Gaming as a medium has come a long way from the days of the Atari and NES. While it's easy to point out the leaps and bounds we’ve seen with graphic fidelity, sound design, and storytelling, how game development as a career has turned from a niche tech job to a blossoming avenue for creative and technical types everywhere is often overlooked. And while there are many programs available for students or anyone wanting to get into all fields of game development, the University of Southern California (or USC) currently has the number 1 games development program in the country. What separates USC’s game development program from others is the collaboration of the university's renowned Film School and Computer Science programs to help students learn all aspects of game design, creatively and technically.
I had the chance to attend their year-end showcase in which over 80 games were shown off in an E3-like trade show setting (including the lines) where students who worked on the games from the ground up had the chance to demo their projects to hundreds of classmates, strangers, and industry types. To be fair, I went into this with lower expectations due to the nature of the event (if you’ve ever been to a film school festival you’ll know what I’m talking about) but was instantly blown away by the amount of polish and creativity some of these games had. Below I’ve highlighted a few of the standout games from the show as well as short interviews with the lead developers on each game.
EmpathEmpath is an interesting game. At first glance, it seems like your standard VR shooter with stylized graphics and quick movement. What sets this apart from every other VR shooter is how you position your hands to make attacks. The idea behind Empath’s combat is to give the player the feeling of actually carrying out the martial arts based moves (yes this includes a Kamehameha blast) instead of just hitting a button at the right time. By giving the player more control over the movements, the student-developers on Empath hope to make VR feel a bit more real. In the video below, the game's systems engineer, Mark Gauderman, goes into a bit more detail on the controls and design philosophy.
If you want to check out Empath, you can find a link here
DomainIf you go to any public place, chances are that someone nearby is playing Pokemon Go, and like it or not, AR games on your phone aren’t going away anytime soon. As someone who still frequently plays Pokemon Go at Disneyland, I was instantly intrigued by Domain. Domain is an Augmented Reality version of tag with a 2v2 “secret identity” gameplay style. The game field is created wherever you are, and like Pokemon Go, you need to physically be in the vicinity of other players to eventually find out who they are and tag them. The simplicity of the game itself (find person, chase them, tag them) is something that really helps it stand out in a sea of 100+ hour narrative experiences and mobile titles with massive time commitments to stay competitive—a simple game of hide and seek tag seems like a great idea. Just don’t walk into any street signs.
Domain is expected to come to mobile devices sometime in the summer. You can check it out here
Umami BlastUmami Blast stands out from all the other games at the USC Games Expo due to its backing from one of the biggest mobile developers ever, Zynga. Umami Blast is a mix between a match 3 puzzler, restaurant sim, and a game where you need to please specific customers. Because this game incorporates three elements from the most popular mobile games, Umami Blast seems like the perfect app to help you get through a commute or just relax with on your portable black mirror. I had a chance to interview the game's creative director Keanu Concepcion and get his take on the game, it being the first games as a service and sponsored game from a major developer at USC, and why you should play it.
Umami Blast is available on android now and coming soon to the App Store. You can learn more about the game here
PlasticityPlasticity is the most polished game I saw at USC Games Expo due in part to its art direction, decision-based narrative focus, and overall presentation. In Plasticity, you control a young girl who has to navigate a “post-oil” wasteland, and the choices you make while playing the game will impact the world after the narrative jumps forward 10 years. The art style is simple and engaging, and this is definitely where the fusion between the USC games program and Cinematic Arts school shine. While the narrative is a bit on the nose, the time skip and impact your choices make are an interesting concept. Definitely not something I was expecting to see from a group of students. I had a chance to talk to the game's director, Aimee Zhang, about the game, its creative process, and how you can play it today.
Plasticity is available for free on Windows and Mac here or on Steam
Student and independent games are interesting. While most will never see the light of day outside of a game jam, obscure itch.io link, or school run function like the USC Games Expo. It's always great to see unique ideas from upcoming developers and play them first hand and from the little I've seen already, expect to see USC games program pop up more and more in game development talks from now on.