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Oh, the games they play on Demo Day

Core Overload gamers at play on Demo Day (Photo/Courtesy of USC School of Cinematic Arts)

Demo Day is an eagerly awaited biannual event that attracts the brightest programming and engineering students across campus, as well as the attention of leaders in the video game industry.

Last month’s event was hosted by USC Games, a collaboration of the Interactive Media Division (IMD) at the USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) and the Department of Computer Science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

“The event exceeded everyone’s expectations — we wanted to raise the bar on the kind of in-depth interaction our students have with industry professionals during our end-of-semester shows, and we wound up setting a whole new standard for these kinds of events,” said Tracy Fullerton, chair of the IMD.

Executives from many of the industry’s top games companies, including Electronic Arts, LucasFilm, Riot Games, Activision and Blizzard, were present for individual interviews and/or general meet and greets in the SCA’s Harold Lloyd Lobby, while students tested their games within the school’s Gallery space.

Among the day’s standout programming was the virtual reality platform Project Holodeck, whose team introduced Wild Skies, a game that sends users soaring across the skies in airships straight out of Jules Verne’s imagination.

Another crowd favorite was the PC-based Core Overload, a space shootout featuring 10-to-15 minute rounds of “capture the flag.” The game offers heavy customization, allowing players to choose the wings, engines and miscellaneous assets of their spaceships.

Demo Day also showcased a notable lineup of iOS games, including Hedelby, an atmospheric experience with the tag line “Hear your fear,” thanks to its use of holophonic and binaural sound engineering. Players make their way as a prisoner in Hedelby, a dark ward that sucks out the souls of inmates.

The offbeat adventure Thralled involves an escaped slave and her baby on the run in Brazil. According to programmer Brenden Balcewicz, “It’s a very unconventional story for a game, which is one reason a lot of us wanted to work on it. It’s not something you necessarily have a chance to work on in [the] industry.”

House of Cards forces players to make hard decisions in what programmer Michael Borke called a “metaphor for the American Dream.” With decks of cards, players must build or raze homes. Whether building or destroying for personal gain, as a sign of benevolence or in a callous act to get ahead, players must confront — and pay the price — for climbing to the top.

The work behind the USC Games event has not gone unnoticed, leading to successful careers in the industry.

Michael Zyda, director of USC Viterbi’s GamePipe Laboratory and professor at the school’s computer science program, said: “Game development is inherently a collaboration among designers, artists and programmers. The USC Games program provides the best simulation and education on what a career in the game industry will be like.

“Our alumni have gone on from this joint collaboration and shipped games in industry that have been played by over 600 million players,” he continued. “The USC Games program is a rocking success!”

“The collaboration between the School of Cinematic Arts and USC Viterbi is a unique relationship that makes USC Games distinct,” Fullerton said. “Each program has its own specialties, and the students from each program bring those specialties together to design and develop the advanced games that are shown at Demo Day.

“It’s as close as you can get to a true industry-level development experience in an academic setting,” she added. “The complexity of these projects and the intensity of the hands-on learning these students encounter is without equal.”

USC has been voted the No. 1 game design school in North America for graduate and undergraduate degree programs by The Princeton Review and GamePro Media for the past three years. This distinction was jointly awarded to the IMD and USC Viterbi’s Department of Computer Science.

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