LOS ANGELES — The University of Southern California has one of the top game design programs in the country. The school’s Advanced Games class consists of big student teams who are building games from idea to completion over the course of a full academic year.
Mike Zyda, head of the GamePipe Laboratory at USC Games, invited me to visit Advanced Games class to see seven works in progress at the point where all of them had working demos. I was stunned to see just how advanced these games are. They’re being built by teams that range in size from 15 to 60 students. (See our story on the game program here).
The USC graduate program has been named the best game design program for the fifth year in a row by the Princeton Review, while the undergrad program is also ranked No. 1. The advanced games class is a program within USC Games, which is a collaboration of the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ Interactive Media & Games division and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s department of computer science.
The summer before, the game creators pitched their ideas to the game faculty and received approval. Then they recruited student teams and started working on the games at the beginning of the fall semester. The teams are building prototypes that, by the end of the year, will be full working demos with multiple hours of gameplay. They will show these off at USC’s game demo day in May, and they could very well be a ticket for many students to get jobs in the video game business.
The games in the works have a rich variety. They include a platformer called Bloom; Social Clues, a game for the autistic; a stealth multiplayer title dubbed FatLoot; mobile game Cole; virtual reality game Rhea; ocean-exploration title Miralab; and a real-time strategy game called Maestros. Each team has four or five leaders from different parts of USC, including the computer science department, business administration, interactive media, films, and animation. The students in the Advanced Games Program come from both undergraduate and graduate programs. There’s so many of them on the teams that the whole bunch doesn’t fit into some of the engineering and cinematic arts classrooms.
Bloom is a 2.5D adventure platformer game that is as ambitious as any console title, with a team of 60 students. You play the last plant seedling on Earth in the future where everything has been industrialized. Robots gained control and killed almost all life. Your task is to turn everything green again.
“It took a lot of work to make it look this good,” said Khaled Abdel Rahman, one of Bloom’s team leaders, during a demo. “We are trying for a triple-A aesthetic.”
The seedling starts alone, walking and jumping around the world. A robot takes pity on you and helps you escape. You scroll sideways through a Wall-E style landscape that is bleak and depressing. The music is moody but pretty, almost hopeful, as you explore.
Bloom combines both traditional controllers and gesture-based controls. You encounter puzzles where you have to use unique gesture-based abilities like growing a spiked root outward from the ground. This gives you a platform to cross gaps and a weapon to disable robots. Anything you touch sprouts with life. You have to use these abilities to figure out puzzles.
“This is where the game shines,” Abdel Rahman said. “The puzzles get more and more complex along the way.”
You have to periodically fight bosses that require some deft maneuvers to beat. Abdel Rahman showed a multistep process that the seedling has to do in order to damage the robot boss and eventually take it down.
Each of the three levels has a completely new art style. The title is original, but it will remind you of the gameplay and art styles of Pikmin and Flower. By the end of the semester, the game will have four levels and a complete boss fight. Eventually, if a publisher picks it up, the full game could have more than eight levels.
The game will be both single player and four-player multiplayer. It is built in Unity 3D engine and looks beautiful, with lots of colors and realistic shadows and lighting. The title supports cross play between the iPad and PC. The plan is to adapt it to the PlayStation Vita as well.
The team uses professional tools like Unity, SBM for version control, Google Drive for art work, and Hansoft for bug-tracking and project management. Most of the tools are donated.
Social Clues is a “serious game” that teaches children with autism and other disabilities that can affect how well kids communicate. The puzzle-adventure iPad game and therapy tool shows children “soft skills,” or how to talk with other people. One of the team leaders is Jeremy Bernstein, whose wife, Karen Okrent, is a speech language pathologist. They came up with the idea to use a game to teach kids practical communication skills. They recognized that a game could combine kids’ affinity for interactive media with the need to practice real-world behavior through role-playing.
“My wife scoured the landscape and found nothing was meeting her needs,” Bernstein said in an interview.
The game starts with the Mum family, whose members are antisocial and just watch TV or play with toys. One day, their toys disappear. Then they have to go out to the real world and talk to people to get their toys back. Pete is a boy,and Kate is a girl, while their pet parrot Sherlock is the one who knows how to talk.
The parrot tells them about situations that they get into and asks them what they will do. It starts with the child learning how to converse with a father, advising them on matters like making eye contact. Then it leads to situations like a scene in a cafeteria. A girl drops her tray and is crying. The child-player approaches her and starts a conversation.
The child can offer supportive comments or ignore the girl’s tears. If they make the wrong choice, the parrot will tell them why it might be incorrect and what might be the choice with the most empathy. It teaches them how to listen and focus on what the other person needs, rather than what the player needs, and what the player can do to help.
The game is for high-functioning kids with autism, ages 5-9. It is also for neural-typical children ages 5-7. They created a full script for the game and were approved to start their project last summer.
Bernstein and Okrent assembled a team of 30 students to make it. The team built the prototype, and they have some playtesting sessions going on with the local children’s hospital. If they’re on the right track, they’ll pursue a way to publish the game. They created a full script and USC approved them to start their project last summer.
The full game will have testable materials and metrics for analysis so teachers can track a child’s progress. Parents will be able to log in and see the choices that the kids made and how long it took them to make a decision. The full game will have testable materials and metrics for analysis so teachers can track a child’s progress. Parents will be able to log in and see the choices that the kids made and how long it took them to decide.
“We want the parents to be able to dig deep and understand exactly why the kids made their choices,” Bernstein said.
The team is building three levels with nine characters in multiple environments. They’re creating “toy box” items. They have 12 more scripts written for other characters and levels. They can add more variability and lessons that deal with a different kind of problem. It’s a modular, character-driven game. They have 12 more scripts written for other characters and levels. They can add more variability and lessons that deal with a different kind of problem. It’s a modular, character-driven game.
Jay Henningsen, founder of serious games firm Virtual Heroes, saw the demo and told Bernstein he had a great project and that he should speak at the upcoming Games for Health conference in Boston.
Fat Loot is a capture the flag-style game focused on stealth. Four players compete against each other, trying to break into a guarded palace and take a treasure. They then return to their home base to earn points. Game-controlled guards roam the halls and stop the thieves if they can. Players are visible if they step into the light, but they can sneak around in the dark. It has a Chinese theme with comic characters like the Ginseng Baby or a rabbit who fancies himself as a tiger.
The team consists of 30 people, all of them working for half the school year so far. It has two maps and four characters. It’s a free-for-all, where players try to grab as much loot as they can. The game doesn’t have any killing, but you can stun your rivals and push them into the guards’ view. It has cool, cartoon-style 3D animation with full lighting and shadows. It is built with Unreal Engine 3.
“The game is a competitive game where you try to steal the most in the time allotted,” said team leader Xiaotian Chen. “An evil queen is hoarding treasure in her palace and these are all master thieves.”
If the team finishes its work by this summer, it will pitch it on Valve’s Steam Greenlight and make it available for download.
Cole is a 2D mobile platformer game with a dark sense of humor. You start out as Cole, an alien who is stuck in a giant factory aboard a big spaceship, shoveling coal along with a bunch of other enslaved workers. You escape and go on a grand adventure. It looks like a kids’ game, but it isn’t.
“At first, we trick the player into thinking that the game is just about shoveling coal,” said Alan Wagner, a student designer of the touchscreen game. “There’s a theme of existentialism. Doing what you’re told at first, and then breaking out. Those were interesting ideas.”
“In the coal room, you’re supposed to be obedient and shovel,” added Jennifer Mallett, the production leader. “You can kill any of the characters in the game, or help them out. It’s your choice.”
In the demo, Cole bumped into a guardian who was blocking his path. The story unfolds through text bubble conversations. Seeking food, Cole conversed with the guardian, who was protecting his son. The guardian offered food and a place to rest in return for a promise to fight the captain of the ship.
Fulfilling such quests takes up a lot of your time. You spend a lot of it jumping from one wall to another, evading the laser-sight weapons of the enemies. That wall jumping seemed like the most challenging part of the game. You try to uncover the mystery of where the giant spaceship is going.
Cole uses Unity for both iOS and Android. It has about eight levels so far. It is being built by a team of about 20, including five designers, eight engineers, and a lot of external artists.
Rhea is a first-person adventure game for the PC and the Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles. You can explore the beautiful 3D landscape by flying through it or exploring the open world at your own pace. It mixes rails-based SSX-style flying gameplay with Myst-like style slow and thoughtful explanation.
The name comes from Rhea, the mother of Zeus in greek mythology. You put on the goggles and are transported into this world where, long ago, people could fly thanks to a gift from Rhea. They built a beautiful city and the created walls so no one could get in. But they misused a resource, ether, which enables them to fly but eventually leads to their disappearance. Your job is to explore the place and find out why. The challenge is finding your way into the city.
“We want to reward the player for exploring,” said Riley Pietsch, one of the development team leaders.
A series of obstacle courses challenge your capability to fly and whether you’re worthy of finding the lost civilization. That pushes the flight system to the limit.
The design of the levels are different because they have a lot more verticality than a typical game. You can use the Rift to look up and see places that you need to go, said producer Colleen Dimmer.
“If you don’t have that, you have to ask what’s the point of using the Rift,” she said.
Rhea has six levels, including some larger ones for flying. The team has 18 students.
The game uses some of the older technology associated with earlier Oculus Rift prototypes. So when I tried it out, it made me a little seasick. Oculus VR showed off a new demo, dubbed Crystal Cove, in January that addressed the motion sickness by reducing the blur that occurs when you move. The team included a dot in the center of the screen that I found to be helpful in reorienting myself whenever I got a little dizzy from the flying movement. The funny thing is that the fast-moving scenes have a lower risk of creating motion sickness than the slower scenes, Dimmer said.
“The Rift is really great because you can explore all axes of motion with a lot more immersion,” Pietsch said.
In Miralab, you get to experience what it’s like to be an immortal jellyfish. The title is an experimental underwater ecosystem exploration game, and it’s a game inspired by marine biology. The aim is to get the player interested the aquatic science.
You guide a bioluminescent being through the colorful underwater world and experience what it’s like to be in different parts of a life cycle. You start out as a baby, move to an adult, and even move on toward an aging, almost-senile jellyfish. The latter has a more psychedelic perspective on the world.
“We’re the experimental part of the class and have had a chance to explore unique mechanics,” said Amanda Tasse, the coleader of the student team. “We’re getting people interested in marine biology without being didactic. We’re doing it with a fun experience.”
The visual look is called “aquatic retro futurism, which resembles ‘Tron meets Child of Eden with an underwater sci-fi feel,'” she said. The environment has underwater caverns, plant life, and fishes. You have to figure out puzzles, like feeding fish and creating an opening for you to pass through.
The game has dynamic sounds through a whole level.
“It’s almost like you are playing an orchestra of underwater sounds,” Tasse said.
You can run into bioluminescent creatures. It has needlefish and dynamic kelp, which reproduce and grow. The jellyfish can also uncover lost memories from other immortal jellyfish. The game is split between an open design and a more linear sequence, said Matt Kane, co-team leader. There are some consequences to your actions, as you can have an impact on the ecosystem. You want to survive and find other immortal jellyfish.
“We’ve taken an emotional design approach,” Tasse said. “As a jellyfish, what might you be curious about? What does it feel like to explore the world at different life stages?”
The team has about 20 people. They’re working on three different levels and polishing them now. It is being built for the PC with the Unity 3D engine. You’ll be able to play it with a mouse or an Xbox controller.
Matt Kane, one of the leaders, said the game started as a simulation title with a five-hour experience. But that proved to be tough to do so the team shifted toward a linear, semi-narrative experience. The experience will be much tighter, targeting about 20 minutes.
“We started with unprecedented lofty goals and brought it back down to earth,” Kane said.
Tasse said that, after the class is done, she wants to continue building out the fuller simulation and more in-depth experience.
Maestros is a real-time strategy game akin to StarCraft. It is influenced by new multiplayer online battle arena games like League of Legends, but Maestros has its own unique gameplay and art style.
The title is built in Unreal Engine 3 and gives you a bird’s eye view of a battlefield. You command a human leader, a Tinkermeister, who is accompanied by smaller characters known as minions. You move from resource to resource, absorbing energy that enables you to build up the strength of your minions. You collect the energy by killing non-player characters.
“I really loved playing StarCraft and Warcraft when I was younger, but I had a hard time getting people into it because it was so complicated,” said Dru Erridge, student team leader. “I wanted to make a game that was simpler and you could be in the action sooner, which is attacking and having armies with full abilities.”
He pitched the game to USC’s game faculty and got approved. Now he runs a 45-person team.
In the game, you can send two minions to certain points that enable you to meld those minions into one stronger character with a special ability.
When you pass near some enemies, you can click on them to attack. But if you pass near enemies, your minions will automatically attack. You can pick up weapons like land mines, which you can drop to blow up your enemies. The animations for the action are quite elaborate.
I tried the demo out by diving right in. It would have been better to play the tutorial first, but I didn’t have the time and the team leaders coached me on what to do. The easy part is that you control your leader and don’t have to micromanage every single soldier. In this way, the team is trying to innovate within a crowded real-time strategy genre.
Erridge said, “It’s a fast-paced strategy game that is also a lot easier to get into than a typical game in this genre where you have a lot of systems to think about. We wanted to be able to send it out to friends and family to play it with them.”
I saw one playable race, but the team is building another fully playable race with different abilities, units, and weapons. Erridge will show an alpha version of the game off at the Game Developers Conference. Then the team will try to finish up a beta version by May.