As someone who has spent the bulk of his career moving between the worlds of cinema and interactive entertainment and who is perhaps best known as a screenwriter, Danny Bilson is well aware of the eyebrows raised by his long and winding resume. He’s heard a familiar refrain almost any time he’s entered the gaming space.
“The rap on me was always, ‘Oh, here comes the Hollywood guy,’” said Bilson, who worked closely throughout his career with his longtime writing partner Paul DeMeo, who died last year. “Even though I've been in the game business for 20 years now, I always had to kind of manage through that. The game folks were always like, ‘Oh, what does this storytelling Hollywood guy know?’”
But for Bilson, whose credits include the film “The Rocketeer,” the 1990s television series “The Flash” and the upcoming Spike Lee film “Da 5 Bloods,” an emphasis on narrative has long been an acknowledgement that games are a storytelling medium rather than simply a place for play or competition.
That’s the foundation Bilson will bring to his new role as the director of USC Games, which is consistently ranked by Princeton Review as one of the nation's top places to study game design in its undergrad and graduate programs.
“I usually would rather play a game than watch a film,” said Bilson, 62. “It's more immersive. It's you in the movie, not watching a movie. And that's always been the dream since I was a little kid.”
Bilson will succeed celebrated designer Tracy Fullerton, who has led the program since 2014 and will remain at USC as an endowed professor and continue to lead the school’s experimental Game Innovation Lab. The developer of “Walden: A Game,” based on the Henry David Thoreau book, intends to focus more on her personal design projects.
Bilson has taught at USC’s cinema school, where a significant portion of the games program resides, since 2005. He has also worked at Electronic Arts and defunct SoCal game studio THQ, and he recently has been pushing for games and play to meld with other mediums.
Bilson, for instance, did some early consulting work on Disney’s ambitious plans to bring “Star Wars” to Disneyland and Walt Disney World via a new themed land. Dubbed Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the expansion, set to open at Disneyland on May 31, is pegged to be something akin to a large-scale video game, complete with an interactive ride, staff in full character and the ability for guests to go on game-like quests.
One of Bilson’s goals for the USC program, which is a collaboration between the cinema school and its Viterbi School of Engineering, is to more closely look at how games are having a role in themed spaces and location-based entertainment. The rise of everything from escape rooms to immersive theater to playful, Instagram-friendly pop-up exhibits, is bringing game-like experiences into unexpected places.
“That is an area that both myself and a section of our faculty are really passionate about,” said Bilson, noting that the school is working to build a lab dedicated to exploring the space.
Bilson will be charged with more closely bridging the schools of cinema and engineering. Both tracks are relatively small — each admitting fewer than 20 incoming freshmen per year — and the association with the cinema school has given the program its reputation as a narrative-first development program. Well-known alumni include Jenova Chen, founder of Thatgamecompany and developer of contemplative indie game “Journey,” as well as Asher Vollmer, designer of the puzzle hit “Threes!”
Recently, Bilson said the school has been working with the Pro Football Hall of Fame on developing both a card game and a digital game (board game development is also taught and encouraged in the program).
“We're in the process of designing a digital and paper card game that has to do with the values of the hall and the stories of players, more than it has to do with football itself,” Bilson said. “It’s thematically a really nice project. And I like football. So it's really interesting to talk to the Hall of Fame players and hear their stories. That's an ongoing project that we’re in the very early stages of.”
That being said, for a medium driven by technology, the game industry of 2019 can look vastly different from the game industry of 2020. A current trend, for instance, is free-to-play games such as “Fortnite” and “Apex Legends,” which constantly evolve and create excitement around in-game events. Thus, they’re finished projects that are perpetually unfinished.
Bilson acknowledged that shift, and said, “I'm in the process of figuring out how to get [students] running, managing, designing, implementing and creating events for a live game.”
When asked about the future of game education, Bilson said, “It is cross discipline. Silos don’t work anymore, and they’re not going to work in the future. So our designers need to understand how to talk to engineers, and engineers need to understand design.”