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Demo Day showcases innovative games created at USC

The third annual event offers demonstrations of seven games varied in purpose and platform

by Tanya Abrams

When trying to develop a successful children’s game for the iPad, Jeremy Bernstein thought not just of young consumers, but of their parents.

“A lot of these games are the ones where the kids would want to buy it,” said Bernstein, a former MBA student who just graduated at USC, “but ours is one we’re hoping that parents get it and say, ‘I actually want to buy a video game for my child,’ as opposed to telling them, ‘Stop playing that for five hours.’ ”

And so, Social Clues, an iPad game for children with autism and communication defects, was born. It allows children to choose a character with a goal — sharing your toys or learning to laugh at the appropriate time — in a playful interface that provides parents with progress reports on their child’s performance on such tasks.

Social Clues was one of seven video games presented at USC Games’ Demo Day on May 14 at the Eileen Norris Cinema Theatre, where a standing-room only crowd of industry leaders, students and faculty members witnessed the work of USC students from throughout the campus.

Finding new talent

Demo Day is in its third year with USC Games, a collaboration of the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ Interactive Media & Games Division and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science.

The deans of the schools praised USC Games for allowing future game designers to collaborate freely and organically, making the institution a leader of gaming innovation and new talent in the gaming industry.

USC was voted the No. 1 game design school in North America by The Princeton Review, an education services company, in March.

“What has made this program so strong I think is the fact that we do have this collaboration,” said Elizabeth M. Daley, dean of the School of Cinematic Arts. “When we look at the cinematic arts, they’re always, to an extent, technologically based. But games in particular cannot be done without a strong interaction between the content and the technology. And it’s that dynamic intersection that is exciting. And I think that this is one of the few places that I know of that we can really have the collaboration that we have here to keep this program No. 1 in the world.”

Yannis C. Yortsos, dean of USC Viterbi, called USC Games a “unique ecosystem” that allows its students to tackle two of the university’s objectives: enhancing virtual reality and advancing personalized learning.

“In many ways, games encapsulate these two very important parts,” Yortsos said. “We look very much to help our students work across disciplines. Working with the cinematic students has been a great pleasure for all of our students.”

The future of each game is in their hands

Seven student team leaders underwent a rigorous application process before they were selected by a panel of professors and gaming experts to participate in a yearlong advanced course with USC games, said Tracy Fullerton, director of the USC Game Innovation Lab. Once selected, the team leaders recruit student crews — sound technicians, game designers, engineers and others — to develop the games.

About 140 undergraduate and graduate students participated in all. They hailed from several schools, such as the USC Marshall School of Business and the USC Roski School of Art and Design — and outside institutions around the world, including Berklee College of Music and Atlantic College in Puerto Rico, among others.

The seven games presented at Demo Day varied in purpose and platform. Some were strictly for mobile devices or online. In addition to Social Clues, other games included Rhea, a first-person virtual reality game developed in the Unreal Development Kit for use on the Oculus Rift; Cole, a 2-D dark comedy action-art game for the Android or iPhone; Fat Loot, a player-versus-player action stealth game; and Bloom, a platform game in which the last seedling in a world that’s been ravaged by robots attempts to revive the earth. More information about each of the games is available.

Now that many of the students in this year’s USC Games cohort have graduated, the future of each game is in their hands. Xiaotian Chen, the team leader of Fat Loot, said he plans to publish the game online, submit it to IndieCade and try to get it sold.

Bernstein and his wife, speech pattern therapist Karen Okrent, have already tested Social Clues at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and hope to continue clinical testing, he said. Their team is graduating, Bernstein said, but they hope to find funding to continue their work and eventually make the game available on iTunes.

The process of selecting next year’s cohort is already underway, Fullerton said.

Yortsos said he is looking forward to watching the technology being developed at USC Games continue to grow.

“It is truly the best in the world if you combine the talent and the resources that exist in Cinematic Arts and the Viterbi School of Engineering, programs that are very integrated,” he said. “I think that this is a collaboration that we very much treasure, and [that] we want to enhance. I think the sky’s the limit for this technology, and we would like to see it growing and see it become even stronger in the future.”

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