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Viterbi School Video Game Programs Help Propel USC's #1 Princeton Review Ranking

Key element: Mike Zyda's GamePipe Laboratory combines Viterbi student computer science talent with skills from other schools

March 01, 2011 —

Princeton Review’s annual ranking of academic games programs placed the University of Southern California in first place nationally for the second year in a row, with Viterbi School's computer science department and its GamePipe Laboratory statistics a key booster of the USC ranking.

Mike Zyda at Demo Day
“In the short span of 5 years since its inception,” commented Viterbi School of Engineering Dean Yannis C. Yortsos, "the USC GamePipe program has become the national leader in education and professional game development. It is a testament to the program quality, its leadership and the interdisciplinary strength at USC, which combines computer science, cinematic arts and fine arts in a unique partnership.”

The Princeton Review list, "Top Schools for Video Game Design Study for 2011," salutes 30 institutions in all (15 undergraduate and 15 graduate) for their outstanding game design education programs.

The Princeton Review statistics note that 90 students are currently enrolled in the Viterbi program offering an M.S. in computer science with concentration in game development, including multiple courses in areas such as serious games (games meant to teach, rather than to entertain), cognition and games, game infrastructure, and immersive environments. Viterbi also offers B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in the field. Since submission of the figures, the program has grown: more than 125 undergrads are currently in the Viterbi’s B.S. in CS/Games degree program; more than 100 are working toward M.S. degrees in CS/Game Development.

The GamePipe program supplements rigorous academic requirements with learn-by-doing efforts by teams, including team members from other schools. "Game development requires design, artistry and engineering--you sew all of those together and you get USC’s program,” said Michael Zyda, who heads USC’s GamePipe Laboratory. “It’s the joint nature of the program between Cinematic Arts' Interactive Media Division, GamePipe and the Computer Science Department at the Viterbi that makes it so special.”

GamePipe stages two “Demo Days” per year, at the conclusion of fall and spring semesters, events at which Zyda entertains a capacity audience of representatives from the games industry (Southern California is a world center of the

Demo Day December 2010
industry.) and talent agencies.


The last Demo Day, the eleventh in the series, was held December 14, 2010, featured work from the School of Cinematic Arts Interactive Media Division students as well as from the Viterbi School. Additional students providing concept art, 3D models, animation, rigging, music and sound come from all across the USC campus and from collaborative schools, including the Roski School of Fine Art and the Thornton School of Music.

Some 70 representatives from companies including Disney Interactive, Sony, LucasArts, MTV Networks, Electronic Arts, Activision, Nokia Research, Zynga, Intel, Mozaic, Applied Minds, Naughtydog, THQ, Aielo, Creative Artists Agency, Blizzard, Zynga, and Happynin Games were on hand.  “Every seat a was filled," said Zyda "and we had students sitting in the aisles. I couldn’t be happier with level of innovation displayed with the student projects, and the amount of positive feedback I received from industry execs.”

For the reps from Happynin Games, it was a return to the alma mater: the company is a spinoff formed by former USC students.

Even non-alums were enthusiastic. "Pretty much every game we've seen here has been unique," industry executive, Giacomino Veltri told the Los Angeles Daily News. "We talked to some of the students during the lunch break and exchanged information. If they want to do an internship or, if they're graduating, apply for a job, they can."

Demo Day is not the only place that USC games have shone. The 2009 award for “Next Great Mobile Game” went to “Reflection,” built by a group of USC students, now being commercially marketed.

“"The joy of a professor," commented Zyda at the time, "is to see your students start out from nothing and then get to the point where they are actually doing just phenomenally great work,” he said.

The Princeton Review chose the schools based on a survey of administrators at 150 institutions offering video game design coursework and/or degrees in the United States and Canada.

Conducted during the 2010-11 academic year, the Princeton Review survey included more than 50 questions. Topics ranged from academics, curriculum, and faculty credentials to graduates’ employment and career achievements. School selections were based on a comprehensive analysis of data that analyzed the quality of the curriculum, faculty, facilities, and infrastructure, plus the school's scholarships, financial aid and career services. 

Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atar and a legend in the games industry, visited the Viterbi School of Engineering's GamePipe Laboratory to meet with Zyda. Bushnell, came to look at student developed games. He

Atari Founder Nolan Bushnell & GamePipe Director, Mike Zyda in March
has recently taken on the role of chairman of Atari and is in process of looking at student-developed intellectual property for acquisition by the new Atari. Zyda presented demonstrations of the games shown at the December 2010 USC GamePipe Laboratory Demo Day. Bushnell expressed interest in several of the games and indicated he intended to return to visit the joint Final Games course to chat more with the student game developers.