Deep down in the depths of a basement in SoMA, a group of high school students are working furiously to develop mobile games.
The students are participating in the MakeGamesWithUs summer internship program. MakeGamesWithUs is a Y Combinator startup that teaches people how to build iPhone games using online project-based tutorials. The five-person team now hosts 75 students in its Palo Alto “hacker house” and SF office space who are dedicating their summers to learning how to code.
Founder Ashu Desai said the experience of running a large internship program while at the same time attempting to build a successful startup is “hectic.” He doesn’t get much sleep or have time to socialize because a lot of the startup work gets pushed to after-hours. Desai said that despite all that, the experience is ultimately worth it.
“Our team all lives and works in that house, and now everyday, and sometimes nights and weekends, we have kids working on games there,” he said in an interview at the SoMA office space. “Early startups are warned about taking on interns because they can be a distraction, but the YC mantra is to write code and talk to users. What better way than to invite them into our living room everyday?”
MakeGamesWIthUs guides users through the game development process and provides a community where they can get help, give/receive feedback, brainstorm ideas, and troubleshoot problems. As they near completion, MakeGamesWithUs will help incorporate professional art, music, and trickier features. The team also helps with debugging, and finally publishes and promotes the games for a share of the revenue. A majority of the games built during the summer internship program will become part of MakeGamesWithUs’ library, and the team directly interacts with people everyday that go through its game development process. Desai said that this puts the startup is in a unique position because the internship program helps it achieve its biggest goal — to increase the volume of games.
“This wouldn’t be feasible if the interns were working on our products, but they aren’t, they are working on their own, Desai said. “Computer science is becoming more mainstream, but plenty of people who leave school with computer science degrees can’t code. There is an art to building a product, and there is not a large quantity of high caliber engineers out there. We are working with Silicon Valley’s future tech talent, and they are able to think of games no-one else has thought of yet.”
Youth unemployment recently hit an alarming 16.2 percent and yet tech companies are perpetually hunting for developers to hire. Many university computer science programs are more theoretical than practical, so graduating with a CS degree from an elite institution does not necessarily mean you have the skills needed to build an actual product. As a result, Silicon Valley startups are known for valuing an individual’s portfolio over an impressive work/educational history. As Desai put it, “the app is the new resume.” The students are choosing to spend their summers sitting in front of computers because they want to develop skills that they can’t learn in school.
MakeGamesWithUs had 160 applications for its program this summer and chose around 75 students to participate. Most are high school kids, although around 40 percent are college students. Each intern goes through MakeGamesWithUs’ online tutorials before the program starts. The program runs for nine weeks and participants must attend at least four. During this time, they brainstorm ideas, scope out logistics and set realistic goals, and then get started building. When they have a question about code or design, they can discuss it with MakeGamesWithUs’s team or their peers. Twice a week there are play testing sessions. The summer culminates in a demo day. The program is free and unpaid, and the students own all their code.
Jake O’Rielly is an 18-year old who graduated from high school a couple months ago. He said his dad works in IT and he has been into computers from a young age. He is also interested in comedy and participates in an open mic night near his house in Marin. His game brings these two seemingly disparate interests together.
“I like the idea of trying to create an experience for someone else, an experience you imagine and then transfer to another person,” O’Rielly said. “I feel like there are a lot less genre variety in games than in others areas like books and movies. There aren’t a lot of pure comedy games out there, and its interesting to think of mobile games as a budding medium for it, just as comic books were back in the 50s.”
O’Rielly’s game is called “Many Games of Life.” It consists of mini-games that take you through actions in someones life, like waking up, catching the bus, making pancakes etc… As you do various actions, the game generates comments with what O’Rielly calls his “cynical sarcastic humor.” He said building it was a lot more fun than working as a bag boy at the grocery store, and it also showed his mom that this could be a “real job.”
This is the second year MakeGamesWithUs ran the program. The inspiration came after Desai and cofounder Jeremy Rossmann taught a class on building iPhone games at Menlo High School and the students were so excited, they extended it into the summer. 30 kids participated last year and the interest is growing. The team is thinking of expanding it into new locations around the country, and will definitely do it again next year. In the meantime, hopefully, they will find a little time for a vacation.