Virtual reality came into its own at the weekend’s annual rAge gaming expo, helping to cement its role as South Africa’s premier digital event, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
I am the Batman. That is probably the single biggest epiphany I have ever had while playing a computer game. No, it is not a claim to being a superhero, nor a brief delusion of grandeur. It was an experience while immersed in a virtual reality demonstration.
The game, Batman VR, created for the new PlayStation virtual reality headset, has not yet been released. However, one of its designers was in South Africa to demonstrate the beginning of the game at the rAge gaming expo this past weekend.
The scenario has Bruce Wayne’s Butler, Alfred, handing him a key to the secret entrance to the batcave. When one dons the PlayStation VR headset, one sees the game from Wayne’s perspective. By the time “you” have descended into the batcave and donned Batman’s suit with its belt of tricks, the virtual you has become immersed not only in the game environment, but also in the persona of the main character.
That is both a sign of the brilliance of the game design and a pointer to what will make great VR in the future: not only being immersed in virtual worlds, but also in virtual characters. That, of course, will lead to many anguished words written and spoken about how people will lose their own identities when they play these games.
Tell that to the millions of children who are forced to surrender their identities when they become part of the sausage factory of our 19th century education system that stresses rote learning, conformity and industrial age jobs. At rAge, the kids of all ages were out in force to find the next big experience that would redefine their entertainment lives. But for some, it goes beyond mere entertainment.
The rAge event itself was redefined by three major trends. Virtual reality was the most obvious, with almost every major VR headset brand on display or in use to demonstrate new games. Oculus Rift, which provides the technology for the Samsung Gear VR, competed with the HTC Vive for presence, the former used by the likes of Eagle Flight and the latter by Blue Ocean VR to demonstrate their offerings.
However, PlayStation VR was the standout VR presence at rAge, as Ster-Kinekor Entertainment set the scene for an early-2017 launch, likely to be one of the biggest gaming hardware events of the year. As the price of headsets comes down, VR will become an even bigger presence at the next editions of rAge.
Second, the event was also the biggest gathering ever in the South Africa for the ultimate expression of devotion to fictional characters: cosplay. Short for “costume play”, it sees hundreds of people spend hours, days and even weeks before the event creating costumes that are as faithful as possible to those of characters in games, movies and comics.
The third big trend was the arrival of eSports – or electronic sports – as a serious business. Telkom sponsored R1-million in prizes for competitors in a three-day contest between teams of gamers playing two wildly popular games, Dota (Defense of the Ancients) 2 and Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO).
The big winner, the Bravado Gaming squad, won R200 000 for taking first place in CS:GO and R90 000 for being runners up in Dota 2. It had separate teams competing in each, an indication of just how much strategic energy such teams put into gaming. Such teams are known as Multi Gaming Organisations, and eight of them took part in the two tournaments.
The Dota 2 winner, White Rabbit Gaming, took home R200 000, while Carbon eSports won a total of R130 000 for taking second place in CS:GO and fourth place in Dota 2.
Telkom may be the biggest, but it is hardly the only game in town. Three years ago, the prize money at rAge amounted to about R10 000. Last year, it went to R60 000. This year, it has finally come into its own.
“You can’t even kit out your team with that kind of money,” says Kimberley Blake, marketing manager of Syntech, distributor of hard drives and peripherals for gaming, among other. “We came along two years ago and said, how can we assist the gaming community, for them to win real money. We started Crucial Cup, an online gaming LAN (networked computer) tournament twice a year. The pot started with R30 000. This year it’s R50 000, and we’ve rebranded it as Ballistics Masters SA.”
Syntech has a powerful role model in Micron, the company behind computer games Crucial and Ballistic. It sponsors one of biggest gaming teams in world, Ninjas in Pyjamas. In South Africa, it puts half a million rand a year behind tournaments and team sponsorships.
MSI, the world’s leading maker of gaming computers and a global eSports sponsor, is also a major supporter of rAge and backs local eSports team The Gathering. This year it built South Africa’s first permanent eSports studio, from where tournaments can be broadcast across the world.
Not surprisingly, MSI has also caught the virtual reality bug: at rAge it announced the new VR One I/O, an all-in-one virtual reality kit with a backpack containing both computer and power source. The manufacturer predicts that VR will soon move beyond gaming, into design, architecture, and even space exploration.
Clearly, the kids looking for their next big thrill may well also be discovering the careers of the future. For now, however, it is all disguised as fun.