In May, University of Colorado student Mark Dixon flew to Silicon Valley, Calif. to present his Xbox 360 game, "Produce Wars," to judges at Microsoft's annual Imagine Cup, a competition that brings together the brightest budding young minds in the technological world to compete for cash prizes -- and exposure from Microsoft.
In the midst of finals and at the end of a 21-credit semester, the astronomy and astrophysics graduate student arrived in Silicon Valley as one of four finalists selected in the game design category.
Dixon ended up winning first place.
"Produce Wars" -- which Dixon says is similar to "Angry Birds" but incorporates elements of classic video games like "Donkey Kong Country" and "Mega Man" -- was a project Dixon had been working on with his two brothers before he knew about the Imagine Cup.
While in a computer science class taught by CU lecturer Gabe Johnson, Mark was assigned a project in which he was required to submit a game that served as an exercise in building realistic designs in data structures. Johnson realized that Dixon hadn't turned in a project and emailed him asking if there had been a mix-up.
"Mark responded saying that he's been too busy working on something else, a game that he's been working on for a while. He explained what it entailed, and I gave him credit for that instead since it seemed fairly epic," Johnson said.
Dixon developed a relationship with Johnson, and Johnson eventually became his faculty mentor for his entry in the Imagine Cup.
Mark credits his brother Mike Dixon, a teacher at Kinard Core Knowledge Middle School in Fort Collins, with the original idea of "Produce Wars."
"I was wondering, 'How does someone make so much money off of a game like Angry Birds?' And I thought that we could do so much better, so why don't we?" Mike said.
The brothers -- who grew up in Fort Collins -- then set out to create characters and a game that would evolve "Angry Birds" and other games in that genre. The seven main characters in the game are fruits, each with different abilities. The game is complete with puzzles, explosions and power-ups.
"It's a physics game. Similar to angry birds, some of it is tee it up, knock it down and smash it. From there we decided to evolve it further, and brought in mechanics from games that were favorites from when I was a kid, like the shooting out of barrels from Donkey Kong," Mark said.
As a team effort, Mike enhanced the idea and developed the characters, youngest brother Chris Dixon did the artwork and graphic, and Mark did the game coding and programming.
In the Imagine Cup, Mark won $5,000 for Best Pitch and another $5,000 for Best Game. His winnings are going into the company the brothers are building, a startup they're calling Gigaloth.
"This game is sort of like a proof of concept," Mark said. "We want to take these characters and move onto new characters and other ideas."
Mike has already started to write children's book from the "Produce Wars" concept, and collectively, the brothers are focused taking technology and making learning for children and teenagers enjoyable.
In Mark's mind "Produce Wars" and his success is only a start. He hopes to form a more formal team at next year's competition, with aspirations of coming out on top again. "Produce Wars was something where I could teach myself programming using a familiar subject area and demonstrate high quality production value on even an amateur project," said Mark. "The purpose of it was so that I could have the credibility to go to crowd funding sources like Kickstarter on my next project. Any success it may have is essentially bonus."