Game Visions: A Virtual Game Convention

Introduction

If you’ve missed the past couple of years, then fair warning: virtual reality is here. We’ve already had tech demos (Back To Dinosaur Island), ports of non-VR games (Elite: Dangerous), and even original VR Games (Omega Agent). That roster is soon to expand though: both Facebook and the fledgling VR Film industry have interests in the realm of 360 degree videos, and more applications are sure to pop onto the scene as innovators around the globe start whirring their mental engines. Among such applications is my own idea, the notion of the virtual convention, which I’m sure is an idea shared by many select people invested in virtual reality. My goal here is simply to start a conversation over how one might design such an application. What follows is a quick blurb about why we might need Virtual Conventions along with an extended story that simulates how one might work.

Note: this is quite the lengthy article, so feel free to skip to locations you’re interested in. I’ve tried to give sub-headers to indicate what topic is being covered / illustrated.

What need is there for a Virtual Convention?

As a game developer, I’ve been to game conventions. If you haven’t been to one, the short version is that they are an assortment of presentations, panels, demo rooms, and gaming areas geared towards fostering discussions about games and professional networking. Studios frequently prop up booths in the demo rooms and show off their games to anyone in the local area who wants to try them out. These booths are invaluable opportunities for developers to create a personal relationship with their prospective audience, allowing them to make a positive impression and generate hype for their game; sadly, however, many types of costs hinder the effectiveness of these booths.

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A grand scale booth like this is feasible only for the largest companies

The developer has to pay a (sometimes hefty) price for the real estate to set up a booth. The more famous the convention and square footage, the higher the cost. Many smaller studios simply can’t afford the kind of exposure they desire. The current effectiveness of booths is relegated to studios that are already fortunate enough to have secured the minimum funding they need to produce such a booth. As an example, take a look at the following quote from exhibitsusa.com:

The industry average to purchase individual portable trade show displays is $100-$150 per square foot for larger displays. For example, 20×20 displays would cost between $40,000 and $60,000.  Exhibit Rentals are about 35% of the hardware purchase cost.

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Huge crowds can damage the delivery of a great gaming experience

When the demo room is crowded, several other complications arise. Conversations between developers and booth visitors can be drowned out from the immense noise. People may have a hard time locating a booth or worse yet, may not even wish to spend time to get to it due to the stress and effort involved in meandering through such a mess.

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Uniting people around the world physically is expensive and arduous

In addition, booth visitors must physically be able to maneuver to the booth which limits the booth’s exposure geographically. People in Europe clearly can’t visit a booth in America without taking a flight over. Then there are costs for hotels, transportation, food/drink, not to mention the complications involved with coordinating travel in groups. From a design standpoint, this is a horribly inefficient method of delivery; the potential benefits are just too large for even the big names to forego conventions.

What is needed is a method of creating a highly personal demonstration of a studio’s product that is cheaper, effective, void of unnecessary distractions, and simpler to logistically coordinate.

What would a Virtual Convention even look like?

First, some notes:
– While I’m going to try and do my best to avoid an implementation-specific depiction of a virtual convention, some design concepts will inevitably be suggested by the nature of my ideas.
– If I feel there could be some confusion, I’ll occasionally make references to local and public stuff to indicate whether something is visible to just a given individual or to anyone who is currently occupying the area around the individual.
– I have, rather shamelessly, grabbed several random images by URL from Google. If someone wants me to remove an image, please just let me know and I’ll update the post.

[Navigating to the event]

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Convention, here we come. Let’s DO THIS.
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The Oculus Touch motion controllers

Let’s assume we’ve grabbed the initial Oculus Rift headset. We’ve got it all snug around our head. Headphones are clamped over our ears and a variety of input devices lie before us, including mouse and keyboard, a gamepad, and the Oculus Touch. It’s 6:30am and we, including our production and business partner Zack Sanders, are due to set up our Booyah Games studio booth at the event. Using the Touch, we launch our Virtual Places application, sign in, inform the application that we wish to go somewhere (spoken phrase, menu selection, however) and go to “E3 Virtual Convention.”

Within seconds, we’ve teleported to the front steps of the compound. Near-instantly. We didn’t have to make a plane trip, setup a hotel room, get a rental car, or check whether my colleague Zack had problems bringing any physical equipment. We’re just there. And we can see people: producers, developers, designers, artists, gamers, and journalists alike, all interacting, going from room to room, exploring, chatting, sharing, and learning.

[Navigating to our space and connecting with team members]

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Wow…it’s right there in front of me!

Thankfully, Virtual Places lets us set up groups for traveling with, and we’ve already formed a group with Zack; therefore, two Virtual Places notifications pop up in the corner as our avatar spawns in:

“You’ve entered [E3 Virtual Convention, Entrance : 15]”
and,
“{Booyah Games, Executive Producer} Zack Sanders is at:
[E3 Virtual Conference, East Wing Demo Room : 22]”

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So I’m here…and the East Wing is…

The East Wing. We aren’t sure where that is, so we tap the second push notification using the Touch. Immediately, a local virtual map of the complex appears horizontally in front of us with a little marker over an area on the right. Seems like we could actually just walk over there (a highlighted route shows the way), but we’re kind of in a hurry since the booth needs to be set up soon, so instead we’ll just double-tap the marker. In a flash that slowly fades, the East Wing Demo Room materializes around us, nice and simple.

Places told us that we were on “15” and Zack was on “22”. Assuming those are channels, we inform Places that we want to switch over to channel 22. The environment doesn’t change all that much (a few booths switch out perhaps), and the people all phase in and out with new developers and visitors, but off to the side we can now see a small empty lot with our buddy Zack standing there swiping his hands through local menus.

[Digital equipment setup and team coordination]

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Sample concept for a simple booth arrangement

“Problems streaming in that Unreal Engine 4 level I set up for our booth?” we ask him.

“Actually, I asked Tsuki to spruce it up a bit. You know, do her artist magic in Maya. She just hasn’t posted the new booth onto GitHub yet,” he replied. Tsuki, our team’s artist, lives in Japan and is due to pick up our booth managing duties around 6pm when she gets up in the morning.

“Give me a minute,” Zack says, “I’ll call her real quick.” A few more swipes and he’s launched the VR Skype integration app. “Hey Tsuki. You have that booth ready yet? Oh, it’s merging now? Ok, to which branch?…Got it, thanks. See you tomorrow. Get plenty of rest!”

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Sample concept for an artist/designer’s hard work in booth design

A minute later, Zack has uploaded our pre-designed custom booth, complete with a virtual sofa and two video panels on either side, one with a live Twitter feed, the other with trailers, interviews, and concept art. In the middle are several gaming stations with our prototype. The booth is a completely developer-friendly custom design. Each station is set up with invisible virtual cameras that record the expressions of players, their gameplay, and the booth at large, all stored automatically in the cloud. We can record all of the feedback from the people at the event and use it in future testing and development.

[Sample booth services: booth information, wares, and gaming queue]

Now that the booth has been streamed-in, the moment we are within the booth’s radius, our Places client pings our studio’s cloud server for information: the location of our booth, the name of our studio, what games we are advertising, and any other information we may want displayed to the customer such as the location of our headquarters or the name of our CEO. The Places UI updates accordingly, and we’re satisfied knowing everyone walking through will instantly know who we are and what we’re about the moment they walk by.

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Sample wares concept where the customer can directly examine the product they are browsing (obviously taken from Skyrim).

Our booth also provides several services to visitors. They can browse a local window that let’s them see our wares. If they have a question about an item, they can just grab it from the window, and drag it into the public, booth-restricted space to discuss it in person with us.

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Simple notifications like this, but less spammy

Visitors can also sign up in a virtual queue to play our games. When it is their turn, they get a push notification, wherever they are, with a timer: click the notification to instantly teleport to the booth for the demo or forfeit one’s position in the queue.

[Concept of gameplay: how it is done and how it is set up]

When people actually play our game, all they have to do is toggle their inputs to be redirected to the virtual screen, at which point they need to have a compatible input device that they can use in real life to begin interacting with the virtual TV. If we were to host a VR game, the game could just temporarily displace the player’s local convention environment until they exited the application and our local image of their in-game avatar could dawn a virtual headset to indicate what happened. Thanks to the Places API, they could even hear us talking to them as we stand by in the virtual convention.

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Seriously: mere moments to make a VM. Nice.

Now, we are really liking how easy this all was. The Booyah Games staff didn’t have to move equipment into place, bring in computers, download and install game prototype(s), or do any other kinds of preparation, outside of: “Okay, pull up Azure (or whatever backend) here (*typity type*). Make a new virtual machine with our custom image to play our game (*click click*). Setup a gaming-as-a-service server and stream the results to our virtual TVs (soon-to-be just *click click*). Scale up / down as necessary. Done.” How much was all of this? Oh right, a few cents per hour.

[Utilizing channels for infinite real estate]

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Each layer dynamically generated as people need.

Behind us, our temporary employees Bill and Sarah have arrived to help us man the booths. Each temp is paired with a team member, so we stay on 22 with Bill while Zack and Sarah move to our space on 23 to set up another booth there. Thinking that we can probably manage an extra column of gaming stations, and since we’re only restricted by E3 on our horizontal real estate, we decide to improve our booth (after all, moving the booths beside us without permission would be awkward). A few swipes afterwards, the wall and floor behind our lot extends out another two meters without affecting any of the lots beside us. Another few swipes, and two new gaming stations pop up out of the ground, the Azure servers compensating for the difference.

Things are going great, but at around 5:45, the traffic starts picking up, and we start having a bit too long of a waiting list for people to try out our game (yay…?). Thankfully, we know that Tsuki is coming in soon, so we ask the E3 staff for permission to use a lot on a new channel. The acquired digital real estate costs maybe $100* to make up for the server load on their part, so it doesn’t take long before a new spot is opened up for us. Within 30 minutes, a new booth has been set up, our customers are all satisfied as the queue is moving a lot faster now, and the full expense has been minimal.

*Note: not exactly sure what the going rate for new real estate would be, but if it were a “smaller” convention, you can bet it would be next to nothing in comparison to what that would cost in real life – if it were possible.

[Panels and Presentations]

At 7, we are scheduled for a panel next door, so we get up and head out the door into the hallway, walk over to the right, and enter a new room. Seamlessly streamed into our public area is the presentation room. It has quality slightly better than this…

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A RiftMax Theatre “room” for the VRA 2014 presentations

…but with a form more like this…

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A circular stadium-esque presentation/panel environment

…scaled to match 1) however many people plan to attend or 2) however many people the panelists want to limit it to (no fire safety restrictions to stop us now!).

[Cleanup]

With the presentation/panel finished up and the day winding down, we start finishing up our last booth-duties for the day. Zack, Tsuki, and we all make arrangements to grab drinks with some of the guests in a few minutes. We toggle off the interactivity of the booths and each just walk away, knowing that it will all be there when we get back, undamaged, not stolen, perfect, and ready for a new day.

Using the Places app, we make a new space on-the-fly, invite the guests and studio members to the new space (complete with furniture), and all dip out for a moment to grab some beer, make some coffee, or do whatever it is we want to do in our local households. Putting the headset back on, we go back in the room and enjoy a night talking about games before each sleeping in our own beds, in our own part of the world, and doing it all again in the morning.

dog-sleeping-in-bed

Conclusion

So, what do you guys think of this vision? I would imagine this is QUITE do-able already, minus the actual VR tech. Not quite sure how to set up the Gaming-As-A-Service stuff with cloud platforms, but I know that most of the other stuff would be fairly simple to do using Unreal Engine 4:

  • Level streaming for dynamically-loaded rooms
  • Media Texture assets for displaying video feedback of gameplay demos
  • Variable input controls to allow users on the client side to redirect inputs to other “sources”
  • Ability to import externally defined assets
  • Integration with web APIs for custom-defined app behaviors

Given the time we have left before the big VR rush, we as a development community should put forth efforts to make this a reality as quickly as possible.

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2 thoughts on “Game Visions: A Virtual Game Convention

  1. Great article. Some ideas I had while reading:
    — One could have a filter to turn on/off booths so one could see only the booth one is interested in.
    — Links from VR “worlds” so one could be inside a Virtual Environment and watch a stream of a new game. I say links to different VR “worlds” because I’m thinking of not having a photo-realistic booth showing even more astounding graphics.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry for the late response. As far as the filter concept, I would be slightly wary of including that. I’m worried that, if people could filter the booths they see, then you miss out on the whole convention experience of wandering around and being surprised by the games you come across, even without initially expecting to see games of that kind.
      If someone wished to only get to a particular booth they had in mind, then they should be able to instantly teleport themselves to that location.

      I think I’m still confused by what you meant here with “VR ‘worlds’.” You’re saying that you don’t want an in-VR booth to be showcasing a game that has even better graphics than the booth itself, but I fail to see how that relates to this “world” concept. Is it supposed to be a separate location one can move to when experiencing a VR-game temporarily?

      Like

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