchange Program.

“It has been an intense experience. We not only have to worry about the technology aspects of our product, but also must make our idea attractive,” Esteves de Oliveira said. “Even though it is tough sometimes, it is truly rewarding to see how everything is coming together with such great results. The Imagine Cup helps us push our limitations and grow as professionals and entrepreneurs.”

Having already moved through two rounds of competition to beat out thousands of America’s brightest young computer science students for a spot in the U.S. finals, the team will pitch its project and answer questions from a judging panel comprised of respected Silicon Valley technology leaders and entrepreneurs.

“Once again making the U.S. finals is an unprecedented record, achieved through both the talent and hard work of UH’s computer science students,” said Chang Yun, interactive game development instructor and research assistant professor in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. “In addition to the competition, the students will also receive exclusive training in tech-entrepreneurship startups.”