Students Put Their Game Design Skills To The Test At Chillennium
On a recent sunny evening at Texas A&M University’s Hildebrand Equine Complex, four students sit around a table, quickly sketching out their concept for a new video game.
Their idea is simple: the player will operate a medieval catapult to attempt to defend their castle from advancing hordes of invaders. But to complicate matters, the creatures attacking the castle walls have the power of either earth, water or fire on their side, and players can only defeat them by hurling a barrel containing an opposing element; for instance, the fire creatures are only destroyed by water.
By the time their brainstorming session is over, this team of Aggies — composed of visualization students Macey McCuller, Kirby Key, Brad Padgett and Marshall Jennings — is excited to get to work. And they’ll need to work fast, as they have less than two days to turn their grand vision into a finished product.
This is the fast-paced world of Chillennium, a 48-hour “game jam” hosted by Texas A&M students with support from the Department of Visualization and its Learning Interactive Visualization Experience (LIVE) Lab.
After a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the beloved competition came back last week in a big way. Chillennium director Amanda Golla said she was thrilled to see the return of this unique hands-on learning experience.
“I want everyone to leave knowing something they didn’t know before,” said Golla, a visualization senior. “It is a very hard challenge to make a game in this short period of time, and once you’ve done that, everyone here will have a little bit more knowledge than before.”
In search of this knowledge — as well as bragging rights, trophies and more than $5,000 in assorted prizes — around 130 students set up camp in the Equine Complex from Friday evening until Sunday night, armed with pillows, blankets and all the computing equipment they would need to create their masterpieces. Working in teams of up to four people, they were tasked with building games that fit into this year’s theme: “You really shouldn’t mix those!”
Once some rules and safety tips were laid out and the theme was revealed, it was off to the races, as the competitors got to work on projects as diverse as “Cowboys vs. Space Vampires,” “Bombs & Babies” and “FrostFire.”
“We didn’t want something that geared someone towards a certain genre or game mechanic,” Golla said. “With this [theme], you could do whatever you want with it, which is great.”
Eventually, McCuller and Co.’s rough sketches from Friday evening became the action-packed 3D experience “Catamental,” which can be downloaded and played, along with the rest of this year’s submissions, from the Chillennium 2022 itch.io page.
“Actually getting a game in 48 hours — being like ‘sign my name here, by Macey McCuller’ — it’s kind of a huge deal for me,” McCuller said.
As a technical artist who currently serves as the 3D lead for the LIVE Lab and plans to work in the game industry upon graduation, McCuller said the challenging, deadline-focused nature of Chillennium made it a perfect setting for the team to hone their skills.
“This is something that we’re really passionate about. Most all of my team members want to go into the game design industry,” McCuller said. “[We’re] growing our skills and seeing where we can push that hard work in 48 hours.”
On site to help the competitors was a group of dedicated mentors — industry professionals from across the country who showed up to share their knowledge and offer assistance to students throughout the development process. This also makes Chillennium an excellent opportunity for some mutually beneficial networking.
“They’re here to help the students, and maybe there’s somebody they may want to hire or talk about internships with,” said André Thomas, an associate professor of the practice in the Department of Visualization and director of the LIVE Lab.
It was Thomas who first pitched the idea of a game jam to a group of Texas A&M students back in 2014. They took the idea and ran with it, hosting a small but successful event that same year. In 2015, the first official Chillennium was held, and it eventually grew to become the largest student-run game jam in the world. This year’s event attracted competitors from across Texas as well as quite a few from out of state, including teams from Louisiana and Missouri. Sponsors for Chillennium 2022 included big names like Amazon Web Services, Electronic Arts and Epic Games.
“I think what I’m most proud of is seeing that legacy still live on and that other students are just as passionate to make it happen,” said Chelsey Gobeli, a former student who helped organize those original events. Now a producer at SciPlay, Gobeli was one of many Aggies who returned to College Station to serve as mentors at this year’s competition.
As McCuller explained, it is this sense of community that makes Chillennium a continued success and helps make Texas A&M an excellent environment for aspiring creators to learn and grow.
“I’m glad I chose A&M,” she said. “The community here, both in Viz and throughout the university, has been great at collaboration and community. Everyone’s friendly, everyone’s great, I can talk to everybody. I never feel like I can’t ask for help.”