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Gaming Minds Search for the Sweet Spot Between Physical and Virtual Worlds

An unlikely theme emerges at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas.

Officially, the theme of this year’s DICE Summit is whether the gaming industry is in a “new golden age” (yawn). During the first day of the summit yesterday, though, a different theme kept popping up in speakers’ presentations.

That unofficial theme: The virtual world is increasingly toying with (and butting up against) the physical world.

CCP’s Hilmar Veigar Petursson argued that virtual reality could make games that are arguably a better experiences than real reality; Media Molecule’s Rex Crowle discussed how his most recent game, Tearaway, made the player’s presence a part of the game; Niantic Labs’ John Hanke explored the passionate fandom of Google’s alternate-reality/urban exploration game Ingress; Anki’s CEO Boris Sofman spoke about “bridging the digital and physical” through projects like Anki Drive; and ex-Microsoft VP Ed Fries reflected on how the habit of “making stuff,” both tactile and digital, gets passed on over generations.

(That excludes a few speakers who didn’t touch upon the notion, but more on some of them later.)

Simply adding a physical element to games is not new, as anyone who played Pole Position or Duck Hunt in the ’80s would tell you. But the grain of novelty in these arguments is that the line between physical and virtual is blurring. Whereas a Duck Hunt gun is an accessory that allows for a few minutes of fun, the industry seems to be looking for the right mix that makes games feel essential by dint of their physicality.

Petursson, whose next game, EVE: Valkyrie, will be co-published by Oculus VR for its virtual reality headset, indicated that games that seek to immerse players require them to take a leap of faith. Blocking out the outside world in VR, he said, makes that leap of faith easier.

Hanke took the opposite tack. Making Ingress players get off the couch and into the real world, interacting with real people, he said, has made them more invested in the game’s outcome and ongoing story. Players explore their surroundings (and, in some extreme cases, travel thousands of miles) to help their dueling teams progress, and can only chat — but not help — by staying at home.

Crowle had some clever suggestions in the middle ground between those extremes based on his work as the creative lead on Tearaway, a widely celebrated title for the otherwise troubled PlayStation Vita. The game used the Vita’s hardware to put the player’s face and hands on the screen, and let players print out foldable paper models of the trophies and objects they collected in the 3-D world, which was stylized to look like folded paper in the first place.

His ideas for the future included having a fictional game character call your real phone; letting players level up virtual characters if they move around while wearing a fitness band; and, drawing a laugh from the crowd, connecting games with the Nest thermostat so that “lava levels” increase the heat in the whole house.

A crowd favorite yesterday was Fries’s talk about his personal history before, during and after he pushed Microsoft into the gaming world. His father’s passion was making model airplanes; his passion was making videogames. But after leaving Microsoft in 2004, he found a balance between the two types of “stuff” — 3-D printing World of Warcraft characters under the banner of FigurePrints, and programming new games for old hardware, like Halo 2600.

It was a footnote Fries brought up toward the end that may be the most interesting insight from a business perspective. His sons, both budding programmers like their father, also “make stuff” — but instead of the metal or plastic of their grandfather’s model planes, their mediums are Minecraft, Roblox and the Kerbal Space Program.

Of course, all of this is not a zero-sum game. A virtual reality game like EVE: Valkyrie could succeed alongside a game like Ingress. But the many and varied searches for the right type of overlap that will entertain players best indicates that, if not a “new golden age” of games, we’re at least in an age of innovation.

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