For several months, students and faculty from USC Games, the joint video game design program facilitated by the Viterbi School of Engineering and the School of Cinematic Arts, have been working to create video games to exhibit at the third annual USC Games Expo May 12. Recognized as the world’s largest university-sponsored gaming and esports show, the Expo brings together students, faculty and industry professionals to check out the latest developments in gaming.
Unlike previous years, the 2020 Expo will not be held on the University Park Campus due to the coronavirus pandemic. Before California issued its stay-at-home order, event organizers decided to shift the event online and stream it on various platforms, such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitch. Jim Huntley, an adjunct assistant professor of SCA’s Interactive Media & Games Division who helped organize the event, said they began planning the Expo in February but made plans for an online switch if the situation with the coronavirus worsened.
“[We reacted] very quietly and somberly,” Huntley said. “As things were evolving on the pandemic in other parts of the world, we were talking to each other, going, ‘OK, we have to [make a] parallel path, we have to plan for both the physical Expo, and there might be an online Expo, and it might be a combination of both.’”
Even with the decision to transition the Expo to a virtual format, Danny Bilson, chair of the Interactive Media & Games Division and director of USC Games, said he and the other organizers looked to branch out beyond their campus audience to a general audience with a passion for video games. Organizers of the event originally thought of the possibility of streaming the actual in-person event, and the shift to complete virtual mode gave them the opportunity to experiment with this.
“What we’ve always known is that everything we’re doing for this is what we wanted to do for phase two of our Expo anyway, which is to get it beyond our walls,” Bilson said. “Hopefully by the time we’re back on campus, we’ll be able to literally share, broadcast in interactive ways through all these streams out from USC physically because we’ll have learned it and tuned it through these socially distanced times.”
Even with the online adjustment, the major elements of the Expo will remain the same. Namely, the event will feature more than 90 exhibitions displaying tabletop, mobile, PC and console games. USC Games will sponsor this year’s Expo alongside Jam City Games, a Los Angeles-based video game development company.
One of the major focuses of this year’s Expo will be the games created by students participating in the Advanced Games Program, the capstone class that brings them together to work on the production of a major game. Overseen by Viterbi and SCA, AGP gives students the opportunity to use their skills in composition, programming and design to make a game for exhibition.
Twelve AGP games will be featured at the 2020 USC Games Expo, including “ShortStacked,” a PC game that follows the adventures of two children disguising themselves as an adult using a trench coat to carry out shenanigans such as watching R-rated movies. Christie Xu, a senior majoring in computer science (games), said although she was unsure of the transition of an in-person Expo to a digital event, she looks forward to presenting her team’s work to fellow students, faculty and the average livestream viewer.
“I’m actually really happy because that means the people on my team get a way to showcase their work still,” Xu said. “My goal was to make a good game as a byproduct and make sure
that everyone had a good experience … and making people smile at [the] Expo.”
The coronavirus outbreak resulted in Xu and her team finishing the game remotely, in three different time zones. In fact, one of the external artists on the team worked directly from Taiwan. Despite this, they managed to collaborate online and completed beta testing April 23.
“I feel like the reason why my project’s still been going smoothly is because of everyone’s individual accountability — showing up to the meetings and the Zoom calls and just holding themselves responsible,” Xu said.
Colin Spiridonov, a freshman majoring in computer science (games), will present his team’s game called “Ghosted: Battle Royale,” a physical card game that adds a competitive feature and implements a theme of high school popularity. Spiridonov and his team completed the game in Fall 2019.
Because the team’s final product is a physical board game, Spiridonov said the switch from an in-person event to an online one required them to make changes to their game presentation such as switching from interactive play to gameplay footage for the stream. With the game centered around player interaction, Spiridonov and his team planned to have a table and chair set up where people could walk by and play during the original Expo. With the transition to an online event, they made the necessary adjustments to the game’s presentation.
“All we have to show is the gameplay video in the trailer, and then some b-roll video, which is just [an] uncut version of gameplay video,” he said. “So we’ll show that off to whoever wants to see or not. Yeah, it’s not the best, obviously. But it’s the right thing to do, to move [the Expo] online.”
The USC Games Expo will also hold a scheduled esports tournament, which comprises matches from various universities across Southern California competing in games such as Overwatch, Hearthstone, Super Smash Bros and Rocket League.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the content go live and the viewers and the fans and the students’ reactions to seeing it,” Huntley said. “I’m feeling really excited and positive about seeing everything on the screen come together … because we’ve never done it before.”
Tournaments and video game presentations still make up a large part of the scheduled Expo. However, Huntley and Bilson said the virtual event would be promoted differently with the help of celebrities and volunteers. The list of these individuals will be announced in an upcoming press release.
“We’re getting a lot of people who are willing to help out because they all see how important this is to the program and how important it is to the students,” Huntley said. “It’s been very uplifting seeing the support from [the entertainment industry] and everybody else.”
Bilson said although the gaming industry has to adjust, it can easily transition because of its digital nature. As people look to video games for recreation and an escape from present uncertainty and isolation, Huntley sees gaming gaining more legitimacy as an art form due to a lack of other events, such as sports.
“I think the video game industry is going to be more important than it’s ever been in the next few years for its ability to connect people who are separated through play,” Bilson said. “So I think you’re going to see a little bit of a flourishing of creativity around connected games and ways to play and communicate and be together when we can’t.”