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How to Jam Like a Cardinal in 30 Game Development Hours

What happens when you throw together about 250 people, a 24/7 hackathon over an autumn weekend at a Stanford University-supported accelerator, a lot of energy drinks and snacks? You get  the Cardinal Game Jam — and more importantly, a surprisingly high caliber of game demo.

Organized in partnership with the Stanford Alumni Association, the Cardinal Game Jam brought Ivy League backing in concert with a spectrum of partners across publishing, development, platforms, investment and technology. Impressive-sounding, but upon first arriving at the StartX accelerator, it seemed like a humble event that might be under-attended even on a rainy start to the weekend.

It goes to show, first impressions can be misleading.

As a crowd gathered around mid-day, presentation seating was quickly broken down to set up tables to make room for the newly-arrived hackers. The organizers were able to adjust quickly to the ramped-up energy. Buster Zalkind, one of the “faces” of the event and a strategist at, a Cardinal Game Jam event sponsor, said “This is the first time helped sponsor a game jam. It was also a first for the organizers, the Stanford Alumni Association. So I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t expect so many people to sign up — that was overwhelming for and the other sponsors, but very exciting.”

This newly-minted game jam tapped into the deep roots of Stanford’s community and connections, even if it hasn’t been a source of a lot of game development entrepreneurship.

Ernestine Fu, a senior associate at Alsop Louie Partners and event co-organizer, added, “Not many gaming companies have started out of Stanford. is an exception and poster child of Stanford students making a huge impact in the gaming industry. We were thrilled to have them come back, support the event, and encourage more alumni and students to be involved. They also pulled in StartX and Apportable (both founded by Stanford alumni) as sponsors as well, which put Stanford entrepreneurship and games front and center in the gaming industry, right alongside big industry giants like Machine Zone, Cocos2D, DeNA, and others who were also sponsors.”

Of the 40 or so teams Fu estimated were on-site, by nightfall, about 7-8 teams on both floors of the StartX space were still cranking out code and design ideas — and several of which went on to the next day as one of the dozen-plus finalists at judging. Even a few die-hard representatives of the platform and service provider companies providing support late into the night.

Speaking of that radical transition from transition concept to playable content in just over a day, Zalkind noted, “I went around and saw the games Saturday afternoon when they were barely more than a concept.  Seeing so many amazing games presented a day later was tons of fun.  I was worried participants would be tired and would go home early if their game wasn’t picked as a finalist but I shouldn’t have been. The winners weren’t announced until 30 hours after coding started.  But the room was packed, everyone was so excited to see and support each others creations.”

It’s amazing, too, what can be accomplished when development and coding time comes down to the wire, “Concepts went from initial prototypes that were working to well-balanced, fun, and addictive games in those last 60 minutes,” noted Fu.

George Deglin, developer of Bubble Pop at the game jam, a realtime collaborative physics games where players push soap bubbles around a level and combine their bubbles with each other, shared his positive impressions about the game jam too: “This hackathon in particular was unique in that there were several talented artists and musicians participating. For instance, we met a a very talented audio composer during the hackathon and she made all of the music and sound effects for our game and several other games during the event. Apart from that, it was one of the better run hackathons I’ve been to. Food was great and plentiful, the venue was great, judging didn’t take up too much time. Overall a great experience.”

Because it’s fun to put the cart in front of the horse sometimes, before we get to the winning ideas, will there be another Cardinal Game Jam? Both Ernestine Fu and Buster Zalkind agree that there will be, or at least they hope there will be, with the support of Stanford and the game industry at-large. Because every first time event like this has its growing pains, which was sometimes on the chaotic side, it’s important to ask: what did the organizers learn that they would apply to the next event? Fu suggested a larger value, or even multiple venues, to support the large number of attendees and teams.

Buster Zalkind suggested simply, recognizing the 24/7 aspect of any go-go-go hackathon, “Line up a coffee sponsor.”

Cardinal Game Jam winners:
* The grand prize winning team was lead by Collin Jackson, a Stanford PhD graduate from 2009.
* The runner up prize was won by Albert T. Lai, a Stanford undergraduate from 2012.
Deep Water Dragon – Grand Prize Winner – Marketing for 40,000 guaranteed installs for their game, sponsored by Machine Zone (valued at between $80,000 to $120,000 if you count each install at $2-3)
Deep Water Dragon is a haunting endless swimmer where you lead your skeletal dragon through underwater caverns to collect your missing dragon eggs. Avoid foes, level up, and collect powerups that help you defeat challenging enemies and bosses.  The gameplay centers on a circling gesture in order to attack your enemies and collect powerups.The game was created in Objective-C using SpriteBuilder IDE and the Cocos2D game engine. The game was demonstrated on iPhone and iPad although it can support Android devices as well. It makes extensive use of Cocos2D’s new CCEffects API to draw 2D lighting effects. Particle systems are used to provide an immersive parallax effects. The game uses the Chipmunk physics engine integrated into SpriteBuilder to allow creative ways of defeating your enemies.The game integrates with Tango extensively using’s cloud producer to handle the social and economic aspects critical to modern free to play games. An all-new theme uses custom assets designed by our artist to show a consistent visual style between the game and the user interfaces.Viktor Lidholt, Collin Jackson, and Ian Fischer developed the game on site at the hackathon. Chipmunk physics engine creator Scott Lembcke contributed code remotely. Erin Fusco created all art assets for the game.  All five team members work at Apportable on SpriteBuilder and Cocos2D.

Magic Zoo Consequences – Runner-Up PrizeMarketing for 10,000 guaranteed installs for the game, sponsored by Tango (valued at between $20,000 to $30,000 if you count each install at $2-3)

Magical Zoo Consequences! Basically over the course of your life you have amassed a large menagerie due to your magical powers. Unfortunately, magical powers doesn’t translate well to actual care of taking animals, so now they’re on the rampage. You feel terrible about all of this, naturally.

In the game you connect a spell to advancing enemies in the style of Pipe Dream. As you defeat animals different ones come up, such as the monkey, which spins tiles around itself as it advances, or the HORSE MONARCH, which creates more horses as they advance down the field. That’s not to say you’re not totally defenseless though — golden power ups unleash devastating effects on the playing field if you manage to move your spell through them on the way to an enemy.

The game was made by Albert Lai, with many of the graphics taken from

Everybody Paint Stuff – 3rd place – Leap Motion Controllers – sponsored by Leap Motion and Cocos2d-x

Everybody Paint Stuff! is a unique cooperative painting game.  Players watch a single (ideally big) display and use their phones as controllers.  Each player controls a brush tool on a communal canvas, and together they try to replicate a target image.

Sam Green and Peterson Trethewey



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