Logo: University of Southern California

Games Students Play, and Make

June 07, 2007 —

Charlene Jeune (center) and some of her classmates in Principles of Software Development.
Students taking Principles of Software Development (Games) in the USC Viterbi School’s new computer science videogame development degree program, learned by creating a multiplayer, networked video game, experiencing the entire software development process, from coming up with the idea for a video game through creating the software requirements specifications and design documentation to programming the game in C++.

For the students, most of whom were sophomores, it was not a typical programming course. They had to work together as a team.

According to Research Assistant Professor Alex Francois, who designed and taught the class, having responsibility as a team for the whole project was a “management and organizational challenge for students at this leve.l” It was what they liked best about the class.

“Students liked being involved in the whole process and working independently as well as on a team,” he said.

Sophomore Charlene Jeune, a games major, agreed.

“It was cool to be on team project, hearing ideas and being able to contribute. It’s important in game development to know how to work on a team.” She learned this firsthand when she had a chance to shadow people at Harmonix, the company that developed her favorite video game series, Guitar Hero, and interviewed Chris Canfield, Guitar Hero II designer.

“In Alex’s class, we learned about what really goes into games. It’s not easy, it’s a lot of hard work,” she said.

Crosswinds, the videogame the class designed, was adapted from a board game developed by students Timothy Jones and Mario Sanchez in a USC game design workshop. Four players can play.

Class members were assigned different modules of the game’s software architecture. Jeune worked on rendering the graphics needed to represent what’s going on visually as the players move their pieces and the game board changes during play. They used OpenGL (open graphics library), a standard computer graphics specification.

“It was more complicated than we expected to code,” said Jeune. “There was a lot of communicating to get everything connected.”

Students used Google Docs & Spreadsheets to coordinate the project. Everyone on the team had access to the documents for editing. Noting that “not all students have had design instruction,” Francois spent two weeks teaching basic design concepts.

“It was more like working on a development team than a class,” said Jeune, adding that she loved the course. She hopes to work professionally in the video game industry. Dozens of other GamePipe students have already landed internships or jobs.

Viterbi’s GamePipe Laboratory, directed by Michael Zyda, professor of engineering practice, has responsibility for the game development degree programs. There is a master’s in computer science (game development) as well as the bachelor’s.

The mission of the GamePipe Laboratory is to conduct interdisciplinary research, development and education on technologies and design for the future of interactive games and their applications. The programs are unique in terms of the resources available to students and Viterbi’s proximity to the growing number of video game companies in Southern California as evidenced by the annual GamePipe Demo Day, which has received national media attention as well as that of the video game industry.

The Crosswinds project website describes the play sequence using screenshots of the game prototype. The software specifications and other documentation are also online. Class syllabus, lecture notes, homework assignments, readings and references are available on the class website.

-- Linda Davis