When three seniors turned their capstone project into an entry for Northeastern University’s 2014 Research, Innovation, and Scholarship Expo (RISE), they never imagined winning in the computer and information sciences category. Yet that’s exactly what happened, and now the video game they developed is attracting interest from the gaming industry and other fields.
“We knew it was something special but didn’t know people would really grab onto it. We were a little surprised but very proud,” says Duncan MacLeod, who served as lead programmer for their project included in the annual showcase of research and innovative thinking at Northeastern.
MacLeod, Chris Germano, and Justin Yang, all computer science and game design combined majors in the College of Computer and Information Science (CCIS), first developed “Minutes to Midnight” as a point-and-click adventure game in which the leader of an unnamed nation is inside a bunker without any means of communication, needing to determine how to respond to an explosion in the capital. While MacLeod focused on coding, Germano came up with the concept and design, and Yang was the creative director and artist.
But that was just the starting point, back when they were part of a larger group of students working together in their capstone course. By the time they were ready for RISE, the three students had moved from a game with a storyline to one featuring user-created content.
“The average gamer, in my experience, is a creative person, whether they’re taking unique approaches towards traditional problems, instinctively adapting to changes, or creating new content as artists,” says Germano. “We thought being able to create characters and stories in a game would be appealing to this kind of person.”
In addition to studying computer science and game design, Germano had taken several psychology courses at Northeastern. That interest led him to explore how their game might relate to behavioral therapy. Germano explains, “We thought this could be a system to teach players about responsible behavior and that this could have an application in the medical field, where a professional could use the system to create or recreate a scenario in a patient’s life to elicit certain responses.”
Soon they were entering RISE with a project renamed “Minutes to Midnight: Promoting Creation, Culpability, and Critical Thinking” that offered innovative applications in health as well as an enjoyable experience for players. MacLeod says, “It was a chance to show people what we were doing and explore new opportunities.”
Two judges were assigned to assess each RISE entry, and Germano recalls, “Our first judge was to someone from the medical field. He loved our game platform and thought it had a lot of applications. That was an inspiring, motivating conversation and kept up our momentum.”
The recognition at RISE also reinforced Germano’s decision to devote time after graduation to continuing work on “Minutes to Midnight.” He says, “A RISE award is a very appealing addition to a résumé and a great jumping point for other conversations and professional endeavors. I’m taking the summer to explore ideas and prototype concepts. We’ve gotten positive feedback from the game industry and are continuing to work on the system as a game while keeping other applications in mind. We have many months ahead before we’re ready to present it publicly, but we know how we’re going to get there. We want to perfect the system before showing it off so we can live up to expectations and exceed them.”
These avid gamers since childhood are motivated most by the idea of creating a game that they and others will want to play. As MacLeod says, “Games are my passion. I love this game and working on games, so I’ll continue even if I end up having a different full-time job. If it’s something you care about it’s not really work.”