It’s not always easy being a kid. In the grownup world, sometimes it seems like the only solution is to stack on your friend’s shoulders, don a trench coat and masquerade around as a single, fully-grown man. While such a feat may not be plausible in real life, it provides an offbeat, yet captivating premise for USC Game’s Christie Xu and her student-led team’s new video game, “ShortStacked.”
ShortStacked, a cooperative PC game focused around two mischievous children stacked under a trench coat, is one of more than 80 games currently slated to appear at the 2020 USC Games Expo. The Expo showcases the best games from around the university as faculty, alumni, and students all come together to share their original work with over 1,000 attendees.
Consistently recognized by the Princeton Review as North America’s top game design program, USC Games – a collaboration between the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science and the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ Interactive Media & Games Division – continues to push the envelope of university-level game production. According to St. John Colón, a faculty member of the USC Games – Advanced Games Program (AGP), this is in large part thanks to collaboration between fields of study at USC.
“Video game development is one of the most complex, collaborative disciplines in existence,” he said. “Imagine you are building robots to perform Shakespeare. That’s video game development in a nutshell.”
The ShortStacked team, like most USC Games teams, is intimately familiar with this need for collaboration. Eight members of the 14-person group, including Xu, the project’s director, are USC Viterbi computer science students. However, the lead designer, Michael Perce, comes from the USC School of Cinematic Arts, while on the art side they receive support from the Pasadena-based ArtCenter College of Design. Recognizing the need for different skillsets, AGP is a prime example of the joint program’s built in collaborative nature.
“Because video games demand expertise in so many artistic and technical disciplines, collaboration is truly what makes USC Games so special,” Colón said.
ShortStacked is a split-screen game in which two children must work together to navigate the world as a faux adult. Stacked on each other’s shoulders, they have to maintain their adult identity while carrying out a variety of light-hearted shenanigans. As the bottom player moves the character around the world, the top player uses a joystick to make sure they stay balanced. Move around too fast and the top player won’t be able to keep up and they’ll topple over, too slow and a roaming policeman might catch them.
Exploring the world while engaged in this precarious balancing act will be funny and exciting for both the players and any spectators, said Corvyn Kusuma, the team’s lead engineer and a USC Viterbi senior studying computer science.
As would probably be the case if you tried something like this in real life, Kusuma said that it was challenging to get the balancing mechanics just right.
“We ended up with a system where the bottom player’s movement would add incremental forces to the top player, so the top player would have to ‘lean back’ into an upright position,” he said.
Game mechanics are just a small part of the creation process for a project like ShortStacked. Months of work, including character art, world design, level creation, coding, and troubleshooting, go into the final product. It’s a daunting process, but Xu and her team said they took advantage of the resources offered by AGP to succeed.
Teams working in Advanced Games have access to whatever physical resources they need to make their game come to life. “Every team has their own dedicated space in the building, so it feels like a professional studio,” Xu said. “They ask what materials we need and then supply all of them, whether its cables, adaptors, controllers, or desktops.”
For Xu, who came up with the game’s premise while watching a related scene in BoJack Horseman, ShortStacked is all about creating an atmosphere for friends to hang out.
“I really enjoy the vibe that casual, multiplayer video games curate in the room. You’re hanging out and people are laughing, even the spectators are having fun,” she said.
Taking inspiration from games like Overcooked, a popular arcade-style game where players must work together and communicate to fill restaurant orders, Xu hopes her team’s creation can bring people together in a wholesome, playful way.
ShortStacked also has a very personal significance to the students developing it. Kusuma said that after working together for months, the team has grown very close. “I consider my fellow ShortStacked developers my second family,” he said.
In addition to a new tightly knit community, the ShortStacked team will walk away with valuable industry experience.
“It is this very challenge of project-based learning that better prepares our graduates for the video games industry than any other school on the planet,” Colón said.