May 17, 2019

Last week, the University of Southern California held its second annual USC Games Expo, featuring 80 games from current undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and alumni. As the biggest student games showcase in the country, the event highlights the talent of its student body and serves as an example of how a university can help college students get started in their game development careers.

We got to visit and check out everything from a location-based mobile game of tag in Domain to four-player VR combat in Ascend. The breadth of interactive entertainment there reflected the fact that USC Games is a collaboration between USC’s School of Cinematic Arts Division of Interactive Media & Games and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering Computer Science Department. On top of being multidisciplinary, the program will be updated this summer, according to Danny Bilson, the director of USC Games.

“We’re looking to do a curriculum overhaul between what’s in the cinema school and the engineering school and make sure there are no redundancies and make sure everything is up to date,” he told us. Bilson added this includes expanding their classes on live operations, location-based entertainment, games focused on health and education, esports, and board games.

If you haven’t heard the term “live ops” before, it is an essential part of the popular games-as-a-service (GaaS) model, which monetizes games after their initial sale by providing continuous game content. MMOs such as World of Warcraft and free-to-play mobile games like Hearthstone fall into this category. According to Bilson, students would spend anywhere from a semester to a year running a live game, creating events, new features, and managing the data.

The director asserted that classes like this are necessary to keep up with industry trends and to meet the program’s primary objectives. “With the sort of velocity of change in the game industry, we have to pay attention to what’s changing and what the current trends are in the business so that our students are prepared to meet the needs of those businesses when they graduate.”

As for the student body, Bilson has seen two major changes in the last few years: the students are more skilled and more diverse, especially in terms of gender diversity.

“Students have more skills and experience before they get to college now because there are more tutorials online and in high schools and more user-friendly tools like Unity. So it’s a completely different world,” Bilson said. He credited the gender diversity to the efforts of his predecessor Tracy Fullerton and other women who established the program. 

“The program is gender diverse, and we will stay that way. It’s part of the mission, and it’s very easy to do because there’s so much talent,” Bilson said.

Before coming to USC, Bilson was formerly a senior executive at Electronic Arts and THQ and had a long career in TV and film at Warner Brothers, Disney, and Paramount. While he believes in the power of interactive storytelling, he also offers some valuable advice to streaming platforms like Netflix looking to capitalize on Choose-Your-Own-Adventure TV shows and films. 

“Branching narratives are one of the most limiting types of interactive narratives. Game systems allow for much more freedom and flexibility,” said Bilson. “It really comes down to the art form of it. Are you giving ownership to the user? Do the choices feel meaningful and vulnerable?”

Ace your gaming final: Game design students need to stay nimble with the rest of the gaming industry but are also paving the way in diversity and new gaming trends.