I first became interested in virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and serious games (aka game-based learning) in 2015. I tried on a VR headset for the first time at SXSW Eco and was moved to tears by Gabo Arora’s Clouds Over Sidra and Waves of Grace experiences. I realized that VR would change the world for the better, and that I wanted to be a part of that change. Although I learned everything I could, there’s so much I know now that I wish I could tell my younger self. If you’re new or newish to XR (i.e., the combination of VR, AR, and mixed/merged reality or MR) and serious games, I am going to share my XR lessons learned. I believe they will be of value to you today.
10 lessons I wish I knew about XR and serious games in 2014
Game engines, such as Unity and Unreal Engine, will be among the most important software of the coming decades. XR is the user interface of the future, and game engines are increasingly becoming the best way to develop apps and experiences in the various XR mediums. As a result, learning to design and develop with game engines opens many doors and opportunities, and not just in the game industry. Many industries now need XR developers to create employee training experiences, visual representations of physical objects and spaces, marketing activations, and much more.
AR will eventually be bigger, more widely adopted, and have more applications than VR, but not yet. A few years ago I naively believed we were three to five years away from widespread adoption of AR, and that by now we’d all be wearing and using AR glasses all day instead of staring at our phones. That time is coming, but the hardware won’t be ready for a consumer audience for a few more years yet.
Games aren’t just for gamers. Another way to put this is that most people are gamers and don’t realize it. Though we don’t all play first-person shooter (FPS) games, most of us do play mobile games, board games, or card games. We also sometimes play the serious games used in job training, schools, museums, marketing, scientific research, and more. Gamification and game mechanics are popping up everywhere, including most mobile apps and even a few TV shows, such as Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.
XR and game development jobs are highly cyclical. Companies hire lots of employees and/or contractors when they’re developing a big project or title, but then they lay off much of the team once a title is built. There’s plenty of work available for talented people, but a lot of it is unreliable.
Indie video game development is a difficult business model, and serious game development is even more difficult to make a profit at than entertainment games. There are several reasons for this. The upfront development costs are large. Games need continual updates. Revenues are unpredictable and sometimes drawn out over long sales cycles. The market for serious games is still relatively small. As a result of these factors, few studios have figured out a way to make XR or serious game development consistently and sustainably profitable.
If you do build an XR or game development studio and get some media attention for your games or experiences, corporations may reach out to you to build experiences for them, such as marketing activations and promotional apps. These contracts pay extremely well and could fund your business for a long time, but can also be a big distraction from your mission.
Some investors may consider investing in XR and game development studios, but many will not. For the most part, professional investors avoid investing in content creation companies. This is because the unit economics for content studios aren’t attractive enough for most investors, most content isn’t evergreen, and the creation of excellent content can’t be easily automated, repeated, or scaled. Highly visible and successful content companies like Pixar, Niantic (maker of Pokémon Go), and Electronic Arts are the exception, not the rule.
There are no rules in XR. The rules of older mediums and technologies often don’t apply. If you want to create something new, figure out how and start building.
If you’re interested in learning XR or game development, start small and just start making things. Come up with a simple project idea. The sillier the better, as that’ll keep you interested. Keep it small and manageable (unlike my first project). Then go build it. When it’s done, put it out in the world and build something else. Each new project will inevitably be more impressive than the previous. In a few short years, you could even be keynoting at major conferences, just like Jessica Brillhart.
The XR revolution has only barely begun. The past few years have been a warmup for the real show that’s coming. There are no true experts yet—only people with a slightly brighter glimmer of understanding than others. We’re all figuring it out together.
What will be your role in the mirrorworld?
Kevin Kelly wrote about the mirrorworld—the convergence of many emerging technologies where every physical object has a virtual twin. I imagine it will take at least a decade for the mirrorworld to develop enough to be used by millions, and several decades to mature. But we are close enough now to the birth of this great work that we can predict its character in rough detail. Eventually this melded world will be the size of our planet. It will be humanity’s greatest achievement, creating new levels of wealth, new social problems, and uncountable opportunities for billions of people. There are no experts yet to make this world; you are not too late.
This is some of what I wish I had known about XR and serious games five years ago. At least I know it today, and now you do, too.
I’d love to hear what lessons you wish you’d known, so let me know in the comments.