Ask the Experts: Professor Mathew Powers on Virtual Reality's Impact on Video Game Design

Ask the Experts is an ongoing feature on where we invite faculty to discuss what is going on in their respective field of work. This week we're featuring Mathew Powers and his take on the impact Virtual Reality will have on video game design and development. Powers is a lecturer in media arts and science at IUPUI. 

One of the best aspects of gaming is its ability to bring players to a new world. We have spent years playing “Legend of Zelda” while pretending that we are exploring the lands of Hyrule. “Super Smash Bros” lets us imagine that we’re in an arena squaring off against our favorite characters.

A major selling point for massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs) such as “World of Warcraft” or “Eve Online” is the blurring of reality between their worlds and ours. And what worlds they are! These games have even been called “life-games” since they lack a traditional ending and continue to grow post-release via downloadable content releases throughout a player’s life.

These are some of the experiences that guided me to game design and development. I have been a game maker for more years than I can count and have been privileged enough to teach game development at the IU School of Informatics and Computing at IUPUI for nearly a decade. Creating a world and then getting the chance to show it to others who engage with it are some of the most inspiring aspects of game creation.

Game designers and developers, in our constant push to transport players to these other worlds, keep an ear to the ground for the latest technologies. The latest development is the advent of virtual reality (VR). VR has been around for years. Scientists and developers have been trying to sell VR to the masses for decades but only in the past few years, with hardware such as the Oculus Rift, has the technology become plausible for everyday use. Nowadays, anyone with $300-600 dollars in their pocket can bring home a lightweight VR headset that will help them travel anywhere people can create and program.

Virtual Reality technology is revolutionary, and I have seen that first hand. In the Media Arts and Science track at the School of Informatics and Computing, we recently concluded a three-year gaming project known as “Return of Aetheria” (RoA). This student-led and -created project involved a traditional fantasy gaming story coupled with cutting-edge technology. We’ve showcased “RoA” at GenCon, Indy Comic Con, and Indy PopCon.

Check out the Return of Aetheria Facebook page here

There were multiple ways to play our game--we had desktop computers, handheld devices, analog games, and many other choices. One option was playing a level we created with Unreal Engine 4 using an Oculus Rift. This was not an ordinary Rift though.

The Rift had been coupled with new experimental technology designed and created by Chauncey Frend from the Advanced Visual Laboratory (AVL) here at IUPUI. When a player put on the Rift and explored the level that had been designed by our 3D team they could walk up to a campfire and feel heat on their face or turn towards the woods and feel wind across their backs. How was this possible?

The VR had been paired with Chauncey’s “Pipes” system to engage a real heat lamp and cooling fans when players accessed key areas in the level. This truly began to blur the lines between realities, and we had a long line of people wanting to play. The experience was quite remarkable, and with Chauncey’s Pipes system there are endless devices that can be hooked up to the games we make. VR has already and will continue to make many inroads with gaming.

Now the question of the hour is, will VR replace conventional gaming? Is the draw to encounter a world as delivered by VR so strong that from here on out everyone will be wearing a stylish head-mounted device? Are the days of screen gaming over? In addition to teaching how to make games, one of my main areas of study is game history, and I am fairly confident the answer to that question is “no.”  

Technology such as VR tends to open up new doors for gaming while not shutting any others. Sure, some aspects of gaming may be more popular than others but, as with many other related genres, gaming allows for multiple voices to be sung within its choir at the same time.

All one needs to do is look to and learn from history. There is an ancient game called “Mancala” It was first reported on around the fourth century AD. It is still around today and fairly popular in countries all over the world. You can buy it for around $30 at your local game store. Additionally, the Wii motion controller came out in 2006, but video games still primarily use traditional controllers ten years later.

Another great example is the radio. When television debuted there were calls that radio was dead and would never be used. I listen to the radio in my car on the drive to work almost every day. These are but a few examples of newer technology learning to live alongside older technological forms. Humans have a natural tendency to believe that the advent of one item naturally signals the demise of another. This is certainly not the case with VR.

This new tech is going to revolutionize gaming and provide an entirely new palette to design with, but it’s not going to replace screens or phones or even the common board game found on family game nights. It is simply a new tool at developers’ disposal.

I am extremely excited for the possibilities it brings and for what my students will create with it, but I also know that on Saturday nights I will still sit on a couch and play a classic game of “Mario” with the controller it came with. There is a very bright future in game design and development, and it’s going to occur along a cornucopia of technology options we’ve never seen before.