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Game on: Demo Day shows progress, promise of USC students

Biannual event allows teams to meet potential employers and demonstrate their works

Chambara game
Chambara is a stealth game with only two colors, allowing players to camouflage themselves with the environment. (Photo/

What’s the difference between a student project and a professional video game? The lines are blurring at USC Games, where students are increasingly producing work that’s ready to move from the classroom to your living room.

Students will show off their work today at a preview event known as Demo Day. It will be a chance for design teams to meet with potential employers and view a panel on industry trends, said Danny Bilson, a lecturer at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and is overseeing the event.

Bilson said that students work the same way design teams do at commercial studios. They face many of the same challenges, from personnel issues to snags in the work pipeline. Quoting program director Tracy Fullerton, Bilson said USC Games produces as many games per year as some of the biggest studios in Southern California.

“It’s no different than the real world at USC,” Bilson said. “I’ve been in game development for 16 years. From the moment I was involved at USC Games, I marveled at how this program models game production and its challenges so accurately.”

Building a career

The December event emphasizes career-building, Bilson added, while a follow-up event this spring will show off playable demos. Most student projects are still works-in-progress; the one exception is Chambara, a nearly complete game that’s preparing for publication. In March, it earned the “Ones to Watch” award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

The monochromatic stealth game allows you to play as a ninja, disappearing into the game world’s background — or being detected by your opponent if you’re not careful. Other games on display will include WideAwake, a mobile action game with an EDM-inspired theme; Gear Frontier, a combat racing game that allows you to design and then print your own toy car; Adelie and the Obelisk, a platform game with a penguin protagonist; and I.C.U., a game that uses facial recognition to influence the experience.

A panel of industry experts will also be present, led by visiting scholar Gordon Bellamy, former executive director of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences and the International Game Developers Association. The panel’s title, “Bridging the Gap Between Student Work & Successful Startups,” frames the entrepreneurial focus of the USC Gams program.

In addition to addressing changes in the industry, Bellamy will talk about USC’s Bridge program, a selective mentorship initiative for students interested in game publishing startups. The program was officially launched over the summer and will continue each semester by providing three teams of students with legal advice, meetings with venture capitalists and hands-on preparation from game industry veterans.

The Bridge is another example of how USC is a proving ground for the next generation of industry leaders, Bilson said. USC Games, a collaboration between the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ Interactive Media & Games Division (IMGD) and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science, has been ranked as one of the top programs in the country several years running by The Princeton Review. This year the undergraduate student program was ranked No. 1 in the United States for the fifth time in six years.

Bilson said USC Games takes the ranking “really seriously.”

“We continue to bring in great talent at the student and faculty level to help build great games,” he said.

While Demo Day focuses on undergraduate student work, there are several events highlighting graduate student work as well.

  • The Underground Show takes place today from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the Interactive Media and Games Building. It’s an opportunity to see projects being developed by both graduate and undergraduate students in intermediate classes and project electives. It’s also a sneak peek at projects that could become thesis and advanced games projects in years to come.
  • The GamePipe Laboratory is holding a showcase of games developed by computer science students from USC Viterbi on Dec. 10 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Graduate-level games feature virtual reality, artificial intelligence and other technologies, said GamePipe director Mike Zyda. In the past 11 years, more than 1,500 students have passed through the GamePipe Laboratory; many of them now work at top game companies like Activision, publisher of the popular Call of Duty series.
  • IMGD’s Winteractive took place on Dec. 4. This yearly fall showcase exhibits in-progress thesis projects developed by third-year MFA students. Winteractive is a last chance before spring for the students to get exposure to a large audience that will provide feedback on the in-progress projects. It was an opportunity for the wider community to get a peek at the innovations being created by that year’s thesis class.

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Game on: Demo Day shows progress, promise of USC students

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