Every year, The University of Southern California puts students through a simulation of studio life with its Advanced Games Projects program. At the end of each year-long class, teams of students share their work in a presentation and showroom at the university’s Cinematic Arts building. This year’s event played out like a tiny scale E3, and the games presented gave a snapshot of what excites the next generation of game designers.
Danny Bilson, a USC faculty member and former EA and THQ executive who leads the program, said he wants the games made in this program to actually compete in the indie marketplace.
“We act like a lightweight version of professional life,” he said. “We run it like a publishing company and a studio with the same kind of milestones and feedback so that when they get out of here and get to their first jobs, they’ve seen everything before.”
Many of the students already have new jobs lined up. One is going on to work on Minecraft. Others are talking with potential investors or incubators. At least two teams plan to form companies right out of this senior project and release their games commercially within a couple of years.
So what has this new class of games talent built, and where does it want to go next? Let’s start with Twitch.
A streamer sat at a desktop computer, playing Chataclysm — for him, this meant directing weapons and forces in a top-down view similar to StarCraft or SimCity to attack a giant monster rampaging around a city. Viewers on the show floor joined Twitch users with their smartphones to frenetically issue commands to undermine him. On the game’s screen, a giant monster laid down a swath of destruction through a polygonal city.
“This is Twitch Plays Godzilla,” said creative director Christopher Mooney after the demo. “Every single command that everyone enters will be heard.”
Everyone watching controls the monster by typing the following commands into the Twitch chat room: up, down, left, right, and abilities like fire, shield and grow. The game registers every command, and the consensus will ultimately determine the monster’s primary course of action. Twitch players try to destroy certain buildings that give the streamer the ability to fight back. If enough infrastructure is destroyed, the streamer loses.
Mooney said that the team looked to both Twitch Plays Pokémon and Twitch Plays Dark Souls for inspiration. Asked if he believes Twitch games like this will be the next big thing, he said, “I’m not sure it will be the next big thing, but I do think it is going to be big moving forward.”
Solve puzzles with photography — that’s the simple concept behind From Light, a puzzle platformer living in the same category as Braid and Fez. In this case, photography means snapshots and long exposure.
The former means you can press a button to take a snapshot of a single moment, and within the frame of that photo, all moving objects freeze in time. The latter is a bit more sophisticated: There are light sources, and your avatar can run on light. If you hold down the photo button, a single point of light can streak into a lengthy line of light for you to jump on.
Narrative lead Lex Rhodes said the project was interesting because the camera could be a character in the game. That’s in addition to Lumen, the player character described as a being of light. “We’ve got light and we’ve got mechanism working together,” Rhodes said of the two characters. These are two elements of photography. Just as they work together in the real world, they work together in the game.
Game director Alejandro Grossman said that the end of the program doesn’t mean the end of the game’s development. “Right now four of us on our team are moving forward,” he said. “We’re seeking a publisher.”
A Slime in Time
A Slime in Time was the only HoloLens game on display. It had a different start as a mobile strategy game with a time shifting mechanic. Then Glow interned at Microsoft, where he had a conversation with a VP working late in the lab. The executive set Glow up with two HoloLens units, and Glow and his team at USC redesigned the game around the platform.
Imagine you’re playing a game by a fountain a park. The fountain’s edge becomes a cliff-side, and a nearby chair becomes a mountain. Amidst this geography, you can see little villages. Using finger and hand gestures, you order your army of slimes to attack and defend various villages, and pluck fireballs from the sky to throw down at your enemies.
Glow said he could have only done this in the AGP program. “If we did this on our own, this game would not be here after a year, but these milestones keep pushing us redesign and iterate. It’s been an amazing program.”
That said, he noted that his team worked a lot of late nights. “We were in crunch for a whole year,” he said. He seemed unphased by the thought that crunch like that could be his normal existence in his career in the industry.
Second Nature, a punishing platformer, featured multiple player characters with different but complementary platforming skills that play off each other in cooperative gameplay reminiscent of LittleBigPlanet 3. When asked about their influences, the team didn’t even mention that game, though. It was all about Super Meat Boy, and you can see that game’s influence when you play Second Nature; it’s fast, difficult and highly responsive.
Second Nature puts each player in control of a character with special abilities. Each character plays off the other’s abilities to solve puzzles. Every obstacle requires both characters to overcome. The lead artist, Zoe Serbin, said she took inspiration from speed paintings because the game is meant for speed running. Her team illustrated the game with quick, rough lines that conjure the work of painters you might see cranking out artwork on Twitch for donations.
While some students at USC have triple-A in their sights, the Second Nature crew wants to stay independent. When asked which platforms it’s targeting, game director Aaron Cheney was quick to answer, “First and foremost the Switch. It’s co-op out of the box, it comes with two controllers and it’s a platform that looks for unique games, either aesthetically or with gameplay, and we feel like we’ve got both. We’d be a perfect match.”
Remember switching between characters in the midst of an elaborate heist in Grand Theft Auto 5? Smooth Criminals is in that vein, but it’s a lot sillier. One of the playable characters is a tiny mouse driving a toy car, and another is a smash-prone, mallet-wielding orphan.
With a Sly Cooper-style aesthetic and stealth gameplay, Smooth Criminals was one of the most conventional games at USC Demo Day, but it was also one of the most creative thanks to its original character design and interlocking mechanics. Stealing paintings is your objective, and the four crew members each have their own ways of making it happen.
It’s an amalgamation of a whole bunch of playstyles: shooting, driving, stealth, some strategy and just a dash of platforming. The game was built on Unreal Engine 4, and you can play it on a 64-bit Windows PC by downloading it on itch.io right now.
Esports are (slowly) taking over the world and Skyshot aims to join the movement.
It drops two-to-four players in a cramped arena with grappling hooks, a ball and two goals. Several floating grappling hook points hang overhead. You just need to grab the ball and deliver it to your target goal. It’s made frenetic by the fact that it’s very easy to steal the ball away from other players.
Skyshot’s game director, Eu-Ann Liu, said that the game’s 20-person student team has hosted tournaments with students and faculty. “All of us are esports fans and we love competitive games like Overwatch and Rocket League, so we wanted make a game that’s fun for us,” he said.
He said the game is still a couple of years away from completion, but he’s working on getting there. In the long run, though, he’s excited to work on triple-A games that reach a wide audience. “I want to be working at PlayStation. I look up to teams such as Naughty Dog,” he said. “I want to be able to step up and work in a company like them that make games that deliver to a wider audience as opposed to indie games.”
Quiet the Leaves
Quiet the Leaves takes most of its inspiration from narrative adventures like Night in the Woods, Oxenfree and Firewatch. It’s the popularization of those games that drove its development at USC — that, and a commitment to a personal narrative that resonated with several of the team members.
It tells the story of a queer girl on a backpacking trip with her distant father. “It’s also drawing on a lot of my personal experiences and also some of the other team members’ personal experiences of having grown up and [changing] pretty significantly,” game director Emma B. said. “For some of us we realized we were queer, or like, we’re pursuing professions that our parents didn’t approve of, or just many different things, right? So the game itself is often about learning to approach your loved ones with an open mind when they have changed and you have have trouble seeing that change.”
Playing the game, you’re treated to extensive dialogue between the protagonist and her father, tied to these themes, while you wander the woods and catalog plantlife.
“There’s never been a narrative game like this at USC,” Emma said. “None of the faculty on the advising panel for AGP have ever worked on a narrative game before. They all come from academia or triple-A game development, which isn’t making games about young queer women having troubles with their father.”
But she said the staff was supportive and committed to learning. Some faculty played Firewatch and Oxenfree for the first time so they could be more helpful.
The diversifying portfolio of USC Games’s AGP program recurred as a subject when we talked to faculty and students. Program leader Danny Bilson said that faculty have a wide range of interests. “My part of USC is, I’ll just call it commercial art,” he said. “I love triple-A games. I’m a hardcore gamer. I love commercial games. I love marketing. I love game trailers.”
But he named other faculty who come from a more artistically oriented background. Bilson and the students told me that USC is focused on feeding students directly into the industry, which is vast and vibrant across Southern California.
Some other game programs are more focused on art and critical studies, but the breadth of games at Demo Day 2017 showed that USC is building a portfolio beyond the established industry standards. It seems that the faculty are in some ways following where their students lead them.
And for this year, that meant Twitch chat experiences, esports, narrative walking simulators, puzzle platformers, stealth heist adventures, AR tech demos and co-op speedruns.