The Next Generation of Elite Video Game Creators Shows Off Its Talents at USC

Students demo video game Howie & Yarla at USC.EXPAND
Students demo video game Howie & Yarla at USC.
Liz Ohanesian

Inside a small gallery in a building named for Steven Spielberg, USC senior Larissa Schiavo hands over an iPad and talks me through a round of King Basil's Quest. It's an uncomplicated game; once you get the hang of using your fingers instead of a joystick, it's no more difficult than an arcade classic. In the game, King Basil is on the hunt for the for the Crown of Spudly Awesomeness, a fast food promotion. It's a comedy, which Schiavo appreciates. "I like funny," she says, "and that's super important for something that you're going to be working on for an entire year."

Schiavo was initially recruited to work on sound for the game. Now she's a producer as well. Even though she's a film and television production major, Schiavo might have a future in video games. "I really enjoy producing and doing sound for games more," she says.

At USC, video games are a serious course of study. Princeton Review has consistently ranked the school at the top of the heap for game design programs. Well known game-makers, like thatgamecompany and the Odd Gentlemen, got their start here. Students and alumni show off their work at events like E3 and IndieCade. At the first Proto Awards, given for virtual reality projects, a USC alum won the top prize. As the fall semester speeds into finals, an elite group of students are unveiling projects that will take the rest of the school year to complete and may just end up at the next round of video game festivals.

A screen shot of King Basil's Quest (used with permission).
A screen shot of King Basil's Quest (used with permission).

Calvin Drake, a senior Interactive Media and Game Design Major, is the lead designer for King Basil's Quest. He and a friend initially pitched the game to faculty and it made the cut for this year's Advanced Games class. The two-semester, interdisciplinary course has one primary objective; The students need to make a game. Those who are accepted into Advanced Games must build teams filled with volunteers. They interview candidates, figure out who will be the best people for the project and subdivide them into task-based groups. There are programmers, artists, sound engineers and designers. As the lead designer, Drake figures out how the game works. That's been his goal since he decided that he want to make games. "I wanted to work with the mechanics of the game and the rules of the game to make something that's truly fun to play rather than doing something tech-oriented, like programming," he says.

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The teams swell from the few who pitched the project to dozens members. There are 40 people working on King Basil's Quest. The designers and engineers are USC students. Some of the artists come from outside the school. Right now, they're are at the mid-point of the project. They completed the game's first act, which required building four levels, plus the motion comics and other cut scenes that link together the playable parts of the game. Hopefully, they will be able to smooth out any kinks next semester while building another four levels.

"It's a really rigorous process," says Tracy Fullerton, director of USC Games. It's one with potential benefits as well. On this Demo Day on Dec. 10, the students have the chance to show off their projects to industry professionals as well as their professors.

Fullerton started teaching the ins-and-outs of game-making 15 years ago. A lot has changed since then. "They have become a much more important cultural force," she says. In the early years, there were plenty of students who had no experience in the medium. That's less common now. Recently, she has seen freshman who have already made games, either on their own or as part of a high school class. When Fullerton first started teaching at USC, there were classes that were entirely male. This year, women outnumber men amongst the freshman students. In the MFA program, the male/female ratio is roughly an even split.

Inside the gallery, student game-makers talk about their nearly lifelong interest in games. Some are second generation video game players. They mention the games their parents owned and they played. It's this new generation that can help usher video games into the future and getting them to that point is part of the end goal at USC. "We love games. We love the history of games," says Fullerton. "We love what they've been, but out mission, as a community, is to push the boundaries, to push the potential of the form." That can mean a lot of things, from taking games into fields like health care to playing with emerging technology to experiment with the types of stories that games can tell.

A screen shot of King Basil's Quest (used with permission).
A screen shot of King Basil's Quest (used with permission).

Howie & Yarla follows the adventures of a boy whose 16th birthday goes awry when a demon emerges from his back. Howie now has to deal with Yarla and a host of other demons while getting through the high school social problems that stem from that. "He's on a quest to get people to come to his birthday party," says Colin Horgan, a senior in the Interactive Media and Games department who is the director of the game.

It's a plot that sounds more suited for an anime series with art that's a little reminiscent of the early-2000s cartoon Invader Zim. With one level down, Howie & Yarla garnered quite a crowd on Demo Day. Fullerton cites it as an example of how the inter-disciplinary nature of the program fosters collaboration across campus. The 28-member team features students from various schools within the university.

Lead engineer Michael Quian is from the physics/computer science program. He was brought into the project after meeting one of the team leaders in a school club for salsa dancers. "It was one thing to play all these games as a kid," says Quian, "but, once I started doing computer science in college and realized that I now have the tools and the knowledge that I need to make a game, that kind of opened up a whole new world for me."

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