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Oculus Shift

Idaho designers who want to make video games and virtual reality tech may face some high hurdles

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In the indie video game Blue-Collar Astronaut, the character careens through the solar system working odd jobs to pay off student loans. Almost anything can result in a penalty, making it harder to advance through the levels, upgrade equipment, buy a house or finish the game with a positive bank balance.

"A lot of times you'll play perfectly but, at the end of the day, you'll have a negative amount of dollars," said designer Scott Meyer, who conceived of and created the game, and released it March 14 through his Boise-based company Mutated Software.

Featuring simple 2-D gameplay, reminiscent of arcade classic Lunar Lander, Meyer baked into Blue-Collar Astronaut many of the real-life inequities he saw after graduating from college, including cost of living, health insurance expenses and the gender wage gap. The tongue-in-cheek tagline of the game—"The best space-student-loan payoff simulator you'll ever play!"—is a humorous nod to its unique plot, but the core conflicts in Blue-Collar Astronaut have more to do with post-Great Recession economic anxieties.

"It's a game where you figuratively and literally explore upward mobility," said Meyer.

Meyer is among a growing number of video game developers working in Idaho, but even as new local educational opportunities support the expansion of the gaming and tech industries, the barriers to entry remain high and outcomes for Gem State designers remain uncertain.

'Blood Equity'

Blue-Collar Astronaut is a video game with a message: "Something with a point to it that could make the world a better place," Meyer said. Achieving social relevance meant coding hard economic data (and a few hard truths) directly into the experience: At the beginning of the game, the player is assigned a gender, with female characters earning a fraction of the wages of their male counterparts.

"I wanted people to play the game and say, 'This is bullshit,'" Meyer said. "It's really hard being a woman in the workforce. If one person thinks about it, it would be worth it."

Beyond it being a work of art and craft, Blue-Collar Astronaut is a product of community. Digital artist Maki Naro of Sufficiently Remarkable provided many of the visuals, and Meyer toiled for a year and a half with the Unity 3-D engine, painting the broad strokes of the game, tweaking details and making every element of play engaging.

Through networks like the Idaho Game Developers group, which arranges in-person meetings and internet activities, and fellow developers in online forums, Meyer received valuable input on everything from camera angles to how gravity works in space.

The final product has more than 40 levels and a total play time of approximately 15 hours—but the work didn't stop for Meyer when the game was finished. It took him another year and a half to make it available through major distributors. By the time Blue-Collar Astronaut finally went live on PlayStation, XBox One, Wii U and Steam in March, Meyer was exhausted.

To make matters worse, lackluster sales left him demoralized. The download sites hosting the game didn't market or promote it, so it was just one of a number of titles made available every day across various platforms. On Steam alone, which caters to desktop gamers, more than 230 million active users own a total of almost 2.5 billion games, and its 14,600-game database gets bigger every day.

Meyer isn't alone in his struggle. The American video game market is undergoing tremendous upheaval. According to an NPD Group report compiled for lobbying organization Entertainment Software Association, the video game industry in America grew from $17.5 billion in 2010 to $24.5 billion in 2016. During the same period, the market was flooded with downloadable content and social media games, which accounted for 31 percent of sales at the beginning of the decade and more than 74 percent of sales last year.

Meyer said if he could do it over again, he would have approached Blue-Collar Astronaut from a business angle, rather than from an artistic perspective, adding, "It needs to be a sustainable model, not just years of blood equity and hoping it plays out."

Michael Wilson, the chief technology officer at advertising, marketing and digital firm Drake Cooper, knows all about the business side of bringing a game to market. Founder of small game development firm PonyWolf and a "featured member" of the Idaho Game Developers group, he said the computer science and design elements of making video games are just some of the skills developers need to succeed.

"You need to know how to market [a game] and bring it to the masses," Wilson said. "There's a ton of competition."

Wilson was echoed by John Martinez, co-owner of Meridian-based Big Fat Blueberry Media, which released fantasy game Wizards of Kelarek for Android Phones on May 13.

According to Martinez, designers diving into ambitious projects only to see them flail and sink in the marketplace is an all-too-common experience, something he chalked up to character traits common in people who aspire to make games.

"Guys in my industry have a big imagination, and we dream bigger than we create," Martinez said.

Built during a three-month period while Martinez was recuperating from surgery, WoK can be enhanced with new algorithms to improve gameplay and "modules" like a store where players can make purchases. Martinez profits from in-play advertising but his goal is to make games for mobile devices full-time, and eventually make one for virtual reality. There's a range of options for VR users, from low-cost, low-tech viewers like Google Cardboard, to high-performance devices like Vive and Oculus Rift.

"That's really just a hot new thing," Martinez said. "I think there's a lot of opportunity, and there's saturation in the mobile market and in game development."

New VR-izons

Industry observers have been calling virtual reality "the next big thing" since the 1990s. In 1992, Computer Gaming World hailed the technology, saying it would be affordable to most Americans by 1994 because the pieces of the technological puzzle were already in place.

Instead, bulky headsets and body gear gathered dust as the quality of games and other content made for VR made them commercially less viable than what was being produced for consoles, computers and smartphones. In the past few years, however, VR has gone from what Idaho Virtual Reality Council Chief of Operations Chuck Westerberg called a "Tron-ish type experience" to what could become a distinguishing feature of Boise's tech industry.

"I think consumers in general are more primed for this technology now because we have cell phones and other technology that we use on a daily basis," Westerberg said.

Two years after it was founded in 2012, Oculus VR was purchased by Facebook for $2 billion. Two years after that, Goldman Sachs predicted virtual and augmented reality industries would be bringing in $80 billion by 2025.

Gaming, however, has not fueled the growth of VR technology. Rather, applications in manufacturing, medicine, job training and education drive the market, with RPGs, first-person shooters and puzzles taking a back seat to automotive engineering, architecture and surgical simulations. While larger, more established tech centers like Silicon Valley and Seattle make pioneering, commercially viable VR games, IVRC Board Member Jim Bradbury said Boise could become a player in some of the other uses of VR.

"Boise has the opportunity to become a bit of a hub—more so than it would be if it tried to compete with something like video games," Bradbury said. "It's tough to make an argument that Boise should leapfrog some larger cities that already have an infrastructure for that."

Boise-based Silverdraft Supercomputing, which builds and designs VR-ready computers for clients like Audi, Volkswagen, Tesla, Fox, Disney, CBS and NBC, is at the forefront of the local VR industry. CEO Amy Gile said gaming is still part of the picture, but it's playing catch-up to other applications.

"We do industrial-level VR, which is way ahead of video game VR—especially when it comes to [a return on investment] standpoint," she said.

Rather than build one-size-fits-all computers, Silverdraft designs computers for clients around the applications they use to improve speed, performance and workflow. Skilled employees are in high demand at the growing company and, Gile said, recruiting employees to Boise is an "easy sell" with its low cost of living, high quality of life and access to outdoor recreation.

They come from places where Silverdraft has satellite offices—Hollywood and Seattle—but also from farther afield, with one of the company's most recent hires hailing from Canada. Recruiting from within the City of Trees, however, is a different story. Gile said the area has a shortage of people with the skills and creativity Silverdraft needs. However, a new program at Boise State University aims to change that.

GIMM(e) GIMM(e)

Mikayla Jones waved her phone over an aerial photo of downtown Boise like a magic wand and 3-D renderings of the Hoff Building, the Idaho State Capitol and Zions Bank appeared on the screen.

"It's a living map," she said. "It gives the feeling of Boise."

One of more than a dozen Boise State students in the Gaming, Interactive Media and Mobile Technology program (GIMM), Jones had just pulled an all-nighter with approximately a dozen fellow GIMMers working on various projects at their laboratory in the Albertsons Library. After graduation, she hopes to one day build an "artistic virtual reality that can show off my artistic skills in an interactive way."

GIMM is an interdisciplinary area of study that combines computer science, gameology, visual arts and more. Students learn the basics of computer hardware and software, as well as how to design in 2-D and 3-D. Enrollees are responsible for individual and group projects over the four-year program, and game studies account for approximately one third of the curriculum.

For his part, Associate Professor and GIMM Director Anthony Ellertson sees games as gateways to a technological revolution.

"I think what we're going to see is—and we already are seeing—this movement toward using games and gamification for a variety of applications," he said.

Several active GIMM projects illustrate his point. One is a virtual reality catheter insertion simulator that stresses sanitary procedures and can log the training time of users. Perhaps the highest-profile project is the World Museum, a virtual reality tour of famous museums from around the world that is set to be installed in the atrium of the new Boise State fine arts center, scheduled to open in August 2019.

The end goal is to prepare GIMM students for the numerous and lucrative tech jobs of the future. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the growth of the software and application developers portion of the U.S. economy is expected to increase 18.8 percent by 2024 and the median annual wage of workers in that sector was more than $100,000 in 2016. As the industry grows, so, too, could Boise's share of it—between $100 million and $150 million, Ellertson estimated. The world is an oyster for his students, Ellertson said, and he doesn't "worry in terms of jobs for our graduates."

When asked for a show of hands, however, few of the GIMM students assembled at their lab indicated they thought they'd find work in Boise.

"There are so many places we could go," Jones said. "The area we may end up at may not even exist today."

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