Simulacra and Simulation

Good summer, people! It’s been exactly two months since the last post and it continues to be long and hot so I hope you’re drinking plenty of water. And copious amounts of sun cream wouldn’t go amiss.

Some of you may recognise the title of this entry as being from the 1981 philosophical work by the late French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard. His work explored the relationships between reality, hyper-reality, symbols and society and how they are interwoven. An interesting piece of trivia was that his work was required reading for the main cast of the film The Matrix.

I must apologise to Mr Baudrillard for liberally taking his title as it is similar to the topic discussion. I also promise that my post will be nowhere near as philosophical. Instead, I will be focusing on a particular genre of videogames known as simulation games.

Simulated Reality

When we play a videogame, whatever the genre, we are playing within its virtual environment and get immersed within it. For example, in first-person shooters, we are playing a representation of a soldier and fighting simulated battles. None of it is real (even if based on real-life events), but in the moment of playing, you feel like you are a soldier in the heat of battle.

The point was to highlight that in a videogame, it doesn’t matter much how realistic to reality it has to be. I’ve seen and played games taking place in the past, in the future, and in worlds that only exist in imagination. ‘The purpose of a game is to capture the attention of the player by conflict, motivation to win and a scoring element. The player has a sense of win or loss and gets a performance index in terms of score after the game. The desire to improve the performance and get a better score drives the player to get involved in the game more and more’ (Deshpande, 2008).

This is different with simulation games (or ‘simulators’). Their representation of recreating real-life activities or situations is markedly more realistic which resonates with a lot of people. They attempt to imitate our real world environment as best as possible in a variety of ways and different sub-genres. Simulators form a diverse genre of video games; examples of simulation games can include life simulation, dating sims (that is a thing), social simulators, even tactical shooters. Despite what I have said earlier, you do get some ‘interesting’ ideas for simulators. I am Bread has the player simulating a slice of bread in their ultimate goal to become toast. Then there is the infamous Goat Simulator. Not to be taken at all seriously but popular, players play as a goat as they cause havoc in an open-world map.

Simulators draw from a facet of what we may have experienced in our everyday lives, and that’s why they are true to the simulation (aside from being bread or a goat). Players can use the in-game tools and services to essentially ‘live another life’, to use Bethesda’s mantra for their games. How can we best define them? ‘Simulation games are those video or computer games that are concerned with playing out realistic situations in game settings. Examples of these types of games include taking care of virtual people or pets, such as Sims games, developing cities of societies like in Civilization or SimCity, and building amusement parks or zoos in games like Roller Coaster Tycoon or Zoo Tycoon. Some of these games can take hours to play, and they may be incredibly complex’ (Wisegeek).

Another interesting trait about simulators is, due to their emphasis on realism, that they can also be used as an educational tool. As Deshpande (2008) comments, ‘Simulation games follow the widely accepted “learning by doing” philosophy. Simulation game based learning is an extension of the problem-based learning paradigm, having all its inherent characteristics plus some additional advantages. The student can try out various strategies and alternatives and focus on the parameter of interest leaving the calculation and presentation work for the software. It is a more systematic and organised way of learning.’

You can substitute ‘student’ with ‘player’ and it will still apply. Simulators often rely on the player learning how the game works for they have a multitude of mechanics and tools to utilise. Once they’ve done that, they can then start experimenting. One of the most famous simulation games is The Sims series, which you could consider as both a life and social simulator. Immensely successful, the franchise has gone through four editions with nearly 200 million copies sold to its name. Players create and control virtual people (the ‘Sims’). The real incentive is that they have creative control on mapping out their virtual lives.

The simulation aspect comes from the everyday interactions that the player’s sims may experience. Sims will be in constant contact with other sims in the same way we would be in contact with friends, family, colleagues, or even strangers. Various expansion packs seek to add new content, locations and tools to further expand the immersion, such as adding nightlife, university education, and pets. As each edition of The Sims came out, more features are being added. In The Sims 2, players can map out their sim’s life careers and ambitions to mirror how we would in reality and satisfying their sims’ desires, ambitions and moods. For example, ‘The game allowed you to find work for sims, teach them to cook, tell them when to sleep and to find them mates or friends’ (WiseGeek).

Another popular sub-genre is construction and management simulations. These types of games commonly task the player with developing and maintaining some form of community, cities, or even empires. Some examples have already been mentioned, including famous titles Civilisation and SimCity. In this regard, players will be more heavily involved with the management than a real life manager would.

SimCity arguably is the most famous of this sub-genre. Created by Will Wright (who also created The Sims) and Maxis, players take on the role of building and maintain a city from scratch or a build-up city facing trouble. They start with nothing and eventually expand to large-scale metropolises. I remember playing Sim City 2000 and, while I was probably too young to appreciate at the time, the challenge of building a city and the sense of pride as it grew was one of the reasons I kept playing.

The player will have to account for economical challenges such as natural disasters, conflict, civil unrest, and economic downturn as potential hazards. Players will also be challenged to do some forward planning, especially when starting out. This is amplified by trying to manage a growing economy so the strain on resources is greater. Games of this sub-category usually have a ‘free-form’ construction mode so the player does not have to ‘unlock’ in-game skills or abilities; they are ready to utilise as they please. This encourages their creativity and problem-solving.

Simulators often do not have an end goal or a strict ‘game over’ but to be played continuously.  ‘Some games aren’t played to win but are instead played because you can develop multiple right solutions or different permutations of the game depending on your choices. Other simulation games are structured on a more win/lose basis or require completing certain tasks before being able to advance to another level’ (WiseGeek). With SimCity, a game could go as long as a player wanted it to.

Why play simulators?

Simulators could be considered a niche genre owing to the mundane nature of controlling virtual people or flying a virtual plane or constructing virtual cities which may not appeal to a vast majority of people. Despite this, simulators do have a sizeable player base which suggests they have a certain appeal. We can try and categorise this appeal into different parts: learning, creativity, escapism.

Learning

Flight simulators are a popular example of a vehicle simulation game. Flying seems to be an ambition of many people, yet we can safely say that the majority of those people will not get the opportunity to fly a real plane. Flight sims try to re-create what it would be like to fly a plane – both for entertainment and training purposes. You may be familiar with those ‘pods’ which pivot and rock to simulate turbulence and disorientation. Marc Prensky (2001) writes, ‘the flight simulator is acknowledged, rightfully so, as a revolution in learning and training. Pilots and prospective pilots can spend hours and hours doing something remarkably close to actual flying, experiencing all sorts of scenarios and “what-ifs” in terms of weather, location, flying conditions, time of day and of course mechanical difficulties without risking either expensive planes or peoples’ lives.’

Not everyone will have a career as a pilot, or farmer, or construction manager. Simulators allow players to play the part in their own homes in what normally would be a life-threatening in reality. Dave Stevenson (2016) agrres: ‘the appeal of flying a virtual airliner is easy to comprehend: flying is expensive, flying something with more than one engine and passengers even more so.’ He spoke to Roger Curtiss, who works on the board of the Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network (VATSIM) which offers aviation fans a community of pilots and air-traffic controllers from his home in Washington. “There are at least 100,000 members of VATSIM. Of those, I’d say at least 20,000 fly regularly.”

Microsoft Flight Simulator is considered the premier flight simulator, with the latest edition, Microsoft Flight Simulator X, released in 2006. While it is a game for entertainment purposes, it has found use as a training tool. ‘Mark Vanhoenacker is someone who knows the appeal of simulated aviation more than most. “I had the then-latest version of Microsoft Flight Simulator on my computer and had a year or so when I really enjoyed it,” he said. In 2001, Vanhoenacker began training to become an actual pilot, and now works for British Airways. His book about the pleasures of flying, Skyfaring, was a Sunday Times bestseller. “Imagination is such a powerful thing, and I think no-one should be surprised if the satisfaction in operating a virtual flight may be a good proportion of that associated with flying an actual one,” he said (Stevenson, 2016).

Therefore, flight sims encompass two aspects: learning and competing.  WiseGeek had mentioned a structure of completing certain tasks in order to advance. While there is strictly no end game, flight sims can implement certain goals, rules and challenges to keep the player engagned. Goals could include ‘learning to take off or to land successfully 10 times, or to deal with wind shear. Goals can be either be built-in to the game or self-or instructor imposed, but as soon as you add them, suddenly there is more engagement. We try things in play we might not try in life’ (Prensky, 2001). Having goals and tasks is a standard of games to create incentive and accomplishments. Adding these can work to bring even the most mundane and repetitive simulator certain compulsive obsessive nature to the game that keeps players, including myself, hooked.

Creativity

Simulators present tools to the player to start being creative. One of the best and recent examples is Kerbal Space Program. They are tasked with directing the ‘Kerbals’, green humanoid aliens, into space. Players are able to design and create their rocket from multiple different parts. The designs they can build is impressive. As part of the fun experimentation, players have often created impractically large, top-heavy, counter-intuitive, or expensive spacecraft. They know would never succeed but that is part of the creativity that simulators can help to facilitate. The temptation to design a completely unrealistic spacecraft is almost too irresistible. I have seen videos of spacecraft that have far too many rockets attached, meaning once they lift off, the sheer force of them sends the spacecraft crashing back to the ground. Or there are designs that are structurally weak so that when it is loaded on the launching platform, it just collapses.

Once players have entered space, there is a lot of trial and error in improving their performance of their spacecraft to go further than before and to converse as much fuel as possible. They will have to account for positioning and trajectory of themselves and other celestial bodies, amongst other things. All-in-all, Kerbal Space Program is quite rich and detailed in its simulation of space travel. You do not have to be rocket scientist; the game is casual enough for players to enjoy. Its depiction of orbital physics, although it is not a perfect simulation, is quite detailed enough that it has been noticed and praised by the scientific and space community, including NASA. The scope players can work with makes it easy for them to buy into the simulation.

‘There’s also a lot to be said about the flow of simulator games. When playing Stardew Valley, for example, it’s easy to fall into a soothing rhythm of caring for your crops: harvest, sleep, repeat. Far from being boring, this kind of repetition creates opportunities to think creatively about efficiency and strategy. Beyond that, there’s something sweet about an extreme hobbyist who spends months perfecting a model train diorama or guiding trucks safely from Lindz to Berlin’ (Eddy, 2018). Suler, professor of psychology at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, proposed an idea he calls the Generativity Principle. ‘People like to immerse themselves into scenarios that they find interesting. Doing it in a safe, controlled environment is a fun way for people to experience vicariously, in a very participatory way, what it’s like to be in those scenarios. The Generativity Principle is how people use computer environments or computerised tools in ways that the designers didn’t anticipate’ (Stevenson, 2016).

In reference back to The Sims, Suler went on: ‘They would do strange things with it, like trap their Sims inside a swimming pool and watch them drown. You can see people expressing unconscious motivations by how they play the game and in particular how they tweak it in ways the designers didn’t anticipate. Games and play are ways that people develop skills. People develop their identity, express needs, and a part of growth is testing boundaries… the limits’ (Stevenson, 2016).

Escapism

Videogames provide a means of escapism, simulators included. In a piece for the BBC, Ed Ram (2014) asked several people why they play simulators. ‘Dale Chapman works as an IT technician but has grown up living on a farm. He and his farming friends started playing Farm Simulator when they were at school. ‘When we get home from work we all get together on a group Skype call and we’ll play for hours. It’s sociable like that and we can all use our farming knowhow in the game… acts as a sort of release. Because I work in IT I don’t get as much time as I would like working on a farm, not as much as my friends anyway. I just love farming – it’s one of those things that’s just in the blood.’

Ram also interviewed Paul Fairhurst, commonly known by his online handle ‘Squirrel’.’By playing flight simulators, I can almost get the buzz one might feel of actually being a pilot. It’s like a tool that enables you to scratch an itch. You can come very close to flying without having to learn to actually fly a plane – or even leave the house. People often play driving games because they have a passion for or an interest in big machinery. The games are incredibly detailed, with traffic and buttons that behaves realistically – and a re-creation of physics that gives a real feeling of weight. I play a lot of Euro Truck Simulator 2. It’s about the novelty – everyone knows what long-haul trucks are and what they look like, but how often is it that you get inside one?’ (Ram, 2014).

We are going to revisit Squirrel and Euro Truck Simulator 2 as our case study, but for now, people also play simulators as a form of escapism; as Chapman mentioned, a ‘release’.  Players can do things they are very unlikely to do in reality, and that forms another part of the appeal. ‘Flight Simulators are grounded (pun intended) in their realism as much as their spectacle. The thrill comes from accessing a world that is true to life, but out of reach for the average person. How many people can claim they have flown the Concorde on a transatlantic run? Even SimCity taps into a fundamental human desire to create and to see our efforts bear fruit’ (Eddy, 2018).

Euro Truck Simulator 2

Euro Truck Simulator 2 is a very popular vehicle simulator about…trucking. Players create their in-game profile and then hit the roads across Europe. The main gist of it is driving through a simulated Europe in a truck, delivering all forms of cargo, from vegetables to large and heavy machinery, to different companies.

Initially, players will be forced to work for other companies and being provided with a company truck. If the player delivers on time and doesn’t accrue any fines (e.g. speeding), they will make a profit and gain experience points. The longer the job, the more they stand to gain. In time, players will move on to the heavier and more dangerous cargo, such as explosives and hazardous materials. After a while, the player will have amassed enough money to start their own company.

One of the main highlights is the ability to own your own truck. To add to the realism, real companies and trucks are licensed, including Volvo, MAN, Iveco, and perhaps the most prestigious, Scania. That is when players are truly able to fully grow. With even more money, they can expand their business by buying garages across Europe and hiring AI drivers. From working for someone, they now have drivers working for them. Hire enough drivers and you can easily see your bank account rise.

Further personalisation comes from the ability to upgrade the truck, both mechanically and aesthetically. Players can make customisations to their truck to make it better for heavier loads, improve transmission speeds, or increase engine power. Additionally, players can also change the layout of the inside cabin (including adding various accessories such as bobble-head figures, sat-navs, fuzzy dice), and, importantly for a trucker, changing the paint scheme of their truck to make it more distinguishable.

The customisation of the truck is an important ‘ritual’. Players can spend a long time personalising their truck to their own tastes. Once I had enough in-game money and had set up my own company, I searched for my own truck – something with a powerful engine. My choice was a Scania Streamline series complete with 730hp engine. I spent a lot of time and money on figuring out what I liked, particularly in terms of the paint job. I settled for a neon-looking scheme of famous UK landmarks (flying the flag!).

The game is so popular, that it won two awards on Steam in 2016. Why is this? At its core, ETS2 is all about switching on the engine and driving. You do not have to be a real trucker and it does not require a lot from you to enjoy this game. ‘ETS2 is not a game for high-speed thrill seekers—you’re meant to follow the rules of the road in your huge cargo vehicle—but something to zone out to at the end of a long day. It may sound dull on paper, but its peaceful vibe and the ability to put on some tunes as you cruise the highway make for a surprisingly enjoyable experience’ (Eddy, 2018).

This concept creates a casual, easy-going driving experience. Of course, there are frustrating aspects such as the AI drivers doing things such as cutting you off or going very slow, or paying at tollbooth after tollbooth. This perhaps reflects real life as these things do occur (sadly so). But the carefree attitude of the game allows it to be generally a relaxed driving experienced, as Eddy mentioned, to unwind after a long day. Driving in real life can be seen as therapeutic and I can see how it would be the case here. Imagine just driving along long, steady roads through visually beautiful scenery – you can even listen to the radio or play your own music. There is something ‘real’ about driving a virtual truck. I have to say that I am ‘slightly’ addicted to the game, having been hooked to this concept.

We mentioned Squirrel earlier: how does he fit in? Squirrel is a YouTuber and Twitch streamer who initially started out with first-person shooters but then transitioned to simulators. His most popular series is with ETS2; he has done numerous YouTube videos and also the weekly Twitch ‘tradition’ of ‘Sunday Night Truckin’ where he averages 2000 regular views. He also plays Flight Simulator X, Train Simulator, Farm Simulator, and recently, Bus Simulator.

He has developed a steady following of like-minded people who are just as enthusiastic as he is with simulators. His commentary and persona gives the impression that viewers are with him on long trips. He says, ‘I just drove the truck and talked. People said it was a bit like sitting next to me in the cab for the ride. They enjoyed my company and could just put it on and do some homework or whatever.’

‘Squirrel welcomed Euro Truck Simulator’s realistic, slow-paced gameplay. It was just him, in a truck, on a road, describing the scenery to a couple hundred strangers online. In fact, many bought the game themselves and watched his channel as they played through it, commenting on his preferred truck or haul route’ (D’Anastasio, 2016). If you watch his Sunday stream, you will find a community that is inclusive and knowledgeable, actively discussing with Squirrel and each other on various topics. They will also comment and take pleasure on various mishaps on his trips, such as crashes or wrong turns.

The games he plays generally appeal more to older viewers. ‘The slower-paced simulation games Squirrel plays, which range from Construction Simulator to Bus Simulator, cater to Twitch’s older minority. The largest chunk of his fans are 25-34, significantly older than the typical Twitch viewer, who is 21. 18% are 35-44 and nearly 10% are older than 45’ (D’Anastasio, 2016). Some of his viewers are, or were, truckers themselves so it resonates with them personally.

Patience is needed for slower-paced games but to see Squirrel toil to get better equipment and machinery, his viewers get personally invested in watching him do this. He says, ‘If you stick around, there’s a lot more to the channel. It’s true that there’s grinding to do, but you’re trying to build up money, buy bigger tractors, bigger logging equipment. Everybody wants to see the better machinery and how quickly it can take down a field’ (D’Anastasio, 2016). Watching him try and tackle oversized cargo such as a 60 tonne baobab tree or a quad trailer is certainly amusing to see if he can pull it off (he does with great difficulty).

Bibliography

Cecilia D’Anastasio’s (2016) article, ‘The Biggest Farming Simulator Stream Brings Out Twitch’s Mature Side’:

https://kotaku.com/the-biggest-farming-simulator-stream-brings-out-twitchs-1788510110

Amit Deshpande’s (2008) article, ‘Simulation Games #1: Definition’:

http://amitadeshpande.blogspot.com/2008/01/simulation-games-1-definition.html

Max Eddy’s (2018) article, ‘The Most Niche Simulation PC Games We Could Find’:

https://uk.pcmag.com/football-manager-2018-for-pc/94458/gallery/the-most-niche-simulation-pc-games-we-could-find

Marc Prensky’s (2001) article, ‘Simulations’: Are They Games?’:

http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Simulations-Are%20They%20Games.pdf

Ed Ram’s (2014) article, ‘What’s the appeal of playing ‘mundane’ simulator games?’:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-28238064

Dave Stevenson’s (2016) article, ‘Is this the real life? Why we love boring simulators’:

http://www.alphr.com/games/1003330/is-this-the-real-life-why-we-love-boring-simulators

WiseGeek’s article, ‘What are Simulation Games?’:

https://www.wisegeek.com/what-are-simulation-games.htm

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Easy As D-L-C

Easy As D-L-C

Hello people of the internet. It’s not usual to have a leap year (since they only have the courtesy of coming every 4 years), so hope you are making the most of February 29th. Aren’t we lucky people? I think it might be a sign of the times…

Following on from the last post where we discussed about microtransactions, the theme of downloadable content was mentioned. It’s a relatable topic, so this post will be a sort of sequel post as we delve into a business practice within the gaming industry going back the years.

Bit-by-Bit

Whenever you pay for something, you expect to get what you paid for. It’s a standard consumer right, right? So when you pay for a loaf, you expect the whole loaf and not one slice. If you pay for a three-course meal, you expect the three-courses. In that respect, when you pay for a videogame, you expect the full game to play. Isn’t that common sense?

But where games differ with loaves is the scope. The nature of games, especially long-running or popular series, allows the opportunity for more content to be added in. For example, Skyrim exists as a regular game, but its fantasy setting and ‘lore’ allows more content to be built around the regular game, essentially expanding its in-game universe. Because all this extra material was created after the regular game came out, it therefore becomes what is known in the videogame industry as ‘downloadable content’.

Downloadable content (DLC) are basically extra add-ons that expands the original game in a multitude of ways (i.e. continuation of the game’s story). Some carry significant content while others are innocuous, such as additional cosmetic items that are more like gimmicks. There generally is no limit to how many DLCs a game can have, but as you can imagine, games falling under the role-playing genre have the biggest scope of how much content can be added as they can be as ridiculous or creative as possible.

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Skyrim’s downloadable content. Each one adds something specifically new to the game.

DLCs are becoming increasingly common in the gaming industry as they take less time to make then a full game, and are therefore less expensive to design and to buy. Even DLCs that contain the smallest of additions can be considered a continuation of the main game. They are a good way of keeping the overall game fresh and continuous, allowing players to carry on playing with variety and interest. The industry rule is that once the main game is out, the developers wait roughly a few months before shipping the first downloadable content. Depending on the game, several months is generally the average of when players start to have exhausted all that the game offers and move onto newer things. Games companies obviously want to keep their players for as long as possible.

Expansionist

Let’s look back in time to where it appeared to have started. Before we had things like Steam making things easy over the web, games had to be brought at the shops. They still are nowadays, but with the capabilities of the internet allowing many of us to do our shopping online, it’s not as it once was. Back then, games – almost exclusively PC ones – were utilising the precusor to DLCs: expansion packs. As the name suggested, expansion packs were extra add-ons to the base game. The way in which PC games were created and designed (all the programming, etc) allowed expansion packs to be readily accessed and built upon. It was easier since the base game was already there and all they needed was to build upon the existing code. Since they were additional content, the price of expansion packs was much less than the regular game. If the full game was £20, generally the expansion pack was around £10, give or take. No-one could not get away with selling the add-on at full price.

In many cases, because the expansion pack was an add-on, you would have had to have the original game to begin with in order to use it. It makes sense because the add-on wouldn’t work without an existing platform to use. A very good example is The Sims series. Where you had the original game, the developers subsequently added more expansion packs that added to what The Sims first brought in. For instance, there was The Sims: Livin’ Large, The Sims: Hot Date, The Sims: Vacation, and many others, all of which added more and more content for the player but still needed the original game as a reference. The more one person had, the more content they could access and play with.

sims expansion packs

The Sims and all its featured expansion packs. Each one adds something new to the base game.

When enough time has passed, often developers would package the games together, labelling them anything from ‘deluxe, gold or game-of-the-year’ editions. These are common industry bywords to denote that players can buy the entire collection: original game and applicable expansion packs, all in one. It usually is a few months later that these editions come out, which is a nice way to ‘rounding up’ the series. It can be expected, given how much time has passed, that buying these editions is a saving to the player.

As time went on, developers started releasing stand-alone expansion packs. These are still expansion packs, only this time they did not need the original game to play. As such, they were still priced less than a full game. However, should one start on these stand-alone packs, they may miss out on a lot of the main content afforded by the original game. Often, this means they don’t have access to certain capabilities or options, but it does allow the game to be more accessible for players who have a slight interest. By not having to have the main game, players can try out stand-alone packs and then branch into the main content if they like what they see. Think of them as a sample.

Keeping It Interesting

Because of the way we use the internet and how significant it is in our lives, it’s no surprise that the gaming industry are also using the internet to its advantage. The internet means the ability to download vast quantities of information and data, making it the preferred way of purchasing games. It’s less likely that someone would go to the shops when they could just do it at the click of a button at home. That’s understandable and I’ve done it myself. You do things to make it easier on yourself, right?

As was said earlier in the post, downloadable content are essentially expansion packs, only they are downloaded instead of being stacked on shop shelves. They still serve the same purpose of adding to existing content which they do by the bucket loads. Because everything is done online, people can buy several DLCs in one sitting and have them all to play later.

Increasingly, with online services like Xbox Live, console gamers are also utilising DLCs that they never could before, including stand-alone packs. Command & Conquer 3: Kane’s Wrath required the original Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars to play on the PC, but Xbox 360 versions of both games are available and not mutually exclusive. With these online services, there is a dedicated online store where players can buy things using online payment – think similar to microtransactions before. It’s like having a shop on your games console that you can browse form the comfort of your own home

One of the biggest problems for developers, especially those MMORPG-type games, is keeping a large enough player base to offset the costs of making and running the game. In other words, keeping the interest of the player is critical to ensuring profitability and longetivity not just to the game, but to the companies themselves. Developers are keen to take advantage of that fact by the retention of users. In other words, by periodically releasing DLCs to provide extra content, developers hope to continue to keep the players playing.

This long paragraph gives an insight into the retention of players. ‘A recent study by Juho Hamari –Helsinki Institute for Information Technology– and Aki Järvinen – Digital Chocolate, Inc – shows the importance of DLC for the acquisition, monetization, but more importantly, for the retention of users in social games. Games as a service has established in the industry as a viable model. It’s now possible to acquire users more easily and engage them with good gameplay and then offer virtual goods through in-app purchases that enhance the game’s original experience. This one-two punch is something to have in mind if you want games to last longer: a larger influx of casual players thanks to free-to-play, plus better retention of hard-core gamers who are more likely to spend on DLCs. Greater game longevity can be achieved with a constant stream of DLC releases that help players get a sense of continuing support for the game. It keeps player interest alive thus reducing the drop out. Plus, it can make players who stopped playing to come back and check the new content for the game’ (David Xicota, 2014).

This situation is a concern for many developers, especially small-scale ones, where players are money. As Xicota (2014) stated, DLCs are an excellent way of retaining people to use your products.Many free-to-play games see this as the vaiable way to stay in business. By releasing more content (usually through updates or patches) can they keep things varied. The free-to-play game World of Warships recently added new features to the game, such as dynamic weather effects, as a way of doing something different.

One way in which developers do this is to promote what is known in the games industry as a ‘season pass’. Season passes allows the player to have a yearly privilege of having first access to the upcoming DLCs before anyone else. In better words, it is ‘a system that allows players to pay upfront and receive all of the DLC for a game, including DLC that has not yet been released. This lets players receive a discount compared to buying DLC individually’ (GiantBomb, 2015). These are popular for a dedicated community, such as Borderlands or Skyrim, where DLCs are numerous and extensive. Developers usually announce a series of upcoming DLCs and players can then pay for the season pass, providing access to those DLCs at a discounted price. The idea is to create an incentive to buy not just one, but many DLCs for longer retention of players.

As GiantBomb (2015) writes, ‘for publishers, this bundling together with a discount may influence players who were going to only buy a small amount of DLC to purchase more of it to take advantage of the discount. Additionally, by offering pre-orders of future DLC they can collect revenue before the DLC is officially released. For players, those who were already planning to buy all of a title’s DLC are able to receive a somewhat significant discount.’ Cameron Koch (2015) also argues that ‘videogames are no longer released, purchased, played and put on the shelf. With rising costs, game developers and publishers have looked for ways to bring in more revenue after a game’s release, while also keeping their game in the headlines for longer. The solution they appeared to have settled on is the season pass. For one price, a player can get access to all the additional content that comes out for a game post-release, oftentimes including new missions, multiplayer maps, skins and more. No matter what kind of game it is, nearly every major AAA game released this year will have one. From Batman: Arkham Knight to Star Wars Battlefront, season passes are here to stay.’

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Example of a season pass for Borderlands 2. Players pay a fee to have access to upcoming add-ons and other features.

The idea of the season pass can provide benefits to developers and players alike. For one thing, season pass (and DLCs in general) give that extra bit of income by providing that extra bit of content that does not necessary ask the developers to break the bank. For players, purchasing DLCs doesn’t mean having to spend big for extra content and there are often discounts involved. For developers, DLCs are often much cheaper to produce, but if done right, can pay itself off with a dedicated following to that game. ‘Videogames are not a cheap hobby, but fans who enjoy what a developer is doing don’t appear to have a problem paying more money for more content. Developers wouldn’t spend time making extra DLCs and season passes if players didn’t buy them, and by all accounts, it looks like players most definitely do buy them. Players want more content for their favourite games’ (Koch, 2015).

But Why Pay For More?

While DLCs can be beneficial, they are not without its criticisms, and it comes under some scathing ones. The biggest issue, no surprises, is about money. Just like with microtransactions, there is a sense that developers are far more interested in making as much money as possible by releasing as much extra content as possible. I don’t think anyone begrudges companies making money because they are still a business.

The demanding nature of the gaming industry, coupled with rising costs to developing games, means that companies have to make that money back quickly. As Koch (2015) says, triple-A games are going down the seasons pass route because the developers know that there is a demand for extra content in their games, no matter how trivial these content are. The very popular games like The Sims means they could bring out many DLCs and still sell well. The combined sales figures of the orignal game and all the DLCs could be substantial.

But with DLCs and seasons passes, it just seems more ways to milk the cash cow and fleece people for money. They are willing to pay  but not if they feel if developers are becoming greedy, espceially for content that those not appear to add much back into the main game. As a result, there is the perception that the quality of games in general is lacklustre because of the saturation of DLCs and the desire for companies to make profit. Why would people pay for sub-standard material?

I can only speak for myself here, but I certainly know what it’s like. I get the sense that DLCs are coming out thick and fast. Sometimes they don’t add much to the game; things like cosmetic items don’t seem worth my money. It will pander to the dedicated players but, for the most part, is it really worth it? I guess that is a chioce for each individual person.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some brilliant DLCs and add-ons out there that actually do enhance the original game and are worth the money. The game Oblivion had an amazing expansion pack called Shivering Isles which added a whole new area to have fun in. But it seems to me that with DLC after DLC (and mirotransactions thrown in), the focus appears to be about making money fast by throwing things in. I’m not against that so much, but at the expense of quality is an issue I have.

This is where we are at. It’s a demanding industry is the games one. There is a great deal of pressure to deliver on time and companies are under scrunity for their titles. Negative feedback  can be a disaster. The demands and the pressure often mean games are rushed, leading to lesser quality. I can understand the need for profit. But are we getting to a sitatuon where they are so concerned about keeping players that they will churn out DLCs just for the sake of retention?

Or have we got there long ago?

Bibliography

Giantbomb’s article, ‘DLC Season Pass’:

http://www.giantbomb.com/dlc-season-pass/3015-7186/

Cameron Kock’s article, ‘If Video Game Season Passes Are Going To Work, We Need To Know What’s In Them’:

http://www.techtimes.com/articles/96272/20151017/if-video-game-season-passes-are-going-to-work-we-need-to-know-whats-in-them.htm#sthash.N6SCOhxJ.dpuf

David Xicota’s article, ‘What Does DLC Mean for Your Games’:

http://www.gamedonia.com/blog/what-does-dlc-mean-your-games

 

Happy Christmas, Everybody!

So the year is almost at an end, but before it is, there’s a little thing called Christmas. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, I hope you will have a fantastic Christmas with the family as it only comes once a year. Hope you’ve done your shopping and your presents all wrapped up.

I realise it has been since May I last posted, but something called life has been getting in the way. Sorry about that. There are ideas and topics I want to discuss, but perhaps they should be something for 2016. In fact, it won’t be long before we are waving goodbye to 2015. What are your plans for the New Year?

So there it is, have a wonderful time. Just make sure to wear those Christmas jumpers!

 

 

Paywall Is The New Firewall

If You Want It…

Hello everyone. Hope you had an enjoyable Easter. Something has come up on Steam recently that has copped a lot of negative feedback. It seemed inexplicable that Valve would consider going down this route, and now that they have, prompted many users to vent their disappointment (to politely put it). A few days ago, Valve implement a policy where users who wanted ‘mods’ for the game Skyrim would now have to pay for them. This is known as a ‘paywall’, a system where you must pay to gain access to certain information.

Skyrim and Modding

Skyrim is a 2011 game released by Bethesda Softworks. Part of the successful Elder Scrolls series, Skyrim is an action-based role-playing game set in a fictional, mythical universe. In this case, Skyrim is set in the snowy, alpine and Scandinavian-inspired setting of the same name. Like many RPGs, players may customise their character and chose to do whatever they wanted. The ‘open world’ of Skyrim is expansive, providing players with many different opportunities to feel their way throughout the game world.

A large part of the appeal of the game is the act of ‘modding’. Modifications, or mods, are add-ons created by the gaming community to be implemented into the main game via download. These mods can range from anything such as serious add-ons such as new armour, weapons, locations and characters, to humorous and miscellaneous ones like funny sounds and voices.

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Skyrim can accommodate many different mods

The modding community of Skyrim (and Elder Scrolls in general) is large. Several dedicated websites, notably TES: Nexus, are essentially databases for hundreds of different mods that have been added over time. People create these mods either to add something new into the game, to work on their programming skills or for recreational purposes. Most mods are created usually by a single person. The sheer scale of mods can be vast: you can find ones which make small changes to ones which adds entire new quests and missions.

In fact, the longevity of Skyrim is largely down to mods. These are a good way for players to spend more time once they have beaten the core game. There is generally no limit to how many mods a player can have, although it is not surprising that there will be clashes between incompatible ones.

Building a Paywall, Brick by Brick

Until recently, modding in Skyrim had been free on Steam. Players did not have to pay to download and use these mods, although donations were welcomed as a ‘thank-you’ to the creator. This has essentially helped with the continual growth of the modding community.

However, on 23rd April, Valve and Bethesda implemented a change to this on the Steam service. The main feature was that (as far as Steam was concerned), if you wanted to download a mod, you would now have to pay for it. Want to know why? Here is the statement:

Many of our fans have been modding our games since Morrowind, for over 10 years. They now have the opportunity to earn money doing what they love – and all fans have a new way to support their favourite mod authors. We’ve also updated Skyrim and the Creation Kit with new features to help support paid mods including the ability to upload master files, adding more categories and removing filesize limit restrictions.

What does this mean for you? As a modder, you now have the option of listing your creations at a price determined by you. Or, you can continue to share your projects for free. For those shopping for new mods, Valve is making sure you can try any mod risk free.’ – Skyrim Steam page, 2015

At the same time, Valve released their Steam Workshop feature. This is basically a database within Steam of uploaded mods, similar to the Market feature used for buying and selling in-game items. Skyrim happened to be the first game to use the Workshop, which is why this concerned the game. Here’s how it works:

‘Whether you’re just getting started or are already a professional artist or developer, now you can make money from your creations in the Steam Workshop. Starting with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, you can make new cosmetic items, sound packs, custom skins, fancy houses, epic quests, entire new cities, or just a new hat for Lydia. Once you’ve made your creation, you can easily set a price and earn a portion of each sale made through the Steam Workshop.

Set a price for your creation, list it for sale in the Steam Workshop, and earn a portion of sales. Plus, the Workshop Revenue Activity site will help you track your sales and revenue so you can make better decisions about what to work on next. Workshop games will support paid content in the coming weeks. As creator of your Workshop submission, you get to set the price. You can specify a set price or choose to sell as pay-what-you-want and let the customer decide how much to pay.’ – Steam Workshop page, 2015

When a person wants to release their content for others to access, they upload it into the Workshop. By agreeing to various terms and conditions, and following acceptable content policies, their work will be added to the database within their own account. This acts as a portfolio as a showcase of their work.

best_skyrim_mods_so_far

Steam Workshop lists mods, both for free and for sale

The Workshop exists as a central hub of player-created content for everyone to use. This is similar to the Greenlight and Market features we’ve looked at before in regards to Team Fortress 2. Initially, this sounds like a good idea. With Steam being so inter-connected and well-known, people can have their works readily accessible. This is supported by the fact that you needed Steam to actually run Skyrim in the first place.

What Does This Mean?

But there is one problem which we mentioned at the start: paywall. If you wanted to use these mods, you needed to pay for them. How much is dependent on different factors. The more expansive and immersive mods (those which add a lot of features) tend to be more expensive than those that are more limited in design. For example, ‘a Blazing Ringsword or Scrib Crusher – additional weapons – are a mere 17p each, but the Midas Magic Gold pack, introducing 80 new spells to Skyrim’s mystic arsenal, is £3.99’ (Kamen, 2015).

This is the reason why this issue has created such a negative reaction from many people. It is not because they have to pay; it is more of the fact that this policy had been implemented in the first place. Being an online platform for collaboration and sharing between people has been one of Steam’s its strongest points. For a company like Valve who actively encourages community activity, the implementation of a paywall seems to be surprising and disappointing. This was highlighted with hundreds of people quickly posting a negative review, not against the game itself, but against paid mods. There was even a petition created on Change.org for a reversal, gaining 20,000 signatures.

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Just one of the hundreds of negative reviews in the wake of the paid mods policy

The pricing of these mods will be neither Valve’s nor Bethesda’s decision: the creator will make that choice of how much to charge. Valve’s statement for modders to ‘have the opportunity to earn money doing what they love’ is also questionable. For anyone making money out of Steam must file a bunch of tax information, including filling in ‘tax interviews’ for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). After dealing with this extremely complicated system (isn’t dealing with government services is always fun?), here comes the damning statistic. Modders, regardless of whatever price they set, will only get around 25% of the total revenue for their content. The majority of it is split between Valve and Bethesda. The small print is listed in Steam’s supplemental Workshop terms, another legal wall of confusing text that many would not bother reading. The clue is in the Revenue Sharing section, point 1:

The percentage of Adjusted Gross Revenue that you are entitled to receive will be determined by the developer/publisher of the Application associated with the Workshop to which you have submitted your Contribution (‘Publisher’), and will be described on the applicable Workshop page.’ – Steam supplemental Workshop terms page

In theory, anyone can garner a lot of sales of their work, but the reality is that what they receive at the end is largely reduced. It is ultimately the developer/publisher that decides how much you would get for your work (usually less than 40%). In Skyrim’s case, modders get the 25%. Is that a fair deal? I don’t know but it’s listed on Steam’s terms and conditions. What’s more is that the money they receive is only useable within Steam. In other words, they cannot draw the money out like in a bank; only for use in Steam.

So Long, Goodbye?

About a week after they implemented it, Valve removed the paid mods feature. ‘In a post today, Valve employee Alden Kroll confirmed that the functionality will be removed, and all customers who have paid for mods will be refunded. The move has been made with Bethesda’s blessing, Kroll added. “We’ve done this because it’s clear we didn’t understand exactly what we were doing. We’ve been shipping many features over the years aimed at allowing community creators to receive a share of the rewards, and in the past, they’ve been received well. It’s obvious now that this case is different. To help you understand why we thought this was a good idea, our main goals were to allow mod makers the opportunity to work on their mods full time if they wanted to, and to encourage developers to provide better support to their mod communities. We thought this would result in better mods for everyone, both free and paid. We wanted more great mods becoming great products, like Dota, Counter-strike, DayZ, and Killing Floor, and we wanted that to happen organically for any mod maker who wanted to take a shot at it.” (Prescott, 2015).

The backlash against this policy was so strong, so dense that it seemed they had no other option. You could cut the resentment with a knife, it was that solid. Valve received a ‘dump truck’ of feedback on the matter, of which its disposition was very clear. Many didn’t like the fact that they had to pay to enjoy player-created content.

Here’s my take on it. Nobody expects anything for free and gamers do not expected things to be given away. The trouble is that when you impose restrictions and limitations, you will cause friction and it is no different here. For a long time, mods have been freely and readily accessible for others to enjoy, which has helped to grow the community and in turn keep Skyrim alive.

I don’t think anyone has an issue with the creators getting a financial incentive for their work. However, most people advocate a donation system as the appropriate way to support the content creators. The gaming community is, by and large, very generous and supportive. TES: Nexus, which arguably has a larger database of Skyrim mods than Steam, is still free to use. Its community and supportive feel makes it a popular choice for discussion and sharing.

There is no sense of entitlement from gamers that they have a right to use mods at will. It’s the fact that paid mods was thrown on them rather suddenly. Valve and Bethesda made the mistake of moving too quickly and have suffered considerably for it. If you ask me, having this system is largely counterproductive. Steam is full of creative content that probably will never get experienced or used because people have to pay for them. Perhaps that is the sad thing.

This is not the end of paywall, far from it. With the amount of games that are modified by the community on Steam, I’d say it’s a matter of when not if, this crops up again. Valve talked about using the situation as a ‘social experiment’, but they have a definitive answer to the question. Their reputation has taken a considerable knock so lessons need to be learned.

Bibliography

Matt Kamen’s article: Modders backlash supports paid Steam mods

http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2015-04/30/modders-backlash-supports-paid-steam-mods

Shaun Prescott’s article: Valve has removed paid mods functionality from Steam Workshop

http://www.pcgamer.com/valve-has-removed-paid-mods-functionality-from-steam-workshop/

Entertainment for the Masses

The Sport With No Athletes

‘Welcome to the International’ – Gabe Newell, 2013

Hello everyone. Hope you’re well. I’m excited to do this article as it’s about something that is on the rise in the world of video-gaming. It is called a ‘sport’ yet it does not have any athletes and has an audience of millions worldwide. This isn’t any conventional sporting event like the World Cup, but there is that feel of competition about it. ‘There are many stories to be written about trends in the gaming industry this year, from Kickstarter to casual gaming to multi-screens and more. But there’s one aspect of the industry which has simply exploded over the past year, and it deserves a bit of a retrospective to see just how far it’s come’ (Tassi, 2012). He is right. This is electronic sports, otherwise known as esport.

Before we begin, I’d like you read this BBC report (http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zygq2hv). The report highlights the growth of esport on a general level, but the important point is that esport is a big, booming multimillion dollar environment. There is much more to playing games than meets the eye. The report argues the case of whether esport should be considered an actual ‘sport’. This post will instead take a more neutral ground and look at the history and impact esport has had on videogame culture.

One the things we’ve looked at is that there is a big audience for watching people play videogames (see last post on Let’s Plays). And then we learned that, if really successful, people could forge this into a full-time career (e.g. Pewdiepie). But the thing is that watching other people play games is not just exclusively confined to YouTube. I mentioned very briefly about Twitch, a website that allows real time live streaming of people playing. You are watching as the player is playing, completely live. There exist numerous streaming channels in which people can readily stream their gameplay and have an audience watching them who can comment simultaneously.

eSports2

Get ready to rumble…

Esport has taken this to a new level. It is now a show for the masses. As the BBC report (2014) states, ‘40,000 fans in a football stadium, some of them in fancy dress, all of them glued to the action on giant screens.’ These events now take place in large venues, with gameplay now projected on large LCD screens to amplify the moment. I’ve never been to one myself but I imagine it’s a lot like going to a music festival, where thousands of other like-minded people watching events as they unravel. It’s a new kind of sport: one where you don’t need to be physically fit to run a distance or kick a ball, but enough to be able to react to motions on your screen. In fact, it is spectator sport: it’s as much exciting for the audience as it is for the players.

Esport are organised competitions featuring many different gamers, either by themselves or in groups (usually called ‘clans’) to compete in front of an audience. Many different esport competitions exist, including The International, European Gaming League, Major League Gaming and more. The players involved are considered the best in their league. After all, people pay to watch the best play the best for the greatest spectacle. You never expect it from gaming, but real drama can be made. The audience ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ at every bit of skill, mistake or showboating.
But how did e-sports, starting out relatively small, achieve global status with an audience of millions? There are a few factors which have helped it develop into this juggernaut of gaming.

1) The Early Gaming Competitions

What constituted to esport of today could be traced back to the 1970s. Edwards (2013) writes, ‘competitive gaming has existed almost as long as video games themselves. Even the earliest arcade games inspired some fierce competition. Early on, a lot of that competition took the form of friends challenging each other to best their high scores, but it didn’t take long for organized tournaments to begin popping up.’ In 1972, Stanford University hosted an ‘intergalactic spacewar Olympics’ for its students. Perhaps the moment came in November 1980. Atari, the game developer and publisher, hosted the Space Invaders Championship and attracting over 10,000 people. It was the first ever large-scale videogame tournament for and helped to promote Space Invaders (which is still widely-played today). Due to the design of the game, the emphasis was on creating as high a score as possible. What this significance of this was that, many years in the future, ‘this tournament, and others like it in following years, sowed the seeds of what would eventually become esport’ (Edwards, 2013).

From the 1990s, gaming competitions were increasingly common and was where it really took off. ‘The popularity of competitive events was then catalysed in the 1990s by the boom in PC games including StarCraft and Quake’ (Jarvis, 2015). One of the reasons for this was the rise of PC gaming, which allowed greater multiplayer capabilities. After all, videogames has its roots within in computing. The 1997 Red Annihilation tournament for the first person shooter Quake ‘is widely considered to have been the first real instance of esport, drawing over 2,000 participants. The winner received a Ferrari previously owned by John Carmack, lead developer for “Quake.” Just a few weeks after Red Annihilation, the Cyberathlete Professional League, one of the first major gaming leagues was founded. Later that year, the CPL held its first tournament. By the next year, it was already offering $15,000 in prize money. The CPL was just one of the more prominent of many new tournaments and leagues founded during this period’ (Edwards 2013).

The new decade also saw the phasing in of new game genres for the tournaments. Esport became readily involved with first-person shooters and real-time strategies. One of the most famous titles of this genre was StarCraft: Brood War. ‘With its asymmetrically balanced races, each with their own unique troops and abilities, StarCraft offered nearly limitless strategic potential and became one of the driving forces of the esport world, though it would not reach the height of its popularity until after the year 2000’ (Edwards, 2013).

2) LAN Parties and Gatherings

LAN stands for local area network. This means instead of using the internet to connect machines, they were connected physically by cable. Essentially they were all in the same location connected together. Theoretically, there was no limit to how large a LAN was besides room spacing and technical aspects, so you could have small LAN parties or huge ones numbering hundreds. Initially, they started off as nothing more than a few friends gathered at one house with inter-connected systems and playing games until dawn. Sometime of that, some people figured that this could be taken to a much bigger level. Where you had a few friends in one house, you now had hundreds and hundreds in a larger venue all connected and playing games.

Large-scale LAN parties required people (players and spectators) to have shelter, food and additional services, which is why they took place in large venues. Takeaways such as pizzas, pies and soft drinks were passed as ‘food’; anything that did not require much cooking technique was received. Often there was a dedicated support team responsible for the running of the party. In 2013, DreamHack, a LAN gathering based in Sweden, boasted a record of have 17,403 connected systems. As a result of the significance and popularity of these parties, numerous companies have become sponsors; mainly technological firms such as NVIDIA and Alienware.

2452_DREAMHACK 2008

DreamHack LAN gathering inside a large venue

It is a rule that participants are required to bring their own systems to use. Many dedicated PC enthusiasts have therefore brought their systems to showcase to others. Often they have been built custom-made and were decidedly powerful. It’s like going to a car show, showing of the flashiest set of wheels and gaining the respect of your peers.

Most esport competitions now follows the LAN model. The benefits of this includes better quality and lower lag due to using physical cables rather than wireless connections. It also required that players are present in person, which adds to the competition of arena feel. It is much better to see players perform in person if you are lucky enough to go to tournaments live. Dota 2 and League of Legends have both implemented LAN options after initially being released as online play only.

3) Online Battle Arenas Rules the Roost

Around the time of the 1990s-early2000, there was a collection of different genres that had dedicated leagues and tournaments. By 2010, one such genre had dominated the Esport landscape. It is called multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA). MOBA has elements of real-time strategies built in but with some differences. Players control only one unit as part of a team. Games consist of two teams who have to destroy the other team’s base while protecting their own. These games can take up to an hour to complete as teams find a way to gain the advantage, therefore being both long and entertaining enough for the audience. It is like watching a gladiatorial battle raging between the best in the business.

Titles of this genre such as Dota 2, League of Legends and StarCraft are box-office draws. This is where the main attraction is, where the best players are found and where the big money is. Shooters like Counter Strike and Call of Duty still enjoy success but still pales in comparison. In fact, they seem boring compared to MOBAs. What makes them so popular is that it requires careful coordination and teamwork. This is why it makes watching exciting because a lot of the time you are watching people with extensive game experience, who have invested a significant amount of time to perform on the big stage.

Dave Cerra (cited in Lockley, 2014), lead producer on EA’s MOBA Dawngate says, ‘Awesome isn’t it? MOBA or ARTS (action real-time strategy) or whatever we want to call them are the most exciting thing in gaming. Their popularity is the result of several different things that have evolved and converged in the world of gaming. And as with any skill-based competitive experience, these games are intrinsically motivating: players play them to get better and express mastery, not just to consume content. All of this boils down to: once you get into MOBAs, they’re just a ton of fun. The traditional MOBA top-down isometric view is easy to watch, allowing the player to participate in the game as a consumer of the experience in addition to a participant. The games are more fun with friends so they spread socially.’

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The International. An esport tournament for Dota 2

According to Twitch, MOBAs make up over five billion minutes of content viewed every month. That tells you everything you need to know about the popularity of the genre and where it sits within esport. A consequence of this is that players of the genre are treated ‘like superstars. There’s even a League of Legends fantasy league. Forget Ronaldo, Messi or Bale. Now you can fill your pro gaming roster with the likes of Doublelift and Wildturtle. Or pit team Fnatic against SK Gaming’ (Lockley, 2014).

David Nicholson (cited in Lockley, 2014), vice president of Jagex’s Transformers Universe says these games aren’t just for die-hard esport fans. ‘MOBAs appeal to a wide audience of gamers, wider than their esport profile might initially suggest. They are both aspirational and accessible because people cannot only watch the elite gamers playing them; they can jump online with friends and others at a similar skill level and have a fun experience. The good MOBAs are very well balanced in terms of learning curve; you can play a game and enjoy yourself as a beginner, but also see where and how you could improve.’

An indication to its growth is by looking at how much money has been thrown in. The financial incentive is staggering with sponsors and developers pumping in. For instance, Dota 2 awarded $28,132,976.00 over 336 tournaments and League of Legends $19,337,457.12 from 1301 tournaments. The International 2014 gave $5,028,308.00 to winners Newbee; conversely Empire and fnatic got $21,862.00 for finishing last place. As of 2015, Wang Jiao (handle ‘Banana’) amassed a total of $1,192,049.90 in winnings (with 98.99% from Dota 2 alone). He’s basically a millionaire.

4) Dedicated Channels and Live Streaming

From 2000 onwards, such competitions have seen an increase in establishment. This has been able to supplement an additional increase in terms of professional teams and players, creating a stage for competition. In other words, a set of dedicated leagues helps creates and maintains the culture of esport. More and more people are getting involved, which means that for game developers, they are increasingly implementing design features that support this competitive play (e.g. competitive league ladders).

The advancements in broadband and streaming channels like Twitch are crucial to the growth of esport in reaching out for a wider audience. As can be expected, the internet remains the main standard for coverage of tournaments. For a time, there had been sparse coverage from many major news organisations, unless they’re doing a feature with a technology focus (like the BBC article). If you wanted reports from tournaments, best places were official websites dedicated to videogames in general.

Coverage of tournaments usually plays out like you would find in other sports coverage. Ever watch live football? You have a commentary team in a studio who discuss the day’s events and provide analysis. Then you have the commentators reporting on the actual games as they progress. Afterwards, there are interviews and feedback from players. It is near enough the same in esport tournaments. Commentary and analysis is provided by knowledgeable people, perhaps even former players, so that you get that ‘competition’ feeling. They can provide a report into goings on.

Nowadays, streaming of live events over the internet remains the top option for many audiences worldwide. For example, 1.7 million viewers watched Dreamhack Winter 2011. An even bigger audience of 27 million watched the League of Legends tournament in 2014. ‘These kinds of numbers show esport has come a long way. Just last year, 4.5 million concurrent viewers on Twitch was a new record for the streaming platform. Riot Games drew more than twice that number for its finals, and likely hit that total on most of the 15 days of the World Championships tournament’ (Lingle, 2014).

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Twitch TV. Users get to pick coverage options of live play

Twitch remains the main streaming channel, although there are alternatives such as Hitbox and Azubu. Additionally, the tournament itself may have an official channel for people to view, such as Major League Gaming’s MLG.tv. For the Twitch service, users could also stream their own gameplay (independent to any tournament) by agreement with the service. This is similar to how users on YouTube work, too. For TV coverage of The International 2014, ESPN simulcast the tournament. Not surprisingly, the viewership numbers from online streaming far surpasses that from TV.

Summary: A League of Their Own

Esport have certainly come a long way since the days of Space Invaders and Pong. It is now a multimillion dollar business endorsed by large companies, played by the best professional players and watched by an audience in the millions. It’s a quite remarkable evolution that owes a lot to the development of the modern internet but also to a host of other things.

Competition with other players in videogames is nothing new, but the recent surge of esport tournaments is. We now are seeing tournaments played with the best professional player against the best professional player, making for an exciting spectacle. We can also attribute technological advancements and increased financial support as factors that have allowed it to expand, but also because there is a player base and audience that are actually into this. Without the players, there is no show.

If you truly want to see how much impact esport has had on society, look no further than South Korea. It is a country where esport tournaments remain highly popular and a serious business. ‘Massive venues such as the Busan Bexco Stadium and Haeundae Beach are constantly packed to the brim with thousands of fans, keen to see their favourite teams and players battle it out. When considered alongside the massive success of Korean pro gamers in a multitude of esport, it’s easy for the average foreign fan to look upon Korea and see it as a haven for esport’ (Manisier, 2012). It is so popular that the government has created a specialised department, the Korea e-Sports Association (KeSPA) to oversee the regulation of esport.

This post was not set out to argue if esport could ever be considered a ‘real’ sport. I think that belongs in the same bracket as asking if videogames makes people violent. I do ask, though, if esports is any different from traditional sports. Millions in the UK watch their football team play (either at the stadium or on TV). Is that any different from people watching professional players and teams play (either at the venue or on TV/internet)?

Instead, I tried to showed where esports now stands as an entity in its own right. For as long as there is a demand, esports will keep growing.

Bibliography

BBC iWonder’s article, ‘Is Computer Gamin Really a Sport?’

http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zygq2hv

Tyler Edwards’ article, ‘eSports: A Brief History’

http://adanai.com/esports/

Matthew Jarvis’ article, ‘Understanding eSports: A Bfief History of eSports’

http://www.mcvuk.com/news/read/understanding-esports-a-brief-history-of-esports/0143925

Samuel Lingle’s article, ’27 Million Watched the League of Legends World Championships’

http://www.dailydot.com/esports/league-of-legends-world-championships-viewership-numbers/

Greg Lockley’s article, ‘MOBA: The Story So Far’

http://www.mcvuk.com/news/read/moba-the-story-so-far/0133335

Alex Manisier’s article, ‘The Surprising Esports Culture of Korea’

http://na.lolesports.com/articles/surprising-esports-culture-korea

Paul Tassi’s article, ‘2012: The Year of eSports’

http://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2012/12/20/2012-the-year-of-esports/

Let’s Play in YouTube

Hello everyone. In this article, we discuss the theme of ‘Let’s Play’ in YouTube.

YouTube and Me

YouTube was created in 2005 by Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim. The website is a video-sharing platform for people to upload and share their video-based content, with themes and content ranging from different genres such as music, film, TV and adverts. Over the past 9 years, it has grown to be an important site for social communications where millions of interactions takes place each day, vital for people trying to get their word out.

This has allowed different people and groups to post their opinions and views through online videos, ranging from individuals to national corporations such as BBC, NBC and others. Because of its video-sharing nature, interactions between people is fluid. People uploading videos to their accounts can have others view, comment and provide feedback on them. The video itself also contains bits of metadata such as total number of views, publishing date and the number of likes/dislikes (which many use a barometer of how ‘great’ a video is).

The social impact of YouTube is remarkable for a number of reasons. The effects on culture have both negative and positive aspects, but for the sake of this article, we will be focusing mainly on YouTube as a platform of expression for individuals. Anyone can create an accounts and begin uploading pretty much whatever they want (within reason to YouTube’s terms of service). It is here that people can begin to create a steady following depending on their success.

People can subscribe to a certain channel they like. The more subscriptions to a channel, the more popular that person becomes and the recognition they receive. If they are extremely successful, they could even have contracts from established media companies at their door. Even those companies use YouTube to get their content across. Famous celebrities (mostly singers) such as Rihanna, Katy Perry, Justin Beiber and One Direction upload their music online via their record label. A myriad of established groups and organisations also use it such as various news channels and political parties.

What is interesting, though, is that it isn’t just famous people making a name for themselves. Its video-sharing aspects has allowed ‘grassroots’ talent to emerge. In short, ordinary people have used YouTube to become successful in their own right, becoming YouTube Personalities. Channels such as Jenna Mourey (Jenna Marbles), nigahiga (Ryan Higa), Zoella (Zoe Sugg), and Fine Brothers have all developed a steady/devote following that has propelled them to online popularity. The examples listed garner well into millions of subscribers from all over the world, but there are plenty of others who have had similar success in their channels. If you are successful enough, you can make a living.

The people mentioned have gained millions of subscriptions, the biggest YouTube draw remains Felix Kjellberg, better known by his online handle, Pewdiepie, and has over 30 millions subscribers. Pewdiepie is an interesting figure in the community. The fact that he has over 30 million subscriptions is not because he is a singer. He is not a politician, activist, athlete or actor. Unlike the examples listed above, he is a videogame player, and his success revolves around what is known as ‘Lets play’ videos.

What is Let’s Play?

In its simplest definition, Let’s Play (LP) is essentially people playing videogames themselves for others to watch. People often provide commentary to their videos, generally expressing their current thoughts, opinions and feelings of a particular game. Patrick White (2013) defines it as ‘a video showing a screen captured video of a gaming session wherein the player provides commentary over what is happening’. Think of it as a running commentary of people playing games. The term is apparently credited to Michael Sawyer (aka SlowBeef) who produced a screenshot play through of The Oregon Trail which founded the LP culture. As a result, a forum was established to store and archive future LP called Something Awful. ‘A long, long time ago, back in 2006, a little trend started slinking around the Games subforum of the Something Awful forums: people were posting up screenshots of themselves playing various old fondly-remembered videogames (such as Oregon Trail and Pokemon) and including their own humorous commentary. This proved to be a winning – if not entirely original – formula which very quickly exploded in popularity! Before too long, everybody was trying to get in on a piece of the action’ (Something Awful, 2012).

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Felix Kjellberg (aka Pewdiepie) is the most subscribed person on YouTube

Let’s Plays are separate from similar formats such as walkthroughs. Whereas a walkthrough is about sharing experience and knowledge for others, LP is usually the player’s first-time play-through; as such it is subjective and contains genuine feelings, opinions and criticisms at the time of playing.In most cases, a small screen within the screen is shown of the player themselves as they play. It also seems a ‘tradition’ that the commentary provided is usually a humorous, profanity-laden play-through, depending on the personality of the player.

These types of videos can easily get a large following. If we factor in how big the market is for videogames, we can safely say that there is an audience out there for people to watch others play.  To put things in perceptive, as of March 2014, ‘the top five Let’s Players collectively have more YouTube subscribers than Peru has people. A user-generated Wikia page tracking current Let’s Players, their subscriber totals, and their videographies lists about 950 players with active YouTube channels, collectively followed by more than 60 million subscribers. And the Wikia page acknowledges that this isn’t a comprehensive list.’ (Zoia, 2014).

Zoia (2014) adds: ‘the chance to earn money, let alone a living, by playing video games was an adolescent fantasy until YouTube launched its Partner Program in 2007. It allows eligible YouTube users to make money through Google AdSense, which runs targeted commercials alongside user-generated video. Users who join the partner program get 55 percent of advertising revenues – the amount determined by the type of ad, its price, and how often the video is viewed – while YouTube keeps the remaining 45 percent. A few hundred views per month hardly generates pocket change; tens of thousands might pay the rent…As an alternative to YouTube’s Partner Program, users may seek membership in multi-channel networks (MCNs), like Maker Studios or Fullscreen, companies that manage YouTube channels and offer members such benefits as cross-promotion, product merchandising, tech support and perhaps a more desirable revenue split. Details are hammered out in individual contracts.’

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A typical Let’s Play video (featuring Pewdiepie playing The Last of Us)

The influx of LP channels can be contributed to various software and hardware that aid in recording, compiling and uploading. A popular choice of video recording is a software called Fraps. In most cases, footage of LP would normally be unedited so as to contain the genuine feelings and emotions expressed at the time of playing. Of course, video-sharing websites such as YouTube and Twitch have made sharing and uploading LP videos easy. With Twitch, people can stream their footage live, giving a real-time experience of playing which suddenly becomes like an online cinema. It also helps to have the actual player with a sense of quirky humour.

Let’s Play and the Social Impact

With the rising popularity of Let’s Play channels, there has inevitably been some implications, particularly among on the videogame industry side of things.

Firstly, there has been praise on the fact that Let’s Play channels can indirectly promote a videogame, especially if that game would have trouble finding an audience on its own right. In other words, if a popular YouTuber such as Pewdiepie posts a video of him playing an independently-made game, this would inadvertently give exposure and coverage for that game. ‘Let’s Play videos are considered good advertising – what better way of saying people are playing a game and having fun than videos showing people doing just that?’ (White, 2013). The critically-acclaimed Thomas Was Alone has benefited from this form of marketing, with the game being covered as a Let’s Play by another popular player, Total Biscuit (John Bain). Other examples include Octodad: Dadliest Catch, Outlast and Plants vs. Zombies.

This has in turn led to different perceptions to the way in which developers now design their titles. Having a title covered in a popular Let’s Play channel now seems like a glowing endorsement considering that hundreds to thousands of people will have watched it. ‘Getting covered by a big-name YouTuber is now essentially the dream of many game developers. The publicity someone like TotalBiscuit, NerdCubed or Northernlion can bring you compared to mainstay consumer websites like IGN, GameSpot and Game Informer is becoming increasingly significant’ (Rose, 2014).

Big personalities means big views. Pewdiepie himself has been largely successful in bringing independently-made games into the forefront. As Zoia (2014) notes, ‘in one November video, he plays the Xbox Indie game ‘Techno Kitten Adventure,’ helping a feline avatar navigate dangerous terrain filled with unicorns and narwhals, and shrieking in frustration each time his cat crashes into an obstacle.’ This video is into the millions, although you suspect a large majority of the viewers are watching Pewdiepie goof about rather than the game itself.

Still, the impact cannot be understated. Getting a title covered on YouTube can created more sales and revenue than in the written press or major gaming websites like IGN for many developers. Aaron San Filippo, creator of Race the Sun, explained the positive coverage his game received as a consequence of being covered in a Let’s Play: ‘For sure, the biggest Youtubers have had a much bigger impact on our traffic and sales compared to the biggest sites we’ve been covered on. When DanNerdCubed played Race The Sun and linked our Greenlight page, it had a bigger impact than all of the website coverage we’d had up to that point, combined. I’m also pretty sure that TotalBiscuit’s coverage on our Steam launch day helped increase our week one sales a lot, which probably helped keep us on the Steam front-page longer. If we’re smart, we’ll try to arrange this type of event more intentionally next time!’ (Filippo cited in Rose, 2014).

While the impact of Let’s Play coverage can be an significant factor in how titles are developed, this is much more noticeable in smaller developers as opposed to the bigger companies. Let’s Plays tend to favour quirky, fresh and original independent games. Partly this is to draw in more viewers to the channel but also increasingly changed the mindset of game development in that developers release titles early in a playable format. Steam, Valve’s online gaming platform, has a feature called ‘Greenlight’ which is dedicated to community made games. Many developers are using this to get out an early access form of their titles well before the final form. This gives a chance for the game to be covered, providing the developers with feedback and commentary but also exposure.

A recent example of this is the horror game Five Nights at Freddy’s. It was one of the success stories after it was covered by a multitude of YouTubers like Pewdiepie, but also others such as Markiplier (Mark Fishbach), Yamimash (Aaron Ashe) and LDShadowLady (Lizzie Dwyer). Scott Cawthon, the game’s sole creator, designed a simple game where the player has limit control over a set of camera banks and door controls and must last the night against a series of rogue animatronics. He later stated ‘as far as simplicity, I wanted to keep the game simple enough so that anyone from any country (without needing to read or speak English) could pick up the game and learn to play it within a few minutes. I wanted it to be about the experience, not endless tutorials on how to play’ (Cawthon cited in Couture, 2014). The game’s simplistic, but unique interface, seemed to have a resonance with many people and before long millions where watching Let’s Plays of people frantically battling with these scary monstrosities. The success of this coverage generated enough substantial interest that a sequel, Five Nights at Freddy’s 2, was released not long after.

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Five Nights at Freddy’s simplistic interface and horror theme was a success

However, Let’s Plays finds itself entangled in the net of copyright laws. As Zoia (2014) explains: ‘Let’s Play videos exist in a gray area of the law. On the one hand, players appropriate footage – sometimes wholesale – from copyrighted video games and run ads on them. Game developers argue that this amounts to intellectual property theft, and is illegal without a license from the games’ publishers. On the other had, a Let’s Play video isn’t simply a recording of a game; the player adds his narration and changes the experience for viewers. In legal language this is called ‘transformative fair use,’ and players believe that because they re-purpose an original work, they should be allowed to continue. Let’s Plays also provide free advertising for the games developers wish to sell.’

This is an issue that not only affects videogames, but also music, film and sport. It is also one that will not have an easy resolution. Many independent developers see Let’s Play as a marketing opportunity to showcase their work, but equally others feel that these videos infringe on their intellectual copyrights. Nintendo was notorious for coming down hard on fan fiction and content. ‘Nintendo took a different approach, registering its intellectual property (IP) rights with YouTube in February and then beginning to push copyright claims against Let’s Play creators. The claims didn’t block the videos but, rather, removed Let’s Play creators’ ability to run ads on them’ (Totilo, 2013). Gera (2013) adds that ‘Nintendo is now claiming ad revenue on user-generated ‘Let’s Play’ videos that feature the game company’s content…As a result, Let’s Play videos using Nintendo content will be bookended by ads while content-creators will not receive any revenue for the videos.’

Many people were angered with this as it meant Nintendo could effectively put adverts relating to their titles and that the person who uploaded the video would receive nothing in return. Although Nintendo may appeared to have ‘softened’ its stance since, this issue is ongoing. This relates back to Zoia (2014), who effectively explains both sides of the argument. Nintendo felt it needed to uphold its intellectual property rights, but are people who record themselves playing games infringing on these rights? White (2013) perhaps offers some clarity: ‘I do concede that if a YouTube user posts a work that is not theirs…that violates copyright. However, the law also says that commentary and parody are protected forms of content. While the original creator deserves his dues, going after fans for expressing their appreciation is detrimental to the original creator’s success.’

Legal issues aside, Let’s Play forms a fundamental complement to videogame development and reception. The power and opportunity they can carry is valuable to developers in getting their games out there. The capabilities of video-sharing websites like YouTubes offers the ultimate platform for these things to happen. People who simple play and film themselves playing games can find an audience and created a steady, growing channel. Likewise, getting a popular YouTuber to cover a title potentially is a gateway to having thousands and millions watch it too. With those numbers, it’s too irresistible for smaller developers to ignore, and that is why Let’s Plays are a big deal.

Bibliography

Patrick White’s article ‘Fan fiction more creative than most people think’

http://www.kstatecollegian.com/2013/04/18/fan-fiction-more-creative-than-most-people-think/

Christopher Zoia’s article ‘This Guy Makes Millions Playing Video Games on YouTube’

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/03/this-guy-makes-millions-playing-video-games-on-youtube/284402/

Let’s Play Archive

http://lparchive.org/history

Mike Rose’s article ‘Is YouTube killing the traditional press?’

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/219122/Is_YouTube_killing_the_traditional_games_press.php

Emily Gera’s article ‘Nintendo claims ad revenue on user-generated YouTube videos’

http://www.polygon.com/2013/5/16/4336114/nintendo-claims-ad-revenue-on-user-generated-youtube-videos

Stephan Tolito’s article ‘Nintendo’s Turn For a 180? ‘Let’s Play’ Drama Might Have Happy Ending’

http://kotaku.com/nintendos-lets-play-drama-might-have-a-happy-ending-513818999

Interview between Joel Coulture/IGM and Scott Cawthon

http://indiegamemag.com/igm-interviews-scott-cawthon-five-nights-at-freddys/

The Future’s Reality…Virtual Reality

Hello everyone and in this post, we take a virtual look…

Virtual Reality Is The Way Forward?

The idea of always making things better, to give the audience an experience, to push beyond the boundaries of what is possible, is still evident today as it was decades ago. We live in a world where the technology we use is continually getting more advanced each day. A prime example of this is the World Wide Web/Internet, which has seen an enormous jump in capabilities since it was established. What I would like to talk about, though, is an area called ‘virtual reality’.

Virtual reality is projected realism. It is not meant to be ‘real’ but it is suppose to be displayed in a way that comes across as real and immersive. This idea has been around for some time as shown in film, TV, music and other immersive art forms. VR is projected by computer to create computer-simulated environments, which are reconstructions of the real world. The way VR works is by playing on the human senses to provide a sensory reaction. The more advanced the VR is, the stronger the reaction. For example, flight simulators are frequently used by pilots in training. The visual of world displayed is clearly projected, but various stimuli give it the feeling of real life. This is often heightened by having extra outputs such as rocking and shaking in the training capsule to give impressions of turbulence.

VR has made an appearance within video gaming. This is perhaps the area which would most benefit, given how games are computer-simulated projections anyway. There had been attempts to create a new VR technology in the form of headgears, but they experienced the same problem. As Peter Rubin explains, ‘It made people want to throw up. This was the problem with virtual reality. It couldn’t just be really good. It had to be perfect. In a traditional videogame, too much latency is annoying—you push a button and by the time your action registers onscreen you’re already dead. But with virtual reality, it’s nauseating. If you turn your head and the image on the screen that’s inches from your eyes doesn’t adjust instantaneously, your visual system conflicts with your vestibular system, and you get sick’ (2014). This was similar with 3D in cinemas, where the projections became so intense that it made people unwell.

Additionally, attempts back in the 1980/90s to implement VR in games were unsuccessful, not least due to ‘the headsets were too heavy to wear for long, and immersion in the blocky graphics of these early virtual worlds came at a price: a stiff neck, motion sickness and the feeling of wading through treacle’ (Martin, 2013). The issue, then, is to provide a way for people to experience VR without having a sensory overload, and to make this at least comfortable.

Prior to 2014, various companies and individuals in the gaming industry, such as Valve Corporation and John Carmack, had been interested and researching their own ideas of VR. These would be a long way better than those 20 years ago. In 2011, a young Californian student called Palmer Luckey would develop his own version. This would become significant in later years as Luckey’s version would be seen as the most promising design yet. So promising that Facebook purchased his company for roughly $2 billion. It is called the Oculus Rift.

The Oculus Rift

The Oculus Rift, or Rift, was an idea founded by Palmer Luckey. Without going too much into the history, let’s look at its origins to its development. ‘As Luckey realised, the technology was by then integrated into most decent smartphones. So his prototype Rift used the equivalent of a large smartphone screen to display offset moving images, one for each eye, which the brain combined into an illusion of 3D depth’ (Martin, 2013). It was his own curiosity and interest in hacking and tinkering electronics that led to the Rift.  ‘Virtual-world sci-fi like The Matrix and the anime show Yu-Gi-Oh! intensified the desire. Why, he asked himself, can’t we do that yet? His modding and iPhone repair work had left him with a lot of money, so he bought a $400 Vuzix iWear VR920, then the most cutting-edge consumer VR headset – enthusiasts call them HMDs, for head-mounted displays – on the market. Then he moved on to the more expensive eMagin Z800 3DVisor. And he kept looking’ (Rubin, 2014).

The smartphone market is still fiercely competitive. A result had seen prices being driven down across the range. Project lead Joseph Chen (2013) explains ‘those guys are tearing each other apart trying to get the next best thing. That has basically driven the costs down to where they’re affordable: displays and sensors that used to be hundreds of dollars now cost pennies.’ But what about the Oculus Rift makes it so unique?

Previously before, Luckey was working I.C.T’s Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy program. Veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder used a VR program called ‘Virtual Iraq’ which simulated a combat zone. This kind of exposure therapy had been in use for several years across America. The program, however, was expensive, costing close to $1500 per unit. The goggles used by veterans was ‘clunky: the helmets’ small viewports give the wearer the impression of looking through a pair of binoculars at a distant scene’ (Johnson 2013).

He then saw an opportunity that many manufacturers missed: cheap smartphones, complete with high-resolution displays and motion sensors. This lead to him modding and experimenting in the garage. Luckey even started a Kickstarter promotion to raise money for development kits of his gear. He exceeded his target of around $250,000. ‘Oculus charges just $300 (£180) for a low resolution ‘developer kit’ – a kit for companies interested in developing software for the device – and has shipped more than 40,000 worldwide, the biggest deployment of virtual reality headsets in history. It has raised $91million (£55.5 million) in investment funding’ (Martin, 2014). There is all the more remarkable when there wasn’t even a product on sale for consumers yet!

The Rift itself is designed to be as lightweight as possible, inspired from its smartphone origins. ‘The development version is about the size of an iPad mini, and it is strapped to your face. It is relatively light, though—I regularly wear it for thirty-minute stretches with no discomfort—and commercial versions will almost certainly be smaller’ (Johnson, 2013). And this is where the Rift starts to become a force of its own. The design of it allowed the user to experience VR without throwing up.

Rubin (2014) remarks a moment from one of the early tests: ‘As (Atman) Binstock continued clicking through the demo, (Brendan) Iribe faded in and out of a series of rooms – bare-bones virtual worlds filled with cubes and spheres. In all of them he took his time, moving, crouching, panning this way and that, taking in his 360-degree surroundings. Eventually he came to the grand finale, in which he floated slowly though a vast structure, its interior walls like some glowing mashup of Tron and a Death Star trench. The demo was at an end. But Iribe couldn’t take his headset off. ‘Again,’ he said, scarcely able to believe what he was asking for. They ran through the entire series once more. Finally Iribe took off the prototype. His head felt strange – not dizzy, not displaced, but overwhelmed. ‘How long was I in there?’ he asked (Mike) Abrash and Binstock. It had been close to 45 minutes.’ Iribe would go on to become CEO of Oculus VR.

The Rift is a piece of headgear with a screen attached, which is attached to a control box, with images displayed through this screen. Without going into the technical details, here’s how it works.

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1. The Display
It uses AMOLED screens, meaning it can switch colour in less than one millisecond. The developers also found out how to deactivate pixels quickly so the image didn’t smear or shake with head movements.

2. The Optics
Using cheap magnifying lenses, the Rift could distort images so that they look right when viewed through the optics, and that they didn’t make anyone sick.

3. Positional Tracking
To fully immersive yourself into VR, the Rift allowed head movements. To do this, it uses small external camera monitors mounted on the headset. This tracks motion and lets you crouch, lean, or approach an in-game object.

4. The Brain
VR owes a lot to tricking your brain into thinking it is real. The big challenge is to create realistic VR images to change with head movements cleanly and without any noticeable lag. To do this, the Rift fuses readings from a gyroscope, accelerometer, and magnetometer to evaluate head motion. Even better, it takes 1,000 readings a second, allowing it to predict motion and pre-render images, shaving away precious milliseconds of latency.

Luckey was still tinkering and modifying the early prototypes and regularly updating his progress on message boards such as Meant To Be Seen. Coincidentally, one of those users was John Carmack, of Doom and Quake fame. He too had been interested in bringing VR mainstream when he read about Luckey’s reports.

Soon Carmack would become an important part of the process. Acquiring a Rift from Luckey, he set about modifying and coding the Rift using a modified version of Doom 3. But perhaps his biggest contribution, however, was his coding. ‘The Rift’s biggest selling point was its 90-degree field of view, which Luckey accomplished by slapping a cheap magnifying lens on the display‘ (Rubin, 2014). With more tinkering, Carmack achieved the correct view without having to spend on expensive optics. And then he raised the stakes.

Blow Your Mind

In 2012, E3, the biggest ‘festival’ of the video game industry, was taking place in Los Angeles. Carmack had gotten permission from Luckey to showcase the Rift. And what followed was how the Rift became mainstream. ‘Carmack showed the technology to the press running an updated demo of his game Doom 3, which he had modified to work with the new hardware. The response was, to use Luckey’s word, ‘massive.’ What he had presumed would be of niche interest to virtual reality enthusiasts turned out to have broad appeal. Within a month of E3, Luckey’s prototype had become a business. Video game industry veterans Brendan Iribe, Michael Antonov, and Nate Mitchell joined Oculuc VR as CEO, lead software architect, and vice president of product respectively, and an initial development kit production run was planned in China’ (Parkin, 2013). Carmack also joined the company, amongst many others.

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It made waves in Europe, too. ‘The excitement surrounding the Oculus was palpable at the Eurogamer Expo, the games show where I tried out its second-generation prototype. This is understandable: to many enthusiasts, the prospect of stepping wholesale into a virtual fantasy world fulfils one of the oldest promises of the medium’ (Martin, 2013). In an industry that always strives to go to the next level of realism, the Rift was seen to be that step. In a short period of time, Luckey and Oculus VR would be receiving Kickstarter funds of more than $2.4m. ‘What could make the product so compelling is the combination of price and performance. At $300 for a developer kit, studios used to spending thousands of dollars on video game development hardware are likely to see it as a relatively small gamble for a piece of technology that could have a big impact on the tech landscape‘ (Parkin, 2013). And this is not forgetting that Facebook recently purchased the company for a cool $2 billion.

Are We There Yet?

Despite its appeal and success, only time will tell if the Rift and VR will ever become a mainstream reality. The Rift is still in early stages of production, yet even still, to have so many backers and takers so early gives an indication of the waves it has made on the industry. Parkin (2013) writes: ‘Perhaps it’s a question of managing expectations. Arguably where the original VR dream faltered was in failing to live up to the anticipation of its users. We expected to be transported through the helmet into a new dimension, full of restless colour and life, but the virtual reality we experienced fell some way short. Even in its current non-HD version, Oculus Rift seems to deliver.’

The idea of VR is not new, but it has not been successful in the past. Until now, the Rift has really brought the idea back into mainstream amidst a flurry of optimism and expectation. Its success at events like E3 have convinced bigger companies such as Sony to start on their own projects. ‘The reception that the Rift got was rapturous. ‘The level of immersion was unlike any other gaming experience I’ve ever had,’ one site wrote. ‘It transforms the experience of playing a first-person videogame,’ another wrote’ (Rubin, 2014). It seems everybody was wanting a piece of the VR pie.

When Facebook moved to buy Oculus VR, it was their biggest investment to date. Despite the backlash towards this relationship, Mark Zuckerberg hinted at the potential. ‘Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world, or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home’ (Rubin, 2014). And that is what VR is: projected realism made to feel real. The Rift does it better than most. It will not win everyone over, but it has plenty of admirers.

Perhaps the last word should be from Palmer Luckey himself. ‘This technology is going to revolutionize the way we live, learn, work, and play.’

Bibliography

Peter Rubin’s article ‘The Inside Story of Oculus Rift and How Virtual Reality Became Reality’
http://www.wired.com/2014/05/oculus-rift-4/

Tim Martin’s article ‘The Oculus Rift: Virtual Reality Is No Longer A Joke’
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/10540341/The-Oculus-Rift-virtual-reality-is-no-longer-a-joke.html

Joel Johnson’s article ‘A New World, Right In Front Of Your Face’
http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/a-new-world-right-in-front-of-your-face

Simon Parkin’s article ‘Can Oculus Rift Turn Virtual Wonder into Commercial Reality?’
http://www.technologyreview.com/news/519801/can-oculus-rift-turn-virtual-wonder-into-commercial-reality/