Black History Month Spotlight: Jasmine Persephone Jupiter Part II

Kimmy Stewart

Jasmine Persephone Jupiter is a California-based narrative designer who is currently pursuing an MFA in Interactive Media & Game Design at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Her work – Koshka’s Kofe – has been showcased at the Asian American International Film Festival, IndieCade, and the USC Games Expo. Currently, Jasmine is working on a couple of exciting projects, including a collaboration with students from the Tokyo Geidai University in Japan.  Here are some highlights from our talk with Jasmine, edited for brevity. Did you always know you wanted to make games?  Kind of, actually. When I was a really young kid, I loved video games so much. The very first game that I was exposed to was when I was in elementary school. I went over to my friend’s house and they introduced me to Starcraft. I was hooked after that. Then my cousin introduced me to Kingdom Hearts. However, I didn’t believe that I could make video games. I didn’t know it was a job that people could do but I was really interested in the topics. I took AP Computer Science when I was in high school and created my very first video game called Laser Space Dolphin Attack. You play as a dolphin in space who shoots lasers out of its blowholes.  I was also, by that time, really interested in film. I applied to USC for undergrad and got in. I was going to be a film person because I didn’t know we had a games program. After I graduated, I took a year off and then applied to USC for grad school. I got wait-listed. Later my partner at that time saw a random poster hiring interns for a comic book company, which seemed interesting to me. I applied and it turned out it was an augmented reality comic book company. For all of the books that we created, you could use your phone to look at animations and hear music. That’s actually how I got involved in interactive media. I learned how to do 3D modeling and rigging. I did environment design for different areas the comic books took place in. I also got my first experience doing writing, in which I wrote codex entries for an augmented reality children’s book called Creative Creature Catcher. It was an amazing experience. I got to do a couple of contracts for Marvel Comics. I was able to use all of that work to create a portfolio and get into USC. What do you like most about USC?  I especially appreciate how, at USC, the students are encouraged to take as cross-disciplinary and collaborative an approach as possible. It’s not something that I have encountered at another institution or anywhere else. There were all sorts of initiatives that try to bring people together from different disciplines all over the university to make something new. I think that’s extremely exciting. As for a specific memory, I helped to organize the very first Polymathic Academy retreat to Catalina … Read More

Black History Month Spotlight: Jasmine Persephone Jupiter

Jocelyn Yan

Jasmine Persephone Jupiter is a California-based narrative designer who is currently pursuing an MFA in Interactive Media & Game Design at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Her work – Koshka’s Kofe – has been showcased at the Asian American International Film Festival, IndieCade, and the USC Games Expo. Currently, Jasmine is working on a couple of exciting projects, including a collaboration with students from the Tokyo Geidai University in Japan.  Here are some highlights from our talk with Jasmine, edited for brevity. What’s the story behind Koshka’s Kofe?  Koshka’s Kofe was created as the final project for one of the very first classes the first years MFA’s take in the Interactive Media program. We were placed onto a team of three – it was me, Michelle Ma, and Cloud Tian. We had to make a game during the last four weeks of class. We were really interested in creating something that had a strong narrative and that we could leverage all of our skills for. I am a writer,  so I wrote the narrative for the game. Michelle is an amazing animator who was able to do all of the wonderful art in that game. Cloud is a fantastic composer who created all the music for the game. It was just a really perfect storm of our talents. The game has a very personal story because it deals with common themes that a lot of people in their mid-20s face, as far as complicated relationships with family, and the ambivalent feelings about returning to your hometown. Did you foresee the success of Koshka’s Kofe?  No, not at all. We were just trying to do our best and get through the class. It just so happened that we created a perfect storm of all of our strong skills, and we were able to focus on our respective parts, which doesn’t happen very often. Sometimes you are forced into a partnership where you have to flex your muscles on a skill that you are not really the best at – but in Koshka’s Kofe, we were able to focus on our own lanes. By the end of it, when we were showing our final playtest of the game, people were like, “Wow you made this in this class? This was something that would have been good for the next level of the course.” We then realized that maybe we have something here; so I decided to try and shop us around at festivals, and it sort of exploded from there. Can you share your experiences with Black Podcast Revolution & Trans Game Dev?  Trans Game Dev was started by a woman in the UK, named Faye. She was very dissatisfied with the state of being a trans person in the industry – not really having community, potentially facing issues at work, discriminations, etc. She really wanted to create a space where trans people in the video game industry could get together and build power by sharing experiences and helping each other … Read More

Black History Month Spotlight: Lynn Scerbak II

Kimmy Stewart

Lynn Scerbak is an alumnus from USC who graduated from USC Games in 2018. While at USC, they worked as an artist and game designer on the educational game Tracking Ida, which drew inspiration from Ida B. Wells’ investigative journalism against lynching in the 1890s. Currently, they are working full-time at DigitalFish as a technical artist in Facebook’s Spark AR program.  Here are some highlights from our talk with Lynn, edited for brevity. How did USC help shape your career path? I was actually approached by DigitalFish because they were expanding their tech art division. Actually, jobs are open right now for DigitalFish–we’re looking for more tech artists! But after I graduated college, I took a year to work at a local non-profit. Then I started applying to a wide array of tech industry jobs all over. I was really lucky that DigitalFish reached out to me because I don’t know if I would’ve found them otherwise. At DigitalFish, we get to work on augmented reality and emerging technologies. That’s really fun for me and I really enjoy that.  What does a day at DigitalFish generally look like? I mostly work in Facebook’s Spark AR program, Facebook’s augmented reality software that is constantly being developed and expanded. It’s cool, but it’s also a lot to learn. There are many different ways you can use the program. A lot of people use it to create Instagram effects. Some people try to push the software to make games and interactive experiences using a simple skeleton that Spark provides. People have been able to do some really amazing stuff just by using head gestures in order to control entire interactive experiences! It’s a different philosophy of game design or playful design. I regularly apply what I learned in school because these emerging technologies often involve the body, and that’s really cool. What do you remember most about USC? I think that the thing that I appreciate most from USC, especially now that I’m a few years away from it, is the variety of really cool, perspective-altering classes. It’s kind of nerdy, but the classes that I took were probably my best memories at USC. Ones that stand out to me are my typography and dance classes. I had a dance minor, and that informed my game design practice 110%. And then obviously, my peers and educators in the games program.  What future projects have you been thinking about? A lot of silk. I’ve dyed a bunch of silk scarves using natural dyes and indigo extracts. That’s a fun little chemistry experiment comboed with creating pretty colors. In terms of grand projects in tech, I’ve been thinking about a detective thriller. My grandpa was a Black homicide detective with the NYPD for a while. He worked on the Kennedy assassination. He had a lot of interesting experiences, so I think that creating a detective thriller that looks at both policing and Blackness set back in the 70s would be interesting. You can have an … Read More

Black History Month Spotlight: Lynn Scerbak

Kimmy Stewart

Lynn Scerbak is an alumnus from USC who graduated from USC Games in 2018. While at USC, they worked as an artist and game designer on the educational game Tracking Ida, which drew inspiration from Ida B. Wells’ investigative journalism against lynching in the 1890s. Currently, they are working full-time at DigitalFish as a technical artist in Facebook’s Spark AR program.  Here are some highlights from our talk with Lynn, edited for brevity. For those readers who haven’t met you, can you tell them who you are? My name’s Lynn Scerbak. I use any pronouns. I graduated from USC’s IMGD program in 2018 with my degree in interactive entertainment.  While you were a student, you worked 0n Tracking Ida. Can you share your experience working on it? Lishan Az, who was the game’s lead and creative director, is an amazing designer. She always asks really great questions that always lead people to think about the project and the design process itself. So that project was really fun to work on.  My main contribution was certain types of puzzle design and different kinds of aesthetic components. One of the things that I really enjoyed researching was different typefaces that were used during the late 1800s and early 1900s. We had to balance using historically accurate type with people’s perceptions of what historically accurate type would be. Some of the typefaces looked really modern, even though they were from the late 1800s, and others looked just like a complete affront to modern design sensibilities! I think that was one of my favorite parts of working on that project. Tracking Ida was a cool project because it showed how so many different disciplines, when you’re doing historical research, can be adapted into a playful format that leads to an experience. The game was exhibited at E3 and IndieCade, and won the Impact Award at IndieCade! When you were working Tracking Ida, did you expect it to be so well-received? I would say “no.” I didn’t anticipate it because that’s really not what we were designing for at all. I was mostly concerned with the educational impact of the game. Showing it in a festival setting was cool–it was definitely fun for a lot of people. But we definitely had to adjust certain elements of the experience to be more festival-friendly. I don’t think either of Lishan or I necessarily anticipated that.  Tracking Ida was designed specifically to be in a classroom context with a traditional educational lead into the project. We imagined the game being experienced in the context of Black History Month or a broader history class, and so students would have context for approaching it.  Have you seen the game be used in a classroom? Yes, I got to help out with some of the classroom tests for the game. That was really cool! Kids got really excited when they got the right combination for a lock. It was cool to see history taught in a playful, meaningful, and interactive way; … Read More

Black History Month Spotlight: Bryant Young (Part II)

Kimmy Stewart

Bryant Young is an alumnus from USC who graduated from USC Games in 2017 and Viterbi’s Master of Computer Science program in 2020. While at USC, he began development for the VR experience Our America. Currently, he’s working full-time at Scopely while simultaneously working with his team at Fishean Studio to release the project.  Here are some highlights from our talk with Bryant, edited for brevity. What do you hope players walk away with after experiencing Our America? The whole entire point of this was just to get people who aren’t Black a tiny peek into what it’s like to be Black. They won’t completely know obviously cause to completely understand what it’s like to be Black, you have to live the Black experience. And that’s a daily thing, it’s not just five minutes, ten minutes inside of a VR experience. So hopefully, make people more open to listening to the things that we go through on a daily basis and trying to understand what it’s like to be us.  What was the experience like for opening up your own studio? USC Games has a Bridge Program, so if they think your project is good enough, or that it’s promising enough, they’ll help you start your own company. So that’s how we got that company and the name and everything. But I think the most challenging part is funding of course. Without money you can’t function, and you can’t hire people. And of course after that, you have to find talent for people that’ll want to work with you and work with your project and whose vision aligns with yours basically. The hardest part, like I said, is the funding for the actual project. Pitching. Learning your pitch and doing it often, is probably the best thing for you if you’re looking to start a company cause that’s the only way you’re going to get funding– is just pitching to as many people as possible, and eventually something’s gonna stay. And you get your funding that you need and then you go about your way. But once you hit that, that’s like the hardest part. But I’m still very new to this, so, take that with a grain of salt. How is it having a job while working on your own project? It’s a matter of balance, really. Scopely does a great job with deadlines and avoiding crunch. So that itself is good. It allows me a lot of free time to do things like playing the guitar. I work out. I’m doing this project. It allows me time to also do things that I love. Did you always know you wanted to make games? Yeah, yeah. That was just going to happen. It was either making games or building airplanes, it was one of the two. There was nothing else I ever wanted to do.  Are there any games that had a huge impact on you? Probably Fallout 3. Being able to customize my character and make a Black … Read More

Chinese New Year Games Spotlight – An Ancient Game in a Brand New Year

Kimmy Stewart

To celebrate this year’s Chinese New Year, USC Games is releasing a 3-part series featuring hit games from past CNYs.  This is Part 3 of our 3-Part series featuring popular games from Chinese New Years’ past.   Chinese New Year is one of the few times during the year when families come together from far and wide. Mahjong, a classic tabletop game in Chinese and other Asian cultures, is one of the activities the whole family takes part in. The clacking of the tiles being shuffled can be heard from morning until night.  In 2020, COVID-19 deeply impacted how Chinese families ushered in the new year. With strict travel and quarantine restrictions, families could not celebrate together as they had in previous years. Because Mahjong couldn’t be played together in person, many turned to virtual alternatives. Mobile games like QQ Mahjong (QQ麻将), developed by Tencent, and Sichuan Mahjong rose in popularity around the Chinese New Year. According to a senior analyst at GameRefinery, QQ Mahjong experienced an increase of almost 700% in downloads, while Sichuan Mahjong had an increase of 600% in downloads during February and March 2020. How does the mahjong experience change when it’s virtual? For those who aren’t familiar with the game, Mahjong is a four-player tile game in which players compete to complete their hand. There is debate around when Mahjong was first created, but many associate the game’s beginning with the 19th century. Players around the table take turns drawing and discarding tiles until they obtain four sets and a pair of eyes (two matching tiles). Mahjong requires a combination of skill, strategy, and luck. In an in-person game, joy comes from interacting with other players. There is a lot of noise that happens at the table–the most signature one is the clacking of tiles being shuffled before a round begins. Players are quick to shout out “peng” when they claim a third tile that matches an existing pair in their hand. Whenever a player obtains a winning tile and reveals their hand upon victory, there is usually commotion from all the players. When players are physically sitting around a table, they can also read their opponents’ faces. Certain opponents might involuntarily give away which tiles they’re looking for by visibly reacting to a tile being discarded to the center. A skillful player has a keen eye and picks up tiny observations like this. In a virtual setting, the player dynamic is different. Players do not see each others’ faces in QQ Mahjong. Instead, they view each other’s avatars. In a Youtube video, a player is seen using a cat paw to draw tiles from the center of the table. The virtual game allows for more creativity in this area but restricts the creative, strategic thinking on the players’ part. The game reveals the tiles needed to win, as well as how many of each tile remains in the game. These elements, usually calculated by the players themselves, are readily available in a pop-up window. The … Read More

Chinese New Year Games Spotlight – Sims Meets Ming Dynasty

Jocelyn Yan

To celebrate this year’s Chinese New Year, USC Games is releasing a 3-part series featuring hit games from past CNYs.  This is Part 2 of our 3-Part series featuring Hot Games from Chinese New Years’ past.   With the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, the Chinese New Year, typically a time for celebration, was impacted due to the cancellation of all major in-person events. While cinemas and theatres shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19, like people around the world many celebrants people were bored while staying at home, and unable to meet with friends or relatives.  In July 2020, the life simulation mobile game Jiangnan Landscape went viral in China. The game was developed and published by Coconut Island, a game studio that focuses on making indie games with exquisite design. Jiangnan Landscape attained 2.1 million downloads within the first month of its release and maintained its place in the top 3 for 21 days in a row. Let’s dive into the game’s features, which make it so intriguing. Jiangnan Landscape‘s gameplay is very similar to The Sims. What makes it unique are the elements of ancient Chinese culture that are present in the game’s story, characters, graphics, and music. The game specifically takes place during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE) of China, the time remembered for its literature, art, and porcelain. All characters of this game wear period clothes, and the background buildings are also presented in the style of ancient Chinese architecture. The background music is performed by traditional Chinese instruments including Guzheng, Dizi, and Erhu. The historical setting of Jiangnan Landscape allows players to easily enter their role as explorers – By immersing themselves in the virtual game world, players get to escape from modern times and discover a life in one of the grandest and most poetic periods of China.  When players first enter the game, they will find themselves playing as Wen Zhengming, a Chinese painter, calligrapher, and poet during the Ming dynasty. Wen is trapped in one of his well-known paintings, Jiangnan Landscape. Jiangnan, one of the southern regions of China that Wen painted, was destroyed by a fire disaster. Players must complete a list of quests to rebuild the area and revive the economy. There are a wide range of quests, including but not limited to constructing new houses, inviting new residents to the area, cultivating a farm, hosting a marketplace, and even solving a robbery case. Each quest unlocks awards that contain in-game currency and items that can help to more easily progress through the game. In addition to the rich cultural presentation, the game also has strong attention to detail. In Jiangnan Landscape, there are several special characters players can obtain via a “gacha” mechanism. These characters, although not all originally from the Ming Dynasty, are influential historical figures with great accomplishments in either art or literature. The plot moves along with players’ discovery of these special characters whose real life stories are incorporated in the plot. Even the … Read More

Black History Month Spotlight: Bryant Young

Kimmy Stewart

Bryant Young is an alumnus from USC who graduated from USC Games in 2017 and Viterbi’s Master of Computer Science program in 2020. While at USC, he began development for the VR experience Our America. Currently, he’s working full-time at Scopely while simultaneously working with his team at Fishean Studio to release the project.  Here are some highlights from our talk with Bryant, edited for brevity. You’ve only been out of school for a year, but for those readers who haven’t met you, can you tell them who you are?  My name’s Bryant Young, currently a Software Engineer at Scopely, one of the most successful mobile gaming developers and publishers in the world. I also run a company with a couple of people I graduated grad school with. In undergrad, I was studying game design, graduated 2017 and my most recent graduation was 2020 from Viterbi’s Master of Computer Science.  Where did the idea for your game Our America come from?  Our America is a project that started actually in my undergrad as direct research, and from there I used it as a prototype to create what the project’s become now, which is a VR experience about being Black in America. You go through the experience with the two characters in the game’s imagery, the father and son. They’re on their way to school, and the player experiences the racism and anxiety that Black people go through regularly.  Was Our America always intended to be a VR experience? The problem that I find with playing an experience like this with a controller is that it’s no longer a truly immersive experience. It becomes more of a game. You’re not really living it and it’s a lot easier to disconnect when you separate something because it’s on a screen. It’s a different experience in VR, because you feel like you’re sitting in the car driving your son to school, versus feeling like you were playing someone who’s driving their son to school.  Have you talked to others in the Black community about this game? A lot of the actors are Black, and they all really liked the script and said “Yeah, this is how it actually is. This is what happens.” When people come to test out the project, they usually resonate with it. There’ve been times, like on the internet, people will say “This is a ‘whole project’” regarding how emotionally jarring the experience is But the internet is the internet. You can’t win everything and you just gotta accept the things that people think about it. Not everyone’s going to agree with the way I tell the story.  Visit Our America’s website, YouTube channel, Twitter, and Facebook accounts for updates on the project. View the whole interview on USC Games’ YouTube channel here.

Chinese New Year Games Spotlight – Will Pigs Still Fly in the Year of the Ox?

Jocelyn Yan

With the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, the Chinese New Year, typically a time for celebration, was impacted due to the cancellation of all major in-person events. While cinemas and theatres shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19, like people around the world many celebrants were bored while staying at home, and unable to meet with friends or relatives. As a result, the already-substantial Chinese mobile game industry has grown even more rapidly. One hyper-casual game called Sunny Pig Farm (阳光养猪场) consecutively ranked #1 in the iOS Top Free Games during last year’s Chinese New Year, the Year of the Rat. Will it continue to be a dominant force during this, the Year of the Ox? Chinese New Year is the festival that celebrates the beginning of a new year on the traditional Chinese calendar. During the celebration of Chinese New Year, people gather together to make dumplings, watch the annual CNY gala, play fireworks, and exchange red envelopes and gifts. The celebration usually starts a week before New Year’s Day and lasts for another week after New Year’s Day. The Chinese New Year is on February 12th this year, ushering in the Year of the Ox. USC Games is celebrating this year’s Chinese New Year by looking back at popular games from Chinese New Years. Image source: https://www.freepik.com/premium-vector/happy-chinese-new-year-2021-year-ox-chinese-zodiac-sig_9766185.htm   Sunny Pig Farm was developed by Shanghai SongWo Network Technology Co., Ltd, and was released in October 2019. One of the most engaging aspects of this game is its money-making ability. Sunny Pig Farm uses cultivation as its main gameplay mechanic, allowing players to raise and upgrade virtual pigs to gain real cash.  For example, players can earn up to 230 pig coins by completing daily tasks. They can get double the reward by watching in-game ads. The virtual pigs they raise also get different tasks at certain levels, which allow the players to earn even more pig coins. These pig coins can be converted into real cash when accumulated to a certain amount.  Besides the pig coins, another way of earning money is through Sunny Pig Farm‘s special feature – the ‘red envelope’ giveaway. In China, “red” is the symbol of energy, happiness, and good luck. Not only do people wear red clothes on New Year’s Day, but–reflecting real life, as mentioned above–they also give red envelopes to others as a way to send their good wishes. In Sunny Pig Farm, the more time played in the game, the more red envelopes are earned, which contain a random amount of in-game currency players can get. Inviting friends to the game can also trigger the red envelopes giveaway. Another attractive feature of the game Sunny Pig Farm is that players can turn the virtual pigs they raised online into real pork delivered to their homes. If players can get six or more friends to the game, they get a pound of pork delivered to them. This setting was especially popular among players when the pork price surged in … Read More

Brains@Play Hosts the Brains and Games Design Fiction Competition

Kimmy Stewart

The Brains@Play Initiative is a research collective that facilitates workshops and provides resources to encourage the design of brain-responsive multiplayer experiences. Through creative events, the public can become more familiar with technology, develop a critical eye for evaluating technology, and most importantly have fun. The initiative’s goal is to reassure the public that as long as they are excited about these topics, they can participate in the design of society’s newest technologies. The Brains@Play Initiative is holding the first ever Brains and Games Competition (BGC), which is now open for submission until March 10th and is an international design fiction competition for creatives of all ages to submit brain-responsive multiplayer experiences. The competition is open to people of all experience levels who may be interested in game design, ethics, and neurotechnology.  To kick off the competition, the Brains@Play Initiative, on February 1st, will host a design fiction workshop about creating a digital game employing brain-to-brain interaction (BBI) technologies, led by Dr. Dimitris Grammenos. Dr. Grammenos is a Principal Researcher at the Foundation for Research and Technology – Hellas (FORTH) specializing in Human-Computer Interaction. He is known for his interactive installations as well as his international workshops focused on creativity and creative thinking. In Greece, there is another student design fiction competition that is already underway and will continue to run during the BGC. Register here for the BGC to be a part of an international community that is designing fun brain-responsive multiplayer experiences!  If you’re still on the fence about entering the Brains and Games Competition, here are some words of wisdom from one of the initiative’s co-founders Professor Gotsis: “Imagining the future is a good thing to do in this type of situation (COVID).” She adds that for those who don’t know much about neuroscience or game creation, don’t worry about any perceived lack of experience. Just bring your brain and your computer and–if you are looking for teammates to work with–join their Discord here at their website, brainsatplay.com. The general Brain Games category, sponsored by USC Games, invites newcomers and experienced designers to describe a new multiplayer game which uses brain-to-brain interaction technologies. No programming experience or special hardware is required.  The VR + Neurotech + Health category, sponsored by the USC SMART-VR Center and Enosis, is for more experienced designers who have prototyping experience; teams will create a VR game that is designed with neurotechnology to improve the health of players.   And finally, the Computational Art category, sponsored by USC Media Arts + Practice and USC Visions and Voices: The Arts and Humanities Initiative, is for those with prototyping experience to create computational art that involves neuroscience, technology, ethics, and consciousness. Awards for all three categories will be given out during Brain Awareness Week in March.  To cap things off, Brains@Play is also producing a USC Visions and Voices event on March 5th. Livewire: A Stimulating Night of Neurotechnology will feature various notable speakers in the neuroethics field, including Dong Song, co-founder of the Brains@Play initiative … Read More