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.
Last Wednesday I attended the University of Southern California’s GamePipe Lab’s semi-annual Showcase held at the Egg Building just outside the university’s Los Angeles campus, and as always I was impressed by the exceptional work of some of the best and brightest game development students in the country.
For USC Viterbi School of Engineering Professor Mike Zyda and his students in the USC Games program, the Spring 2017 Showcase event is an opportunity to show off a school year’s worth of collaboration, creativity and computer design. It’s also the students’ introduction to a host of industry scouts who may purchase and publish the games, as well as hire program graduates to design, program, and produce the games of the future. I make an effort to attend Showcase every six months to help me set aspirations for my own students at The Los Angeles Film School.
There were so many great games to play, that it is a shame that there was only time for me to play two.
Arkology is a virtual reality real-time strategy game developed as part of virtual reality research at the University of Southern California. The player controls the game using motion control. At first I had difficulty understanding how to move the units using my virtual reality “hands”, but one I learned to stop over-thinking user interface, I realized how intuitive and simple the controls actually were.
From the Operations Room in the heart of the Ark, the player must strategize, command, and lead his forces to preserve what may be the last of humanity. As soon as the player becomes familiar with the controls, the enemy begins to attack, The player is then forced to activate the experimental warp drive to preserve the Ark, but with the premature activation of experimental tech, the player and the crew of the Ark find themselves in uncharted space.
I found that I really enjoyed how virtual reality immersed me in what was a cross between a board game and a real-time strategy game. Developed by a six-person team led by Powen Yao, this is a game that I would pick up just to show off my virtual reality gear.
BoltCraft is a cooperative, wave-based, third-person action game where players are members of the Bolton Collective in a fight for a desolated Earth’s resources against the planet’s robotic overlords. Developed by an 11-person team lead by Maison Lietzke and Martha Monica with artistic collaboration with the Laguna College of Art & Design., BoltCraft allows players to customize their robot’s abilities and appearance and deploy helpful minions to defend themselves and their team against an onslaught of enemies.
Unfortunately I didn’t get any screenshots of this game, so you’ll have to take my word fo it that I had fun maneuvering my robot through an urban environment and selecting different abilities and fortification to defend my area against the overlords attempting to take control of it.
As always, the creativity and technical prowess of the USC Games students was impressive, and it was exciting to see how these kids are bending our reality to create a new gaming future.