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USC Got Games

USC Got Games
Tracy Fullerton (in red) consults with part of the Walden design team. The game recreates Thoreau's isolation experiment.

Video game design has definitely entered the educational mainstream, to the extent that the Princeton Review has created a ranking of the 50 best universities in the field.
Heading the list is USC.

When a video game developed as a student project can motivate half a million players to lobby for peace in Darfur; when officers on their way to the most dangerous parts of the world can sharpen their cross-cultural negotiation and command skills by using a computer adversary; when mobile games not only relieve the boredom of the daily commute, but also can make the commuter fitter and healthier; and when the vocabulary of gaming seeps into sociology, fine arts and education; perhaps it is time to stop referring to video games as an emerging discipline.

Game design and development have been taught continuously at USC for nearly 20 years, as large, successful game studios and publishers have realized the value of creative teams trained not merely in their parents’ basements, but in a robust, inclusive academic environment.

“I began teaching game design when they were still telling me it was impossible to teach game design,” says Tracy Fullerton MFA ’91, chair of the Interactive Media Division in the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

“They” were game designers who were very, very good at what they did, but felt they could not explain – let alone teach – how they did it. The muse of gaming apparently could not be queried.

A graduate of USC’s film production program, Fullerton balked at that stifling presumption. Even before she started teaching game design at USC in 1999 – while still working in the industry as a designer and producer of games – Fullerton knew deep down that it was preposterous to think that game design was unteachable.

Another former game designer, USC Cinematic Arts colleague Chris Swain, was right there with Fullerton. He, too, knew, not only that game designers could teach their discipline, but also that they must. There are only so many self-taught luminaries, such as design mastermind Will Wright (creator of The Sims) and technical wunderkind John Carmack (creator of Doom and Quake). So Fullerton and Swain set about developing curricula and instructional tools in a field where the final product draws on all principles of storytelling.

AT USC THE TWO INSTRUCTORS found an environment geared to foster organic growth of academic programs to meet the changing needs of the day.

Those changing needs include game players’ hunger for emotional content.

“People want games to offer more deeply emotional, more interesting, rich characters and situations,” Fullerton says. “In order to do that, we need to look to the history of storytelling, the methods and the kind of skills it takes to resonate with people’s lives.” This is what USC’s Game Innovation Lab is all about. Directed by Fullerton and housed in the cinematic arts school’s Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts, the lab is a research space and think tank where new concepts in game design, play and usability can be developed, prototyped and play-tested free of the pressures inherent in the commercial game-development environment. The goal of the lab is to nurture concepts that push games beyond their currently defined genres, markets and play patterns and to make breakthroughs in these areas that will be valuable to lab sponsors and the industry as a whole.

It was this focus on experimental game play that attracted renowned video artist Bill Viola, who is collaborating with Fullerton on The Night Journey, a grainy, evocative quest for enlightenment that can only be called a spiritual video game.

That same interest in stretching games’ emotional range drives Fullerton’s approach to her game-design classes.

“I like to encourage students to take risks,” she says.

Working in teams of two, students in Fullerton’s intermediate game projects course must envision a design goal for their games. Perhaps they hope to elicit an emotional response: joy, serenity, humor or even terror.

One example from the intermediate class is Hush, a serious game designed to open for players a tiny window on what it might have been like to have been the mother of a small child during the Rwandan genocides of the mid 1990s. The premise of the game is simple: Keep your child quiet so the menacing soldiers outside will assume your house is empty. Succeed in comforting your child and she makes little noise; the soldiers become disinterested, wandering farther afield, and your family is safe, for now. The terrifying alternative: an uncomfortable, frightened child crying; the clamor brings the armed squad ever closer.

A similar project out of the Game Innovation Lab is Darfur is Dying, the thesis project of Susana Ruiz MFA ’06. This award-winning “ethical” game went viral on the MTV University Web site and has been played more than two million times since 2007. In it, the player must send family members to the well for fresh water. Who will go? Will he or she return safely or be captured by Janjaweed militia? The game resulted in an impressive response on behalf of Darfur’s refugees, according to Fullerton.

Players have the option to e-mail elected representatives or visit informational sites about the genocide. More than half a million players followed through on their emotional reactions with concrete actions.

Twenty to 40 new games come out of the intermediate class each year. Other games emerge from the program’s advanced projects class, co-taught with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s GamePipe Laboratory.

What is the engineering school’s stake in game design? As USC Executive Vice President and Provost C. L. Max Nikias put it when he was dean of engineering: “Games pose engineering research challenges right at the limits of technology, in such important areas as artificial intelligence, 3-D visualization and immersive environments.”

This broad, cross-campus base is one reason for USC’s undisputed leadership in the discipline. And it is undisputed. In February, the Princeton Review gave the cinematic arts school’s Interactive Media Division its no. 1 ranking among 500 undergraduate game-design programs in North America.

“One of the reasons we’re a pioneer is that we have these strong programs in the Viterbi School and in the School of Cinematic Arts, which is unique,” Fullerton says.

“Getting their students and our students to mix is the key. Because it’s almost in a way about creating a new culture.”

OVER AT THE USC Viterbi School, Michael Zyda’s GamePipe Laboratory is built around the model of what is known in commercial interactive entertainment as the “game- development pipeline.” The lab simulates the process of developing a commercial game from concept to retail release, or, in industry parlance, “shipping.”

Prior to joining USC, Zyda had been a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, where he was founding director of the Modeling, Virtual Environments and Simulation Institute. Zyda was instrumental in the success of America’s Army, a video game of the popular first-person shooter genre intended both as an engaging entertainment for avid gamers and a tool for enhancing U.S. Army recruiting.

Students graduating from USC games programs have experience much valued by the industry and usually not earned before a couple of years into a game designer’s career – that of taking a game from drawing board to fully play-tested completion.

There’s no shortage of gaming resources at USC Viterbi – a unique breed of university engineering school that does not see itself as a fortified sanctuary for hyper-focused technologists.

“Our mandate is providing a technical education for the entire campus,” explains Ashish Soni MS ’03, who directs USC Viterbi’s Information Technology Program. Indeed, as many as 80 percent of students in some USC Viterbi programming classes are not engineering majors.

Soni himself designed the curriculum for a class in Apple iPhone and iPod Touch application development, the first such class at any university taught without employing Apple engineers as instructors.

Also at USC Viterbi are two levels of game-programming classes for engineering majors as well as for students from USC Cinematic Arts’ Interactive Media Division game-design program. The “Advanced Topics in Games Programming” course is taught by Jason Gregory, better known as a generalist programmer for Naughty Dog, Inc. A studio of longstanding critical acclaim and commercial success, Naughty Dog recently released Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, perhaps the finest example of an entertainment experience seamlessly marrying the tachycardiac exhilaration of interactivity with brilliant, cinematic story production. PlayStation Magazine calls Uncharted 2 a “veritable master class of all-round game development,” and Gregory, one of the game’s creators, does in fact teach a master class in game programming at USC Viterbi.

Students leave prepared to follow in the paths of their notable instructors. Three years ago, Sumeet Jakatdar completed the graduate program in computer science at USC Viterbi. He landed a job at eminent games publisher Activision, maintaining centralized software tools used as resources for subsidiary design studios. A programming job became available at one of those subsidiary studios, Treyarch, working on the popular Call of Duty military shooter franchise; Jakatdar made the move. Not long after, he jumped to the design side of the house as an artificial intelligence specialist creating the AI components of one of the finest World War II-themed shooters ever published, Call of Duty: World at War.

Jakatdar admits he was initially a mediocre student. Yet today he is a superb game designer. He fully credits USC Viterbi and his experience in the interdisciplinary GamePipe Laboratory for his postgraduate experience, an exceptional mobility in an industry where it’s easy to get typecast.

Key for Jakatdar was USC’s focus on allowing students the latitude to choose what they want to do, then go do it – all the while receiving the professional instruction and resources they need for executing their ideas at a level deemed outstanding by top commercial studios and publishers.

THE USC PIPELINE continues to pump pioneering new content into the marketplace. Recently, gaming giant Konami announced that Reflection – born in the Interactive Media Division’s intermediate projects class and developed further in the advanced projects class co-taught with USC Viterbi – will be the publisher’s first game for DSiWare, downloadable entertainment for Nintendo’s top-selling DS handheld platform.

Designed by a typically broad group of USC students, including computer science, communications, cinematic arts, music and business administration majors, the game won the Independent Games Festival’s Next Great Mobile Game Award last spring.

USC Interactive Media Division game students have a history of graduating already on the fast track to industry stardom. Out of the second MFA graduating class in 2006 came flOw, an artful and appealing arcade-style game published by Sony as a digitally distributed PS3 title available via its PlayStation Network. More important, flOw allowed USC graduates Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen to form their own enterprise for gaming innovation, thatgamecompany. Their company has gone on to develop another PlayStation exclusive title, Flower, completely different from flOw but just as delightful and well received. In 2009, the title won the closest thing to an Oscar in the gaming world: an award from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, for Best Casual Game.

Santiago, the company’s president, credits the quality of her USC education in games as essential to the commercial success of thatgamecompany. Indeed, it was with the advice and assistance of mentors at the university that the start-up was born. Of all the skills she acquired and refined at USC, Santiago considers learning to create innovative gaming solutions and to present those concepts with confidence and clarity in a collaborative environment as the most important. “Presentation and articulation of ideas is a big part of leadership in games development,” she says.

SO IS TIMING. Years from now, historians of gaming may look back on the rise of the iPhone as a moment of ridiculous opportunity for young game developers. Cost of entry: a laptop, a $99 software-development kit for the iPhone and Zyda’s one-semester course on mobile games.

Return on investment: How about $600 a day in advertising royalties? That’s what Elliot Lee makes from Brain Tuner Lite, a popular puzzle game the USC computer engineering senior developed on the side, according to Zyda.

Or how about one company’s offer to buy the intellectual property behind 16 iPhone games developed at GamePipe for $30,000 each? Compare that to work-study wages.

“There’s an amazing amount of intellectual property coming out of the lab,” Zyda says.

So great are the opportunities that a big group of recent GamePipe grads decided to skip the lucrative job market. The 15 alums founded Happynin Games, one of a few companies making 3-D games for the iPhone.

Their first game, fowlplay, shipped at the end of February. Designed by Andrea Tseng ’09, a graduate of USC Viterbi’s industrial and systems engineering program, and Henry Liu ’09, an Interactive Media Division graduate who also served on the team for Reflection, the game play turns on a flying pigeon’s natural emissions.

Stifle your chuckle, reader. For Liu, that pigeon is the goose that laid the golden egg.

“iPhone development has caught the students’ eye,” says Zyda with more than a little understatement.

Student Erin Reynolds in the Game Innovation LabLike games on any other platform, mobile games also hold potential for improving people’s lives. Interactive Media Division MFA student Erin Reynolds ’06 (who earned her B.A. in fine arts at USC’s Roski School) worked with faculty members Zyda, Marientina Gotsis of the Interactive Media Division and Maryalice Jordan-Marsh of the USC School of Social Work, with funding from the Humana Innovation Center, to develop a set of health-geared games. The iPhone game in the set, Entr�ainer, helps match a player’s food cravings with healthy choices in his or her immediate neighborhood. Another game, designed for PCs, challenges children to do exercises and make good nutritional choices to advance the well-being of their Pokemon-like creatures.

“What we do here affects millions of people, not hundreds,” says Zyda.

When Motorola first approached Zyda with an offer of $100,000 to teach a class in game development for cell phones, he wasn’t sure it was such a good idea. So he did what he always does to gauge the direction of gaming: He asked his students.

Sumeet Jakatdar MS '07, one of USC's top game-design alumniSumeet Jakatdar MS ’07, now the AI specialist on Call of Duty, told him to go for it. So did Dhruv Thukral MS ’06, now a senior developer at EA Mobile. The two became Zyda’s first teaching assistants for the class, which was immediately oversubscribed.

Later, Jakatdar came back to hire six more developers.

It is important to realize that this moment of opportunity may not last. Not too long ago, all gaming was console-driven, and young developers lacked the large teams and large purses required to make new games.

In a year or two, if portable tablets such as the Apple iPad take off, large teams and large purses again will be required to make the most of the tablets’ capabilities.

But for now, says Zyda, “a couple of people in a garage can ship a mobile game.” Just like two now-famous Steves in Silicon Valley and their first desktop computer.

Even those USC gaming students who don’t graduate with a published game and a new company to lead still will depart with what the Interactive Media Division’s Chris Swain calls “a foundation in creative leadership,” and an ability to work well in teams, both of which he believes are requirements for any game curriculum.

IF INNOVATIVE collaboration is the educational leitmotif on the University Park campus, it’s certainly daily business at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), headquartered a few miles away in Marina del Rey. Until recent years, many of ICT’s inventions have existed only in the realm of science fiction. Clich� perhaps, but at ICT, quite true.

Paul Debevec of ICT’s Graphics Lab is doing things in visual and animation technologies that must be seen to be believed. Or, rather, seen to have your sense of disbelief thoroughly suspended. Debevec, in collaboration with Image Metrics, has created a demonstration of such technology in something called Digital Emily. In the demonstration video, Emily expressively explains the basic concepts of the technology.

It’s all terribly pedestrian until about halfway through the presentation, when various graphics-rendering filters are applied to Emily’s face. You realize it’s not really a woman, not Emily: It’s a virtual representation of Emily rendered and animated by computer. The results are stunning.

Debevec and his colleagues were recently recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a scientific and engineering Academy Award for the design and engineering of the Light Stage technologies that helped produce Emily and also have been used to create believable digital faces for major films, including Avatar, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Spider-Man 2.

But ICT’s achievements are more than just visually impressive. Its teams of researchers and designers have developed sophisticated models for getting computers to emulate how people behave and for enabling valuable learning to take place in virtual environments.

Working with the Interactive Media Division’s Chris Swain and his students, ICT developed a PC-based educational game called BiLAT. The goal is to provide practice and skill-building for conducting one-on-one negotiations in tense, culturally unfamiliar environments, where creating trust and establishing relationships often can save real human lives. In collaboration with the USC Rossier School of Education, the BiLAT team is developing BiLAT AIDE, a complementary Web-based course that teaches the theories behind cross-cultural negotiation.

In a similar vein, ICT’s UrbanSim is designed for training military commanders working in complex operational environments where seemingly small daily decisions can have wide-ranging and long-lasting repercussions.

The game has been called “SimCity Iraq,” but unlike the famous commercial game that includes Godzilla and tornadoes, UrbanSim models the actions and reactions of hundreds of individuals and groups as they coexist in a large Iraqi city.

“Our goal,” says ICT executive director Randall W. Hill Jr., “is to have players learning more deeply and quickly from our games than they would with a more traditional medium, like a textbook.”

ICT was created around a framework of ideas published in a National Research Council report – chaired by Michael Zyda while he was at the Naval Postgraduate School – highlighting the existence of numerous, untapped opportunities for collaboration among the entertainment disciplines and institutions charged with maintaining our national defense. It is no surprise, then, that many of ICT’s projects have immediate, direct applications within the military.

But ICT is also a bit like NASA in its banner days, when technologies originally created for the exclusive use of the space program quickly turned into tools for improving our everyday lives. Much of ICT’s work has eventual application not only in commercial games and interactive entertainment, but also in mainstream educational environments – from the secondary school level up through specialized training for medical students.

The spillover to the interactive entertainment industry is inevitable. The combination of ICT’s artificial intelligence and graphics tools for the advanced virtualization of people has the potential to bring a far more human dimension to games.

“As our technologies become widely available,” says Hill, “not only will game designers finally be able to undertake emotionally complex projects they’ve been considering for years, but also, more importantly, they’ll be thinking up entirely new kinds of games not yet imagined.”

NO MODERN GAME is truly complete without a system for tracking statistics, a component of the experience by which players can follow their progress and analyze their skills within the game. Likewise at USC, “stats” are an integral part of keeping the game-education programs fit and nimble.

At the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, researchers take this process of analysis out into the world, with ongoing projects designed to assess how individuals use games and the overall effect these games have on society.

Communications researcher Dmitiri Williams studies the behavior of gamers.Communications scholar Dmitri Williams ’93, MS ’96 leads a continuing effort to understand how people behave in massively multiplayer online virtual worlds. His world of choice: Everquest II, a story-driven fantasy game published by Sony Online Entertainment.

Drawing on traditional social science theories, he forms hypotheses about human behavior and tests them by watching how individuals and groups interact in virtual worlds. Perhaps the most interesting thing Williams has discovered in three years of research is that, “in many cases, people behave in the game world just as they do in the real world.”

The insight has enormous implications for social science in general, as his research sponsorships show. Game developers are turning to Williams to identify the telltale signs of “gold farmers” – black-market traffickers in game-based goods – whose communication behaviors, it turns out, mirror those of real-world drug dealers. Economists, law enforcement and even epidemiologists are eager to tap this “petri dish of social interaction,” which is how Williams views the massively multiplayer online virtual worlds he investigates.

Williams isn’t alone in this field. USC Annenberg’s communications department is home to three other media scholars specializing in games, including the illustrious Henry Jenkins III, author of Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture, among a dozen other books, who recently left MIT to join the USC Annenberg faculty.

THE EFFORTS OF USC’s Annenberg and Rossier schools to quantify and qualify the evolving ways we relate to games both as individuals and as members of society are essential to maintaining the university’s excellence in gaming education. The art of teaching games must advance in step with the art of designing games, as the latter discipline adjusts to the changing demands of a rapidly expanding audience and new technical innovations.

The spectacular technology underpinning today’s games and interactive entertainment won’t be around for long. Next week, or the week after that, or perhaps at an upcoming gaming expo, an established company will announce that it has purchased a potentially revolutionary technology from a small group of innovators – they might be USC graduates – and, via the greater development and distribution capacity of the larger firm, that this technology will be available at retail within a year. They’ll claim it will change the face of gaming, and it probably will.

Technological resources in game development are not static tools, and to remain relevant, any academic institution bent on teaching game design must be a dynamic entity with the wit to keep up with new inventions and the wisdom to found its game-education programs on the principle of great ideas, instilling in its students a second-nature sensibility for communicating those ideas. There’s no other way to go about it, and there’s no university better suited to lead the future of interactive entertainment than USC.


Game Design at USC

Teaching, research and market exposure: USC’s got it all


Game design formally got its start at USC in 2002, when the USC School of Cinematic Arts launched its MFA in interactive media, although a core game-design workshop had been in place since 1999. In 2004, the school unveiled the Game Innovation Lab, a state-of-the-art research space and think tank for game design and creation. A B.A. in interactive entertainment was first offered in 2005. That same year, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering launched its GamePipe Laboratory, a subset of the computer science department that simulates the process of developing a commercial game from concept to retail release.

Today, USC offers four degrees in video-game development at the undergraduate and graduate levels. For the game-play design-focused, the USC School of Cinematic Arts offers the Master of Fine Arts in interactive media and the Bachelor of Arts in interactive entertainment.

For the more engineering-oriented, the USC Viterbi School offers the Bachelor of Science in computer science (games) and the Master of Science in computer science (game development).

The two schools jointly offer a minor in video-game design and management.
For more artistically inclined undergraduates, the USC Roski School of Fine Arts offers minors in 2-D art for games, 3-D art for games and 3-D animation. Other schools, such as the USC Thornton School of Music and the USC Marshall School of Business, offer specialized courses geared toward the game industry.

Across USC, there are now hundreds of students enrolled in game-design degree programs, and the academic catalogue features dozens of courses dealing with various aspects of game design.


Today the Game Innovation Lab has more than $1.5 million in sponsored research, including an NEA grant for a “spiritual journey” game designed in collaboration with media artist Bill Viola, and a U.S. Department of Education grant to develop a new generation of math games. Other partners include the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Sesame Workshop, Sony, Activision Blizzard and Microsoft.

Before there were game labs at USC, there was the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT). Established in 1999 with a multi-year contract from the U.S. Army, ICT had the mandate of exploring a powerful question: What would happen if leading technologists in artificial intelligence, graphics and immersion joined forces with the creative talents of Hollywood and the game industry? The answer is a host of engaging, memorable interactive media that are revolutionizing the fields of training, education and beyond.

While ICT is a research unit that does not grant degrees or offer courses, it runs a summer internship program that accepts 35 students. During the year it employs another 30 graduate research assistants, visiting student researchers and undergraduate student workers. For more information about ICT and to view some of its immersive technologies, go to


Each year, commercial developers and creative talent from across the media industries gather for project demonstrations at USC. Students use these meetings to network with representatives from such leading brands as Electronic Arts, Activision Blizzard, Sony Computer Entertainment, Heavy Iron Studios, Microsoft Game Studios, Disney, Naugh-ty Dog, Zynga, Insomniac Games, Nickelodeon, Dreamworks, Legendary Pictures, LucasArts, ASAP Games and Creative Artists Agency. Many of these encounters lead to job offers, and more than a few lead to distribution deals for student-designed games.

The USC GamePipe Laboratory’s last Demo Day, held in December, unveiled two dozen new student-built games.


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