The Challenge of Building Augmented Reality Games In The Real World

InnAR Wars Splash Image - B

Last week I submitted the prototype build of my latest augmented reality project, InnAR Wars, to Google’s Build a Tango App Contest. It’s an augmented reality multiplayer space RTS built for Google’s Tango tablet that utilizes the environment around you as a game map. The game uses the Tango’s camera and Area Learning capabilities to superimpose an asteroid-strewn space battlefield over your real-world environment. Two players holding Tangos walk around the room hunting for each other’s bases while sending attack fleets at the other player’s structures.

Making InnAR Wars fun is tricky because I essentially have no control over the map. The battlefield has to fit inside the confines of the real-world environment the tablets are in. Using the Tango’s Area Learning capabilities with the positions of players, I know the rough size of the play area. With this information I adjust the density of planetoids and asteroids based on the size of the room. It’s one small way I can make sure the game at least has an interesting number of objects in the playfield regardless of the size of the area. As you can see from the videos in this post, it’s already being played in a variety of environments.

This brings up the biggest challenge of augmented reality games–How do you make a game fun when you have absolutely no control over the environment in which it’s played? One way is to require the user to set up the play space as if she were playing a board game. By using Tango’s depth camera, you could detect the shapes and sizes of objects on a table and use those as the playfield. It’s up to the user to set it up in a way that’s fun–much like playing a tabletop war game.

For the final release, I’m planning on using Tango’s depth camera to figure out where the room’s walls, ceilings, and floors are. Then I can have ships launch from portals that appear to open on the surfaces of the room. Dealing with the limited precision and performance of the Tango depth camera along with the linear algebra involved in plane estimation is a significant challenge. Luckily, there are a few third-party solutions for this I’m evaluating.

Especially when looking at augmented reality startups’ obligatory fake demo videos, the future of AR gaming seems exciting. But the practical reality of designing a game to be played in reality–which is itself rather poorly designed–can prevent even the most amazing technology from enabling great games. It’s probably going to take a few more hardware generations to not only make the technology usable, but also develop the design language to make great games that work in AR.

If you want to try out the game, I’ll have a few Tangos on hand at FLARB’s VRLA Summer Expo table. Stop by and check it out!

Why I’m All In On Mobile VR

Last month I released Caldera Defense, a Virtual Reality tower defense game on Gear VR. This is the second Gear VR title I’ve worked on, and the first I’ve built and published from the ground up. (Not including my Oculus Mobile VR Jam submission) Caldera Defense is a free early access demo–basically a proof of concept of the full game–and the reaction has been great. Thousands of people have downloaded, rated, and given us valuable feedback. We’re busy incorporating it into the first update.

Caldera Defense featured on the Gear VR store

Originally I planned to use this as a demo to fund an expanded PC and Morpheus launch version of the game with greatly improved graphics, hours of gameplay, and additional features such as multiplayer and second-screen options.

However, pitching even a modestly budgeted console and PC VR game experience to publishers, or even the platforms themselves, is a tough sell. I’m sure at E3 next month we will see all sorts of AAA VR announcements. Yet, many traditional funding avenues for games remain skeptical of the opportunity VR presents.

Since the Caldera project began last year, mobile VR has morphed into a unique opportunity. With over a million Google Cardboards in the wild and new versions of the Gear VR headset in retail stores worldwide, there will be millions of mobile VR users before there’s comparable numbers on Oculus desktop, Vive, and Morpheus.

Is it possible that mobile VR will be a viable business before it is on PC and consoles? Most of my colleagues are skeptical. I’m not.

The economics work out. Due to the mobile nature of the experience, games and apps for these platforms tend towards the bite-sized. This greatly reduces the risk of mobile VR since assets optimized for mobile are simpler and casual VR experiences require less content to be built overall.

I can make a dozen mobile VR minimum viable products for the same budget of one modestly scoped Morpheus experience. From these MVPs I can determine what types of content gains the most traction with VR users and move in that direction. I can even use this data to guide development of larger AAA VR experiences later.

By this time next year it will be possible to monetize these users significantly, whether through premium content or advertising. It may be more valuable to collect a lot of eyeballs in mobile VR than breaking even on a multi-million dollar AAA launch tile. As we’ve seen in the past, acquiring a huge audience of mobile players can lead to tremendous revenue streams.

Being on the Oculus desktop, Vive, or Sony’s Morpheus deck at launch is an enormous opportunity. In fact, I’m still searching for ways to produce the console and desktop version of Caldera Defense. However, if you lack the capital to produce at that scale, smaller mobile projects are much easier to bootstrap and the upside is huge.

Adult Contemporary Video Games

One of my favorite Combat Jack podcasts of 2014 is when they interviewed legendary hip hop producer, Marley Marl over the Summer.  Marly Marl invented the modern hip-hop sound most take for granted and created the Juice Crew, one of the most important groups of MCs ever.

The Juice Crew

Before producing hit records, Marley had a career as an on-air DJ, starting on Mr. Magic‘s show on KISS-FM in New York.  In the ’90s he went on to host “Future Flavas” with Pete Rock on Hot 97.  Marley Marl was also still producing hit albums for the likes of LL Cool J and Lords of the Underground.

Times change, and Marley Marl isn’t producing music for 20 year olds anymore.  While many DJs desperately hang on to their fading youth, Marley tried another tactic.  He moved over to WBLS which plays old school hip hop for a mature audience.

it just so happens, rap fans in their fourties and beyond have far more disposable income than those in their teens and twenties.  His WBLS show has gone on to be a great success.  It turns out that despite being a youth-powered movement, there’s plenty of advertising dollars in hip-hop appealing to older rap fans.

This got me thinking about video games.

A lot of veteran developers are debating about the decline of AAA games in the face of the disruptive waves of free2play and mobile.  Many gamers in their demographic agree.  If that’s the case, why not appeal to this older audience?

The challenge to monetizing these gamers is that although they have the same taste in games they may have had over a decade ago, their play styles are vastly different due to lifestyle changes.  If you’ve got kids or a demanding job, perhaps you no longer have 120+ hours to spend playing an RPG. However, you might digest the same style of game in shorter episodic bursts on a tablet or smartphone.

Some developers have caught on to this and produce what I call Adult Contemporary Video Games.  A good example is the 1980s pencil and paper RPG, Shadowrun.  Microsoft’s attempt at AAA shooter based on Shadowrun was an abject failure (although I quite liked it).  Five years later, Harebrained Schemes went from a surge of support on Kickstarter for “Shadowrun Returns” to a series of popular mobile and PC downloadable games based on the franchise.

Shadowrun for iPad

This is a smart strategy–delivering content aimed at an older audience on newer devices.  Those of us who grew up not on just the original RPG, but the SNES and Genesis games were ripe for a new entry in the series.  This model has also seen success with Wasteland 2, and surely the upcoming Bard’s Tale sequel will continue the trend.

It remains to be seen if you can develop a new IP targeted at this audience.  A lot of what you hear on Adult Contemporary radio is old artists making new music.  In games it may be the same. So far, the genre seems to bank on nostalgia by resurrecting classic franchises for an older audience on new devices with updated play styles. Especially if you include teh current wave of retro remakes. While some veteran developers excel at creating games for the new mobile f2p masses, others may be more suited for this viable slice of the market.

Towerfall: The Re-Return of Social Gaming

Social gaming was hot.  Then it ‘died’.  And now it’s hot?  The fact is, video games have always been social.  In the earliest era of computer games there weren’t enough CPU cycles (or CPUs at all!) for AI.  Players had to move everything themselves–Steve Russell’s Spacewar being the earliest example.  But just look classic coin-ops like Pong, Warlords, Sprint, etc.  Same-screen multiplayer was just how things were done.  Arcades in the ‘80s weren’t solely the domain of nerds–a broad spectrum of people showed up and played games together.  Imagine that!


Local multiplayer ruled well into the ‘90s.  Games like GoldenEye, Mario Party, and Bomberman ensured there was always something to do when you had people over your place.  Yet, once Internet multiplayer hit in the early ‘00s, console games became strangely anti-social.  Today when someone comes over my house and wants to play a game with me–well, it’s complicated.  There really aren’t many games people can play together on the market.

That’s why Towerfall Ascension is so interesting to me.  At first I thought it was yet another pixel-art indie game over promoted by Ouya due to a lack of content.  After playing it with others its significance dawned on me.  Finally there’s something to play with other people!  It had been so long since I’d had a local multiplayer experience that it took actually playing it for me to recognize this one fact:  the local multiplayer brawler may very well be where the MOBA was when DOTA was merely a Warcraft III mod.

At GDC I noticed the beginning of this trend.  There were a few Towerfall clones already in progress or on the market.  In fact, some similar games even shortly preceded Towerfall.  Not to mention Towerfall’s release on the PS4 and Steam has been highly successful.  I really think a new (old) genre is born.


From Bits to Atoms: Creating A Game In The Physical World

Some of you may recall last year’s post about 3D printing and my general disappointment with consumer-grade additive manufacturing technology. This was the start of my year-long quest to turn bits into atoms. Since that time there has been much progress in the technology and I’ve learned a lot about manufacturing. But first, a little about why I’m doing this, and my new project titled: Ether Drift.

Ether Drift AR App

A little over a year ago, I met a small team of developers who had a jaw-dropping trailer for a property they tried to get funded as a AAA console game. After failing to get the game off the ground it was mothballed until I accidentally saw their video one fateful afternoon.

With the incredible success of wargaming miniatures and miniature-based board game campaigns on Kickstarter, I thought one way to launch this awesome concept would be to turn the existing game assets into figurines. These toys would work with an augmented reality app that introduces the world and the characters as well as light gameplay elements. This would be a way to gauge interest in the property before going ahead with a full game production.

A lot of this was based on my erroneous assumption that I could just 3D print game models and ship them as toys. I really knew nothing about manufacturing. Vague memories of Ed Fries’ 3D printing service that made figurines out of World of Warcraft avatars guided my first steps.

3D printers are great prototyping tools. Still, printing the existing game model took over 20 hours and cost hundreds of dollars in materials and machine time. Plus, 3D prints are fragile and require a lot of hand-finishing to smooth out. When manufacturing in quantity, you need to go back to old-school molding.

You can 3D print just about any shape, but molding and casting has strict limitations. You have to minimize undercut by breaking the model up into smaller pieces that can be molded and assembled. The game model I printed out was way too complicated to be broken down into a manageable set of parts.

Most of these little bits on the back and underside would have to be individual molded parts to be re-assembled later--An expensive process!

Most of these little bits on the back and underside would have to be individual molded parts to be re-assembled later–An expensive process!

So I scrapped the idea of using an existing game property. Instead, I developed an entirely new production process. I now create new characters from scratch that are designed to be molded. This starts as a high detail 3D model that is printed out in parts that molds are made from. Then, I have that 3D model turned into something that can be textured and rigged for Unity3D. There are some sacrifices made in character design since the more pieces there are, the more expensive it is to manufacture. Same goes for the painting process–the more detailed the game texture is, the more costly it becomes to duplicate in paint on a plastic toy.

We're working on getting a simple paint job that matches the in-game texture.

We’re working on getting a simple paint job that matches the in-game texture.

So, what is Ether Drift? In short: it’s Skylanders for nerds. I love the concept of Skylanders–but, grown adult geeks like toys too. The first version of this project features a limited set of figures and an augmented reality companion app.

The app uses augmented reality trading cards packed with each figure to display your toy in real-time 3D as well as allowing you to use your characters with a simple card battle game. I’m using Qualcomm’s Vuforia for this feature–the gold standard in AR.

The app lets you add characters to your collection via a unique code on the card. These characters will be available in the eventual Ether Drift game, as well as others. I’ve secured a deal to have these characters available in at least one other game.

If you are building a new IP today, it’s extremely important to think about your physical goods strategy. Smart indies have already figured this out. The workflow I created for physical to digital can be applied to any IP, but planning it in advance can make the process much simpler.

In essence, I’m financing the development of a new IP by selling individual assets as toys while it is being built. For me, it’s also a throwback to the days before everything was licensed from movies or comic books and toy store shelves were stocked with all kinds of crazy stuff. Will it work? We’ll see next month! I am planning a Kickstarter for the first series in mid-March. Stay Tuned to the Ether Drift site, Facebook page, or Twitter account. Selling atoms instead of bits is totally new ground for me. I’m open to all feedback on the project, as well as people who want to collaborate.

Alpha Funding vs. Crowdfunding

This Saturday, my fellow developers’ game, The Long Dark, managed to stride past its Kickstarter goal of $200,000 CDN after a month-long saga of nail-biting suspense. The campaign was executed with a mix of increasingly large announcements and trailer videos. The Hinterland crew managed to get major press in outlets like The Verge and BoingBoing, covering the daily announcements related to the campaign.

The Long Dark

Successful Kickstarters are a lot of work. In addition to having something people actually want to support, your media strategy has to be planned out. Merely Tweeting, “please donate!” looks like spam. If your posts display new features, concept art, trailer videos, and other content then it comes across as newsworthy. You have to prepare enough content to make announcements every other day or so throughout the entire campaign.

Crowdfunding is a major source of game financing due to the collapse of the publishing model. Not only are traditional publishers largely irrelevant due to the business model shift to f2p and games-as-a-service, but raising money from the public is preferable to contract terms that encumber most publisher dollars.

Another funding strategy has emerged as an alternative to crowdfunding: Alpha Funding.

Alpha Funding is when you charge users to access early versions of your game, usually starting at the playable alpha phase (hence the name!). Obviously, Minecraft is the foundation of this business model. A recent example is Klei’s Don’t Starve, a stylized survival game which began life as a paid alpha well before it arrived on Steam as a finished product.

Alpha Funding has a lot of advantages. You don’t have to bribe backers with cumbersome physical goods. Sure, T-shirts and plastic tchotchkes are a new avenue for game monetization. Yet, for a small team this can be a distraction. Alpha Funding allows you to focus on what’s important.

An early paying audience has an investment in your game. It’s a community of enthusiastic fans. Alpha users provide meaningful feedback and become evangelists instead of cranky forum trolls. When you finally launch, they become an important source of positive reviews and press.

Most importantly, getting paying users early is great customer validation. Not to mention an inspiring early source of revenue for your company. This allows you to experiment with pricing tiers for when you release the game in the wild.

There’s also the hybrid approach. The most famous example is Chris Roberts’ Star Citizen. It began as a crowdfunded project but has continued as an alpha funding smash–grossing $21 million and counting. They recently released a preview app which allows players to walk through ships they have already paid for in advance of the game’s release. Perhaps not early access to the game in the strictest sense, but a taste of the final product.

Publishers will continue to take a backseat to the indie revolution as crowdfunding evolves. Alpha funding has become so popular that Steam even has its own category for Early Access. It’s a critical game finance tool regardless of project size.

Game Developers: Don’t Compete, Disrupt.

In the old boxed retail model of games, publishers often waited for an “off year” to capture a hit title’s audience. For instance, a publisher would release a competing open world game the year after a Grand Theft Auto installment to monetize GTA fans who are looking for a similar experience. This successful strategy spawned many hit original properties despite its “fast follow” basis.

Today’s hit games such as League of Legends are constantly updated services and thus never have an “off year.” As discussed in a previous post, we’re in a winner-take-all game economy. Top games consume all of the time and money of their players.

It’s exceedingly expensive to go toe-to-toe with a leading game-as-a-service. Not only do you have to compete with the top game’s deluge of content and social network, but you must overcome the switching cost users bear to move to a new game. A player could have thousands of dollars invested in his League of Legends character. Now you want him to start all over on your new, unproven MOBA?

Competition is possible, but only with deep pockets. The only company posing a distant threat to League of Legends is Valve with DOTA2. Not only have they made an excellent game, but are lavishing massive development and marketing budgets to compete with the frontrunner.

What can you do if you’re not among the most financially successful developers in the world? Don’t compete, disrupt.


As described in my bible, Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma, disruptive innovation typically arrives in a form that’s lower quality than the established player, but cheaper or more convenient to use for a low-end customer.

This low end customer is not as profitable, and thus not very interesting to big companies. The disruptive product’s quality improves steadily. By the time the threat is noticed by the incumbent, it’s too late. The disruptive competitor is attracting the old guard’s high-end customers.

A modern example might be what the tablet did to the netbook and is now apparently doing to notebooks.

How does one develop a game disruptive to the established players? Is it even possible to do so? After all, there are flaws when you apply the low-end disruption theory to consumer products. Let’s look at few vectors of disruption and how they may work in games.


World of Warcraft’s plunging subscriber numbers may be showing that Blizzard has fallen victim to Innovator’s Dilemma in the form of free2play competition.

F2p originally meant lower quality, lower commitment, and (supposedly) cheaper-to-play MMOs. Now, all major releases from Western companies inevitably become f2p. The quality bar has risen to where it’s possible to match or surpass the incumbent combined with a dramatically different business model.


How about making a game more convenient to access? One way developers are trying is by bringing established PC f2p genres to mobile. The idea is that by making a MOBA simple to play on a tablet, it’s possible to capture a segment of the desktop customer. This ignores the fact that tablet-owning hardcore LoL players are still looking for an experience uniquely crafted for mobile–Not simply a long-session MOBA plopped into an iPad.

The problem when applying business model advice to the games industry is that most are based around solving a problem. The only problem games (and entertainment in general) may solve is boredom. When you aren’t solving a problem or “pain point”, you are selling based on other emotional qualities such a branding or user experience.

Lessons can be applied–but perhaps not literally. Which is fine. Slavishly following any business model or development methodology ends up in the creation of a process cult.