UCI Continues Its Winning Streak at IEEE GameSIG with Sky Farm

May 30, 2018

UCI’s Sky Farm team was awarded first place at IEEE GameSIG 2018, the Intercollegiate Computer Game Showcase of the IEEE special interest group in computer games. The top 10 Southern California finalists competed on May 5, presenting their games to a panel of industry judges, and UCI came out ahead for the fourth year in a row — the fifth time in the competition’s seven-year history.

The team of Computer Game Science (CGS) students — Christopher AyusoMary WangPafoua Fang and Dong Phan — was a product of the CGS Capstone Project class, taught by Informatics Professor Josh Tanenbaum.

“I’ve known that Sky Farm was something special for months now,” says Tanenbaum.

UCI’s Sky Farm team members with two of the GameSIG judges (from left): Bill Fisher (founder and president of Quicksilver Software), Christopher Ayuso, Phil Adam (founder of Adam Productions), Dong Phan, Mary Wang and Pafoua Fang.

Time Travel, Trees and Light-Hearted Waterfalls
Dreams of winning the GameSIG Cup didn’t drive Sky Farm’s development. “We were just making a game that we felt proud of,” says Ayuso, who will graduate this fall and hopes to land a job in the gaming industry. They started with a small but solid foundation: Ayuso served as the producer and programmer, Wang as the lead artist, and Fang and Phan as the level designers. Everyone had their own responsibility, but the design space was open to everyone on the team.

Their original idea was to build something around time travel, and from there they started considering puzzles. “We were inspired by Laura Croft Go,” says Ayuso. “We started with a simple idea of trees, because during time travel, people think of growing and shrinking trees.” The team also got suggestions for teaching players how to do things from their Blizzard and Amazon Game Studios mentors as part of the capstone class.

The Sky Farm game involves a farmer traveling through time while planting and shearing trees and fighting off enemies to advance to the next level.

For the art, Wang explains that they “wanted the game feeling to be light-hearted, so I used a voxel and low poly kind of art style.” Excited to be starting graduate school here at UCI this fall, she adds that “it was a great experience to create assets by myself — the background models, like the waterfall and bridges.” The biggest challenge for Fang, who is looking to work in the game industry, was “trying to design levels that were difficult but still solvable.”

Sky Farm artist Mary Wang enjoyed creating game assets such as bridges and waterfalls.

The final product is a turn-based game in which the player is a time-traveling farmer who must navigate through obstacles and collect energy crystals to progress through the levels. According to Phan, who graduated last quarter and is also looking for a job in the game industry, it was challenging to “make a game both fun and unique.” Yet the team clearly succeeded, winning over not only the judges but also their professor. According to Tanenbaum, “Sky Farm is the only student game that I’ve installed on my phone and continued to play for fun after the capstone class was over.”

Four Friends and 50 Levels Later
The team was proud of their submission. “Overall, I felt like our team worked well together because we shared the same vision,” says Ayuso. “We were able to crank up levels fast — 50 levels — because we had two dedicated level designers.” Still, the team knew they had steep competition. “I thought we had a shot at winning,” says Fang, “but I was still doubtful since there were a lot of other great games there.”

According to Tanenbaum, “UCI was up against some of the highest quality submissions I’ve seen at the IEEE GameSIG Showcase.” They ended up beating out teams from Chapman University, USC, Laguna College of Art and Design, Cal State Long Beach and Santa Ana College.

The team has released Sky Farm on itch.io and has plans to upload it on iOS and Android. They’ve submitted a grant application for a public games competition to get funding to further develop and publish the app.

When asked about their formula for success, Ayuso says that it’s important to “get the creative feel and have a good design,” but “there’s no right formula for making a game. You just have to find what works for your team.” For him, “making friends” was the best part of the experience.

Phan agrees. “Get to know your team. Befriend them; don’t just treat them as project partners. For me, that set this project apart. Communicating and expressing yourself is always easier with friends.”

The 2019 IEEE GameSIG competition will be held here at UCI; more details will be available later in the year.

— Shani Murray