May 6, 2015

SCA Alumni Stories: Erin Reynolds

Erin Reynolds

With her own game design studio, Flying Mollusk, and an award-winning game to her name, Erin Reynolds ’12 has made great strides in the gaming industry shortly after graduating from SCA. Reynolds recently discussed her time as a student at SCA, her thoughts on the future of game design, and her blossoming career and accomplishments as a game designer.

How did you know that you wanted to pursue a career in the gaming industry? When it came time for me to start my undergraduate career, I knew I wanted to focus my studies and career goals on something that allowed me to combine art and technology. At first, I actually thought animation might be a good fit for me—I was fascinated by the recent steps 3D art had taken to create incredibly detailed, immersive worlds that fully reflected the imaginations of their creators. However, those hopes were quickly dashed when I discovered that I was…not a gifted animator.

I found myself becoming very interested and involved in visual effects and soon joined USC’s special/visual effects student organization, SCFX. It wasn’t until an SCFX tour of a few game studios that it fully dawned on me that one could actually work in games (I’m not sure why that hadn’t occurred to me sooner). It was immediately apparent to me that this was where my heart truly lied. From the first time I held a NES controller in my hands to my ongoing love affair with all the amazing varieties of gaming experiences today, I’ve always been fascinated by games. At last, my love for art and technology finally came together, and I’ve never looked back!

How has being an SCA alum impacted your career? To use one very direct example, my SCA final thesis project, Nevermind, is now the flagship product of my new studio, Flying Mollusk—which has secured funding via Intel and Kickstarter to enable the game’s full commercial release in October 2015 (with an Early Access beta release already having launched this spring)!

Speaking more generally, my time with SCA not only taught me about the gaming industry, but also about ways to look at the game and entertainment industry simultaneously from an artistic, technical, and business perspective. Guided by my professors, mentors, classmates, and fellow alumni, I feel like SCA has uniquely equipped me with the ability to see all the pieces of the big picture. Whenever there are areas that I am unfamiliar with or unsure about, I know that there is someone in the SCA family that I can turn to for help, advice, and to help spark new and intriguing ideas. It’s an amazing community—one that I’m always learning from and am so proud to be a part of.

What can you tell us about the rapid evolution of game design? What new and innovative technologies make this progress in the gaming world possible? Independent of design itself, it is both exhilarating and overwhelming to see how quickly game development software is evolving. The very first game I made at USC (as an undergraduate back in 2006) was built in a graphics engine (OGRE). Now, there are programs out there (many offered for free no less—like the Unity3D engine) that allow anyone to quickly translate their game ideas into a prototype with very little in-depth programming knowledge.

What excites me the most about game development tools becoming increasingly more accessible on all levels is that it opens up the door for more people with diverse backgrounds and knowledge bases to tell their stories and share their vision with a larger audience than ever via digital interactive media. It’s a truly exciting time to be a game maker and game player. Over the next few years, I think, due in large part to many of these new game development tools, gaming and interactive art is going to become even more pervasive, impactful, and culturally complex than ever before.

With an incredible acceleration in the number of platforms and tools available to game designers and, by default, a diversity of people and ideas claiming a greater presence in the game design and development community, we’re going to see more games dealing with different topics in different ways. It’s an incredibly fertile ground for amazing creativity—the result will not only be a real growth period for the medium, but also an explosion in the amount and kind of people it will reach and engage. Different stories and experiences presented in different ways will only bring in different people with different interests and needs.

What can you tell us about your journey with Flying Mollusk so far? The journey towards founding Flying Mollusk has been very exciting. I’ve always been drawn to the creative aspect of game making and, naturally, that is where most of my experience in the industry was. However, there is an infectious spirit of entrepreneurship in the Interactive Media and Games Division of SCA and while I originally never really had any ambition of starting my own studio—I guess some of it must have rubbed off on me while at school!

Although I briefly spent a year working at a major game company right after graduating from SCA, I realized that in order to fully pursue my crazy ambitions in game development, I had to roll up my sleeves and start my own studio. With the support of faculty and mentors from USC, fellow classmates (some of whom have since joined the studio!), and alumni, it has been an incredible, exhausting, and gratifying experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Your company’s first game, Nevermind, adjusts the difficulty level of the game in response to the degree of anxiety the player exhibits. How can players apply their experience playing this game to their day-to-day lives? Nevermind is a horror adventure game that places players in very uncomfortable and intense situations. Using biofeedback technology (e.g. wearable sensors or certain cameras) if the game detects that the player is starting to feel scared or stressed, it will respond by becoming more difficult. Only when the player calms down will the game start to return to its easier default state.

Although many of the scenarios presented in the game are surreal and relatively abstract, the principle of what often happens in real life is the same; something happens that makes you feel uneasy, nervous, or downright freaked out and, if you let those feelings of anxiety get the better of you, things often become more difficult.

Essentially, Nevermind is secretly helping players become more mindful of when they start to experience feelings of fear or stress and, from there, habituate or build a sort of emotional muscle to help stay cool and collected when those feelings start to emerge. Ultimately, we hope this helps players be more prepared to deal with those everyday stresses in real life that we all face—leading to a happier and healthier life all through what we hope is also a fun and engaging video game.

As a game designer, how do you hope your games impact its players? Games have an incredible potential to bring people into one-of-a-kind worlds, provide experiences that would be impossible to seek out in “real life,” and the opportunity to truly walk in another’s shoes. Players can make decisions, practice taking unfamiliar actions, and consider complex issues all in a safe environment where it’s okay to make mistakes—and where feedback can instantly communicate the impact of these decisions, actions, and emotional explorations. This unique quality of games can lead to profoundly impactful opportunities for learning, empathy building, personal emotional moments, and more.

As a game designer, I’m driven by a desire to explore how games can engage users and benefit them in lasting ways—whether it’s helping people learn a new skill, building awareness and empathy around an issue or cause, or simply inspiring players to consider a different perspective on the world—all through the magic of play and adventure. Games have the power to do amazing things; I hope my games can play a small part in doing just that.

What professional accomplishment are you most proud of? One of the first projects I was involved with as a student in SCA was a game called Trainer. Guided by Marientina Gotsis (who went on to be a major part of Nevermind), a team of students across the USC Games Program and I developed a game intended to help inspire children to be more excited about exercise and smart eating choices (believe me, the game was more fun and exciting than it may sound).

Trainer went on to be honored at the White House as the grand prize winner in the “Apps for Healthy Kids” competition initiated by Michelle Obama. That was a pretty amazing moment because to me it was a major sign that the power of video games was starting to be recognized by major players outside of the game industry. It was both validating and inspiring—hopefully it also serves to inspire others!