Game developers get in the swim

9 February 2010

Snakes were a key feature in computer games created at this year’s international GameJam, held recently at the University of Waikato.

The international annual event is coordinated by the US-based Global Game Developers Organisation. Participants in 139 locations in 39 countries around the world were challenged to create an innovative five-minute computer game in just 48 hours.

It’s the second year running that the University’s Computer Science Department has hosted the weekend event, which attracted around 30 game enthusiasts from high school students to seasoned computer programmers.

The theme of the game this year was ‘deception’, and participants in our time zone had to include snakes, cakes or lakes. The results were spectacular, says organiser and computer science lecturer Bill Rogers. “A particular highlight for me this year was excellent artwork in addition to excellent programming.”

Tying for first place in the group’s ‘People’s Choice Awards’ at the end of the weekend was a game called ‘Swimming Snake’, which featured superb graphics delivered with programming panache.

Computer science Masters student Dacre Denny came up with the idea and worked with PhD student Sam Sarjant to develop the game, in which the player controls a water snake swimming along a channel looking for fish to eat.

“All the fish look the same, which is where the deception comes in,” explains Sarjant, a former student at Hauraki Plains College whose doctoral research focuses on artificial intelligence. “But some of them puff up as pufferfish which can attack and latch onto the snake, and gradually drain its strength.”

The player must try to shake the pufferfish off before succumbing; otherwise a message appears saying ‘Natural selection selected you’ and the game is over.

A Death-O-Meter and a Cake-O-Meter allow the player to gauge the snake’s strength, but there’s a catch. “As the snake eats more fish it gets bigger and stronger, but it also becomes more of a target,” says Sarjant.

The graphics were co-developer Dacre Denny’s department. For his Masters project, the former Cambridge High student is currently working on software to speed up game development so the game artist doesn’t initially have to make a 3D model and then export it to the game. “For example if you want to populate a hillside with foliage, you can do it with two clicks of a button, see it live, and tweak it as you like,” he says.

But for the GameJam, everything had to be created from scratch, and Denny let his imagination run riot – creating a menacing green-hued watery environment, realistic snake movement, and a ghoulish mix of blood and bubbles if the player allows the pufferfish to triumph.

Denny says 48 hours was the perfect amount of time for the task. “It’s sustainable, you can manage to last for two days and at the end of it you’ve got a game, which is really neat,” he says, although he admits he drank far too much Coke.

The other winning game was Glow, a deep-sea scenario involving an angler fish called Fishie, which must lure larger predators to their doom by feeding them to an even larger predator serpent. It was created by Waikato computer science students Tom Maxwell-Mans and Gabe Young; Hemi Ormsby, who’s just graduated with a Bachelor of Computer Graphic Design; Leslie Wan, Joel Christensen and high school student Chris Barton.

Both games are available online to try: and On the same site are all the other games created at GameJams around the world.

Waikato organiser Bill Rogers says the GameJam is a great opportunity for would-be game developers to showcase their talent.

“The game industry is one where what you’ve done is more important than your qualifications,” he says. “Employers want evidence that people have done something, shown some energy and seen a project through. So if you do well at the GameJam you’ll end up with something on a global game developers’ site – and you’ll be noticed.”