Beyond 360 Video

As journalists look to the future, the gaming industry offers a good guide to where immersive media is heading.

At the Virtual Reality Developers Conference in San Francisco this week, the next generation of shared VR experiences was on display. From urban flamethrowers in Insomniac Games’ “The Unspoken” to gunslingers battling zombies in Vertigo Games’ “Arizona Sunshine,” experiences that allow audiences to participate in the storylines captured people’s imagination.

So what does this mean for 360 journalism? One approach to conveying information to the quickly maturing “Minecraft” generation is to provide stories in environments that allow players not only to discover facts as they explore, but also to test outcomes and share tips, tricks and insights.

For example, bringing a static chart on North Korea’s various levels of nuclear warhead capability to life in an environment where viewers can launch the missiles and see their actual range and capacity for destruction is right out of the playbook that Insomniac has developed for “The Unspoken.” Or putting an investigation of gun safety into the hands of people who can actually handle and test the guns’ accuracy is straight out of a scene from “Arizona Sunshine.”

To get there will require thinking along the lines we see emerging in the VR development camps of small companies with big ideas and high standards. In a talk called “Learnings of Early Access from ‘Raw Data,’” two members of Survios, Head of Studio Chris Hewish and Design Director Mike McTyre, shared lessons from the creation of their popular VR adventure game. Their goal was to develop a top-flight experience by focusing on usability as well as on creating a sense of reality.

“We focused on the core mechanics first, so that it feels real good. In VR, there are so many new areas to design and explore before you can put a meta-game around it,” said Hewish.

Indeed, in order to create the “rush of battle and awe of exhilaration,” the company had to start with the fundamental blocking and tackling of establishing a constant and consistent set of user behaviors — the game’s “core mechanics.” For example, Hewish said, they concentrated on building an environment in which users could move around — “active VR” — and placed the characters at eye level and in closer proximity to the player than they had originally thought was necessary.

It was a good sign, they said, when people with controllers became so intense that they were breaking lamps in their rec rooms!

The next step toward the success of the experience, Hewish and McTyre explained, was to establish the opportunity for the participants to communicate — “social VR” — before, during and after their play. In order to keep people coming back, they turned to “a strong narrative to bring the world to life,” using powerful character development and storylines, and they created simple teleshifting functionality — “locomotion” — to enrich the range in which players could explore that world.

Those were the central points necessary to develop the environments and the user experience that have made “Raw Data” a success, they said.

On the business side, they honed down the scope in order to stay on schedule, talked to distributors and technology manufacturers about launch timing, set aggressive pricing worthy of a high-end product and built a realistic update schedule based on consumer feedback. They made the game interoperable for HTC Vive and Oculus Rift devices because they believe the multiplatform approach will be the key to continuing to build audience.

Those lessons can apply to the establishment of a news ecosystem, as well, with the storylines and engagements layering on top of the types of environments that game developers are pioneering.