THE INSTITUTEIf you like video games, you’ve likely played one developed by a USC Games graduate. The University of Southern California program, created by IEEE Fellow Michael Zyda and former USC Games Director Tracy J. Fullerton, was ranked as the best such program in North America by the Princeton Review.
Zyda, a professor of computer science practice at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering, in Los Angeles, established the school’s bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in games and game development. He frequently comes up with new courses to teach, such as applied machine learning for games, which he introduced at USC this year.
He’s also the creator of America’s Army: Proving Grounds, a 3D mission-experience game commissioned by the U.S. Army. Its debut in 2002 was the first time the military had used game technology as a recruiting tool. More than 3 million people have played America’s Army, Zyda says.
IEEE Fellow Michael Zyda.Photo: S.C. Mero
He holds two patents on a magnetic sensor found in the Nintendo Wii U controller. The sensor allows the controller to understand its orientation.
Zyda’s pioneering work in gaming as well as computer graphics, modeling, simulation, and networked virtual reality has been recognized by a number of organizations including IEEE, which gave him an award for technical achievement in virtual reality in 2017. This year he was elevated to IEEE Fellow for his contributions to game design and networking.
In this interview with The Institute, Zyda talks about games he’d like to see developed, what makes for a successful designer, and the benefits of gaming tournaments.
What kind of games do you foresee in the future?
Most of today’s games are “press a button and shoot a bullet at something” or a facet of that. They don’t deal with actually interacting with another player on a personal basis. Game developers should be thinking about games that understand our emotions, and designing AI characters with software so they can interact with players based on their emotional state.
For example, say a pirate character is trying to make your life miserable but he senses that you’re happy. The pirate’s goal is to change your emotional state to angry by communicating with you in some way. Next thing you know, he’s able to interact with you like a human would.
Characters from novels or stories could be turned into interactive forms so we could talk to them. For example, someone might want to play Hamlet or one of the other characters in the play. Using artificial intelligence, Hamlet and others will be able to express emotions, have behaviors, and share knowledge. You might even be able to rehearse your lines with other characters. This is not like watching a movie—this is you interacting with others and being completely immersed in the game.
How is teaching game design different from teaching more traditional subjects?
It turns out the only way you can really teach games is to teach students through active learning. I put together a framework for them about how to write and draft their design, track their progress, and build their game. It’s very hands-on.
The classes are mostly labs. I check on the students’ progress with their design, give them ideas, and stir the pot by saying, “What if you did this instead and made the story go that way?”
I’ve calculated that the games my students have designed and shipped have been played by 5 billion players.
What does it take to become a good game developer?
I think the absolute best game developers are students who are multitalented. When you build games, you have engineers who program the games, artists who do the game art, and game play designers. Some of the best and brightest students have had at least two—sometimes all three—of these skills.
What do you think about video game competitions, also known as electronic sports, such as the recent Fortnite tournament?
They’re great. E-sports is going to provide a huge increase in revenue for the gaming industry. Because of the publicity they get, gaming companies can extend their intellectual property franchise. More people will buy the game and also try to become better at playing it. Viewers can learn a lot more about strategy and game play by watching master players.
The World Health Organization has classified excessive gaming as a disorder. What are your thoughts?
Anything excessive can probably be a disorder. If you do something too often and too much it usually leads to bad health circumstances. I saw the effects of excessive game play when I first started teaching at USC. When World of Warcraft came out, two or three students missed my class for a few weeks. One told me he had been playing the game nonstop seven days a week for three weeks. He said, “I finally got to the top level, and realized I needed to get back to life.”
My students today don’t get that obsessed, because they’re engaged in designing games. Those in our program know that if they build a fantastic game in our classes and show it to a prospective employer, they’ll automatically get the job. I can say this because I’ve placed some 2,765 students in jobs in the games and computing industries.
How has IEEE benefited your career?
I joined the IEEE Computer Society in 1980 while attending Washington University, in St. Louis. Members of IEEE were the network of people who you knew, long before there was Facebook and LinkedIn.
I’ve written many papers for IEEE journals and magazines. These are great marketing materials for professors.
I always try to attend the IEEE Virtual Reality Conference. I’ve presented my work at so many conferences I’ve stopped counting.
Receiving the 2017 IEEE Virtual Reality Technical Achievement Award was a complete and utter surprise and so exciting.
Kathy Pretz is editor in chief for The Institute, which covers all aspects of IEEE, its members, and the technology they're involved in. She has a bachelor's degree in applied communication from Rider University, in Lawrenceville, N.J., and holds a master's degree in corporate and public communication from Monmouth University, in West Long Branch, N.J.