SILER CITY — A pixelated globe wearing a birthday cake hat has to escape a pumpkin and make it to the green flag.
Sounds simple enough.
This is just one of the hundreds of possibilities built into the student-designed game “Platformerz.” The platform computer game was designed by two Chatham School of Science & Engineering students, sophomores Brandon Cameron and Jack Triglianos.
Recently, the app was named the 2022 winner of the North Carolina Congressional App Challenge. More than 9,000 students across the country registered for this year’s competition — creating 2,707 fully-functioning apps. The competition set the record for most student registrations, most apps submitted and most apps per district submitted.
“We wanted to make a game for people at school to play,” Cameron said. “It really started as something to do when we finished work early in class.”
As a winning team, Cameron and Triglianos were invited to showcase their winning app to Congress in Washington, D.C., during the annual #HouseOfCode festival. The team opted not to attend. Other North Carolina winners included apps teaching about recycling or personal finance. Platformerz was the only game to win the challenge.
The longtime friends said they’ve long shared a passion for coding, and making games felt like a way to explore that passion together. And from their classroom boredom came a game that would eventually be beloved by the whole school.
“More and more people started liking it and would give us suggestions for how to evolve it,” Triglianos said.
When the boys were showing off their game to peers in class one day, it caught the attention of their teachers Anna Blackwell, Melissa Boyce and Beth Vaughn. Boyce suggested they submit the game to the Congressional App Challenge.
Submitting the app to an official contest seemed like a good excuse to improve the game, so Cameron and Triglianos got to work. Platformerz began as a cube moving on a screen, but soon the duo incorporated more math and physics into the coding of the game.
They also stylized the game to make it more visually appealing. Neither Cameron nor Triglianos considered themselves artists, so they left many of the design elements up to their peers. They put out calls to students in their classes and asked for help designing levels, characters and pixel art for the game.
“People got really into it,” Triglianos said. “They started giving us a lot of ideas on how to improve the game or help find bugs like ‘when you do this something goes wrong’ or ‘this part looks kind of ugly when you move this way.’”
Feedback from their classmates helped reduce the number of bugs in the game, and the designers said that feedback also brought innovative ideas like multiplayer levels and time trials.
Cameron and Triglianos said they worked on the game six hours daily for more than six months until they submitted the app to the contest. Even after submission, they continued tweaking the game because it had become such a hit in the CSSE hallways.
“We saw more and more people playing it,” Cameron said. “The game was spreading by itself without us even telling people. It was really cool to see.”
One of the things that helped spread the game most was the multiplayer format. Here, anyone could design and post a level to the online server, then challenge their friends to beat the level of their creation. The levels people created included spiky mazes, pixel art ducks or convoluted booby traps. This made the game feel communal because students would try to beat levels designed by their friends with the fastest times possible.
Designing the maps was also made even easier with the level editor, which used a click-and-drag format to allow users to draw any level they could imagine. There are currently more than 200 maps on the server, with the most popular ones being played more than 400 times.
“It was a lot of trial and error,” Triglianos said. “We realized we couldn’t create levels faster than other people could make them.”
Every unique map created increased competition in the school. Who could build the most creative map? Who could design the longest level? Who could complete every level the fastest? It became a sort of community. Everyone moving a little pixel block toward a green flag thanks to the designs of Cameron and Triglianos.
“It was kind of a relief watching it grow,” Cameron said. “It showed that those nights I stayed up until midnight making this menu or that button, that’s what makes it all worth it.”
After the success of Platformerz, the CSSE sophomores are already working on a new game. This app will be a role-playing game, which differs significantly in coding from the platform game. The project is still in early stages and does not yet have a name, but they hope to take lessons from the previous design process into this game.