The University of Southern California is home to one of the world’s best game design programs. This spring, it hopes to push that reputation farther with USC Games Publishing, a label that would bring innovative work by students and faculty to PlayStation and Xbox, PC and mobile. Although the first titles will come from within USC, the goal is to embrace the broader development community and create a system that gives game designers near-total creative control to be innovative, artistic, or just plain weird…
The University of Southern California is home to one of the world’s best game design programs. This spring, it hopes to push that reputation farther with USC Games Publishing, a label that would bring innovative work by students and faculty to PlayStation and Xbox, PC and mobile. Although the first titles will come from within USC, the goal is to embrace the broader development community and create a system that gives game designers near-total creative control to be innovative, artistic, or just plain weird.
“Curation is one of the most important things that players deserve these days,” says Tracy Fullerton, director of USC Games. “There’s a tremendous amount of content available for people to find, and yet it’s very difficult to find. One of the ways that … this label that we’re establishing can participate is by curating important voices, really innovative work, and putting it out there under our publishing label.”
As digital distribution and cheaper tools have made creating games increasingly accessible, many schools have launched extensive game design programs that introduce the next generation of game designers to experienced mentors who can teach them the craft. USC’s program is a standout, one the Princeton Review has for five of the past six years rated as the best in the country. Now the university wants to move beyond nurturing great student projects to helping students sell them to eager gamers.
One of USC Games Publishing’s launch games is Chambara, a two-player swordfighting game with a clever twist: The world exists in black and white, so you hide by blending into the background—until the other player changes his camera angle, which could leave you exposed. The game, which started as an undergraduate student project at USC, already has a BAFTA award—Britain’s equivalent to an Oscar—under its belt.
The publishing slate gets weirder from there. Night Journey, created by Fullerton and USC’s Game Innovation Lab with new media artist Bill Viola, is an artistic, meditative exploration game in the style of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. The Cat and the Coup is, as its website describes, “a documentary videogame in which you play the cat of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran.”
“They are all pieces of art in their own right, but they approach it in different ways,” says Fullerton. “We’re going to err on the side of the designer. Creative control would remain with the designer.”
“We are not expecting to make a profit,” she says. “We hope that what we reap from this is cultural recognition of this form. When people look to academic publishers in the print area, you look at someone like an MIT Press. These are not books that are going to necessarily be on The New York Times best-seller list, but these are books that are important, that need to be out there in the zeitgeist. I feel like we can do something similar here with games.”
The [Finished] Swan
You might have already played games that started as USC student projects. Fl0w, released on the PlayStation 3 in 2007, was the product of designer Jenova Chen’s master’s thesis. (Chen’s studio, thatgamecompany, went on to create the acclaimed Journey.) The Unfinished Swan and The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, released on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, respectively, also started as USC student projects.
That reputation for excellence is what attracted acclaimed game designer Richard Lemarchand, one of the key developers of Sony’s Uncharted series.
“I’d entered the game industry in the early ’90s with a dream and a vision of videogames as an emerging art form,” Lemarchand says. While still leading the design of the Uncharted games, he pursued his passion for art by volunteering at USC, which eventually hired him as a game design professor. He taps his decades of professional knowledge to help students get their work to the next level.
“For years now I’ve been seeing all of the great games that have come out of the program, games that were really of shippable quality, and that I’d wanted to see a wider exposure for,” he says. “The students are increasingly coming to us straight from high school with quite a large amount of game making experience. Perhaps they learned to code on their mother’s knee at the age of nine. That’s the kind of thing that we’re seeing, increasingly.”
Part of the publisher’s mission is to help those young students see the untapped creative potential of videogames.
“We bring in folks who have an aptitude for the medium, and we break down their expectations about what games are today and what they can be in the future,” Fullerton says. “We try to introduce them to other art forms, we try to get them to look outside of games for their inspiration, and essentially build them into being original artists, as opposed to people who are copying the existing tropes of the medium.”
“If you’re a young person and you want to make a stand for yourself, what better way than to strike out and do something the industry isn’t doing?” she says. “It’s crazy to me how many students want to make things that are just like the industry. It’s already being done, and you’re going to be one of thousands of people doing that? Why don’t you be the one person who’s doing this other thing?”
Creating, and now publishing, innovative games that advance the form can have a great impact on all kinds of games, even the blockbusters, Lemarchand says. “People who wish to be dismissive of games as art haven’t realized just how much it is the case that people who make games for a living… are interested in the avant-garde of game development,” he says, “and do find great inspiration in games that some people might see as fringe-y or out there, and bring the lessons in those games into their commercial work.”
Lemarchand cites Night Journey, the art installation game, as having influenced Uncharted 2, particularly on the “peaceful village” sequence in that game, in which protagonist Nathan Drake takes an extended break from firing guns and instead shakes hands with friendly locals and pets yaks. It’s often cited by players as their favorite part of the game.
“We’re going to be able to promulgate these kinds of ideas, and maybe forge some new connections in people’s minds between games for entertainment and games as art,” he says.
Along the way, USC Games Publishing hopes to create a better relationship between developers and publishers.
“When you see blog posts from creators who’ve been through kind of a wringer, say, working with a larger publisher—I’m sure that it’s had its benefits, but… people have experienced a grueling process that I think we offer an alternative to,” Fullerton says. “We’re not there to make the designers change their vision.”
“They’ve given us complete creative autonomy,” says Chambara‘s lead designer Esteban Fajardo, currently a senior at USC. “Occasionally we’ve just been like, Wow, they’re really trusting us to put crazy things in there.” The motivation to keep the game palatable to Xbox or PlayStation players, Fajardo says, is internal. While he prefers to design levels that are “like an M.C. Escher painting,” he’s holding himself back a little to make sure Chambara‘s black-and-white levels are scrutable to a mainstream audience.
“At game school you have so much space to be experimental and fail in interesting ways that you wouldn’t otherwise have with a commercial publisher that has a much larger financial stake in the process,” says the game’s producer, Kevin Wong, also a senior.
Fullerton says USC offers more than the ability to run free creatively. It also offers expertise in the tricky legalities of turning student projects into commercial ones. At most educational institutions, she says, students own the intellectual property they create in class. “Now, the students own the IP, but how do a group of students own IP together? And how do you actually take that IP and bring it to the company and to the public as a commercial endeavor? How do you cleanly do that, and how can the university help?”
“Learning how to commercialize a game and go through everything that a release involves is frightening, it’s so incredibly scary, and failing can be incredibly dangerous,” says Fajardo. “The only way that we could bring this game forward, and maintain the autonomy that we could, was in this environment.”
Ultimately, USC Games Publishing hopes to prove to the world what Fullerton and Lemarchand believe so strongly about the games their students produce—that the students at work in their classrooms are making games of shippable, salable quality.
“I would argue that these games are so strong that they might get a [traditional] publishing deal,” Fullerton says. “But we got there first.”
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