February 10, 2015

SCA Alumni To Be Honored at 2015 Game Developers Conference

By Kaiti Williamson

Numerous USC SCA Interactive Media and Game Design graduates were nominated for their work at the Independent Games Festival (IGF) and the Game Developers Choice Awards (GDCA) in 2015. The IGF Awards honor the best designers in independent gaming and strive to encourage innovation in game development, while the GDCA are the premier accolades for peer recognition in the digital games industry.

In the IGF competition, the students honored include:

Outer Wilds
Alex Beachum (Creative Director, MFA 13)
Sarah Scialli (Producer, MFA 13)


Nominated for both the Seamus McNally Grand Prize and Excellence in Design. Received honorable mention for the Nuovo Award and Excellence in Narrative.

Samantha Gorman (PhD, MA+P, in progress)


Nominated for Excellence in Narrative.

Robyn Gray (MFA 14)

Student Showcase Finalist

Threes! by Asher Vollmer

Close Your
Will Hellwarth (BA 14)


Student Showcase Finalist

In the GDCA competition, the students honored include:

Asher Vollmer (BA 12)


Nominated for Best Handheld/Mobile Game.

IGDA Scholarship
James Cox (MFA in progress)
2015 GDC Scholar

Many of the games developed by the alumni and honored this year are motivated by intriguing narratives that drive the interaction of the players. Games such as Outer Wilds and a-part-ment harness the curiosity of players to seek answers throughout the worlds that have been designed. “One of the major goals of Outer Wilds was to create an experience where player exploration is motivated by a desire to learn more about the world itself,” said Creative Director, Alex Beachum. “Everything is designed to foster that sense of curiosity.”

While Outer Worlds focuses on the secrets within the player’s surrounding, Pry studies the intimate story of the character through venturing into his subconscious. “Pry is a highly authored experience that retains its feelings of exploration by nesting different versions and conflicting memories of the same events and tasking the player with piecing it all together,” said developer Samantha Gorman. “The player’s control is that of a ghost or privileged guest inside the protagonist’s mind.”

For the many SCA alumni being honored by the IGF and GDCA, their designs are spearheading a transformation of the gaming industry toward a focus of creating content that encourages players to become emotionally invested in stories through their interaction. “It’s a great time for interactive fiction. Increasingly, we consume fiction on mobile devices that have a huge array of sensors and processing power that can be used to create really unique and interesting experiences,” said Gorman. “We’re excited by the idea that interfaces and gestures can be just as much a part of a story as the plot itself.”

Many of the alumni have been developing their stories and games for many years. Threes! designer, Asher Vollmer, began the development of his game in late 2012.

For Robyn Gray and her partner Richard Emms, the concept behind a-part-ment was generated even earlier, in March of 2012. a-part-ment is described as “a game about the autopsy of a relationship.” Gray said her intention with the game was to touch on the emotions of people playing by utilizing this very relatable subject. We’ve had people cry while they play a•part•ment,” said Gray. “Telling a story that has the power to impact people so strongly is amazing and fun to craft.”

For Close Your developer Will Hellwarth and his fellow game designer John Billingsley, the focus of influencing the emotions of players was also a leading motivator throughout the designing process. “We were trying to come up with something that would demonstrate clearly how it could be emotional and meaningful to use when the player is blinking as part of a game,” said Hellworth. “One thought that gave me the chills was the idea of a game from the perspective of someone dying, with each blink forwarding time and not knowing which will be your last. The narrative and the rest of the game grew out of those chills.”

Close Your and a-part-ment are two of eight finalists participating in the 2015 IGF Student Showcase, chosen out of 350 entries.

Being honored by the IGF and GDCA is a large step forward in the process of gaining recognition in the gaming community for the IMGD alumni. “Nomination by IGF is already an incredible validation,” said Gorman. “It’s so nice to know that our interventions in this space of storytelling are being seen and considered.”

Not only are the alumni gaining notoriety for their games, but also validation that the time and effort they  invested in their respective games was truly worth it. “Making these tiny games is littered with hard and painful times that are full of uncertainty and self-doubt, said Vollmer. “You never know if something is really going to work.”

“To us, the recognition reinforces that we’re heading in the right direction−that we’ve tapped into something really exciting,” said Outer Wilds Producer, Sarah Scialli. “It is a huge motivator as we continue working toward our final release.”

Apart from the alumni honored at the IGF and GDCA this year, first year IMGD MFA student, James Cox, was one of 18 students chosen from hundreds of applicants across the globe to be named a 2015 GDC Scholar. James Cox has designed and released over 60 games since his undergraduate years at Miami University in Ohio. Cox said his intention when developing games begins with a specific message or feeling in mind that becomes the core of the game.

Since beginning his journey in game development, Cox said his goal was to attend USC's Game Design MFA program. “To reach the point of representing USC as an IGDA scholars is a tremendous honor,” said Cox. “This scholarship provides an opportunity to share my experiences and to learn from experts, as well as the other scholars.”

The IGF and GDCA are both run by the Game Developers Conference (GDC), which will take place March 2nd through the 6th at the Mascone Center in San Francisco, where the winners will be announced.