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Jasper Lin Conquers Robocraft And Wins Prizes, Job Prospects

By Curt Fischer

Jasper S. Lin G, winner of this year’s IAP Robocraft programming competition, didn’t even have a chance to set down his prizes — $5,000 and a free iPod — before the Google recruiters began to surround him.

Lin’s nail-biter victory over Nicholas A. Behrens G in a thrilling final match was the capstone to the biggest tournament in Robocraft (6.370) history. Up for grabs was over $20,000 in prizes, provided by a slew of corporate sponsors.

Why are companies drawn to the Robocraft tournament? In the game, players develop programs that control a virtual robot army, which is pitted against their opponent’s army. The twist is that each robot must be programmed independently of the others. This year’s tournament was themed “king of the hill”: teams programmed their armies to find and defend a set number of hills scattered over the game map, all the while expanding their armies to fend off their opponents’ attacks.

The result is that contestants are “solving the problems that we solve,” said Matt Flint, senior engineer at lead sponsor BAE Systems, which develops communications systems between unmanned military vehicles.

“Sponsor companies are very receptive,” said Adam V. Donovan ’07, a director of this year’s event. “They see finalists as the best of the best.”

This year, 296 contestants were divided into 132 teams. The final event of Robocraft was a double-elimination tournament among the eight teams lucky enough to survive Thursday’s qualifying tournament.

The pitched battles quickly narrowed the field. 50billion, a team composed of Michal Wexler ’08, Eitan Z. Reich ’07, and Adam Lerer ’09, finished fourth and collected $1500. In third place and collecting $2000 was Jaime Quinonez ’07.

Though eventual champion Lin was sent to the losers’ bracket by an early loss to Behrens, he rallied to win that bracket and face Behrens again in the final.

Lin bested Behrens in this second match by forcing a final tie-breaker in which his army took an early lead, entrenching itself in positions on the final map’s hills. Behren’s force mounted a late assault to take the majority of the hills, but Lin was able to hang on long enough to claim victory.

The crowd in 10-250 cheered and gasped as the tides turned in the battle. “It was the loudest I’ve ever heard 10-250,” said Donovan.

Strategies varied from team to team. Lin, who competed as a team of one, said he focused on spending energy as quickly as possible. He programmed fighter robots in his army to ferry energy to the peripheral units, allowing his forces on the hills to remain strong. By contrast, some other teams’ strategies focused on building roving squadrons of fighters, which attacked hills and the home bases of the opponents.

Thursday’s qualifying tournament and Saturday’s finals capped an intense month of coding for the participants. Even though the game’s software and specifications were not released until the beginning of IAP, runner-up Behrens said that he began planning strategy and implementing basic code in September. The final programs of the 132-team field comprised 355,000 lines of code, which would represent about 74 man-years of development time, said Matthew M. Papi ’07, a director of this year’s tournament.

Aaron B. Iba ’05, co-director of the 2004 and 2005 events and a member of the 2003 winning team, returned this year as a recruiter from Google. “I wouldn’t miss this competition no matter what,” Iba said.

Directors Donovan, Papi and Yang Yang ’07 began to work on this year’s competition over a year ago. In addition to updating game objectives and mechanics, the developers also reworked the game’s core engine and developed new graphics and sound effects. This year also saw the introduction of classroom sessions designed to teach the strategic principles and Java programming techniques needed to succeed in the game.

What makes all the work worth it? “Sitting back in the rows and taking it all in, listening to all the teams cheer,” Papi said.