Thursday, June 5, 2014

Oculus Rift and the Future of Gaming

Greetings friends, colleagues, and contemporaries,


What is fiction? Fiction is the use of ideas, concepts, and plots that center around stuff that doesn’t exist in our day-to-day lives, and can be intermingled with events, ideas, and persons having actually existed. Fiction is often referred to when discussing books, plays, or movies, but it could also include games as well.

 Computer games have become an ever present technological development stemming from the recent past, and most likely carrying on into our future. Most computer games are works of fiction. Most of these games are derived from ideas, concepts, and plots that didn’t and don’t exist in our day-to-day reality. Why is this important to look at?  Because it is the beginning of a more interactive way of telling fiction stories.

 I played Dungeons and Dragons as a kid (lets the sharp barbs of hypocrisy simmer down). Yes, it had a reputation, and many who played were geeky kids (and some adults) who loved (wait for it) fantasy fiction such as Tolkien and Howard. The medium was dice, paper, and a good O’l fashion story telling. My group of players had a guy who wove amazingly detailed and fun action plots with puzzles, and fighting. If we did something stupid (and often did), he’d rein us in by figuring out on the fly, new plot elements and objectives. Our imaginations were charged, and our sense of reality disengaged. Some of the best time, and funniest times I had were with that group of friends.

I read to recapture that sense of fun – but reading never really had that wonderful effect of being an active player inside the story. And, it’s more than just making decision inside the story. It was the camaraderie and uncensored interaction with my fellow player. It was the quick thinking of the Game Master to change things on the fly, and it was the random events that could not be accounted for, all made the experience memorable and amazingly fun. So, just a fiction book was not going to recapture that for me. Then, Escape from Castle Wolfenstine came out, and everything began to change.

Escape from Castle Wolfenstine, by Id games was the progenitor to the fast and furious action games of today (and tomorrow). It allowed a player to navigate a labyrinth containing hidden passages, treasures, and evil bad guys waiting to gun the player down. The graphics were three-point-perspective, and scrolled as the player moved down hallways. It had a bit map on every wall, floor and ceiling that provided a rich sense of space. The view for the player was first-person, and the intense gun play was unbeatable. This gave me a hint of what would later grow into a form of entertainment that is even today profound.

Next came the massive multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG). This form of game took the Id concept and moved it one step up by allowing thousands of player to connect and play in a single environment. 3DO was a game development company that created the very first  MMORPG titled Meridian 59. This game was more than a proof of concept, it changed the very fabric of gaming forever. Now, I didn’t have to sit at my desk playing a computer game alone – now I had a community I was linked to. Two of my friends signed up and bought the game, and we three made a point to log in to the game at the same time, and play together. This game was the closest I’d come to playing a computer game that gave me the same feeling like I had when playing D&D. There were player-characters; avatars that were controlled by a person. Also, there were non-player-characters; avatars that were controlled by the computer. The real treat was the interaction with the avatars that were controlled by other people – the unintended events, the personality of people that shined through the two dimensional avatar, all this provided a tiny taste of what could be. It didn’t quell that longing to experience that rich environment of D&D again, it merely quieted the desire.

Upon the heels of Meridian 59 came Everquest published by Sony. This was a much larger environment – one could even call it a world now. Here, the game designers were exploring the use of true 3D modeling, and the introduction of physics-based code. It was a step up. After Everquest came Everquest II (EQII), and then came World of War Craft, Age of Conan, and a host of others that improved on the MMORPG model, but not by much. Mostly the area of 3D modeling and physics-based coding were these notable games contributions.   

Now, there’s another revolution that’s taking place in the gaming industry that may take the final hurdle and surpass my D&D love affair; immersive virtual reality (VR). VR has been around for some time now. Its roots, while interesting, are academic for this discussion. How does this add to the evolution of fiction? In a big way. When I played D&D all those years ago, my fertile imagination was so strong that I felt as if I was actually in the story while knowing that I wasn’t. What does that mean? Well, as I played I could joke around with the other players, socialize about our work, school, girlfriends, hopes and dreams, while still portraying our character at every challenge. Of course we knew the fictional setting of the game wasn’t real – just like when one reads a good fiction novel and knows that the setting is just a construct of the author. Now, with VR I can actually feel like I’m inside a virtual world.

New hardware such as the Oculus Rift virtual reality head display is allowing a player to feel as if he, or she is actually inside the game. This reality has been the stuff of science fiction for many years in both movies and book form. In the use of VR, fiction and reality are merging. Those of us who write fiction are now upon a precipice looking over at a genre based juggernaut that will deliver the customer directly into a world of the writers making. Once VR is combined with the next generation MMORPG model, just reading fiction will not be enough for some. Those once glorious readers will begin to migrate to immersion, living out adventures and loves, not just in their imagination, but deep within a computer game, and driving an ever changing content.

Will fiction books be relegated to the dust bin of innovation? No, there will still be those who love to curl up with a good fiction book and let their imagination give them the illusion of being in the story. What does that mean to us authors? That means that our efforts will have to be top-shelf, and just as we once sought to get a movie deal, we’ll be seeking to have our worlds immortalized in the MMORPG game world, where our readers can mingle with our characters, interact with other fans of our stories, follow self-developing plot lines, and experience life in exotic and fulfilling ways, all while never leaving their home. The future is here with the Oculus Rift and the immersion revolution that is just beginning. So, keep writing you authors, keep writing the romance, the science fiction thriller, the high fantasy epic, the seedy erotica story, and know that technology can make each and every one more real than the words used to construct them. My advice to you is to keep an eye on this technology, and follow the VR revolution, for it will have a profound effect on the writing industry.

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