Hardcore video gamers and those in the video game industry know that the annual E3 expo in Los Angeles is where the big games of tomorrow are demonstrated and discovered. Five students from the University of Denver’s computer science department will be in the mix this year, as they bring their game, Data Helix, to the convention as part of the E3 College Game Competition.
DU is one of five schools nationwide to place in the finals of the contest, which, according to a press release, “honors the best student talent in video game development, and provides collegiate developers with a chance to display their games at E3.” More than 60 teams entered this year’s contest; the winner goes home with a trophy and some serious PR for its game. The Data Helix team also is one of five DU-associated groups that will be displaying games at the Denver Comic Con June 13–15.
Four seniors — computer science major Andrew Bustrack and game development majors Thomas Divelbiss, Daniel Hanna and Ian Connor — created the game in a senior capstone class that spanned the fall 2013 and winter 2014 quarters; Bustrack, Divelbiss and Hanna continued the process via independent study in spring 2014.
“At one point I was meeting with them every day,” says Nathan Sturtevant, the computer science assistant professor who led the capstone and mentored the team through the development of its game. “They needed to bring it to a level of polish where you could play through it and you were satisfied with the experience, and that the aesthetic elements and the story fit together. They worked several 40-hour weeks just on the game, basically completing the work of a full independent study course in those weeks. They took what was an interesting game with many flaws and gave it a lot of polish and significantly improved the design and aesthetic cohesion to make something worthy of being an E3 finalist.”
Joined by fellow senior Rusty Lemasters, a computer science major who worked on a different game in the capstone class but was an early tester of Data Helix, the students leave this weekend for the conference, which runs June 9–13. They will get exposure for themselves and their game not only from the contest, but from being on the floor with all the other companies showing off their shiny new games at the prestigious, industry-only event. The DU team will share floor space with the other finalists in the college competition.
“There will be a lot of people coming by to see what the college students are doing and who are the up-and-coming people,” Sturtevant says. “And for our program at the University of Denver, it says, ‘Hey, we’re turning out students that you guys should be paying attention to.’”
The students are equally excited to show off their game — a first-person, 3-D puzzler in which the player has to manipulate the environment to solve puzzles — and to rub elbows with the game-industry executives who flock to the exclusive conference. Their dream is to get hired as a team to bring Data Helix to market, but they’ll settle for a job offer or two.
“We like this game enough that if we could get it commercially available to a wide-scale audience, I think that would be awesome, but I think also a part of it is just saying, ‘Look, this is what we can do, we’ve had this experience, we’ve gone through it, we made a game. Hire us, please,’” Connor says. “We’re also getting the University on the map as an institution for putting out these students who can make good games.”
You can download a playable version of Data Helix on the game’s website.