Cyber Heist gains EAE recognition – Daily Utah Chronicle

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January 26, 2014 – John Peterson
The Daily Utah Chronicle

Members of the U’s Entertainment Arts and Engineering program won the Oscar equivalent of amateur video game design with their game “Cyber Heist.”

The game, created by a collaboration of students within the EAE program, is one of this year’s Independent Game Fair finalists.

Second-year graduate students in the EAE program first met to create the new game at the beginning of Spring Semester in 2013. The 25 students pitched ideas and began forming groups to further develop the most popular concepts. Two months later, game professionals from companies such as Disney evaluated the quality and potential of the ideas and chose two finalists. “Cosigners,” as Cyber Heist was named at the time, was one of them.

The game follows two students, a hacker and a thief, as they break into a futuristic department of education in the year 2114. The objective: erase their overwhelming student debt.

“It frequently gets a laugh,” said Jake Muehle, the team’s lead designer.

The design team chose the unusual theme after their professors urged them to center their game around a “topical” subject.

“It’s close to home for a lot of people,” said game producer Zachary Truscott. “I, for one, would love to wipe out my student debt.”

The team is composed of experienced gamers. Muehle has been playing games since he was five. He has created board games and video games of his own “of differing qualities.”

Muehle started college studying mechanical engineering, then moved to computer science. Finally, he ended up in the EAE program, a designation within computer science focused on the development and design of video games. The program has been offered at the U for three years.

“I realized that games are really where I belong,” he said. “I found that video games were the most creative outlet that I could find.”

Vaibhav Bhalerao, the game’s engineer, was attracted to the prestige of EAE. After completing his undergraduate studies in computer science, he left his home in India to be part of what appeared to be a very promising program in Utah. He has thoroughly enjoyed working on the development team. He said the camaraderie among the engineers has made him feel at home.

“It’s a professional environment when we work, but when we are not, we are chilling out,” Bhalerao said.

Truscott said the creative multiplayer format gave Cyber Heist an advantage over more conventional games in the IGF competition. Unlike many multi-player games, Cyber Heist utilizes what the designers call “asymmetrical” play. The hacker views the games from a two-dimensional “bird’s eye view” perspective while the thief experiences the first-person perspective.

The two players rely on one another to successfully navigate through each level of the game. While the hacker is busy disarming alarms and guiding the thief past enemy “drones,” the thief must travel stealthily through each level and collect information that the hacker needs to disarm the security system.

The EAE team, a group of avid gamers, knew of the challenges of a multiplayer games where two players complete the same task simultaneously. In most systems, one player generally falls behind the other. But with the task differentiation of Cyber Heist, that gap is less obvious. The unique roles create interdependence, which the team was aiming for. The result is more communication and teamwork between players.

“We really want people to feel that they’re in it together and looking at each others screens, and screaming and high-fiving,” Muehle said. “That’s the feel that we were going for.”

Bhalerao said after all of their hard work, winning at IGF out of the 350 competitors that participated, was thrilling.

“It’s unbelievable. It’s mind-blowing,” Bhalerao said.

The IGF win adds to the growing recognition of the U’s program, currently ranked second-best in the nation.

“It is an honor to be the flagship of the EAE program,” Muehle said. “It’s really fun and rewarding to watch people play the game and see them have so much fun while playing.”

Truscott said the team’s work is not done yet. They are now devoted to two things: “polish it and get it released.” The team plans to perfect various features of Cyber Heist and eventually create an iPad version of the game.