Women’s History Month Spotlight: Abby Sherlock

Jocelyn Yan

Abby Sherlock is currently a 2nd year graduate student at USC Games’ Interactive Media & Games graduate program. She has been focusing on producing and collaborating with actors, narrative designers and audio designers. Abby, co-creator of the award winning game Heirloom, was recently awarded the 2021 Activision/Blizzard King Aspiring Womxn* in Games Scholarship. Here are some highlights from our talk with Abby, edited for brevity and clarity. Can you tell us about the game Heirloom? Heirloom would be nothing without my co-creator Kathryn Yu, who’s fantastically talented. Kathryn was the lead programmer, UX/UI designer, and co-writer. I was the producer, co-writer, and director. I also voice acted in the game. The game was really born of Kathryn and my strengths. Kathryn comes from a strong escape room and immersive theater background. I was a theater BA at UC San Diego with a focus in theater and acting – so a strong narrative and a puzzle escape room then became our basic constraints.  In terms of the game’s location and places, we both were very interested in “retro but not retro,” since the story takes place in the 90s, but also harkens back to events that happened in the 70s and the 80s. I’m originally born and raised in South Carolina, so that inspired the game’s setting in the rural American South. The story is about a southern woman and her family. It was born of my love for the South and how I missed the things I thought were special. What’s your favorite creative medium? Probably still games, especially theatre in games. I think both theatre and games are conduits of empathy. With theatres, you get to see these actors and become immersed in a performance. This type of interaction does not happen in movies or TVs. With games, it’s similar to theater: you physically have to do something, or else you’re going to start on the title screen and not do anything. I think the level of participation of the player, of the audience, is very similar.  Games also present the innovation of technology, and with the strong storytelling mixed into the concept, there couldn’t be a better medium in the world. Can you share your experience as a female game developer?  I was a child actor and I grew up in very female-friendly places. I saw lots of good role models at a young age. The theatres I was a part of had a lot of female directors and creators. When I got involved with my e-sports gaming club in my undergrad, we would be lucky to have three women in a room of 400 people. It’s very hard to find role models that look like you. I’ve always loved games but never knew games could be a career because there wasn’t a lot of visibility on female game professionals.  Seeing role models was really important for me. It was a challenge, as there are so many comments about women in games facing harassment, doxing, and stalkers. It … Read More

Women’s History Month Spotlight: Liv Morales

Kimmy Stewart

Olivia (Liv) Morales is a sophomore at USC Games in the Interactive Media & Game Design program. She is an avid writer, interested in the narrative aspects of game design. Liv is a student assistant for the Advanced Games Projects (AGP) course and also one of the founding members of the first ever USC Girls in Games Club.  Here are some highlights from our talk with Liv, edited for brevity and clarity. What is your favorite medium to create for? Writing is my passion. I know that no matter what I end up doing, writing will be involved. I’m fascinated with storytelling in games. I see a lot of potential in this area that I don’t think is utilized completely. I would love to eventually be a narrative designer or a creative director for story-driven video games.  What is USC Girls in Games? Girls in Games is a new club that we’re starting through the USC Games program. It started with a conversation my friends and I had. We realized there wasn’t a club for girls who are specifically interested in video games–professionally and/or socially. There’s several clubs at USC that are for girls in STEM or entertainment. But I think gaming and the games industry is such a specific culture. The experiences of those who identify as female in gaming are unique. We can’t label them the same as girls in technology or girls in cinema. So, I thought it would be a really fun idea.  We’re super excited about Girls in Games. Once things have a sense of normalcy again, we’re hoping to have a variety of club activities. For now, there’s a lot we could do with online communication and creating a community that we didn’t have before. You’re not just running the new club, you’re also a Student Assistant in USC Games’ prestigious Advanced Games Projects (AGP) class.  What do you do in that role? In AGP, there are different SAs for different disciplines like usability, production, or engineering. I work as a Lead SA alongside my best friend and fellow USC Games student Gail. We basically oversee work with lead faculty to manage how the class operates. We talk to everyone, which is probably my favorite part of the job. I’ve gotten to meet faculty who I’ve never interacted with before. I get to talk to students who are doing these amazing projects.  SA’s don’t work directly on the games, but learning about other projects’ trials and tribulations is insightful. If I ever do an Advanced Games Project, I will know so much already. I’m really grateful for the experience altogether. Before joining AGP, I wasn’t super involved with the faculty and the other students. Now I get to work with amazing people and learn so many amazing things.  Do you have a favorite USC memory so far? The people I’ve met have been the best thing for me. I’m in awe of the faculty at this school and the friends I’ve made along the … Read More

Women’s History Month Spotlight: Brittany Beidleman

Jocelyn Yan

Brittany Beidleman is an alumna of USC Games’ Interactive Media & Games graduate program. She has worked on several amazing projects including Call of Duty®: Black Ops 4 and Call of Duty®: Black Ops Cold War. Currently, Brittany is a level designer at Treyarch, where she continues her passion for gaming and creates innovative gaming experiences that will inspire people the same way they inspired her.  Here are some highlights from our talk with Brittany, edited for brevity and clarity. What does your day-to-day role as a level designer at Treyarch look like? Level design at Treyarch is kind of different from other studios; the designer not only will design the levels, but they also detail them. You have to be a designer and somewhat an artist to do this job. When I worked on Black Ops 4, I worked on the Dead of the Night Zombie’s map in which I designed a lot of the interiors of the mansion and on the cemetery space outside. Those areas went through multiple iterations of design and layout. The next step was to work with the concept art team, which would put beautiful paintovers on the level I have created. I would then turn these beautiful paintings into 3D.    My role for Black Ops: Cold War was quite different. I was able to work on the Fireteam maps, and I was basically like a level design project manager.  I made sure the level designers could achieve their goals on time. I would work with the production teams to make sure tasks were getting assigned and tracked. I had to work with the concept art team again to get red lines of the space or paintovers. I also worked with the environment art team to make sure we had textures for the grounds, for models, etc. There is so much involved with this project management role for Cold War. I would say that collaboration is key in this role for sure.  What drew you to the game industry and the FPS genre in particular? I’ve always loved first person shooters. I kind of grew up playing them. I think I have to attribute it to my dad. My dad worked in the Air Force so I grew up moving all over the U.S. He had to learn about historical battles and therefore became passionate about them. He then started playing games with a PlayStation 2, which was also my first system. He preferred playing games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor. I kind of had just played with him, and that’s where my love for FPS (First Person Shooters) came from.  Did you always know you wanted to make games? In early middle school, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t know what I wanted to do because all the classes I was taking weren’t really interesting to me. I would just go home and play video games so I had … Read More

Global Game Jam 2021

Kimmy Stewart

-Written by Kimmy Stewart and Jocelyn Yan USC Games was the host of Los Angeles’ Global Game Jam activities. Many developers participated and presented outstanding projects at this year’s event in January. Even though it took place virtually, the quality of games continued to be impressive! The theme ‘Lost & Found’ sparked the creation of many great games. Two games that really stood out were Memories of Molly and Oops! I Dropped my Key Card.  Memories of Molly’s development team was led by USC Games faculties Gordon Bellamy and Margaret Moser, both experienced game designers and industry tastemakers. Memories of Molly is a 2D puzzle game based on real life events. It tells the story of an inspirational single mother, who uses musical memories to recall a life well-lived. Each round, a series of music notes are played, and the associated graphics are displayed. Players need to remember the order of the permutation to successfully continue onto the next level.  The game gets harder as the level goes up; More music notes are played, which means players need to remember more associated graphics. Once players successfully unlock all levels within a stage, a specific memory will be triggered.  Each memory shows a stage of the single mother’s rich life. Players witness the day she received her college degree and the moment she got married. The game also shows impactful moments such as the minute she first saw her child’s face and the long hours she worked to financially support the family. Memories of Molly encapsulates not just a game with a ‘lost & found’ theme, but also a flashback of a single mother’s laughs and tears. The game’s musical elements also challenge players to memorize both visual and auditory cues. Play Memories of Molly here!  Oops! I Dropped my Key Card stood out as the only VR game amongst the other fantastic work. In this first person 3D game, players must solve various puzzles to return power to their dysfunctional spaceship. Uncover the key cards needed to power the ship by pulling levers and toggling switches. The game’s creators, Stephen Lane and Sean Maguire, were excited to put their skills to the test at this year’s game jam. This was the duo’s sixth game they’ve worked on together; they are no strangers to game jams! The project was able to come to life because the duo finally had a PC strong enough to run the VR components. If there’s a positive to virtual game jams, it’s that powerful PCs are easily accessible. And, participants can actually sleep in their own beds! That said, Stephen and Sean shared that while it was much more convenient to work from home, they missed the traditional game jam vibe. “The atmosphere of having people around you is really enjoyable. It’s also cool to be able to present to people in-person and see what they’re working on.” Play Oops! I Dropped my Key Card here! The creators of both titles hope to refine and add … Read More

Women’s History Month Spotlight: Martzi Campos

Kimmy Stewart

Martzi Campos is a research staff member at the USC Game Innovation Lab and professor at USC Games. Her work often combines physical and digital elements to create wondrous experiences. Martzi’s artistic philosophy is, “If I can make something that makes adults feel like they are in a McDonald’s Play Place, then I have succeeded.” Here are some highlights from our talk with Martzi, edited for brevity and clarity. What type of work do you do at the USC Game Innovation Lab? I’ve worked on a lot of educational products, which ties into my educational background. I was a preschool teacher before I came to USC for graduate school. It was really cool to work on a lot of cool projects like ChronoCards, which are two sets of card games that teach kids about World War I and the Revolutionary War. Students learned about the causes behind the wars, which helped them practice justifying facts. They made statements and built their knowledge about both of those topics. I was also a part of a really cool project the Game Innovation Lab did with NASA, which involved extremophiles, tiny microbes that live in extremely hot or cold places. It was cool to build a project around such an exciting topic.  Did you always know you wanted to make games? I didn’t know it was a job! No one told me! I’ve always loved games. They’ve been a huge part of my life. I credit my younger brother for sparking my interest. During the 80’s, video games were primarily marketed towards boys. I was told, “You can’t make video games. You have to be good at math.” I wasn’t good at math, though, so I chose to major in painting. I loved my arts education. But, I felt something was missing. I graduated and moved to California. I met someone in USC Games’ Masters program at a Dungeons & Dragons group. She told me about the program, and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I knew then that I wanted to come to USC to make interactive media and games! People always say that when you find your place, all the doors start to open up. It was shocking to discover that once I was in a place where I truly belonged, those opportunities did start to open up. I thought, “Oh yeah! They weren’t lying!” What was your experience working on AR Box? AR Box was made at an augmented reality game jam that Google and IndieCade hosted. Sean Bloom, Jesse Vigil, and I were asked to form a team together. When are you ever going to say no to a cool game jam?  Going into the game jam, I was skeptical towards AR. I didn’t like the idea of people trying to transpose over the everyday world. Yet, AR has such amazing potential. While brainstorming, we recognized the need for the connection between the physical world and AR. Sean, being the escape room buff that he … Read More

Women’s History Month Spotlight: Diana Hughes

Kimmy Stewart

Diana Hughes is an alumna of USC Games’ Interactive Media & Games graduate program. She has worked on a multitude of serious games, including training games for the US Military. Currently, Diana is Vice President of Product at Age of Learning, where she crafts adapted and personalized learning experiences for children through educational software.  Here are some highlights from our talk with Diana, edited for brevity and clarity. What drew you to create educational games? It started mostly with my extensive background in serious games. I’ve done a lot of educational game design, but it was mostly for adult players. In the past, I designed training simulations for the military. One of the things that drew me to more classic educational games is that it’s more fun. Kids are such a delightful audience to make games for. I work with a lot of people who talk about their childhood games that became formative experiences. So it’s really cool to know that the things I’m doing now could potentially be brought up as a source of inspiration during someone’s job interview 20 years later. Also, children’s education is an evergreen market. We’re never going to run out of kids. And they’re always going to have to learn how to read. It’s more stable than a lot of other serious games, which are driven by securing a grant or funding for development. I wanted to be able to settle into something and really dig into the problem. I thought, “How do you employ games and gameplay to change the world?” This gave me that opportunity. What does your average day as a VP of Product look like? Well, I go to a lot of meetings because my job is collaborating with people. When you move far up enough in an organization, it’s no longer about being an individual contributor who makes things–whether those are design documents, or code, or art assets. Your work outcomes involve people. Do they know what they’re supposed to be doing, and why they’re supposed to be doing it? Are you empowering them to make their own choices? A lot of my time is spent making sure that the people on my team understand what we’re supposed to be doing, why we’re doing it, and when we need it by. And if the team needs help, I’ll step in and start the conversation of how we’ll go about a project. Has your role changed as a result of COVID-19? The day-to-day work hasn’t changed, but I think the stakes have. We were supposed to be supplemental to children’s primary education, something that was on the side as practice. And now it’s like “Oh wow, we’re school.” The pressure is much higher.  Before the pandemic, we were already thinking about kids learning and retaining information effectively. We made sure that we did studies and proved that our games worked. We wanted them to be something that kids could do on their own, so that they could have that agency … Read More

Maquette: Discussion with Professor Matt Whiting

Kimmy Stewart

Matt Whiting is a professor in the USC Games program and teaches courses in Viterbi’s Information and Technology Program (ITP) and Advanced Games Projects (AGP) courses. Before becoming a full-time professor, he was a programmer for a multitude of commercial games, including the original Spyro the Dragon. Matt also works as a contractor to help companies with optimization and porting to various platforms. Currently, he is working on Maquette, a first-person recursive puzzle game developed by Graceful Decay and published by Annapurna Interactive.  Here are some highlights from our talk with Professor Whiting, edited for brevity and clarity. What is Maquette? Maquette is a unique puzzle game that also explores the relationship between two people. The game’s puzzles have a recursive way of looking at models of the world. You’re in a world, and within it, there’s a smaller model of your world. You can pick up an object in the model world and move it around. Then, the full-sized object in the world you’re walking around moves with it.  The first puzzle involves a giant brick that is in the model world, which looks identical to the world you’re standing in. When you pick up the smaller brick and move it to another location, you see that behind you, the giant brick has moved as well. And then if you look out beyond that, you see there’s another layer. You can change the scale of objects by moving them from one world to the next. This is how you solve puzzles. It’s a very puzzle-y, cerebral type of gameplay. While you’re focusing on the puzzles, there is also a story that is unfolding before you. As I mentioned, the game also reflects on the relationship between two characters over time: how they met, how they develop their relationship, and ultimately where it went after that. The voice acting for this thing is truly phenomenal, as is the writing. Our final voice actors–Bryce Howard and Seth Gabel–are really fantastic. They have great chemistry. So when you hear them saying the lines, it’s really moving. I’ve heard the story so many times in bug testing, yet it still moves me. What did the development process look like? Annapurna Interactive approached Graceful Decay, who had the beginnings of the game. As a publisher, Annapurna is able to fund the continuing development and allow the team to make it a really polished commercial product. I’ve worked with Annapurna before on several titles: Gorogoa, Kentucky Root Zero, and one of our favorites at USC, Outer Wilds. Annapurna calls me in to bring experience to a team that is usually in their last six months to a year of development. Usually, the team will have been developing on PC for maybe a year. I have a lot of experience with game consoles, such as PlayStation. So I bring my expertise to help the teams publish their games on those machines. Sometimes, I’ll just do performance analysis and performance improvement. The team might just need another … Read More

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