MakeGamesWithUs challenges MIT students in iOS game development competition

By Michael Carney , written on January 28, 2013

From The News Desk

When I was in college, the most impressive thing I physically “made” was a 10 foot long lance out of beer cans for a game of jousting one evening. While that may have been the norm in my era, if you go to MIT or dozens of other universities (or high schools for that matter) today, it’s entirely realistic to see students graduate with the title of mobile app developer or startup founder on their resume.

This winter, during its January independent activities period, MIT is offering an iPhone game development course and competition in partnership with Y-Combinator-backed mobile game publisher MakeGamesWithUs (MGWU). MGWU co-founder Jeremy Rossmann is a proud MIT dropout, while his co-founder Ashu Desai is a UCLA Bruin. The game publisher created the curriculum for the course to further its mission of helping high school and college aged kids learn to develop mobile games.

In past years, topics explored during this pre-semester period have included artificial intelligence and Android app development. This year’s course has 80 students and is sponsored by Andreesen Horowitz, 500 Startups, EA, GameLoft, Zynga, and others. The winner of the contest will receive $6,500 in cash and a year’s worth of bragging rights.

Like all members of the MGWU network, the MIT students get access to custom frameworks and analytics tools, as well tutorials and forums. Students can also tap into to services like professional artists, graphics designers, and musicians, as well as assistance navigating the iOS App Store submission process. As I wrote previously, there has never been a better time to be a novice developer.

The MakeGamesWithUs developers retain full ownership of their game intellectual property. If they choose to publish it via the MGWU network – which given the simplicity and internal network effects it offers, why shouldn’t they – then the company retains 30 percent of game profits going forward (the 30 percent comes out of the 70 percent passed through by Apple).

The latest tool in the MakeGamesWithUs tool kit is its Turn Based Multiplayer SDK, released a week ago. Developed initially at the request of the company’s high school-aged summer interns, the application template allows new developers to quickly and easily build asynchronous “turn-based” games like Draw Something or Words With Friends. Rossman and Desai also created and published a sample game, Ghost: a Battle of Letters, to the iTunes App Store and made its source code available on the company website. The game was built in just three days using the company’s SDK, and Desai believes that this is a reasonable timeline for any capable developer using his company’s tools.

The MIT students aren’t the only ones using the new SDK. MakeGamesWithUs launched a public game development competition to promote its new SDK. WIth submissions due on March 15th, the competition will award the winner a trip to Palo Alto and a week spent shadowing seven fellow YC alumni startups. The winner also receives a New iPad, a game launch party, 10,000 guaranteed installs of its game, and lots of other swag. First and second runners up will have it pretty good as well, with the former getting an iPad Mini and 5,000 guaranteed installs, and the latter getting a new iPod Touch and 3,000 guaranteed installs.

Rossmann and Desai see the MIT course and the public competition as a path toward more awareness of MakeGamesWithUs, and more games published on via platform. Success at the university will likely lead to similar programs being created elsewhere in future years.

There are plenty of other platforms that will publish or promote your mobile game, including Scopely, Chartboost, and Chelingo, among others. But none to my knowledge, other than MGWU, offers the breadth of development resources. Currently, MGWU makes the most sense for novice or resource-constrained developers, but the company is making strides toward being more universally appealing.

Some developers have contacted the company via forums or direct email to ask about alternative models for using its frameworks. For example, could a developer use its turn-based SDK and not publish through the MGWU network? The answer, at least officially, is no, but Desai tells me they're open to discussing it – the company is seriously considering formalizing alternative models.

One such option is reducing its 30 percent take, possibly to 15 percent, and offering no other resources. But at this point it’s just speculation. As the MGWU network effects and value proposition grow, expect the company to be more creative and flexible in its model. This will be necessary if the company is to compete with the above-mentioned big boys, which are both better funded and more widely recognized. With the thin margins of game development platforms, scale is your friend. MakeGamesWithUs doesn’t have it yet, but the young company is doing the right things to get there.

According to Desai, the average lifetime value of apps in the iTunes App Store $2,000. While his young company does not enough data to confidently declare its own statistics, early trends suggest that its figure will be significantly higher than this, he tells me. The company raised what it describes as a “decent sized Seed round” following YC, but isn’t revealing details of how much or from whom.

Startups and web technology are growing more ubiquitous, and more appealing by the day. Seasoned entrepreneurs and venture capitalists alike regularly give advice that amounts to, “Get in the habit of making things. It doesn’t matter what it is. Just build.” Fortunately, for anyone looking to make the leap into this world of bits and bites, there have never been better tools available.