How I Won First Place At My First Hackathon

292032543_640

I am really amazed that we had completed a working product in less than two days.

By Kimberly Hsiao (Co-Founder, Piggyback)

Friday, May 11 was the first day of my first hackathon. Myself and Andy Jiang, co-founders at Piggyback, heard about the Chartboost Hackathon from Startup Digest and decided to check it out.

The first night was the launch party – an event meant to help developers and designers meet, mingle, and form teams to compete in the mobile game hackathon over the next two days.

I slapped on my “developer” name tag in collaboration with Andy’s “designer” label and walked in with the intent of meeting and mingling. Actually participating in the hackathon was a huge “maybe” for me.

That “maybe” changed into a “yes” pretty quickly. We met Eran Davidov, CTO of SocialBug Labs, and Elliot Lee, Founder of Greengar, halfway through the night. We clicked immediately because the four of us were all enthusiastic about developing a fun, speed-oriented, multi-player game. Within minutes of meeting, we had conceived the basic idea of the game we would create over the weekend: a mobile speed-texting game for one or more players.

Things got even more interesting when Elliot suggested that the players be able to connect to one another over a Bluetooth peer-to-peer (P2P) network rather than through an Internet connection. To our knowledge, connecting players through a local P2P network has not been used in many mobile games, so we set out to be pioneers. We spent the next hour hashing out the details of our idea (which turned out to be a ninjas vs. dragons texting game) before heading home for the night. I was too excited to sleep.

We were given 20 hours total to complete our project: 1pm to 2am on Saturday and 10am to 5pm on Sunday. Andy was our designer and Elliot volunteered to work on the Bluetooth networking aspect. I’ve worked on iPhone apps before, but this would be my first time making a game. For that reason, Eran and I decided to tag team the functionality and basic gameplay.

For the most part, I stuck with what I knew – creating the different dragons and their attack mechanisms, sending messages to model the interactions between ninjas and dragons, and managing the flow of the game. Once that was done, I got the chance to dip my feet into cocos2d objects and animations. I was lucky to have Eran, who gave me a quick rundown on cocos2d and cheerfully answered all my questions.

I don’t want to bore you with the details of our 20-hour coding extravaganza, so I’ll cut to the chase. 20 hours, 15 bags of popchips, and a surprising zero red bulls later, we had completed what we’d set out to do. Our game reliably supports up to 4 players, connected through a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi network. When someone opens the app, they are seamlessly connected to nearby people who are also playing at the same time. Each player has their own set of minion dragons to smite and a boss dragon to slay, which they do by typing in the word shown beneath each monster.

The best part is that our game is both cooperative and competitive; all players fight for their lives against the same dragons, but they also get points for stealing the kills on other players’ dragons. We called it Typing with Strangers: Ninjas vs. Dragons.

Our pitch went as planned (i.e., our app didn’t decide to suddenly crash on us in front of all the judges), and we ended up winning first place!

It was so unreal to me that even during all the hugging and celebrating, I couldn’t quite grasp what just happened – I had placed first in my first hackathon! I suddenly couldn’t believe that I’d ever considered not participating and was glad that I had taken the leap.

Even if we hadn’t won, it still would have been a great experience. Here are a few reasons why I’ll probably be attending many more hackathons in the near future:

  1. Effective Networking

    There were so many great people at the hackathon this past weekend, including several developers and designers with various levels and fields of expertise. It was great to hear advice from more experienced entrepreneurs and relate to budding entrepreneurs like myself.Working with a team of strangers was like taking networking to another level, but I’m positive that we’ll actually keep in touch with one another instead of just losing each others’ business cards. I have no doubt that many companies have been formed as the result of successful hackathons.

  2. Learning Opportunities

    I wasn’t going to jeopardize my team by taking on a feature that I had no clue about, but I’m glad that I got to play around with a new framework and gained first-hand experience with game development. Eran taught me, in 10 minutes, what it probably would have taken me a few hours to learn by myself. I’m a believer that the most effective way to learn is to just do it, and that the easiest way to learn is to have someone show you how to do it. At a hackathon, you get to learn in both the easiest and most effective ways.

  3. Startup Practice

    Participating in a hackathon is like simulating the startup lifecycle in just a few days. You get to work with a team to create the idea, determine the specs, split up the tasks, tweak the specs, test the work in progress, tweak the specs, get some feedback, tweak the specs some more, etc., and eventually pitch your product to a group of critical listeners. For lack of a better word, I think that participating in a hackathon is great “practice” for anybody pursuing a startup.

  4. Accomplishment

    I am really amazed that we had completed a working product in less than two days. It’s surprising how organized and focused a team can become when there’s a time crunch. Working this hard suddenly makes anything less seem inadequate.

As for Typing with Strangers, Andy, Elliot, and I have decided to polish and release it to the App Store in the upcoming weeks. That’s another cool thing that can result from a hackathon – a marketable product ;D

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

Photo credit: Dawn Kawamoto took the picture of the Typing with Strangers team hard at work.

About the guest blogger: Kimberly Hsiao is Co-Founder of Piggyback, a friend-to-friend recommendation service that makes it as easy as possible to manage lists of your favorite places and organize friends’ recommendations. She is a recent UCLA graduate who worked for a year as an Information Security Consultant at PwC before deciding to pursue Piggyback full-time. Kimberly believes that people should constantly be taking on new challenges and seeking innovation. Follow her on Twitter at @kimberlyhsiao.