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They can hack it

The members of Southern Oregon University's HackOR team, Quartus Primates, talk about the game they created for the statewide competition, "Laughing Stock." They are, from left to right: Sam Platt, Peter Jacobson, Ronin Ganoot and Liam Erickson.(Photo courtesy of SOU)
SOU team claims statewide hackathon with choose-your-own-adventure game

The challenge: 48 hours to develop a usable program from scratch. The goal: to have fun. Expectations: “Very low.”

No, the members of Quartus Primates — Liam Erickson, Sam Platt, Peter Jacobson and Ronin Ganoot — did not seriously believe their game, “Laughing Stock,” was a serious contender to win the 62-team statewide hackathon event, held virtually March 26-28.

In fact, after “Laughing Stock” was not named the winner for Best Humor Hack, one of nine subcategories, the four juniors in SOU’s computer science program almost turned off the virtual awards show. What were the chances anyway, they figured, of landing the big one? The HackOR competition, after all, featured 600 students from colleges and universities in Oregon.

They didn’t turn it off, though, which is why they were able to enjoy their moment of glory when “Laughing Stock” was named the first-place winner and best overall game. It would be an understatement to say the announcement, made by HackOR founder and director Joy Liu, caught the members of Quartus Primates off guard.

“We screamed, and (Erickson) jumped on the couch,” said Platt, the project’s head developer, who also did plenty of coding.

“We weren’t trying to win a prize, necessarily,” added Erickson, who worked on integration, scripting while also hand-drawing the game’s artwork. “We didn’t think our code was the most beautiful. We were just trying to focus on the GUI [Graphical User Interface] making the game look like something that we’ve never done before.”

The win also came with prizes for the SOU crew — In all, $8,080 in prizes were handed out. Each could choose between an Oculus Quest 2 or Nintendo Switch. All but Jacobson, the project manager and front-end developer, selected the Switch. “I had a Switch,” he said.

“Laughing Stock,” selected as the best game by 27 judges, industry leaders and professors among them, employs a simple concept that almost any player would instantly recognize. Players are tasked with navigating through a TSA terminal at a virtual airport, after which they must survive the plane flight by making the right decisions — choose-your-own-adventure style. In the “inspiration” section of their submission page, they described their creation as a “clown comedic horror” choose-your-own-adventure story.

Users progress through single-art screens by answering questions wisely. Poor choices lead to unhappy endings. One screen featuring a brown backpack tries to steer you in the right direction: “You have a water bottle in your bag! Good thing you checked…” What happens if you then choose to put your bag through security anyway?

“TSA found a water bottle in your luggage! You have been arrested and put on a terrorist watch list for having water in the airport.”

If you make it onto the plane and decide to prop your feet up on the seat in front of you, an angry-looking air marshal will knock you out (things escalate quickly in “Laughing Stock”). Erickson’s artwork for this screen probably doesn’t need the two-sentence explainer that accompanies it. The picture shows the frowning air marshal hovering over your character’s gnarly, bare feet, which have veins and toenails for days. One could almost forgive the air marshal for drawing his gun (he does).

“I think we all pretty much came up with it,” Erickson said of the TSA idea. “We knew that we wanted to do a game, something like that. So we kind of started brainstorming what each individual person really liked as a hobby.”

Once they settled on the idea they had two days to execute it, which required laying out a step-by-step itinerary and sticking to it as closely as possible. As the project manager, Jacobson was the one primarily responsible for making sure the team stayed on task as they quickly built their game from Platt’s dorm room, which was converted into a multi-work station/crash pad (they also had access to the beds in the room next door).

On the first night they crashed at about midnight. The plan was to wake up at 4 a.m., but most of them ended up sleeping until 8. That cost them the next night, when they each snuck in only about three hours of shuteye. Erickson said he managed only six hours of sleep during the two-day contest, which has nothing to do with hacking despite the name.

Everybody was assigned tasks and they learned quickly to prioritize. Priscilla Oppenheimer, an assistant professor in SOU’s computer science program and the mentor for Quartus Primates, said hackathons are about much more than speed-coding, and SOU’s team recognized that.

“One of the reasons they were successful was because they didn’t jump right into coding,” she said. “So they did a lot of planning within the time constraints. (Jacobson) was a really good project manager. So they did quite a bit of planning and then they got into the coding. It is challenging to do it quickly because if you do it too quickly there are a lot of bugs and glitches.”

The 48-hour window required a certain amount of discipline, Jacobson said, which is why not everything they wanted in the game made it into the finished product.

“If we have to throw stuff out, we have to throw stuff out,” he said. “It taught us to work as a team under non-ideal conditions. We’d be sending people out of the room: ‘You gotta go on a walk right now, go get lunch. Just leave. You can’t be here right now, because you’re either distracting us or you just need a break.’ So we got pretty good at dealing with the team and finding what people needed. ‘Go take a nap, go take a shower, just take a break or something.’”

To Ganoot, having a shared goal helped the group stay focused and committed.

“Since we were all in the same room, we kind of hyped each other up to get the project done in time,” he said. “And I think we did follow the schedule pretty strictly.”

As the deadline approached they worked furiously to add a few more features, read over each other’s code, patch up any obvious mistakes and polish. They finished with an hour to spare, then watched the livestream of the awards presentation.

Every program was judged in five categories: design/polish, originality, functionality, complexity/effort and wow factor. Erickson recorded his teammates watching the feed. If they won for Best Humor Hack, he wanted to save their reaction for posterity. When another program took that award, Erickson and his teammates were deflated and he almost killed the recording.

The HackOR top 12 finalists were announced last, with 11 of the 12 listed in order and the top spot reading only “to be announced.” Since “Laughing Stock” wasn’t on that list, either, it was safe to assume they would come away empty-handed. Just before the winner was announced, Jacobson can be heard in the recording saying sarcastically, “What if this is us?”

Watching “Laughing Stock” pop up on the webcast was a shock for the team, and they reacted accordingly (asked if a copy of the celebration could be used to accompany this story, Erickson said it would have to be “heavily edited”).

Now that it’s over, the members of Quartus Primates are grateful for the experience, and not just because they each walked away with $300 gaming systems. Classes are essential to learning their craft, but competitions like HackOR force students to put what they’ve learned to use in a competitive environment that may inspire a little extra umph.

Platt, who’s interested in both software engineering and cyber security as possible career paths, says HackOR turned out to be a great learning opportunity.

“It’s a lot different than in classes,” she said. “In classes we usually have about a week (to work on projects). It’s really good at preparing us for real-world jobs where you have really quick turnaround times.”

Erickson agreed. It wasn’t easy, he said, but well worth a couple of long days, even if most of it was spent ironing out the bugs in a virtual airport.

“It was a painful but fun experience,” he said. “We were all really sleep-deprived, especially after a couple over-nighters. A lot of getting off-task and getting distracted, and Pete would reel us back in. It was painful, but it was a lot of fun.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.