A participant at the USC GamePipe Lab immersed in a VR experience. Photo/Peter Shin
It’s an amalgam that fits precisely in the DNA of USC Games, a collaboration between the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ Interactive Media & Games Division and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science, consistently ranked as the No. 1 games program in North America.
"USC Games is the place to be for innovators, collaborators, and dreamers," said Gaurav Sukhatme, Dean's Professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science. "Our students' imagination and creativity is unbounded, and their passion for games is nurtured by our wonderful faculty. The results are breathtaking."
The days of severe divide between hard science and art are long gone. Collaboration is king and games represent the beautiful marriage between creative freedoms and programming precision.
The GamePipe Lab displayed the talent of graduate student game programmers including mobile, networked AI, immersive, engines and advanced games courses while Demo Day showcases the top games made by undergrads, some of which, like Chambara, have already secured publishing deals. Proud parents, game enthusiasts, faculty, and representatives from top game developers and publishers flock to USC each year to check out what the top student gamers in the country have been up to in the long months of tireless effort when everything in their lives was in a state of play.
They did not disappoint.
Sundown, a multiplayer stealth game developed by USC Viterbi computer science students, took home the BAFTA Ones to Watch Award in the Games Category earlier this year. Cool, dark, and visually stunning with the bursts of light against dark backgrounds, Sundown is as visually appetizing as it is fun to play. Uncomplicated rules make the game accessible for novices while still offering levels of gameplay and complexity for the more seasoned gamer.
Teddy Park, designer and member on the game Sundown, recalls the hunt for the necessary key players in their project.
Sundown was first created as a game jam project by Aaron Hong and Steven Li, titled Penumbra. The game was very different at this time, with only one weapon, a pixel-art style, and a grid-based movement system.
"We later found out about an indie game competition, Dare to be Digital, in Scotland, and decided that it was a great opportunity to make Penumbra into what we wanted it to be," said Hong.
"We put together a team of seven Trojans for Dare," said Park. "Three animation artists: Cynthia Cantrell, Grace May, and myself. Three programmers: McLean Goldwhite, Aaron Hong and Steven Li. And a USC Thornton composer, Kenny Regan. We also recruited sound designer, Jade Kim from Berklee College of Music through Dare's forum. While each of our team members are very talented at their craft, their roles expanded as the game changed through its development. This demands a lot of flexibility."
This elastic approach to team-building and artistic collaboration not only gave each member the chance to expand their skill set, but eventually earned them the coveted golden mask - the BAFTA Ones to Watch Award.
Team Sundown attributes much of its success to their mentor, Michael Zyda, founding director of GamePipe Lab .
Zyda takes immense pride in the incredible talent cultivated at USC Games and the sophistication of the games produced.
“This is where you come when you’re serious about making great games,” Zyda said.
The games featured represent the unbounded applications for programming and innovative computing as showcased by the Networked Artificial Intelligence projects.
“The best way to describe AI is through the Turing Test,” said Patrick Bradshaw, a programmer on Anybot – a program made for Star Craft II that uses deep machine learning to assess both the skill and strategy of the player to morph into the perfect opponent.
The Turing Test is a method for determining whether or not a computer is capable of thinking like a human. “It’s very difficult to do,” Bradshaw said.
Traditionally, competitive AI bots aim to challenge extremely skilled players. Anybot allows inexperienced players to play without the frustration of quick annihilation by purposefully making errors and strategy mistakes, acting humanly erratic to provide the perfect gameplay.
This shines a spotlight on the possibilities for more realistic interaction with machines in telecommunication, transport, and even teaching. It all expands from the efforts of AI programmers like Bradshaw.
At Demo Day, Jennifer Chern, a senior electrical engineer in the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering, showcased Adelie and the Obelisk – a game she produced about a nimble penguin navigating through primitive wilderness and ancient magic.
Chern found her own navigation through the world of Advanced Games at the USC School of Cinematic Arts where Adelie was created to be artistically gratifying and technically complex.The proof is in the gameplay.
“You get to work with different departments which is great,” Chern said. “But engineers are like, ‘I gotta get that one jump perfect;’ and the designers are like, ‘I just want to spend a tiny bit longer on this level;’ and the artists are like ‘this needs to be a tiny bit brighter;’ and I’m like ‘no, we gotta get it done.’”
Whether you love art or music but can’t name five video games, or live and breathe gaming but haven’t drawn a picture in your life, the talented students behind USC Games are inspired by this mosaic of varying interests and the diversity of experiences to create engaging content. At USC Games, everyone plays!