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."

To Medioni, the excitement surrounding the video game program is due, in large part, to the happy confluence of USC's having top-ranked film and engineering schools, both of which support a substantial amount of video game-related studying.

Medioni said no other university in the country can offer students interested in studying video games access to such a combination of highly related interactive and computer-science programs.

In addition, the school benefits from a growing number of video game companies establishing large presences in Los Angeles.

And that extends to those who want to study video games as part of a larger interest in programming and interactive design as well, he said.

"The idea of the games program is not to create game programmers," said Medioni. "It is to create very good programmers who have the ability to specialize. So in five years, if they decide video games is not what they want to do, they have the abilities of a full computer scientist.

Pamela Fox is one student who would agree with that assessment.

Fox is a star student in the GamePipe program who is about to graduate with master's and bachelor's degrees in computer science. She is a leader in the program, helping coordinate the demo day, teaching undergraduates and being seen by her peers as one of the most successful students the program has produced.

Yet she has chosen to go to work for Google as a support engineer in its Maps API division rather than Electronic Arts or one of its competitors.

Still, she credits her video game education with helping her get to the point where she can do nearly anything she wants in computer science.

"If you can make a good game," said Fox, "you've tackled a lot of the problems of computer science."

Notwithstanding Fox's decision to eschew the video game industry, many of the GamePipe students are, in fact, hoping to end up working for Electronic Arts, Activision, THQ or one of the other big names in the industry.

One of the advantages of GamePipe, meanwhile, is that it brings together many of the different elements of video game production under a single infrastructural umbrella. That means that the teams working on their final designs were able to turn to students in other USC departments for specific assets for their games.

For example, one group said it had gotten the music for its game from a USC music student, who had created the entire score for their game.

Others had gotten art assets from other students in the university.

Although a big part of the video game renaissance is due to the perseverance of people like Medioni, much of it also has to go to Michael Zyda, the director of GamePipe, a professor in the computer science department and a principal force behind the creation of the online game America's Army.

He said that as the institute gets closer to fruition and as GamePipe evolves, he is quickly outgrowing the small rooms the engineering school has to offer.

"I need a building," Zyda said. "So anyone from industry who has a building-size budget, we're taking checks at the door."

He also pointed out that after speakers from Activision began coming to visit his class, his students became enamored of the publisher, and several of them went to work there. He then invited representatives from the other companies in the room to follow suit.

"If you are not speaking in our program, and you want students to come to you," Zyda said, "please come speak, and the next thing, you will have students lining up at your door."

That's a marked turn of events, Zyda explained, from two years ago, when he arrived at USC after several years at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. He said that at that time, he had talked to several industry colleagues, and they had said they weren't interested in the school's students.

"'We do not recruit from the USC computer science department,'" he recalled them saying, '"because they do not produce the kind of people we need.' I said, 'I'll change that for you.' Last year, we placed 30 students" in industry internships and jobs.

One of the chief reasons behind that is USC's ability to give students a well-rounded view of how the video game industry works, including how various teams coordinate with each other on large projects, said Patricia Bojorquez, the manager of university relations for Activision.

She pointed to the creation of Bushido Beat as an example.

"Having them incorporate other students, not just programmers, but also designers," said Bojorquez, "it's been more pleasing to the eye to see it incorporated as a great game. The students here are amazing. We're really impressed with the way this program has been designed and how it's evolving."

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