SUNNYVALE -- In 48 hours of intense genius, bonding and pure geekdom, teams of young engineers and digital artists focused nonstop on white boards and laptop screens to each create a video game, an endeavor that normally takes a few months to several years.
The 30-plus programmers camping out on the linoleum floors of Cogswell Polytechnical College classrooms were among the more than 16,000 game developers in 63 countries participating in the Global Game Jam, a two-day, noncompetitive marathon of video-game creation.
Similar conclaves were held in Santa Cruz and San Francisco. Fueled by Maui potato chips, trail mix and caffeine in various forms, programmers worked nonstop, by turns catnapping here and there.
Why did the time frame have to be so compressed?
"If you have a lot of time, you procrastinate," said Dustin Bayer, 20, a sophomore at Cogswell, a 125-year-old institution that's become one of the pre-eminent schools in video game design and digital cinema.
And there's nothing like a deadline to concentrate the mind. Beginning Friday afternoon, "we spent a couple of hours throwing out terrible ideas," said Zach Childers, 21, a sophomore.
In his group, there were the initial glitches -- only one of the computers could connect to the Internet -- and subsequent ones -- when team member Troy Norcross, 27, twice lost hours of scripting after the Unity engine "hiccuped."
The frenetic programming did somewhat reflect the real world of game industry, notorious for its crazy pace, followed by a lull after a game is marketed and programmers are laid off.
The theme this year in the event, which encourages collaboration and learning, was "heartbeat."
Childers' team drew on elements from all its members to create "Healer," where players seek to keep the allies' hearts beating, survive the enemy's attacks, and find a heart. But partly because they tried to create a more complex, 3D, game, not all the elements came together in time.
And yet, even if they were not loving every moment, the game designers said they enjoyed the experience, just as survivors speak nostalgically of a past ordeal.
"Not many people can say they've created a game in 48 hours," said Bayer.
The program-athon also gave budding game designers a chance to network with new people, learn skills and gauge their abilities against others.
"During the event, I'm cursing everything that exists," said Davain Martinez, 20, a junior who purchased and learned a new software program as he went along, to provide sound effects for his team's game, "Shot Through the Heart." In it, a rock-star heart tries to survive bad cholesterol and groupies to find true love.
"To be a game developer, you have to love what you do," said Joshua McCoy, 19, a DeVry University junior.
Not some hobby
And it's more than knowing computer code. A good game designer must be a Renaissance man -- or for the few out there -- woman. "You need to know a little bit of everything -- what's happening in the world, history, religion, music," said Martinez. The designer creates an online experience based in the real world.
"This is not just a hobby, it's an art form," said Albert Chen, assistant professor of digital arts engineering game development at Cogswell, a campus of 330 students just north of Bayshore Freeway in Sunnyvale.
In keeping with the lighthearted mood while doing something incredibly difficult, Chen held an applause contest for the favorite game.
It was close -- "Dude Cell Delivers," about a cute blood cell hefting an oxygen canister, seemed as popular as "Allergy Alliance," characters trying to survive attacks by peanuts, shellfish and fields of flowers.
But "Healer," the unfinished game that one of its creators lamented was broken, won the prize -- a stalk of celery.
It was enough to clear woozy minds and inspire thoughts of getting together again next year. "I'm coming back," said sophomore Kevin Wang. 21. "But I'm bringing a sleeping bag."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.