USC

CultureOfGaming went to USC Games Expo 2019, an event where students show off their gaming projects that they’ve been working on for a year. USC Games is one of the few video game development programs in the nation that blends computer science, engineering, and film all under one division. One key aspect that reverberated throughout the event is the student’s passion to create fun and immersive games. Students get hands-on help from faculty members who each have shipped several games in the industry. Recently, we have seen games like Anthem and Mass Effect Andromeda that have launched in catastrophic states in part because of bad management and leadership. These students are learning game design in a realistic environment that emulates a professional setting with partnerships from other game studios in the industry. USC Games is a massive program that collaborates with several disciplines across the campus and no one is better at improving and guiding students than Danny Bilson.

USC Games Chair: Danny Bilson

Danny Bilson’s pedigree speaks for itself. He has worked across several entertainment mediums such as video games, television, films, producing, writing, and comic books, and has worked many years in the video game industry, both for EA and THQ, creating and maintaining key franchises like The Sims, Metro, Saints Row, Darksiders and more. Danny Bilson became the chair of USC Games in 2017 and created USC Games Expo in 2018 as a chance for students to show off their games to both students, family, friends, publishers and other game development studios. Video games are multi-million dollar entertainment products that require not only a great idea but good management of resources, advertising, funding, engineering and most of all; a creative vision. I asked Mr. Bilson several questions on how USC Games helps prepares their students to enter a highly competitive field.

USC Games Expo 2019

Kevin Alvarez: “What are some of the changes or challenges planning this year’s Games Expo when compared to last year’s?”

Danny Bilson: “Well we added somethings this year! We added two really big things, one being that high school and middle school kids visited the campus from 11 am to 2 pm today from various neighborhoods around USC. We wanted to show the kids the possibilities for game development, that there are careers for them to pursue and we have a lot of great scholarships here for them. We really wanted to get more inclusive and bring younger people in to show them career paths in game development, as most kids love video games. There’s a real career, a real business, and a professional path to being a game maker in they have dreams of becoming one. We had about 400 students here today and that was new when compared to last year.

“Another thing that’s an upgrade, when compared to last year, is that we brought in a huge new eSports component because we’ve really begun having our eSports ‘fun’ when compared to last year by having exhibition matches against our long-time rivals UCLA. We are competing in all four games… League of Legends, Overwatch, HearthStone, and Smash Bros. We’re playing all of them tonight! So setting that up is a huge deal because we have all the stages, all equipment, and production going. Otherwise, we have our great partners from Jamcity who gives us the sponsorship to put on the biggest single college game festival probably anywhere.

“Some of the other challenges this year? It’s always the same one, making games are incredibly difficult and our students work really hard for a year and getting all the games finished, all the marketing materials done and trailers in time for the expo is really challenging. Our students always live up to the challenge and this is a day of pride not only for the faculty but for the parents as well. The quality level that the students are able to achieve here at USC Games is incredible but I give all the kids all the credit since they come in with a lot of skills and we just guide them along. Over their year here they make a lot of games and they learn by making and that’s how we teach.”

Kevin Alvarez: “What were some of the feedback from students on last year’s expo?”

Danny Bilson: “Last year was our first time doing the expo and it was a big event. The feedback was extremely positive and the only thing that wasn’t that negative was that [the students] were extremely nervous because they never had such a big public platform to present their games on. They were a little nervous about it but otherwise, they loved it. This whole year has been built around the expo and that’s their objective. We’ve already greenlit the games for next year and they’re already in pre-production for their target which is next May for the expo. They work all year for this event.”

Future Game Devs

Kevin Alvarez: “I saw during the keynote presentation the passion that your students have for their projects. It’s really infectious and almost makes me want to pursue a career in game design! Were there any requirements for students to have their video games submitted for today’s expo?”

Danny Bilson: “Yeah, they just had to be games either made in the last year here at USC or anywhere on campus by any student. We also invite our alumni to come back every year with their latest published game or to show off what they’re working on. We want this event to also be a homecoming event for alumni and they have their own space full of alumni games and its a reunion party for them too.”

Kevin Alvarez: “Do you ever offer personal critique on student projects?”

Danny Bilson: “Do we ever offer personal critiques? [laughs] Relentless personal critiques on their projects! We offer so much critique that I think next year we’ll offer critique every other week instead.”

Kevin Alvarez: “Are there any particular game projects this year that you are particularly excited about?”

Danny Bilson: “Well, I can’t favor one over the others exactly but if I had to point out a game that’s got a very strong message it would be Plasticity. It’s a game about the misuse of plastic in our environment and the danger to our environment if we don’t get a handle on our waste. I’ll mention that game because it’s making a statement and educating. Do I like it better than the other ones? No, but I think it has a level of depth that the students applied to it by making a socially conscious game, which gives it some gravity.”

Kevin Alvarez: “And they manage to get funding for that game?”

Danny Bilson: “Yes, they have a lot of support from environmentalist groups both on and off campus too.”

Entertainment Fusion

Kevin Alvarez: “Do you believe that other colleges should have their own Games Expo and is it key to include their film department as a cross-discipline?”

Danny Bilson: “I’m sure that every single school shows off their student’s work with the maximum amount of resources they have to do it. We have fantastic partners and sponsors here at USC that enable us to build these fantastic facilities like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Jamcity, Zynga Games, Scientific Games and other companies that contribute to our games school, which gives us the financial support to do amazing things.

“Now about the film school, why is it important for games school to be part of the film school? Because the basic tenet of this film school is storytelling and games tell stories in many different ways. Some [games are] more direct and some indirect but storytelling is a key value that we here [at USC] are able to bring across. For instance, I’m also in the screenwriting department while also being the chair of USC Games. We invite and bring in people from other departments within the film school like animation. Animation is one of the key aspects of game development so being part of the film school is a great place for games because it keeps the focus on the content, the creative, and storytelling. When I’m talking about storytelling in games it’s not the same as in films or [other mediums] but it is a kind of storytelling. Sometimes it’s very linear and sometimes it’s emergent but its storytelling and I think that all the different aspects and features of the film school are a wonderful foundation and support for the games school.”

Kevin Alvarez: “Will we see student-made eSports games today or in the future?”

Danny Bilson: “Oh, you’ll definitely see eSports titles developed over the next few years. We’ve had some in the past and it’s very tricky to get one to work, it’s really about creating a well balanced multiplayer game. You’ll see us develop our own eSports title in the future [but for now] our vision for eSports here is more on the social and the competitive [scene]. We’re really looking forward to building our eSports arena. [Which will provide a space] for students to gather around games and game culture… and we’ll also host our own tournaments as well. We want to be more inclusive… and I’ve always said that when we’re playing Mario Party as a competitive game and anyone can play, that’s [how we know] where we want to be. We want to be there and also the highest level of competitive eSports.”

The Pro Gambit

Kevin Alvarez: “One of the goals of USC Games is to give the students professional experience working in the industry. How has USC Games achieved this goal for its students?”

Danny Bilson: “I’ll give the advance games class as an example which their games [were shown during the keynote]. There are ten faculty in that class, one for each discipline. For instance, I run the creative directors. There’s an engineering faculty, there’s an audio faculty, there’s two design faculty, there’s a usability faculty and art faculty. Every one of those faculty [members] are professionals and they’ve all shipped multiple titles professionally so when we run the class we run it like a professional games studio and we treat the kids with the same kind of feedback that they’re going to get in the real world. I’d say the only difference is that they can raise a hand and ask a question wherein a professional studio they might be afraid to ask the boss a question when they don’t know what going on. [Otherwise] it’s run like a professional game environment.”

Kevin Alvarez: “What are some of the key aspects of the Professional Production Process?”

Danny Bilson: “It’s [about] teaching them to measure their team velocity… how much can they actual do in a week or in a [two week] sprint?… then look at the whole map and scope of their game and adjusting that scope to the real velocity of their team and not just what they want to achieve but what they can achieve. I think that’s professional production practice, we have a producing faculty member that meets with every game producer once a week and [this year] we’re trying to manage the schedules in a professional way so that the students don’t burn out.”

Kevin Alvarez: “How do you prepare students for the business side of making video games? Is there any collaboration between USC Games and USC Marshal Business School?”

Danny Bilson: “There is and there will be more in the future. [Students] study some of the business of games [at Marshall] and with us [here at USC Games]. The most important thing for developers to understand about the business of games…is how to, before they start a game, look at the competitive set and look at what the market opportunity is for what they’re thinking about making… even if it’s just 4 students in a garage, is the return on our investment going to give us enough money to make another game? That’s the business of games for me. Are the students looking at the competitive set in the market place? creating a rough financial model for their game and then investing in their game even if it’s just their own resource[s and be] profitable and not just go [in] blind. Really, I just want them to be thoughtful so that they’re always planning to make enough money to make another game.”

Kevin Alvarez: “What are some of the common challenges for students when balancing school, work, and family?”

Danny Bilson: “The biggest issue with the students is that our program is so robust and we offer [several] classes in game development that they tend to take on too much and they burn out… that’s one of the biggest challenges. [We tell them] to pace themselves because [USC Games] offers a lot but if you try to do it all, it’s too much work.”

The Market of Mobile Games

Kevin Alvarez: “At GamesBeat summit last month, you mentioned that students are learning to create video games for the mobile and live service space. Are there any students projects here today that are designed with that in mind?”

Danny Bilson: “Absolutely, if you look at Umami Blast and Domain, both those games are mobile and live games. Umami Blast is a match three game with a whole meta on top of managing a sushi restaurant and Domain is like what I call geo-tag. It’s literally tag where you’re running around looking at the map [on your phone] and chasing other [players in] a team based tag [game].”

Kevin Alvarez: “I loved what I saw of Domain, it’s a neat and awesome idea.”

Danny Bilson: “Yeah! It’s cool.”

The New Class

Kevin Alvarez: “Could USC Games Expo one day include games developed by high schools around Southern California?”

Danny Bilson: “Maybe. I think if we continue to develop our relationship with [local] high schools [we can]. We have a great summer program with high school students and there is some game development there from our faculty. I could see a place [here] for high school [projects] if they have a relationship with USC through the summer program or a future program.”

Kevin Alvarez: “What advice would you give to anyone who is aspiring to create video games?”

Danny Bilson: “Make the game you want to play the most!”

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