Sifteo Game Jam

Pushing the limits of game design

“They’re going to start giving these things out at McDonald’s,” joked Mike Frasco ’13DM as he surveyed the tiny, plastic cubes laid out for the Game Innovation Lab’s latest Game Jam event on a recent Friday night.

It’s true that the smooth, white cubes, each about an inch and a half square, were so deceptively cute that you could almost envision them in a Happy Meal. But the real reason Frasco and a dozen other eager programmers and designers were here was to explore the wealth of digital capabilities—a graphics engine, accelerometer, tap and tilt functions, and more—beneath the cubes’ slick exteriors. As in past Jams, teams of participants would compete to design and code an original game on the provided platform in just two days. The winning team would get bragging rights—plus a job interview with the cubes’ maker, a hot San Francisco-based toy and game company called Sifteo.

In a Google Hangout projected at the front of the room to open the Jam, Sifteo “Games Evangelist” Daniel Plemmons said, “Try to kick yourself out of your current ideas about game design and really explore what the platform can do,” he said. Sifteo Software Engineer Liam Staskawicz came onscreen next, giving a brief tutorial on the SDK download and boilerplate code needed to design for the cubes.

And then: “Let the Jam begin!” announced Christopher DiMauro, GIL’s self-titled Tech Wizard. Groups formed around him, and DiMauro stacked the cubes like poker chips before a big tournament.

As new teammates exchanged ideas, the room buzzed with energy for the weekend ahead. “This is a medium for really spontaneous games,” said David Kos, an NYU undergrad studying Music and Technology.

Grant Reid ‘14DM agreed, adding, “There are certain affordances that these cubes offer,” he said. “You can do a non-digital game in a digital format.”

Initial ideas emerged: variations on a classic ball-and-cup game, digital monster trading cards, more. “We have some ideas in terms of mechanics,” said David Or ’08DM. “In terms of theme, we don’t know yet. Maybe animals?”

By the Sunday evening finish line, three exhausted but excited teams had completed games to present to Sifteo’s judges, who appeared once again via live video.

First up was Shuffle War, designed by Stony Brook University Ph.D. Computer Science students Ryan Courtney and Connor Fitzsimmons, with freelance video producer Victor Kalogiannis. In a demonstration, Courtney and Fitzsimmons set up positions at opposite ends of a table and took turns attacking his opponent’s “Queen” cube. Each selected offensive or defensive strategies by tilting a cube, locked them in by tapping the screen, and launched them by sliding his cube across a smooth surface to nudge his opponent’s.

Next was Zoonami, a speed-based game in which any number of players completed commands displayed randomly on some cubes using images of animals on others: “Shake the monkeys,” “Stack the bears,” “Connect the snails,” and so on. “It’s really a game about group communication and coordination,” said Reid, who co-created Zoonami with Or, Kos, and graphic artist Drew Blomquist.

The final game was Balloon Escape, designed by Frasco, Andrew Wong ’13CS, Leonard Law ’14CS, and Jing Leong ’13CS. Here a single player steered a balloon through a maze, stacking and turning cubes on which segments of the maze continually regenerated. “It’s not quite finished,” lamented Frasco. “There should be enemy balloons and thunderbolts.”

In the end, Shuffle War took home the prize. “We loved that they treated the cubes as objects in a very direct way,” said Plemmons. “The game activate[s] the space around it [and] creates a great spectator experience. It requires dexterity and spatial awareness, and creates dynamics you're not going to see in a lot of other digital games.”

As Courtney, Fitzsimmons, and Kalogiannis chatted with the Sifteo judges about their design experience, DiMauro collected cubes from the other participants. “Three new games and a lot of learning—I’d call this a success!” he said.

Participants nodded, including Wong, who asked the question on everyone’s mind: “When is the next Jam?”