At USC, developing game coders

University takes advantage of top-ranked engineering and film schools to build one of States' most complete video game institutes. Photos: Piping out game talent

This is the second in an occasional series of articles profiling interactive-media and video game programs at academic institutions in the United States. The first: Interactive design blooms in NYU hallways.

LOS ANGELES--Sitting in a small room on the third floor of the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering on Tuesday, a group of video game industry professionals are cowering as a drummer on the other side of the room is flailing away wildly with a Nintendo Wii controller.

"Put on the straps," one man in the very back of the room said. "You're going to kill us all."

"Watch out," another said, "he's going strapless."

The fear isn't real, of course, but rather a joke based on the well-publicized, though probably not all that common, propensity of energetic Wii players to throw their remotes into their TVs if they don't put the controller's straps around their wrists while playing.

In fact, the drummer who had the industry professionals cracking wise wasn't even playing a Wii but rather a PC game called Drum God that he and four engineering-school classmates had designed as their final project for what is known as the GamePipe laboratory, an interdisciplinary program at the school built around research, development and education about video games.

In Drum God, players use their Wii controller to try to drum to the beat of a rock song, note by note, much as players have to dance to the beat in Dance, Dance, Revolution.

The Drum God team and 11 others have gathered here for GamePipe's "demo day," a day at the end of the semester during which the students present their designs in front of a room of visiting video game industry professionals, looking for feedback and maybe even a job, or at least an internship.

On Tuesday, visitors from game makers such as Electronic Arts, Activision, THQ and Pandemic Studios came to critique the students' projects and, symbiotically, to scout out potential future talent or game concepts.

"If we see one good idea" come from GamePipe, said Amer Ajami, a producer at Electronic Arts' Los Angeles studio who was in the audience for demo day, "then that's a success for us because we can build on it and improve upon it using the vast resources we have available at our disposal."

For EA and its industry brethren, USC is looking more and more like it will be an invaluable source of talent and ideas. That's because the university is in the process of forming what it calls the USC Games Institute, an "umbrella of activity" surrounding the research, development and design of video games that is set to encompass the various programs of study currently being held at the university's engineering school, its School of Cinematic Arts, its Annenberg School for Communication, its Institute for Creative Technologies and its Roski School of Fine Arts.

Already, though the new institute doesn't have any of its own facilities, USC's video game programs have borne significant fruit, in large part because the school has made it clear to the industry, and to students interested in being part of the industry, that it is serious about being a world-class destination for such pursuits.

In a single year, since the introduction of two new computer science degrees, one in games and one in business, the engineering school has seen its computer science department's enrollment double, said Gérard Medioni, the chairman of the school's computer science department and a co-director of the new institute.

"We had some students come this year knowing (that the program) would start," Medioni said, "even though it had not yet been approved."

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