Last week I attended San Diego Comic-Con to be a mentor at the Game Creator Connection, an event in which game industry professionals give advice to other game developers and those wanting to break into the industry. Although I have been a life-long fan of fantasy and science fiction, it was my first time visiting Comic-Con since I was in my twenties, when it was a modest-sized comic book convention with several hundred attendees. I was almost overwhelmed by how large this convention, now celebrating a colorful swath of popular culture, had become, with attendance in excess of one hundred thousand fans.
All of these fans showed up for five days of immersion in their favorite fandoms – intellectual immersion by listening to panels of content creators, tactile immersion by the souvenirs and other themed merchandise offered on the dealer floor, and narrative immersion offered by those who cosplay as their favorite characters. Content producers know that Comic-con attendees are the best customers and greatest evangelists for their products, as well as the power of immersion to get people excited and engaged. So movie and television studios spent megabucks not just on advertising at Comic-Con, but fully immersive escape rooms, where participants entered and solved themed puzzles for finding the way to exit the room.
The most impressive of these immersive promotional experiences at Comic-Con was Jack-Ryan: The Experience, a 60,000 square foot outdoor facility to promote Amazon Prime Video’s new web television series based on techno-thriller author Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst turned operative, played alternately by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck in the movies, and now on television by John Krasinski (best known for playing Jim on The Office).
My immersion began in the line outside the facility, where I was handed a newspaper with the headline “San Diego Invaded!” along with a Jack Ryan branded water bottle and pretzels as I waited in a camouflage-covered line leading to a series of kiosks for entering my name and email address (along with a consent form to sign, indemnifying Amazon from any legal blame for injuries I might receive from my black ops training). The kiosk camera then took my picture, and after a few seconds, the personnel handed me my “Analyst” photo id on a Jack Ryan branded lanyard for admittance into the facility.
Once inside the facility, set in Yemen despite the San Diego “invasion”, I made my way to the Dark Ops Escape Room, where participants receive their first field assignment: uncovering an double-crossing extremist conspiracy and obtaining classified intelligence. Created by digital agency AKQA and London-based interactive production company Unit 9, this escape room features live actors, voice technology and immersive set pieces. Unfortunately, the line to get in was too long for my patience, and so I investigated the bazaar next door.
After scoping out these Middle Eastern shopping stalls for more refreshments such as fruit and ice cream as well as a bag of Jack Ryan swag, which you received by inserting your Analyst id into a kiosk and answering a marketing survey. However, I discovered that actor stationed in the stall had mini-quests for us neophyte CIA analyst to complete, such as memorizing intelligence information or doing photo surveillance of another actor in the clever disguise of wearing a hat topped with a pineapple.
Immersive play doesn’t necessarily involve fulfilling quests or solving puzzles; just being in a novel environment and sharing it with your friends can be fun who don’t’ have the energy for playing games. Many visitors enjoyed simply taking selfies inside the stalls, while one stall featured a booth in which I was photographed against a green screen and then emailed a photograph with a Jack Ryan themed background, which I was encouraged to share on Instagram with the hashtag #JackRyan. Well, I’m not so easily swayed into participating in propaganda campaigns – so I shared it with my Facebook friends instead. Take that, terrorists!
After getting an ice cream from a Yemen shopkeeper who knew refreshment what visitors to a desert environment would most appreciate, I sat in a shaded pavilion and watched participants going through the most exciting part of the Jack Ryan Experience: 4D experience in which participants undertake a training mission inspired by the series pilot episode. While wearing virtual reality gear but using physical props and sets, they run up three flights of stairs to board a helicopter, which takes them to a Yemen high-rise rooftop. Once there, they repel into the building, fight off a group of terrorists, zip line down to the ground, and escape in a jeep to a safe house. I was impressed with how elaborate this promotional activity was, and how the combination of the physical and virtual made it exceptionally immersive for players.
As I was watching this thrilling experience, I ran into former IGDA Director Kate Edwards, who had invited me to participate in the Game Creator Connection, and fellow mentor Vlad Micu. When I told them that I would love the take the “training exercise” myself, Vlad kindly introduced me to his friend Laurens de Gier, a Unity developer at MediaMonks, the Netherlands digital production company that had created this VR training mission. Lauren explained to me that they had only four months to create the training mission part of the Jack Ryan Experience, which included participants wearing a very light HP Omen X VR backpack connected to an Oculus headset, as well as hand and foot sensors for tracking their movements throughout the mission using an OptiTrack system. Based on everything I had heard about the experience, MediaMonks did an exceptional job with the technology.
Laurens tried valiantly to get me VIP access to the training mission, but alas, the line was capped, as people had been waiting since 5:30 that morning to try it out. So, I maintained my low-key cover and continued to work the bazaar instead. Still, the role-playing and swag I received was fun and did the trick in turning me into a new recruit for the Central Intelligence Agency: on August 31, I’ll be continuing the immersion by watching the pilot episode of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan on Amazon Prime.
Last Wednesday I made my annual pilgrimage to the Electronic Entertainment Expo to check out the new video games coming out this year. Okay, it wasn’t much of a pilgrimage; it was just a short subway ride from my work to the Los Angeles Convention Center, which has been the home to E3 almost every year since the trade show debuted in 1995. However, unlike many trips, it’s the destination and not the journey that matters, for E3 is like the video game industry Mecca, where publishers show off their upcoming releases to retailers and the gaming press.
Except that there seemed like a lot more elbow room in Mecca this year. Activision, Electronic Arts, and Wargaming were all no-shows this year, as was Disney, which is (once again) dropping out of video game publishing entirely. Whereas in previous years South Hall was jam-packed with ginormous booths numbing crowds with sensory overload, this year there were a lot of lounge area and recharging stations in the back of the hall. The reason: retail sales are losing their significance in an era of digital downloads, and there are now many more outlets for promoting games that through the gaming press.
For the publishers that did show up for the party, the games that they were promoting indicated that they were living in glory days of the past: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Halo 2, Killer Instinct Season 3, Gears of War 4, Elder Scrolls 5, Civilization 6, Resident Evil 7, and Final Fantasy 15. Now, don’t get me wrong, I loves me some more Civilization and Deus Ex, but I would have liked to have seen something new at the show. The closest the AAA publishers had to anything innovative was in slapping virtual reality onto titles: Batman Arkham VR, Doom VR, Fallout VR Resident Evil VII Biohazard, Star Wars Battlefront: X-Wing VR Mission, and perhaps the best of the bunch, Star Trek: Bridge Crew VR. Now, these are all good indicators that consumer virtual reality will eventually go mainstream, but there was still no killer app that convinced me that I gotta have VR today.
Truth be told, I found the most interesting games not in the multi-million dollar AAA publisher booths, but in the modest IndieCade exhibit. Here are a few of the games that captured my imagination.
Beautiful Corner is indeed both beautiful and in a corner:the entire game played out in a small, fantastical bedroom. t has a set, and lights and sounds that react to the player’s progress. Two interactive puzzles are used to convey the narrative,a coming-of-age story that plays out through letters, trinkets and postcards from the player’s imaginary friend. It’s moving and sweet, while commenting on the realities of growing up (or not).
The player assumes the identity of a specific character, and is given costuming and props. The player enters the set and explores both puzzles to see how the puzzles relates to the character they are playing. As the player plays through the two puzzles, the set reacts to their progress by lighting and music changes. The experience ends with the player being asked to make a narrative choice on the outcome of the story. After choosing, the player experiences one of two possible endings
Lead designer and artist Martzi Campos created the game as her Master’s thesis in the University of Southern California’s Interactive Media and Design track. Her goal was to create an emotional tone in an interactive space of something besides fear or panic. By creating a single player experience, Campos’ hope was to bring about a higher degree of roleplaying opportunities for the player, bridging the emotional tones of interactive theater with the gameplay of escape rooms and creating a hybrid that sets players up as the main character in their own interactive play.
Speaking of escape rooms, I was once hired to write an escape room scenario, and ever since then, I’ve toyed with the idea of creating an escape room in a box that could be sold in retailed stores, like those murder mystery party games. Well, as they say in this business, ideas are a dime a dozen but implementation is everything, and two women beat me to making the idea into a reality.
Ariel Rubin and Juliana Patel are the co-creators of Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment, a tabletop gaming experience that crams together all the fun and social interaction of a party game, the event nature of a consumable game and the cooperative spirit and dramatic timed challenges of an escape room. You have 19 puzzles, 3 locks, and 1 hour to save your life! Doc Gnaw has sent you a mysterious box. When you open it, you release a poisonous vapor and need to solve her devious puzzles to unlock the antidote, or you will be forced to join her werewolf army. Unlike boxed “murder mystery” games, Escape Room In A Box consists us to try to capture the physical nature of escape rooms and not have our game consists not of not just pen and paper puzzles but also diverse materials and hidden objects to capture the physical experience of real-life escape rooms.
This game grew out of the duo’s deep passion for escape rooms and at home game nights and their desire to bring them together in a completely new way. Their initial plan is to sell their game at a real-life escape room locations, so that players have an opportunity to bring their experience home with them to play with their friends. I just hope some smart retailers who appreciate the growing escape room craze will offer to carry this product on their shelves, because I would be just one of the first to buy one.
You can learn more here: http://www.escaperoominabox.com/.
A tabletop game can be a lot of fun, but how about a thousand? PlayTable is a tabletop console system designed to let you play any number of board and card games without fiddling with rulebook and hour-long set-ups. The system consists of a full-HD 1920x1080p monitor that’s impact-resistant and waterproof, software compatible with any Windows-based laptop (future compatibility with Mac and iOS), and a set of standard pieces, cards and stickers. The system also comes with a recommendation engine allowing you out new games and find the perfect one for game night. It even includes a construction kit allowing you to make your own games using your existing game and toy pieces such as Infinity, Skylanders, and Amiibo figurines. However, at $599, the price of admission is steep.
You can find out more at http://playtable.xyz/.
Magic Dance Mirror is an interactive visual music and dance experience created by game developer Kinetic Magic, a seven-person team assembled by Game Director Kyle Ruddick. It uses a Kinect motion sensor to track player’s movement and create a stylized mirror image of those using it onto a giant screen filled with neon starbursts that reacted to their dancing.
The concept was inspired by Burning Man and the immersive art there.The goal is to primarily explore and let players’ own movements and sounds entertain them and spectators. The Magic Dance Mirror is designed to be fun for all ages and promote exercise and healthy self-expression. Not a typical game in tat there is no way to “win” or “lose”, Magic Dance Mirror was built for clubs or large parties, but thankfully not to the home living room, where my spastic attempts at dancing would result in all my furniture being trashed.
You can learn more here: http://www.magicdancemirror.com/.
From time to time I get on my soap box and talk about the need for more female game developers, and so I was really pleased to come across an exhibit for the book #Feminism: A Nano Game Anthology. Written by feminists from eleven different countries, #Feminism offers bite-sized takes on contemporary feminist issues. Each of the 34 analog nano-games (games that can be played in less than an hour, explained exhibitor Whitney “Strix” Beltrán) in this collection requires between three and five participants, and simple (if any) props.
The games range from silly to serious, including scenarios about selfies and rom-coms as well as reproductive rights and domestic violence. And of course, enjoyment has no ideological boundaries–there are games here for participants new to feminism as well as those experienced in making gender arguments on the internet. The book is available for sale via Indie Press Revolution.
You can learn more at https://feministnanogames.wordpress.com/.
Virtual reality was as popular among the indie games as they were with the AAA games, but the experience that most captured my imagination was not a game at all. The Zeiss booth featured a pair of their VR One Plus virtual reality headsets controlling and receiving camera images from drone suspended from above. The headset could only control the camera (you would need a second person to control the drone’s flight), but with the very lightweight headset (essentially a pair of lenses on which you mount a smartphone running the virtual reality software) and heads-up display, I felt like Iron Man flying above the South Hall exhibits.
You can find out more at http://vrone.us/flyfpv.
Maybe the reason I didn’t describe too many video games is that it’s a sign the E3 organizers need to rethink what their show is all about. Fun is fun no matter how you get it, and in a year when doing the same ole, same ole just isn’t cutting it, I’m tipping my hat to the innovators who are thinking outside the console box.