Play the game

Play the game

Seven HKU students look to the future after taking their entries as far as the semi-finals of the Imagine Cup game design competition

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(From left) Jacky Cho, Jeanno Cheung,  Divine Fung, Ngai Ka-kit and Billy Ho  were among the teams that made it to the semi-finals of the Imagine Cup competition.
(From left) Jacky Cho, Jeanno Cheung, Divine Fung, Ngai Ka-kit and Billy Ho were among the teams that made it to the semi-finals of the Imagine Cup competition.
Photo: Dickson Lee
Like many young people today, Jeanno Cheung Chin-long and his classmates grew up with computer games. Knowing how to beat enemies in Warcraft is almost second nature.

However, a group of students from the University of Hong Kong is taking on a different challenge - writing their own computer games. And the experience has given them a very different perspective on gaming.

'Once you have tried writing a game yourself, you start to pay attention to the smallest details of a game's flow and structure, instead of just immersing yourself in game play,' says Cheung, 20.

Cheung and his classmates from the department of computer science formed two teams early this year - Sky Studio and Nana - to take part in the 2010 Imagine Cup game design competition hosted by software giant Microsoft Corp.

This year's competition, which began with local, regional and online contests, will take the winners to the global finals in Poland next month. Competitors have to design a computer game that creates an environment where technology can solve the world's tough problems.

The two teams took on 696 teams from around the globe to gain places among the 150 semi-finalists last month. Their games won praise from the judges for their innovative designs.

Nana's game is a dice-and-board concept set against the backdrop of a global effort to pre-empt terror attacks.

The player acts as a detective to track down an international terrorist group which is plotting to spread a deadly virus in key world cities.

The team's Billy Ho Chung-yin says writing a game is like creating an entire world. The first thing is finding a compelling theme, an attractive storyline and exciting characters.

After discarding some initial themes, the team found inspiration from the war on terrorism. 'It's a topic everyone is worried about, and we think it's a theme that can make an exciting cat-and-mouse chase game,' Ho says.

One aspect of game development is working out the bugs in the program. Some are not obvious and easy to overlook. It's no surprise to discover that both teams spent more than half of their development time debugging their games. The process of finding these bugs involves using trial versions and rewriting the code to fix them.

The students now understand what it takes for professionals to complete a marketable game.

'Debugging is the most painful part because you have to repeat the process again and again. But even when you have tried out your game 100 times, there's still no guarantee it's bug-free,' Cheung says.

Sky Studio's game simulates the raising of lion cubs. The player acts as a member of a lion preservation group which nurtures and trains abandoned or wounded lion cubs rescued from the wild.

The seven students have set their sights on developing games for handheld devices. Jacky Cho of Sky Studio said the increasing popularity of mobile gadgets is creating new doorways into game making.

'This is a new trend. Users demand more than just the ability to talk on their mobile phones,' Cho says. 'The market for mobile phone games in Hong Kong is definitely expanding.'

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