Twice a year I attend demo days at the University of Southern California’s GamePipe Showcase to see what game engineering students in the world-renowned USC Games program have accomplished. This semi-annual event features the work of multidisciplinary, collaborative teams of programmers, artists and game designers, who demonstrate to event attendees the games they conceived, designed and built for various platforms, including mobile and virtual reality.
Last week I attended the Fall Showcase event hosted by USC Viterbi School of Engineering Professor Mike Zyda at the USC GamePipe Laboratory EGG-Building, where the first few month’s results of the student teams’ collaboration, creativity and engineering is unveiled. I made sure to arrive early this time, and so I had a full three hours to play the video games on display.
Here are some of the projects that captured my interest and excited my imagination.
This third-person,fantasy action-adventure game began with me navigating a meteor to a Los Angeles street, where the meteor transformed into a young boy named Ray. My control transfers to Ray, and as I explored the surrounding area, I encountered Ray’s one and only friend, Sammy, and watched as he accidentally stepped into another dimension and is kidnapped by the creatures that inhabit the other side. Devastated by the loss of his friend, Ray vows to do all he can to get his friend back. As I moved Ray to a bus stop, he came face to face with Mirror Baba, an eccentric hermit who covers his clothes in mirror shards. Ray convinces Mirror Baba to help him get his friend back but the Mirror Man warns him that there will be a price to pay to get Sammy back. And it might cost Ray everything that he is, or ever will be, to do it.
The game’s designer, Miray Hepguler, explained to me that the game is about Ray’s transcendental journey to discover who he truly is. Adapted from the Sufi book Awakened Dreams, written by Ahmet Hilmi in 1910. Like the book, the game explores philosophical concepts about the self, perception, and the nature of reality through its story-driven gameplay.
These are lofty and commendable goals, but at this early stage, it’s the gameplay that needs focus going onward: filling out the environments, amping up the action, and providing more choices in the dialog so that the player is participating in the story rather than reading it. Still, the skeleton is there, and I’ll look forward to seeing what progress Miray and her team makes in fulfilling their vision over the next five months of development.
Unlike your typical interstellar tactical role-playing game, Hovenstar also requires you to resolve time travel crimes. When I sat down to play, I was informed that I was a tactical officer in a timespace stabilization agency named Compresaer, assigned travel across the universe to investigate a mysterious corruption that is altering the history of multiple planets.
The gameplay was a tile-based experience, not unlike chess, but with units able to attack adjacent areas when I land. One of the team members told me that the final version will combine handcrafted worlds with procedural content to create deep narrative journeys & dynamic adventures, that includes a special “world swap recipe”. You can learn more at Hovenstar
This platformer puzzle game is about the little frog Iso’s journey to find his explorer father in a world of optical illusion. Each puzzle is involves platforms constructed with cubic blocks and controllable widgets, and to reach each platform in the level, I had to jump and activate elevators and other widgets to reach the next higher platform. However, I soon found that many locations to which I needed to travel were just too high for me to reach.
But wait! The game’s name, OrthoIso, comes from Orthographic projection and Isometric views. Each level can be seen in three different views, and two surfaces which appeared to be far apart in one view were adjacent to another in another view — a consequence of seeing a 3D world from a 2D perspective. And so, I solved the various traverse puzzles by constantly changing the view to create the path that would lead me to the block or widget I needed to reach.
This was the most polished game at the Showcase. It was challenging, attractive, and clever. Project leader Yansen Sheng and his development team have created a game that looks to be a winner, and I wouldn’t be surprised the team lands a publishing deal when the game is completed! While waiting for that day, you can learn more about the game at OrthoIso.
Want to have an insane time in space? Then this cosmic terror VR game, set aboard a stranded starship where the player must solve the ship’s mystery while slipping further into madness, is for you! You are the lone inhabitant awake aboard a stranded star ship and it’s up to you to restart the ship and save the thousands of passengers aboard. You will need to solve puzzles and complete objectives to unlock new sections of the ship while slipping deeper into Post Cryo Madness — an illness known to affect deep space travelers after long journeys in cryo sleep and causes hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia. Delving deeper into the ship will only bring you closer to madness and the true terrors that haunt you.
I played through the first level of this game and was impressed with how complete and immersive it was so soon into its development. The puzzles also caused me to scratch my head for a bit, not from their difficulty, but for me to figure out where the clues were. It required me to carefully pay attention to the environment, something I really appreciated in a virtual reality game. You can learn more about it at Pytheas.
Teddie & I
You’ll never sleep peacefully with your Teddy Bear again after playing Teddy & I, a virtual reality puzzle platformer set in grotesque, twisted land of monsters and abominations called The Nightmare World. You play Erin, a kind and imaginative 8-year-old boy, while also controlling Teddie, his friendly, comedic teddy bear and best friend. Erin awakes from his bed to the horrifying realization that a monster has escaped from his nightmares and snatches away Teddie. In a struggle to save his friend, he falls into the fearsome Nightmare World. Now he must find his way back to reality and battle his greatest fears along the way or perish, forgotten in an unknown world. Yet, it will not be as easy as it seems. Because, in a child’s mind, some monsters are real.
In the demo that I played, I navigated Erin and Teddie through a fearsome maze set in a nightmarish version of Erin’s home. Early on, Teddie and Erin split apart, requiring me to maneuver Erin through a puzzle while trying to avoid a monster from my dreams that is afraid of the light. I did so by ordering my unseen Teddie to different the right light switches that would lure the monster our of Erin’s path. The whole experience was very eerie, and I’m almost afraid (in a good way) to try the completed game next Spring. You can learn more about Erin and Teddie at Teddie and I.
This 2D platform RPG game where promotes itself as an experience an authentic world of Chinese Xianxia — a type of Chinese martial arts novel genre developed from the wuxia genre that is heavily influenced by Taoism and Buddhism. And at first it appeared to be a relatively standard platformer in which I had to run and jump through fairly typical underground realm (albeit beautifully rendered with hand-drawn art) populated by demons.
What I didn’t expect was its novel interface. The player can slow down the time and drawing pattern called Fu to release powerful skills. Fu is a Chinese Taoist concept of calling upon the power of a deity by drawing complicated pattern on a yellow paper. Before confronting a demon, the player must draw a Fu pattern, and the closer the player replicates it, the more power that is unleashed against his or her foe. I found the experience beautiful in every posible way. You can learn more about this game at Unfettered.
Virtual Model Home
This virtual reality application isn’t a game but a tool for buying a house and customizing wall/floor textures and colors to users’ liking so that they can create their dream home. I found it easy to move about the virtual model home, move furniture, and change wall colors and textures. I look forward to seeing the team provide a broader range of decorating options for users to explore. You can learn more about this application here: Virtual Model Home
I love Words With Friends, I love virtual reality, and I love serious games, so I was eager to play this VR puzzle game that offers the player with Parkinson’s disorder an opportunity to attend a rehabilitation session without actually giving him/her the notion of being in one.
When I donned the headset, I found myself immersed in an environment that was a cross between a mountain forest and a game show set. A list of topics appeared before me, and I chose “animals.” The game then tasked me with using the hand controllers to collect the appropriate letters from among those scattered around me to fill in the empty letter boxes and complete the name of the animal. Sounds easy, right? The trick is that there are lots of letters scattered about, and the word needs to be filled in with the correct letters before a timer counts down.
Although I fit the target demographic of 55 years or older, I thought this VR version of hangman needed timer audio to ramp up the tension of time running out, more polish and vibrancy for the graphics. Still, as team member Arpit Sharma cautioned me, Wordplay VR wasn’t designed for gamers — its serves a much more specific audience. Every year, 50-68% of people with Parkinson’s disease (PD) experience one or more falls related to walking. As a result, many clinical interventions have emphasized walking training such as obstacle negotiation. However, multiple clinics encounter limitations where dynamic walking environments are difficult to simulate in a clinical setting.
WIth its immersive virtual reality setting, WordPlay VR offers the player an opportunity to attend a rehabilitation session without actually giving him/her the notion of being in one. The main idea behind the game is to provide the player with an opportunity to perform several types of exercise in the game in a manner that trains his/her afflicted muscles. These exercises will help develop his motor-system to function better and eventually lead him to a path of recovery from the dreaded disease. Now that grabs me. You can find out more at WordPlay VR.
Despite spending a full three hours at the Showcase, I didn’t have time to play any of the mobile games the USC GamePipe Lab students were developing, as well as some of the other AR/VR experiences. Fortunately, there is a website where you can learn about every game on display this semester: USC GamePipe Fall Showcase 2018.
Each month the Los Angeles Film School’s Game Production program holds a Game Fair to showcase the games our students are developing in their classes. Throughout the month of June I taught Game Design Project 1, which is an upper-division course where students work together in teams to design and create a prototype of a game that they will complete in Game Design Project 2. Both of the student teams in my class had decided to work on virtual reality projects, and I was so impressed with what they accomplished in just four weeks that I just had to also showcase them in my blog post for this week.
Confined is a survival-horror game for players who are interested in the development of VR. Resource management and good shooting skills are vital to your survival. Since you are going to experience the game from your own perspective it will really add to the immersion and threat of the game, and unlike Resident Evil 7 that had a VR function, Confined will be designed for VR rather than have it as a side feature. Now I ask you is being trapped underground really the worst thing to happen or is not knowing if you are alone down there worse?
For their Game Fair prototype, I gave the team a goal of implementing their flashlight mechanic for navigating through a dark, spooky lab and at least one puzzle to solve. The puzzle they created took the form of a room littered with books, and the player had to find the one book that was out of the ordinary. That book turned out to be the only book that remained on a bookshelf that could only be found by searching though the room with a flashlight before its batteries ran out. When the player picked up the book with their virtual hand, a secret door would open, allowing the player to escape.
The players at Game Fair reported that this environment perfectly captured the right mood for a scary, horror game. This mood was enhanced by the darkness and limited view through the virtual reality headset. However, the avatar movement needed some work, because the player avatar would teleport short distances instead of walk and often would teleport right though the bookcase they were trying to reach. But all in all, they were very excited about this game and saw its potential.
- Eric Castillo (Project Manager, Lead Designer, Programmer)
- Will Mackey (Game Designer, Level Designer)
- Vlad Altshuler (Co-Programmer, Lead Audio, Game Designer)
- Jared Delatorre (Lead Level Designer, Marketer)
- Jesus Soto (Lead Programmer, Level Designer, Mascot)
- Anthony Reese (Lead Artist)
Eyes Wide Open
Eyes Now Open is a action packed level based first person VR shooter with a focus on tactical high intensity combat. Fight with anything you can get your hands on as you run and gun attempting to escape three levels of a secret super-soldier facility called Blackgrove. You play as Finley, the only patient to survive the Treatment, altering your genetic make up allowing you to posses super human abilities called Meta-Upgrades. Use these abilities to alter time, electricity, plasma and electromagnetic energy to destroy the ones who took not only your mind but the one you cared for the most, your wife.
I gave this team the goal of implementing one of the Meta-Upgrades and a situation where that special ability would be useful. The team created a level in which the player started by choosing a gun from among an arsenal of weapons and then travel across the level to reach the exit. As the player went into the main hallway, a horde of enemies would spawn into the far end and rush toward the player. There were too many to kill with any of the weapons, unless the player activated the Alter Time Meta-Upgrade, which slowed down the enemies sufficiently to shoot them all.
Everyone who played this at Game Fair found the controls easy to use and the action to be exciting. However, not understanding this was only a prototype to test the mechanics, they did complain about the enemies being unfinished models. They all enjoyed the immersion brought by the virtual reality headset, although several reported a slight feeling of motion sickness. When I played the game, I too found it both to be a thrilling experience but felt a bit queasy when turning. This is something the team will look into solving for the second month of the game’s development.
- Jack Sabato (Project Manager / Lead Modeler / Assistant Texture Artist / Lead Writer)
- Hassan Wansa (Assistant Project Manager / Lead Programmer / Lead GUI)
- Brandon Deniz (Creative Director / Lead Level Designer / Assistant Modeler / Lead Texture Artist )
- Desmon Jernigan (Video Editor / Lead Story / Lead Dialog / Assistant Programmer / Lead Lighting Supervisor)
- Jeremy Garrett (Business Manager / Lead Sound / Assistant Modeler / Assistant Artist)
At our next Game Fair, which is about five weeks away, I’ll take a second look at these games to see how they progressed.