GamesBeat: You can train them to be creative, but you also want to get them jobs in the industry.
Bilson: That’s really important to me, to train them. No matter what they’re making, have them make it with a quality process and quality standards and feedback loops, professional feedback loops. Whatever they choose to make, it can be the best of what it is. Again, we get to do a variety of games. Every spring a run a greenlight for advanced games. This year we had 12 finalists and picked six. I was really clear that number 12 would have been a good greenlight. That’s how good the students are getting at creating game experiences.
I want to point out one other thin. When we say we’re number one, we’re number one this year. Maybe we’ll be number one next year. A couple of other schools are right in there with us. Maybe half a dozen, including Utah and NYU and Santa Cruz and Carnegie Mellon. There’s a lot of great programs out there. Personally I look at it like sports. It’s competition. My job is to keep us number one, whether we do it or not. I’ve always been that way. It’s not an ugly competition. It’s just, how good can we be and see where the kids fall? We don’t have to have industrial knowledge of what they’re doing, what games they’re shipping. It’s not like the real world. But it’s like college sports. Let’s make great stuff and promote it as well as we can. We’ll see where we land.
I’m bringing in game marketing and branding and things like that into the program. That started last year. I feel like basic modeling for students is really important. Is it worth our time and investment? Is there a model that shows potential financial success? That’s important to me. As well as, how do we talk about our games? How do we present them to the public? How do we bring them to market? That’s one thing I really enjoyed in the games business. We’re bringing that aspect to the students, so they get a well-rounded experience.
GamesBeat: I noticed that Zynga mobile gaming class was one of the new things.
Bilson: Yeah, I’m really excited about that. That’s the first of something I hope you’re going to see more of over the next few years – a lot of sponsored classes and partnerships to develop projects and products that benefit our students, our faculty, and the company that’s sponsoring it. In the case of Zynga, they’re going to be experimenting in certain mobile games. Some of them are things Zynga wouldn’t be able to take the financial risk to develop. The program for that class in year one will be to develop three mobile games.
There’s also a diversity theme involved in that class, getting more diverse voices into games, and particularly into mobile games. We have a great faculty person who’s going to be teaching that. More important, we have the sponsorship of my good friends Frank Gibeau and Bernard Kim, who are more than willing to be involved in the class and give feedback to the students. We also have people at Zynga in their management layer who I don’t know personally, but I’ve met them recently, and they’re really nice people.
That’s an example of what you’ll see me driving toward in multiple classes. I have ideas for Electronic Arts. I have ideas for Activision. I have ideas for Take-Two. I’ve been developing some courses I’ll be rolling out. I’ll be calling some friends at those companies, talking to them, and seeing if they agree to some mutually beneficial projects. I’m not going out to look for grants and donations. I’ll be creating partnership and classes that hopefully deliver quality research and product development at low cost and low risk for some of these companies, and also allow them to contribute to the next generation of gamers.
That’s absolutely one of my key agendas. Probably the two biggest ones are creating better relationships with industry in these partner classes, like the Zynga class, and continuing to put the computer science department and our department under the USC Games brand, working closely with the folks over there.
GamesBeat: What’s some of your advice to students about what they should study and what the graduates should focus on?
Bilson: The engineers are one thing. As we know, the industry always needs engineers. Our job is to make them well-rounded game-makers, so that when they go out they have a really good sense of design, production, and all aspects of making games. The engineers are in their own category. That’s a little easier.
When it comes to designers, producers, and narrative designers, with them, the strategy is to build teams through advanced games. We have most of them building, essentially, demos so they can attract investment dollars to complete those games and get quality, low-risk games into the indie space. Essentially they take their team through school, sort of like thatgamecompany and some of our other more successful alumni groups. There’s a bunch of them.
When they form studios with their teams out of school, that, in my opinion, is the best way to place producers and designers. Sometimes there’s a path right into the big triple-A space, but the indie space is really an important part of the USC experience. I always say, in my classes for advanced games, that we’re not making triple-A games. We don’t have those kinds of resources. But we do have the resources to compete in the indie game space. As you well know, indie games make up about 95 percent of the quantity of games out there in the world.
Last year we made a game called Chambara. It was the first USC Games production published in PlayStation 4. It’s a four-player split-screen stealth combat game, a very artsy stealth combat game. That’s a great model for putting a team together, taking them all the way through certification, and getting them published. Whether they stay together or not, they have that experience of having shipped a game as they graduate and go out into the commercial world.
The way we want to support, beyond the engineers, is building teams, teaching entrepreneurship, and letting them carve their own path through the indie space. It’s not to say that we don’t have great recruiting events and often see designers and producers picked up by big studios as well, but I want to create a path where the most people can go out and build and sell a game and make their own way. We’ve seen all kinds of success with USC alumni that way over the years. I hope we see a lot more.