SIDEWALK SERIES: Leveling up in the virtual world: UI computer science students use their skills to develop iPhone game

Joey Gentry and Brandon Morton got hooked on video games when they were young -- but not in the way you might think.

Gentry, 23, and Morton, 22, are game programmers.

"Since I was in sixth grade, I knew I wanted to develop video games," Gentry said. "I didn't know what path that meant, but I knew I wanted to do it." He wrote his first game in 11th grade -- a first-person shooter game he describes now as "horrible." "You could, like, reload while you were dead," he said with a laugh.

Morton didn't own a computer until college, so in high school he wrote games for his graphing calculator.

"I actually did a lot of programming in notebooks," he said.

Both decided to pursue computer science at the University of Idaho -- Gentry is now a junior, and Morton is in graduate school.

The two met when Morton overheard Gentry talking about a class scheduling program he'd developed. Morton had difficulty figuring out schedules when he was a freshman and thought Gentry's idea was "awesome." Gentry said the two discussed a few ideas for it, and Morton's were "genius." Their partnership -- now known as MurderDev ("developing killer software") -- was born.

Gentry and Morton released their first game for the iPhone, "Cave Dweller," in September and have watched the download numbers and good reviews grow.

"Cave Dweller" is a puzzle game starring a character who must gather bombs and bust his way out of a maze-like cave without becoming trapped. Every time he moves, a block falls, complicating the maze.

"You'll play almost to the end and realize you missed something and you can't win," Gentry said.

The game has 23 levels and a program that allows players to create and test their own levels, one of Gentry and Morton's favorite features because it allows players to stay engaged in the game.

"Most iPhone games you download, you play whatever's on there and you're done," Morton said.

The two decided to create a game for the iPhone because of its touch-screen and the easy distribution network through the iPhone App Store -- but neither are Mac users.

"I actually don't have a Mac. I don't even have an iPhone," Morton said. "I just get to be behind the scenes and develop for it." They programmed the game on one of Gentry's PCs using a technique known as "Hackintosh" -- forcing Mac operating software to run on a non-Mac computer.

The equipment for that, plus the money to pay an artist to design the game's graphics, totaled about $250. Gentry said they hope to earn enough off the game's $1.99 download charge to pay for their work and possibly get started on the next project.

Gentry has ideas for a car-parking puzzle game for the iPhone, and he'd like to design for PC or Xbox someday.

"It's our first game," he said. "We'll see what happens in the future." Morton hopes these first steps in programming will help launch a career designing game engines -- basically, pieces of software that lay out the physical rules that govern a video game world.

"In the natural world, when you run into a wall, there's nothing that needs to tell you you've hit a wall," he said. "In a game a wall's ... just a bunch of triangles, and you're just a bunch of triangles." Morton and Gentry agreed their experience designing "Cave Dweller" is a vital factor to their future success. They've learned the basics of computer science in class, but the hands-on work is where it becomes real.

"You have to do it on your own," Gentry said. "It's not going to happen overnight."

On the Web Tara Roberts can be reached at (208) 882-5561, ext. 234, or by e-mail at

To see more of the Moscow-Pullman Daily News or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2009, Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Moscow, Idaho Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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