In the present day in an unspecified galaxy, a party of four anthropomorphic mercenary cats have crash-landed on an inhospitable planet. Their mission: to refuel their ship by activating multiple generators and escape before their life support systems are exhausted. Will they work as a team, or will one betray the other three, leaving them to perish?

That is the premise of Starcats, a local-couch multiplayer game that a team of 14 Bradley University students developed as part of a senior capstone project that was a requirement for game design students. Programmer Luke Grebe of East Peoria suggested the name, which would originally have been Astroyata.

“The 14 team members voted on what to call the game, and when Luke gave us his idea for a name, we asked him what it meant in English,” said game producer Quentin Young of Groveland. He told us it was Greek for “Starcats.” The name was going to be either fully Greek or fully English, and we went with the English version.”

Starcats, which Young described as a cooperative-competitive game, was such a successful project that it placed in the top five entries in the Entertainment Software Association’s collegiate competition out of a field of more than 400 colleges. As creators of one of the five finalists, the Starcats team has been invited to attend the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) convention in Los Angeles this month. The E3 convention is the world’s largest gaming conference.

“A lot of people have been asking me if I’m nervous to be competing in E3 or excited to have been asked to the convention,” said Young. “I really don’t have an answer for them, because it’s hard to describe how I feel that my dream is coming true. I grew up watching E3, since it’s televised on Spike. I watched when they announced the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3. Now, at 22 years old and fresh out of college, I’m going to be there, and that blows my mind.”

“I did not think a game I worked on would be showcased at E3 as early as it has been,” said Grebe. “I am amazed that all the work we put in on this game is going to on display at such a prestigious event.”

The team that worked on Starcats was a mix of interactive media and computer science majors. If developing Starcats had been a game in itself, no team member would have had the option to work selfishly. They had to work together, or they would not have activated all the generators and escaped their planet.

“No one person that worked on this game had all the skills needed to develop the whole thing singlehanded,” said Young. “We had specific team members who were focused only on working on the menu system. We needed modelers who knew how to build a three-dimensional object. We needed programmers who could introduce that object into the game and make it move when we told it to move. And we needed designers to make sure each level worked correctly.”

The Starcats team split into three smaller teams to work on the game: an art team, a programming team, and a design team. A major challenge in completing the assignment was a hurdle common to many group projects: communication.

“People on one team would get stuff done without telling the other two teams, or they would need something from one of the other teams and not be able to contact them,” said Grebe.

During the school year, Bradley University could fund such requirements as buying software. Because the school year is over and most of the developers have graduated, however, university funding is not available, and the developers of Starcats must fund their trip to Los Angeles themselves.

“The Entertainment Software Association gave us complementary passes, but we have to pay for hotel rooms and airfare ourselves,” said Young. “When we get to E3, there are a lot of things that could happen. We could be approached on the show floor by someone who wants to fund us to continue development. We could be approached individually by people who offer us jobs, which would obviously break up the development team. Or, we could just get enough positive feedback that we could come back to Illinois to continue development and try to fund it ourselves.”

Starcats is based on the concept of The Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which a group of otherwise rational individuals might not cooperate, even when it seems in their best interests to do so. What makes the game different from most other group-based games is the freedom individual players have to choose whether to act selfishly or unselfishly.

“Other games tend to push players either into working together or working against each other,” said Young. “We’re hands-off in that regard. The players choose which direction they want to go.”

The Starcats website is www.starcats.com. A game trailer is available for viewing on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G3xioH_a1cA.