When they began their final semester at Cornell in the Spring of 2019, they had no idea they would become a viral phenomenon in Thailand just a year later. But when the members of the future game design studio Chef Party — Gabriel Lane ’19, Jacob Gleberman ’19, Jeremy Storey ’19, Rena Ryumae ’19, Ryan Feldman ’19, Sameer Khoja ’19 and Ziyad Durón ’19 — sat down to brainstorm mechanics, they knew they had something special on their hands.
The idea? A co-op mobile cooking game that asks players to work as a team to fulfill orders from a colorful restaurant’s never-satisfied clientele. Two to eight players (although the developers insist it’s more fun with three or more) sit in a circle and swipe ingredients to their teammates in a fast-paced test of reflexes and communication. Players connect with their friends online through a six-digit passcode system made of colorful food items instead of numbers and have to collaborate in order to progress through the game. Family Style originally began as a team project in Cornell’s Advanced Computer Game Development class. Taught by Prof. Walker White, computer science, and Prof. Traci Nathans-Kelly, engineering, the course is intended for seniors who want to develop games with 3D graphics, online multiplayer or a focus on mobile platforms.
Chef Party picked both online multiplayer and mobile platforms, a decision which may be the reason the game became so popular. They were inspired by the cooperative cooking elements of the console favorite Overcooked and the physical card game Spaceteam, but wanted to focus on bringing collaborative playstyles to mobile devices. This idea paid off at the end of the semester, when Family Style was voted the the number one game by both audience members and judges at the annual Game Design Initiative at Cornell Showcase. Storey, who majored in Electrical and Computer Engineering, said he worked on the game “harder than any other class I had ever taken. Lots of long nights and sessions. I’ll always remember walking home at sunrise the day of our showcase happy that the game was ready to be shown off.”
But that wasn’t where Family Style’s journey ended. Even though all seven of the game’s developers had graduated from Cornell, they wanted to publicly release it on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. Thanks to their experience in class, they knew exactly how to go about it.
The game was already conceptually done when the team departed Cornell, but they still had a lot of work to do before a public release. They knew paying for game servers would be expensive, and were hesitant to rely on in-app purchases and publish their game without a buffer of money. One of Advanced Computer Game Development’s later assignments was the creation of a Kickstarter video, so Chef Party decided to use the platform to raise funds. It would also provide them with an advertising budget — a game can’t succeed if no one plays it. So the team spruced up their video, adding footage of the team adorned in chef hats and aprons at the GDIAC Showcase, and launched a Kickstarter campaign in September of 2019.
Chef Party offered cookbooks and branded hats as backer rewards; they reached their goal within the first week. They felt a little strange asking friends and family to contribute money, but by the end of thirty days, they raised over $2,000, double the amount they’d originally asked for. Fully funded, they published their game to Google Play and the Apple App store.
Even with the successful funding campaign, the process of finishing their game was not all easy. By the time of publication, most of Chef Party was off working in the real world; Durón, a graduate of Cornell’s Information Science program, was studying game development as a grad student at NYU. He told the Sun that Family Style “has given me a way to get my foot in the door. It’s a great resume piece to point toward and demonstrate my own personal ability,” but went on to admit that work on the game impacts his ability to complete his studies, calling it a “worthy sacrifice.”
Despite the weighty time commitment, each member of the team still worked hard after graduation, checking in weekly on Slack to work on the game and Kickstarter. Feldman, who studied Computer Science while at Cornell, said that even with Slack “it is incredibly difficult to coordinate with us all in different places and time zones.” Feldman continued: “There have been many moments of hectic, seemingly disastrous events that put the rest of my life on hold until we can work through. However, it’s an easy choice to make. The amount of love and support we have gotten by players of the game make it easy to stay motivated and, as a lot of our Thai players like to say, ‘keep fighting.’”
Perhaps the most surprising result of Family Style’s success has been its impact in Thailand. Although the game came out in November, the team worried that they hadn’t created enough buzz on social media. The Kickstarter campaign was successful in spreading the word, but Chef Party didn’t create a social media presence until the game was almost done. The team was thrilled when Apple decided to feature Family Style on the front page of the App Store’s “Games” section that same month, but as it turned out, digital word-of-mouth was the best advertising they could hope for. In the first week of January 2020, the game went viral on Thai social media. At first, Chef Party only noticed a single Thai post describing their game gaining traction on Facebook, but then Thai gaming YouTube channels like LightKira Channel began playing the game for their thousands of viewers, inspiring more people to want to experience the hectic gameplay for themselves. The game’s popularity, however, wasn’t quite the blessing it might have seemed — the team soon ran into a problem.
The team had only prepared for a small user base with a maximum of 100 concurrent players — Chef Party’s servers weren’t prepared for hundreds of thousands of people playing at once. According to Feldman, Family Style was “losing thousands of dollars a day while being essentially unplayable.” Their new fanbase rushed to ask what was wrong with frantic messages to the Chef Party social media accounts — the team shared one DM from a fan reading “Plz Fix now! My friend will eat my head!” On January 11th of this year, they temporarily shut down Family Style and upgraded their servers to support 150,000 simultaneous players, with a catch: The game would now be ad-supported to keep up with the increased costs.
This change did nothing to slow the momentum the team had reached online, and hundreds of international fans took to Twitter to show their support. Dozens of messages urging the developers to “keep fighting” popped up in their mentions, with some users even asking for an option to pay for the otherwise free game to disable ads and support the server expansion. When the team announced that they’d fixed the issue and updated their servers, their Twitter mentions erupted in even more support.
Today, Chef Party is still regularly updating Family Style, adding new ingredients and theme packs while fixing network bugs. The game is only continuing to grow in popularity as Chef Party found a new audience stateside in attendees of DreamHack Anaheim, a gaming convention where the team set up a colorful booth complete with prop food. The seven alumni started their journey here in Ithaca, but through a social media campaign, a stroke of luck and a motto of “keep fighting,” they created a video game with devoted fans around the world.
Olivia Bono is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]