USC Games Expo 2019 is a special event in which future game designers, animators, directors, and all the roles in between get a chance to create a game in a professional environment. Students have only a year to design, plan, create and market their game with vigorous deadlines and critique by industry faculty. At the expo, students showed off their hard work in the VR space such as Empath.
Everyone was FireBall Fighting!
Empath is a VR title, and an AGP (Advance Game Project) which is made by senior students as a capstone milestone. One of the few games at the expo that uses VR technology and had its own space to try out. This game, at first glance, seems simple enough as it reminds me of on-rails VR shooters that several games are trying to make work. Empath is an action game where players are a mage who use their emotions to cast powerful spells. Casting requires body movements using the VR headsets and controllers to imitate martial art stances.
There weren’t that many VR titles at the expo as having demos take a ton of space and it limits the number of people who are able to try the game. However, Empath was one of the few games I saw at the expo with the biggest line to demo. Lots of people wanted to play the game to the point that they had to take appointments and turn people away. VR is a promising technology for the future of video games, alongside cloud streaming services. Empath looks visually impressive and the demo traverses a work torn street filled with magic monsters and obstacles and finishes with a battle against your sinister counterpart; reminds me of Devil May Cry 3, but with an emphasis on magic.
The Top Mage
I talked to the Game Director of Empath, Justin Camden, about the game and his experience on being the showcase at USC Games Expo 2019 as an AGP.
Kevin Alvarez: “What are some of the challenges you had to overcome to get this game out in time for the Expo?”
Justin Camden: “The biggest challenge was associating movements to actions in the game. For example, punching creates your fireballs and blocking with your arms up creates a shield. Learning how to transfer that into a motion control system that works and feels good was especially difficult. However, we were able to do some cool stuff like using an acceleration adjusting recognization system and some machine learning to smooth our the VR gameplay. There are still things we need to improve upon and tweak but overall it feels fun right now.”
Kevin Alvarez: “What are your thoughts on industry crunch now as more stories about AAA development are starting to trickle out?”
Justin Camden: “I think crunch is terrible. It is an epidemic and it is something all major studios need to be thinking about how they’re going to address that problem. Considering that unionization is on the horizon and it is inevitable at this point.
Kevin Alvarez: “What do you want to do after you graduate?”
Justin Camden: “I’m going to be staying in games, I have a job lined up with Ready At Dawn [Studios] and I’m going to work on some VR games with them. I’ll be starting as a Systems Designer and I’ll see where I go from there.
Kevin Alvarez: “What advice would you give to people wanting to pursue a career in video games?”
Justin Camden: “I would say to anyone seeking a career in games is to read books! Books on game design, I know reading books is a bit old fashioned but I learned a lot from reading books than I did taking classes. Aside from that, just start making games using the tools available to you like Unity and Unreal Engine that are free now. Just try them out and learn how those systems work. If you have games or game projects [that you’re working on] that’s how you’ll learn the most about game design and could be a proof of concept for companies that might hire you.”
VR in School
I know that VR games are being made and currently developed for Playstation VR, Oculus, and Gear VR. What surprised me is the fact that schools are also helping students to work on VR projects. Of course, they would! but most of the chatter I hear is from indie studios or big-name companies investing in VR development with little gain. It makes sense to train and teach students the importance of VR development without the students having to invest their own money (other than tuition) to explore those avenues. They can work on projects that will help them get an edge and work in with the necessary tools. My only concern is how does that process look like for faculty teaching students. As Danny Bilson mentioned in our interview, the faculty of USC Games are professional veterans who have shipped a plethora of games but I can’t imagine many of them have experience in shipping VR games on the market.
Be sure to check out my other interviews with the student developers behind Plasticity and End of the Line at USC Games Expo 2019. Thanks for reading and don’t forget to check out my interview with USC Games Chair Danny Bilson, Shades of Magic author V.E. Schwab, and Black Panther’s Quest voice actor James Mathis III. For more great interviews, reviews, editorials, and news stay tuned to CultureOfGaming.com, or check us out on OpenCritic.com.