What I Learned at the Austin Game Conference about Game Creation and Virtual Reality

Written By

Bill Brandon

October 07, 2016

From the evening of September 20 to the late afternoon of September 22, it was my great pleasure to attend the Austin Game Conference in (where else?) Austin, Texas. The AGC was founded in 2003 and ran each year until 2012, when it went on hiatus until its relaunch this year.

The conference attracted 750 attendees to hear 80 speakers in five tracks and attend several “special events” over the course of the three days. There was also a modest-size expo with about 30 exhibitors, including Intel, IBM SoftLayer and IBM Cloud, Epic Games, Electronic Arts, Aspyr, several institutions of higher learning, the IGDA-Dallas, and GameDev.net.

Networking with the very experienced and knowledgeable developers and designers, both presenters and attendees, was extremely easy. Many, perhaps most, of those present would consider themselves “indie” producers, so there was a lot of sharing going on. The atmosphere was much like The eLearning Guild’s DevLearn: lots of energy.

On the night before the conference itself opened, Intel sponsored a DemoFest-like event, the Game Developer Showcase (also dubbed the “Intel Buzz Workshop” after similar events Intel sponsors at other conferences). Ten selected game developers presented games they are in the process of preparing for launch, using trailer videos and live demonstrations later that evening and during the conference. The Showcase was streamed live, so you can get a taste of what this was like by watching a video recording. (You will need to scrub to the introduction at 00:19:28; you can skip over the preliminaries to the presentations themselves at about 00:33:00. There is a brief period at the first presentation where the speaker’s microphone was not working, but be patient.)

What did I learn?

It was a very full two days, most of which I spent either in the VR/AR track or in the expo. Between my reporter’s notebook and a Livescribe journal, I captured 48 pages of notes, plus about 10 hours of recorded audio. This article is only going to present a few of the highlights. I will try to give you enough information here that if you have an instructional design challenge that you think could be met with a game, you can just jump in and try to build that game—it won’t cost you anything, just your time. But keep it simple for your first attempt! As you will see, “just jump in” only applies to games. Virtual reality is another story entirely, at least for now.

So let’s get started!

Games

Game development, compared to eLearning development using rapid authoring tools, can be a challenging undertaking. While it may be true, as some attending AGC told me, that it is possible to develop a game in a couple of weeks with a team of one or two designer/developers, that does not seem to be the experience of most commercially successful developers. Another key difference is that game engines are not the same kind of software as authoring tools. You might need help with the art and with aspects of game design, but on the other hand, the game engines (see below) might be able to give you just what you need to get started.

Game development

Superficially, the process of game development may resemble the process of instructional design and eLearning development, but that’s only true if you are thinking of the breakdown of the process into stages: concept development and planning (needs assessment for IDs), pre-production (design for IDs, including storyboards and criterion test design), production (authoring for IDs), and post-production (testing with representative learners, or alpha- and beta-testing). My impression at AGC is that serious game designers are much more rigorous in their approach to all of these stages than typical instructional designers.

Game development is, by its nature, an iterative process once you move from concept and pre-production to production. Depending on the complexity of the design and the scope of the game, significant numbers of people with various skill sets may be needed. Production values, consistent with the character of the game, are important: Art is important, and art across game levels (if any) is important. There will be cross-platform issues affecting your choice of game engine. These are not insurmountable, but many eLearning pros will struggle to break free of the default (linear) thinking they’ve used in instructional design.

The final distinguishing characteristic of game development is the game designers and developers themselves: They really, really, really love games. They love to play games, they love to talk about games, and they love to critique games. I have met some similarly driven instructional designers, but they are the exceptions in my experience—the ones who lead sessions at the Guild’s Learning Solutions, DevLearn, and FocusOn Learning conferences. I didn’t meet a single game developer at AGC who would not be described as obsessed by the craft. Speakers repeatedly referred to game development as “art,” and that isn’t hyperbole. Part of the dedication is surely due to the fact that there is serious money to be made in developing a standout game, but it really goes deeper than that.

An instructional designer who is thinking about branching out into game development should spend time with some game development folks before making the personal commitment. It’s a vocation, not a job. Check out the IGDA (International Game Developers Association), which has emerging and established chapters in many major cities worldwide, and go to some meet-ups. Local community colleges and universities may offer courses that will be helpful as well.

Game engines

There are two game engines you should get to know, specifically Unreal Engine 4 and Unity3D. Both facilitate production by providing templates and other resources. Both are very powerful and capable of supporting development of 2-D, 3-D, and mobile games. (Note: reviewers recommend Unity for 2-D and mobile games.)

Both engines are free to download and use, but there are also royalties and fees involved once you publish a game, depending on income from the games developed with them and certain other conditions. The royalty and fee arrangements change from time to time, so read the fine print. Currently, Unity’s licensing and subscriptions are more complex, and the costs can be substantial. Unreal Engine 4 will be free as long as the income from your game is less than $3,000 per quarter. In spite of these cost differences, Unity3D has more users than Unreal Engine 4, so if you are going to be looking for contract developers, it may be easier to find ones with skills in Unity3D.

Both Unreal Engine 4 and Unity3D have asset stores where you can download characters, props, and effects. Unity has the larger store. On the other hand, Unreal Engine can create stunning graphics, far above what is available in Unity.

While Unity runs on more platforms overall, both engines support Windows and Mac OS X. Unity uses C# or JavaScript, and Unreal Engine uses C++ but also offers Blueprint visual scripting (if you have used Allen Interactions’ ZebraZapps, you will be familiar with the visual scripting concept). Unreal Engine 4’s code is open: If you can program in C++, you can change or tweak anything.

My advice: Download both Unreal Engine 4 and Unity3D, and try them out. Although it helps to read online reviews of both engines (and be sure to read the latest reviews—feature sets and costs change) and to go to IGDA meet-ups to talk to developers, trying the engines out is the only way to determine which one best fits your needs and your projects. There are differences of opinion among developers when it comes to creating multiplayer games, or games that run on iOS or Android, as to which engine does a better job or is easier to use.

Mixed and virtual reality

This will be a short story. Mixed and virtual reality are not quite ready for eLearning prime time, at least not for in-house development in most organizations, but they are getting there. Games are first adopters of the technologies, but even this industry is having to work at it. Game developers are very interested in “the enterprise market for VR,” so help is and will be available.

Mixed reality

The conference keynoter was Graeme Devine, chief game wizard at Magic Leap. The presentation that Scott Dadich, editor in chief at Wired magazine, gave us at The eLearning Guild’s FocusOn Learning 2016 Conference in Austin got a lot of us excited about virtual, augmented, and mixed reality, particularly the last item. So I was really looking forward to hearing what Devine would tell us about Magic Leap.

Devine did not disappoint. He had a lot to say about mixed reality (MR), and he did much to temper our expectations for it. The first takeaway is Devine’s definition of mixed reality, and it summarizes the reasons to look forward to its arrival: “Mixed reality is the mixture of the real world and virtual worlds so that one understands the other. This creates experiences that cannot possibly happen anywhere else.” Or as he said during his demonstration of an amazing MR concept application called Ghost Girl, “mixed reality is like having the Tardis in your house.”

The second takeaway: The word “experiences” is key to understanding the power of what is coming not just in MR but in VR (augmented reality, or AR, is another story). In the case of Ghost Girl, for example, MR uses actual physical objects and your actual physical space, along with audio augmentation and projected images, to create an experience that is totally unlike anything you have ever been part of.

The third takeaway: Devine also made it clear that there are challenges for developers in the field of MR. Design, particularly game design, is “incredibly difficult,” according to Devine. It was also clear that the same design challenges will apply to using MR in corporate applications. “You’ve got to have faith,” Devine says. He predicts that although change is coming, MR will not be fully realized for another 10 years. These sentiments were repeated many times by other presenters at the conference.

Virtual reality

VR is a real challenge to build. In a presentation of lessons learned while creating the game Job Simulator, Alex Schwartz of Owlchemy Labs said, “VR can’t be designed on paper—you must iterate.” Other challenges that Schwartz identified included designing for multiple platforms and the tracking constraints imposed by each platform. Where you place the sensors that track the user’s movements is important, and optimum sensor placement is different for each platform. This makes distribution of content something that requires thought and planning.

In the AR/VR keynote, Pete Moss, “VR dude and lead engineer” for the creative content studio at Unity Technologies, identified 2016 as “Year Zero for consumers.” Moss pointed out that we now have hardware, VR games, VR communities, and even emerging VR social spaces. For developers, 2016 is the year to survive; 2017 and beyond are the years to thrive. “These are the good old days—we have a decade of experimentation to go,” Moss said.

In other sessions, presenters repeated these ideas. Mike Daubert, host of a panel titled “How to Design Interactivity in VR” and chief creative officer at Austin’s Phaser Lock Interactive, said, “Right now, there is no right way and there is no wrong way. VR is the Wild West today.” Noah Falstein, chief game designer at Google, said, “What VR does is different, very subjective, and complex. It is not just an incremental improvement.” Although they were talking about VR for games, it’s clear that their comments also apply to enterprise applications of VR.

There were a number of other sessions at AGC that addressed topics of interest to the eLearning community, and in coming months there will be follow-up articles and interviews in Learning Solutions Magazine to give you a fuller picture. At DevLearn 2016 Conference & Expo, November 16 – 18 in Las Vegas, you will have your choice of eight sessions in the Games and Gamification track and six VR/AR sessions in the Emerging Technologies track to help you get started.

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