The Best College Video Game in America Lives on at Drexel
August 28, 2019
In the spring term of 2018, a group of Drexel University students created a video game for a group project. Exactly a year later, that same game won the E3 College Game Competition, one of the biggest game contests for college-level game designers.
And if all of that happened alongside the commitments of school terms and extracurricular activities and graduating from Drexel, just imagine what will happen now that three of the four Dragons have spent this summer working full-time on the game and are preparing to release it to the public in the next year.
“It’s kind of crazy the way things developed,” said Jeff Mostyn ’19, a computer science graduate from the College of Computing & Informatics.
Mostyn is the team lead and lead programmer for Pharaoh Hound Games, a company he started with Mark Hurley ’19, a game design and production graduate from the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design (who is the 3D artist and design lead); Michael Heffner ’19, a computer science graduate (and programmer); and Joseph Brown, a game design and production incoming fifth-year (and UX and game designer). The group formed after working together on a class project that became “Sons of Ra,” an ancient Egypt-themed competitive tower defense game in which players can battle pharaohs, build armies, call on gods and expand their kingdoms. “Sons of Ra” will be released in 2020 and is already included and being “wish listed” on Steam, the major PC games distribution platform.
The students all met in the “Games Workshop 1” course offered through the Westphal College of Media Art & Design’s Game Design and Production program, in which the students split into teams to work on developing two independent video games — using Steven Spielberg movies as inspiration. With the famed “Indiana Jones” film series as a reference, Mostyn pitched a war-themed video game set in ancient Egypt that would respectfully integrate the mythology, history and aesthetic appearances of that time period. It was chosen to be worked on in the class.
“We started with ‘Two Powerful Ones’ because we were talking about the pharaohs of the Upper and Lower Egypt period, but ‘Two Powerful Ones’ doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. So we pivoted to focusing on the deities of Egypt and we switched to ‘Sons of Ra,’” said Hurley. “But Pharaoh Hound Games was the name of our group from, like, pretty early on.”
Other students helped work on the game for class credit, but Hurley, Mostyn and Heffner continued developing it after the course was over, and Brown (who had worked on a different game for “Games Workshop 1”) came onboard afterwards. Hurley took over creating the art assets and imagery for the game, while Brown worked on the user interface and marketing presence. Mostyn and Heffner developed the actual systems that run everything.
Left to right Joseph Brown, Jeff Mostyn, Mark Hurley and Michael Heffner in the Entrepreneurial Game Studio coworking space. Photo credit: Charles Shan Cerrone.
“This was definitely the biggest project I think that any of us have worked on,” said Brown. “Before, the longest project we made was a couple of weeks, and we had just been making some smaller stuff. And now we’ve been doing this for over a year. It’s been, you know, a significant amount of work.”
The students applied to be an incubator team in the Entrepreneurial Game Studio (EGS), which is housed in the ExCITe Center and offers space and guidance to student-created companies (Mostyn had completed a co-op there his sophomore year). Led by Frank Lee, PhD, a digital media professor who co-founded Drexel’s Game Design program in 2008, EGS functions as an incubator for fledgling student-founded game companies and supports them with the end goal of students developing and commercializing their own games.
After developing their game enough to be able to demonstrate it at industry conferences, the students were chosen as the Drexel submission to the E3 College Game Competition. They had to submit their game in early May this past spring and placed in the top five university-submitted games in the United States.
Gameplay still of “Sons of Ra.” Photo credit: Pharaoh Hound Games.
But to find out who would win first place, the students flew out to California to attend the conference — which was being held right around one of the most important times of their college careers.
“This basically happened during graduation,” said Heffner, who missed his June 13 college-level commencement ceremony along with fellow College of Computing & Informatics student Mostyn. The Westphal College of Media Arts & Design ceremony was held the next day, which Hurley barely made after his flight back to Philly, and the University-wide commencement ceremony was held that night. But even before that, the students had been celebrating a different kind of crowning achievement: winning first place at the biggest and most prestigious competition in their field.
“It was such an awesome experience,” said Hurley. “We’re really hoping to leverage it and keep the game going.”
Their win showed off the students’ strengths in the field, and it couldn’t have been done in a bigger way.
The E3 College Game Competition trophy. Photo credit: Charles Shan Cerrone.
“The E3 is one the biggest game industry conventions in the world where international game companies come to publicly showcase their upcoming games for the year,” said Lee. “And in front of this worldwide audience, Pharaoh Hound Games showed why Drexel is considered one of the best game design programs, and why the Entrepreneurial Game Studio at Drexel is one of the most awarded game labs.”
“What we’ve found is that having that win is a really good talking point when we’re talking to media and publishers,” said Brown. “It gives us some legitimacy as developers because we can say that we were chosen by this big prestigious organization as the best college game in the country, and that it’s a project worth playing.”
The next steps for the team include finalizing the game, preparing it for release on multiple platforms, networking at industry conferences and seeking funding through publishers. This summer, the three graduates worked fulltime on the project and Brown continued to juggle classes and the game; in August, Mostyn began working full-time as a developer for Comcast.