The most exciting part about being in a room full of students and their video game projects is that any one of them might turn out to be the next big developer.

I went to the University of Southern California’s Fall 2014 Demo Day, a showcase for student development teams to talk about their work-in-progress games. These juniors and seniors are from USC Games’ Advanced Game class. Once a committee approves their pitches for the course, they only have one school year to assemble a team (including fellow students from USC, alumni, and other schools) and develop a polished game in time for their final presentations in the spring.

It’s a process that mimics what happens in the real world — up to and including forming a company to try to secure funding, should they want to. That’s one of the reasons why the program has such a sterling reputation, which seems to keep growing every year.

According to the Princeton Review, it’s the No.1 game design program in North America. People who’ve taken the class in the past have gone on to do stellar work in the industry, such as Journey developers Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago, Threes developer Asher Vollmer, and Matt Korba and Paul Bellezza from The Odd Gentlemen (the studio that recently inherited the historic King’s Quest franchise). The professors teach students not just how to turn their ideas into commercial products, but also to push the boundaries of what video games can be.

The December version of Demo Day marks the halfway point of the class, so the deadline forces the students to have a playable version of their games up and running. Since it’s still early, many had unfinished or temporary animations, sounds, and graphics. But the core gameplay ideas were there and they showed a lot of potential. I can’t wait to see how much will change between now and May, when I’ll check in with the student teams again at the spring Demo Day.

In the meantime, here’s a quick look at the five projects they’re working on. (To see how they turned out, check out part two of my story here.)


USC Demo Day 2014: ElemenTerra

Above: An earlier version of the palette.

Image Credit: Max Pittsley/USC Games

Team size: 35

Target platforms: Oculus Rift DK2 and the Sixense STEM motion controller

Premise: ElemenTerra is built from the ground-up for VR. While the developers want it to be compatible with all sorts of VR devices and controllers, the Demo Day setup used an Oculus Rift headset and Razer Hydra motion controllers. You play as a “nature spirit” who has the power to shape the earth and to grow plants and trees. Director Max Pittsley said the TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender served as an inspiration for the terraforming gameplay. The team hopes that players will feel a connection to the world they’re creating.

How it plays: I kind of felt like a supernatural Bob Ross, the former PBS painter. Tilting the controller in my left hand brings up a transparent palette, but instead of having gobs of paint, it has different types of plant life and abilities to choose from. The right controller is the brush, and if I dip that into one of the spots on my palette, I can use the trigger buttons to make gardens, hills, or even carve through the ground until I see the planet’s core.

USC Demo Day (Dec. 2014)

Above: Here’s ElemenTerra’s hassle-free VR rig and charming welcome mat.

Image Credit: Giancarlo Valdes/GamesBeat

The ElemenTerra team doesn’t want players to use a joystick to turn around, so they built a contraption that funneled the Rift’s wires through a series of pipes to prevent people from getting tangled [pictured right] when they turn their bodies. For now, the game doesn’t have any specific goals or objectives to accomplish — it’s an open-ended sandbox.

What they hope to finish by spring: While the students involved with it spent the fall semester figuring out how ElemenTerra’s mechanics will work, they still have one big question to answer: What do they want it to be?

“We need to decide what to do with the rest of our time,” said Pittsley. “Do we expand it and make it more of a game? Or do we polish it and make it just this really visceral experience that catches on and is this really shiny, perfected nugget of VR?”

King Basil’s Quest for the Crown of Spudly Awesomeness

USC Demo Day 2014: King Basil

Above: Concept art for King Basil.

Image Credit: King Basil Facebook page

Team size: 40

Target platforms: PC, Mac, iOS, Android

Premise: Describing the absurd plot of King Basil’s Quest in my own words doesn’t do it justice, so I’ll let creative director Trevor Taylor explain it to you.

“A fat, pompous ass of a king — Basil — is trying to reclaim a discontinued discount from his favorite medieval fast-food chain, Tater King,” said Taylor. “It’s like Harold and Kumar meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He finds out that if he orders 10,000 [tater nuggets], he gets free nuggs for life from this restaurant. He gets 9,999 and discovers that they discontinued the discount. Outraged, he sets out on a rampage across the land to conquer all Tater Kings until he gets his discount back. And that’s where the gameplay takes place.”

How it plays: The animations were still rough and it took me a few minutes to figure out how to play, but I ended up having some fun with this comedic take on strategy and tower defense games. In order to win, you have to destroy other castles by sending out your archers and knights. With the tablet version, I tapped and dragged my fighters across three different paths. The enemy — stemming from exotic locales like the “wastelands of funk” — have their own soldiers as well, so you have to protect your castle with both your troops and with magical towers.

USC Demo Day (Dec. 2014): King Basil gameplay

Above: Basil’s troops travel along predetermined paths.

The demo also had some surprisingly good voice acting. The dev team hired a few actors from USC, including an improv comedian (Paul Stanko) as the voice of Basil.

What they hope to finish by spring: “I’m happy with what we’ve made now. We have a ton of content to work with,” said Trevor. “Now we just have to polish it. I’d argue we have more animations in our game than any of the other games [here]. It’s just none of it has been polished.”

In addition to making King Basil more intuitive, the team is thinking of putting in a local multiplayer mode. But if that doesn’t work out, they’ll shift focus to building levels and enemies for the “desert sands of the Orc Mariachi,” which will have big orcs dressed up in mariachi outfits and who fight with “maraca maces.”