It’s been far too long since I have posted an update on Imagine Cup so I figured I would so summarize everything that has happened over the last six months. Better late than never right?

Here are some links to the press coverage of our Imagine Cup Experience

For those of you who don’t know, Imagine Cup is a contest hosted by Microsoft each year to inspire students from around the world to come up with new ideas on how to change the world for the better. Students will develop their ideas within three categories of software design, Windows Phone, and PC/Xbox. These ideas were to fit into reaching the United Nation’s millennium goals. For example, software that makes diagnosing malaria easier or a video game in which the player fights world hunger.

The Spillville menu is in full 3d with Xbox Live integration (Xbox only)
The Spillville menu is in full 3d with Xbox Live integration (Xbox only)

As part of our game development class at the University of Houston, led by Dr. Chang Yun, we must develop a video game and submit the entry into the Imagine Cup national contest. For the national contest, Microsoft chooses three teams in the fall and three in the spring from each category to travel to the Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington to compete in the finals, all expenses paid for of course.

My team, consisting of myself, Michael Slater, Allison Sherrick, and Sin Ng created a 3D RTS game for the Xbox 360 (PC as well, however our game was designed from the ground up to work efficiently on the Xbox 360) called Spillville. In Spillville, the player controls a fleet of ships that are a part of R.O.A.H. (Rapid Ocean Hazard Responders), a United Nations task force for responding to and overseeing the cleanup of environmental disasters at sea. The player has a variety of technology at her disposal to get the job done including barriers for stopping oil from spreading, ships that suck up oil, and environmentally friendly bioremediation that safely breaks apart oil. It is up to the player to determine the strategy that is best suited for each circumstance.

Spillville is a 3D RTS game built from the ground up for the Xbox 360
Spillville is a 3D RTS game built from the ground up for the Xbox 360

Our team, Zigers (pronounced zī´gərs, Zombie+Tigers, long story), made it into the finals in the fall which placed us in the top six teams in the nation for Xbox/PC development. We did not know it at the time but Microsoft would later reveal that 130,000 team registered for Imagine Cup over the course of this year’s contest.

Building an Xbox game is no easy task. Any garbage left over from operations will trigger the GC and cause the frame rate to drop to around one frame per second. Additionally, none of our team had ever developed a video game before, yet along a 3D game. Developing Spillville was a fun process of learning 3D modeling, video editing, XNA, and general game design practices. We had a lot of trial and error but in the end created a very stable and extensible game engine complete with Xbox Live integration, 3D audio, particle effects, and custom loading via the content pipeline.

Our team definitely put a lot of work into Spillville. There were times when we put 20 hours into it on top of 20 hours on work and 15 hours of school. Admittedly there were also weeks it didn’t get work on at all.

Spillville Printed Material - Great job by Allison Sherrick
Spillville Printed Material - Great job by Allison Sherrick

I took the entire month of April off to work on Spillville. (Thank you OpenLink for being supportive.). During our “sprint week”, the week before we went to Seattle, Michael flew in from Mountain View so we could work sixteen hours a day on the game. In this time, we managed to get a lot accomplished. The night before we left, we got a boost of motivation when we received our printed material courtesy of the University of Houston.

The Thursday night before we left I got 3 hours of sleep and caught the flight to Seattle at 9:30am. The flight to Settle was miserable. I had the worst seat on the plane (aisle seat, last row) and didn’t get any sleep thanks to all the people who feel it is appropriate to lean against my headrest while waiting for the bathroom.

Upon arriving in Seattle we were greeted by a bus service that took us to the Westin Hotel in Bellevue where we would be staying. The Microsoft business office is connected to the Hotel so that gave us easy access to the building that would host round one of the competition and several of the planned events.

Team Zigers as we arrived at Microsoft's Redmond Campus on day one of Imagine Cup 2012
Team Zigers as we arrived at Microsoft's Redmond Campus on day one of Imagine Cup 2012
Major Nelson - Guest Speaker, Imagine Cup 2012
Major Nelson - Guest Speaker, Imagine Cup 2012
Microsoft Campus, Redmond WA
Microsoft Campus, Redmond WA

After checking in to the hotel we were transported to the Microsoft campus in Redmond for the opening ceremony, a visit the company store, and a tour of the museum. At the introduction they announced that we would receive free Ultrabook computers courtesy of Acer. At dinner we met Larry Hryb aka Major Nelson (for all the Xbox live junkies out there). Oh, also got some bags, t-shirts, xbox games, etc. Thank or Microsoft and partners.

Friday night we got another 3 hours of sleep which after a 24 hour day thanks to the time change, was beginning to take its toll.

The first round competition consists of a closed presentation in front of panel of four judges from various fields, one moderator, one time keeper, and several press people. The presentation lasts forty minutes; 10 minutes of preparation, 20 minutes of presentation, and 10 minutes of Q&A.

Seattle Center - Imagine Cup 2012
Seattle Center - Imagine Cup 2012
Zigers Interview - Imagine Cup 2012
Zigers Interview - Imagine Cup 2012
Flash Mob formed around us at the Seattle Center. Click the imagine to watch a video of the flash mob
Flash Mob formed around us at the Seattle Center. Click the imagine to watch a video of the flash mob

After the presentation, we took a bus to the Seattle center where they were having the 50th anniversary of the world fair. We took group photos, had a live video interview, made team T-shirts, got caught in a flash mob, witness some protesters get arrested and had a great time (all courtesy of Microsoft once again). The last thing that we did was take an amphibious tour of Seattle which was amazing.

Master Chief @ Seattle Center
Master Chief @ Seattle Center

The entire time we were in Seattle there wasn’t cloud in the sky. It didn’t rain once and the temperature was in the low 70s. It made for a great time.

Sunday morning we had breakfast in the Microsoft consumer store in the local mall (not sure why). The mall was closed. We then had a day of training on Windows 8 development.

After a nap we went to hear the announcements of the round two finalists. Our team made it into round two. Two out of six teams were cut. After another video interview we went back to the hotel for another night of presentation preparation.

The next day we presented for the second round of the competition in the same format as round one with a larger audience. We then returned to our booth to await the final results in the awards presentation.

In the end we ended up getting fourth place in our category. Not as good as we hoped but that is still pretty good. The other teams did a great job and we faced some serious competition. In the end we pushed ourselves, learned a lot and had a great time doing it. We applied for the world competition as well and got into the top 100 in the world, however, in the end no US teams were chosen to go on to the finals.

I would like to thank Microsoft for sponsoring this contest and giving us a great opportunity to further develop our talents. I was a ton of fun. I would also like to thank Acer and Nokia for all the free stuff (netbook and phone) and Microsoft again (bags, xbox games, discounts, software, plain tickets, food, hotel, etc…).

I would like to thank Jared Bienz for all his help before and at nationals.

Also, I wanted to give another shout out to Caden Welborn. Thanks again for the terrific music. We could not have gotten this far without you.

The Men of Team Zigers
The Men of Team Zigers
Seattle Skyline from the water
Seattle Skyline from the water
Seattle shoreline from the water
Seattle shoreline from the water
Space Needle - Seattle, WA, April 2012
Space Needle - Seattle, WA, April 2012